The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1939
1939 was the greatest year in the history of movies. Bar none. There has never been so many great movies released in the same year outside of this one. It’s incredible. And the best thing about such a great year is, despite all the great movies, there was a definitive Best Picture winner: Gone With the Wind.
Gone With the Wind wins Best Picture, Best Director for Victor Fleming (talked about here), Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, and here. All perfect decisions. The only awards the film didn’t win were Best Actor, which went to Robert Donat for Goodbye Mr. Chips, which as I said here, is an award that should have went to Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and the Academy knew it because they blatantly gave him an Oscar the year after this), and Best Supporting Actor, which went to Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach, which, as I said here, I love (despite also loving Claude Rains).
And that brings us to this historic category, which features the first black actress (or black anyone) to win an Academy Award. This one needed to happen, and I approve.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1939
And the nominee were…
Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind
Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair
de Havilland — If you think I’m gonna give you a synopsis of Gone With the Wind, perhaps the greatest film production ever undertaken, you’re sorely mistaken. Plus, it’s one of my five favorite films of all time, so if you haven’t seen this one, we can’t be friends.
Olivia de Havilland plays Melanie, the complete antithesis to Scarlett. She’s nice, optimistic, and above all, believes the best in people. No matter what Scarlett (or anyone) does, she believes they did it for good reasons. She’s really the saint of the film, and the cruel irony is that she’s the only character who dies (though the humorous irony is that she’s the only cast member who’s still alive). de Havilland does really, really great here, and honestly, she gave my favorite performance in the category. But her two later wins and the fact that Hattie McDaniel’s win was so monumental — I’ll vote for her instead. It meant more.
Fitzgerald — Wuthering Heights is based on the Brontë novel — one of those sisters. Heathcliff and Cathy fall in love even though he’s just a stable boy and no one wants her to be with him. And then they get separated through circumstances and then he gets rich and able to marry her, socially. But by then, it’s too late. It’s a really great film. My favorite part about it is how gorgeously it was shot by William Wyler.
Fitzgerald plays Isabelle Linton, who is actually kind of the tragic figure of the novel, but here — well, they changed things around a bit. Here, when Heathcliff returns and finds Cathy married, he goes and marries Linton instead. And Cathy tells her that he’s only using her to get revenge. But they marry anyway, and it’s not a very good marriage. Heathcliff really does love Cathy, and Isabelle really loves Heathcliff. And she begs him to love her back, but he can’t, and he rushes off to Cathy while she’s dying. Quite different from what happens in the novel, yet Fitzgerald still manages to make the character tragic. Not bad, considering the amount of screen time she doesn’t get (which might have actually been cut out of the picture). But even as much as I liked her performance (and I did. I’d put her third for a vote), this one still should have went to Hattie McDaniel. It just should have.
McDaniel — Hattie McDaniel plays Mammy, technically a slave, but more like — well, a Mammy. She’s taken care of all the women in Scarlett’s family and stays with her throughout the film. She’s tough and stern, and doesn’t take shit from anyone. She’s a really strong and steadying presence throughout the film, and I love that they gave her an Oscar. They really got this one right, for all the right (hopefully) reasons.
Oliver — Drums Along the Mohawk is about Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert, who marry and move to upstate New York, in Mohawk country. And the film is about Colbert adjusting to farm life while also dealing with the outbreak of the Revolutionary war. And then they have to fight off the Indians, who have sided with the British, and there’s a series of battles — it’s actually a really great film. And shot in Technicolor too. Take a look at the color palette of this film. It’s gorgeous. There’s like a two year period (1938 and 1939) where the Technicolor was just jaw-dropping. It was still gorgeous in the 40s, but between films like this, Adventures of Robin Hood and The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, it’s like — those films look better than films shot today!
Anyway, Oliver plays a wealthy widow with a farm who is — well, she’s the Kathy Bates character of the film. You should be very familiar with the Kathy Bates character. Loud, boisterous, quirky. Oliver is really good here. And she gets a death scene! (Of course she does. Come on.) She’s really great here. I just can’t vote for her because Hattie McDaniel needed to win. But she’s really great. Watch this film. It’s fucking gorgeous.
Ouspenskaya — Love Affair is an earlier version of An Affair to Remember. That is — two people (Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne) meet on an ocean liner and fall in love. The only problem is — they’re both engaged to other people. But they fall in love anyway, and then agree to meet sixth months later at the Empire State building. But then, when the time comes, sixth months later (and they’re both no longer engaged), she gets hit by a car on her way there and becomes paralyzed. And she never shows up, so he’s worried. But then they randomly meet again in a theater some months later, but she hides her condition from him. But then he finds out and promises that they’ll be together and he’ll take care of her no matter what. It’s a beautiful little film.
Ouspenskaya plays Charles Boyer’s mother or grandmother. Probably grandmother. And he brings Dunne to see her, and she immediately sees that he loves her and gives some cryptic, sagely advice that basically leads to him ending his engagement and deciding he wants to be with Dunne.
Ouspenskaya is the actress who only showed up in films for one scene and got Oscar nominations out of it. I don’t understand it. She’s seriously in this film for like four minutes and one scene. If you’re actually gonna vote for her over any of these other nominees, I’d say you’re fucking high.
My Thoughts: This one had to go to one of the Gone With the Wind nominees. They were just too good. I’m glad it went to McDaniel over de Havilland, despite the fact that I liked de Haviland’s performance better. de Havilland won twice after this (for lead), and McDaniel winning was a big step (theoretically) for black actors in the industry. Of course the Academy would still continue to be racist (to this day), but let’s focus on the positives.
My Vote: McDaniel
Should Have Won: de Havilland, McDaniel
Is the result acceptable?: Oh absolutely. Hattie McDaniel winning was a huge historical moment and the best thing that could ever happen to this or any other category. She was the first black actress to win an Academy Award. In 1939! You know how significant that is? No other black actor would win an Oscar after this until Sidney Poitier in 1963. After that? Lou Gossett Jr. in 1982. Then Denzel in ’89. Whoopi in ’90. Five in 50 years. And the fact that there were barely two in the first 25 of those years shows you just how racist Hollywood was, whether in the open or not. So, this is very historically significant, and is a great decision. Definitely one of the most important ones ever.
Performances I suggest you see: Gone With the Wind. You know what I’m gonna say. Don’t you be dead to me. See this movie. You have to do it. Fuck you, it’s four hours long, you have to watch it.
Love Affair is such a great film. I get why most people would rather watch the sequel to this one — An Affair to Remember, but this one is just as good. The real film fan will watch this one too. Just sayin’.
Wuthering Heights is a fantastic film, and well worth seeing. I love how they shot it. So much. It looks absolutely stunning. It’s a really great film too.
Drums Along the Mohawk isn’t an amazing film per se, but its appeal is that it’s a western shot in pretty gorgeous Technicolor. It looks really nice. Like — they spent prestige picture money on this, and it’s just a simple western. Sure — big actors, Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, but still. Watch this one. You’ll be blown away by how good it looks for 1939.
1) de Havilland