The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1942

Like 1942 but don’t love it. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the Best Picture choice feels too easy. It’s a good film, but not a definitive winner to me. And the year doesn’t seem to have that definitive winner (though, historically, they did make a good choice. I’m all about how the Oscars tie into history).

Mrs. Miniver wins Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here), Best Actress for Greer Garson, and this category. I love all of these decisions. (Though as an addendum to that, I’d have voted for Teresa Wright in Best Actress, because I voted for Greer Garson the year before this in Blossoms in the Dust because I think that performance was better, so me voting for Garson there and Wright this year meant that I voted for someone else in this category. Ya follow?)

The non-Miniver Oscars went to James Cagney, as Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy (a fantastic decision) and Best Supporting Actor was Van Heflin for Johnny Eager, which is the biggest blank in the history of that category.

So let’s get into this one, which, as I already said, I love the decision, but through my bookkeeping, I’m voting for something else. Don’t worry, I’ll explain everything.


And the nominees were…

Gladys Cooper, Now Voyager

Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons

Susan Peters, Random Harvest

Dame May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver

Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver

Cooper — Now, Voyager is actually a tender love story, and a lot less melodramatic than the Bette Davis movies I’m used to not liking.

Bette plays a homely-looking spinster who lives with her overbearing mother, played by Cooper. She’s not pretty, she’s overweight, and she’s severely repressed, and Cooper does nothing but verbally abuse her every chance she gets. And everyone sees that Bette’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, so they send her to a psychiatrist, played by Claude Rains. And he helps Bette feel better about herself. Once she’s away from her mother, she gets better. And Rains suggests she take a long vacation on a cruise. And she does. And on the boat, she meets a married man who is only married because of his daughter. And he and Bette fall in love, but decide not to see one another again, because it’s for the best. And she returns home, and Cooper is shocked to see what her daughter has become. And she tries to put her back in her place, but Bette won’t have any of that shit. And Cooper gets so angry during one of these bouts that she ups and dies. And then Bette falls in love with Paul Henreid, and that leads to the film’s famous last line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

I love the use of “don’t let’s.” The English language could use more of that.

The film is actually really, really good. And Cooper is actually really good here. She’s fantastic as the overbearing mother. Only problem — this is the worst year she could have given this performance in. The two years after this were rife for a character like her to win, and it would have been an amazing decision. But here, not only is there a clear winner in the category, but there’s another person I’d vote for over Cooper. So she gets shafted here, and it’s a shame, because she was really good.

Moorehead — Oh, Agnes. This woman is always good. I seriously have voted for her every single time she’s been nominated. Maybe that should say something about how I feel about this woman’s performances.

The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the greatest case studies in the history of film. Orson Welles, after Citizen Kane, elected to make this as his follow-up film. And what happened was, during the editing of the film, the studio wasn’t happy with the cut, so they waited until he left for Brazil to make a propaganda film for the war, and reedited the film, cutting over 40 minutes from it and giving it a happier ending (which, ironically, is the same as the ending in the book, but doesn’t fit with the tone of the film as Welles shot it). It remains one of the most compromised films ever made. Because the studio also destroyed the negatives from the extra footage. And yet — the print that exists today is still an amazing film (and managed to still be nominated for Best Picture, which is a great feat considering Citizen Kane was openly booed every time its name was said at the 1941 Oscar ceremony).

The film is about the fall of a family in the early 20th century. Tim Holt plays the oldest son of the Ambersons. And at the beginning, they have a party for him. In attendance is Joseph Cotten, who just got back in town after 20 years, and is a rich automobile manufacturer. And basically, Holt takes a dislike to Cotten, since Cotten is new money and he’s old money. But since the car is — well, you know how those turned out — Cotten soon has a house that’s just as big as the Ambersons’. And the film is basically about the slow decay and death of this family. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a fantastic, fantastic film.

Agnes Moorehead, Mrs. Kane herself, plays Aunt Fanny. And she is terrific here. She’s the one who reveals to Holt midway through the film that his mother and Cotten (the man he hates) once were together, and that they were very much in love, and that she still is in love with him. And then later in the film, she goes crazy and gets to be psychotic. It’s a really strong performance. She’s always great in everything. And honestly, because I’m voting for Teresa Wright in the Best Actress category this year, and don’t want to vote for her twice, Moorehead is my vote here. I thought she was that good.

Peters — Random Harvest is about Ronald Colman, a dude who lost his memory during World War I. He’s in an asylum and doesn’t know who he is. And then one day he escapes and meets Greer Garson, and they fall in love. They move out to the country and are very happy together. But one day he gets hit by a car, remembers who he is and forgets all about his life with Garson. And he goes back to his home and his family, and carries on his life like nothing ever happened.

And Susan Peters plays a young girl who was in love with Colman when she was a child, and now she’s 18. And she endears herself to him, and things develop to where it’s logical that he’d go and marry her. Thing is, though, although he can’t explain it, Colman feels as though he’s in love with somebody else. He doesn’t remember Garson, but he’s in love with her. And eventually Peters realizes he’s in love with someone else, and breaks off the engagement. And then Colman eventually remembers and ends up with Garson.

Now — Peters. She’s not bad here. She’s actually very fine. But this nomination is one — I’m convinced, was a manufactured one. That is — studios, when developing a young star, strove to get them nominated for Best Supporting Actor or Actress in order to develop their credibility and hope it makes them hit with the public so they could put them in other films. Teresa Wright is an example of this, one that worked out. But Susan Peters is one that didn’t work out. This nomination seems designed to get her over as a rising star, and get her put in more stuff. But it just didn’t work out like that. I don’t think she was ever meant to win here, and the nomination was simply to get her over with the public. If you look closely at the Supporting categories, you’ll see lots of these types of nominations. They’re fairly common during the studio system.

But as for the performance — totally fine, but not worth a vote. At best, fourth. Most likely, fifth.

Whitty — Mrs. Miniver is a film about a family during wartime. A middle-class British family. The first half of the film is about the family going about their daily business. And the second half is when the war breaks out and London is bombed, and they have to worry about all that, and the eventual message is that they’ll all remain strong. It’s a strong film, and a film that makes sense as a Best Picture winner during the heart of World War II.

Now — one of the main plots of the film, before the war, is this local rose competition. Whitty plays the rich old lady of the town who sort of runs it. She holds the rose competition and her family has always won best rose. Every year. They’ve never lost. And if you know May Whitty, her characters are usually boisterous and hoity-toity. And the big thing is, Henry Travers is a local florist, who breeds this really beautiful rose that he names after Greer Garson, the Miniver rose. And Whitty, who staunchly refused to consider any rose but hers the best, has this moment where she awards Travers best rose. It’s a really touching moment. You get to see the character soften and do something nice for other people. She’s also the grandmother (or some relation) to Teresa Wright.

It’s a good performance, but, in this category — she’s fourth at best for me. Wright, Moorehead and Cooper all gave better performances. So I can’t vote for Whitty at all.

Wright — Teresa Wright is the only actor in history to be nominated for her first three performances. That’s pretty incredible.

Wright plays the granddaughter (I believe) of May Whitty, who meets the Minivers’ eldest son and falls in love with him. And much of the beginning of the film is them courting and falling in love, and then the war breaks out and he signs up to be a pilot. And she’s at home, worried about him, and is sort of adopted by the family, and at the end of the film, she gets killed by some shrapnel, and it’s this big sad moment.

Now, when I watched this film the first time, I fell in love with her character and said she deserved this Oscar hands down. I just loved the character and ow she played it. And if I fall in love with a character (or an actress), there’s really nothing that can convince me they weren’t the best. You know? But when I watched it the second time, I kind of came around a bit, thinking, “Well, it’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and she’s up and coming, and along with the Best Actress performance — which I really think she should have won for — she had such a strong year, and I think that’s worth an Oscar.” So that’s why I continue to vote for her. That’s most because, while I think her performance was definitely the one to vote for here — there are two other ones to take into account. But her being nominated in two categories really makes her the one who should have won here.

My Thoughts: As I said up there, I voted for Teresa Wright in Best Actress this year. So in the interest of fairness, while I loved her performance, I’m not voting for her here. I love that she won, though. She totally should have won something. I’m glad she won here.

But since I’m not voting for her — who will I be voting for? Well, that’s easy — Agnes Moorehead.

It should say something that I’ve voted for her every time she’s been nominated for an Oscar.

Maybe the Academy should have too.

But really, she’s fantastic in the film and is clearly the only other person wh should have won this category other than Teresa Wright. While I would have voted for Teresa Wright based solely on this category, I do want to keep track with my specific voting pattern, so, if I’m giving her Best Actress, I don’t need to give her this one too. (But since the Academy gave her this one and not the other, I think it’s fantastic.)

My Vote: Moorehead

Should Have Won: Wright, Moorehead

Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. Teresa Wright is amazing. She was terrific in the film. Totally deserved this.

Performances I suggest you see: You should probably see The Magnificent Ambersons. Not only is it a really fantastic film in its current state, bu you really appreciate it more knowing that the studio butchered the original cut of the film and really just fucked with it beyond repair. And the fact that it still made a Best Picture nomination says a lot about how great the film actually is. Plus it’ll make you appreciate how badly creativity can be compromised in a town like Hollywood.

Random Harvest is another great film. Really great premise, and the only thing wrong with it is that it’s a bit too heavy on the melodrama. But otherwise, it’s a fantastic, fantastic film that I myself would probably call almost an essential film for all, just because the majority of the people who see it will really like it.

Mrs. Miniver is a terrific film that all should see. Best Picture winner, really strong as a film, easy to watch, and a landmark film of the war years. Highly, highly recommended.

Now, Voyager is a Bette Davis film that I like. I like the story, I enjoyed the film. I loved how James Cameron blatantly stole a shot from it for Titanic, I just liked the film as a whole. I really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.


5) Peters

4) Whitty

3) Cooper

2) Moorehead

1) Wright

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