The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1940

I like 1940. Rebecca is a fine Best Picture choice, and while The Grapes of Wrath really should have beaten it (just because it’s stood up over time as the better film), it won Best Director for John Ford (talked about here), so that kind of made up for it.

Best Actor this year was Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story (talked about here), which is the most blatant makeup Oscar in Academy history. Good that he has an Oscar, but the performance was not even close to win-worthy. Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for The Westerner (talked about here), which I actually like, because the category was so weak, and because Brennan was fantastic, despite it being his third Oscar. And Best Supporting Actress was Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath (talked about here). Ain’t nobody gonna argue with “Ma.”

And then we have this category, which I’ve said many times is one where it was the only time they could really award an actress of this stature, and that, plus the performance itself, make this a perfect decision.


And the nominees were…

Bette Davis, The Letter

Joan Fontaine, Rebecca

Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle

Martha Scott, Our Town

Davis — The Letter is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman.

She shoots a dude and says it was in self-defense. But a letter surfaces that shows she might have been in love with him and that it might have been a crime of passion. She does all she can to keep the letter under wraps, and eventually gets shanked in the moonlight for doing so.

Bette Davis melodrama — don’t like it, remake of an earlier film. She had two Oscars, and you need to give something better than this for a third. Like, Now, Voyager or All About Eve better.

Fontaine — Rebecca is a tremendous film. Joan Fontaine plays a young, naive girl who meets and falls in love with a dude who just lost his wife. And they marry and go back to his estate, but once there, she finds that the memory and presence of his ex-wife still lingers. And she has to fight to escape it. It’s a really strong film. It’s also a very un-Hitchcock film for Hitchcock to direct. That also adds to the appeal.

I felt, based on performance alone, being totally objective — Fontaine gave the best performance and should have won the category. Now — I love Ginger Rogers a lot, and because I felt her performance was a close second, added to the hindsight of knowing Joan Fontaine would get her makeup Oscar the year after this — I’m voting for Ginger instead. I can’t speculate as to what I’d have done back in 1940, but as of 2011, this is how I’m voting.

Make no mistake though, I thought Fontaine gave the best performance.

Hepburn — The Philadelphia Story is about a divorced couple (Hepburn and Cary Grant) who have an — interesting, shall we say — weekend as she is about to get remarried. He shows up, intending to wreak havoc, and then two society reporters (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey) show up because Hepburn’s father has been out on the town with a mistress, and they’re trying to prove that it’s not true and that their family is united. And lots of stuff happens, but eventually Hepburn remarries Grant and Stewart marries Hussey. It’s a classic comedy, and you should probably see it if you haven’t.

Hepburn is fine here, but I feel no need to vote for her or anyone in this film. I’m not quite sure why people think this is a film that should have won Oscars. Nominated, sure. Won? No way. Plus Hepburn won four times. And one of her biggest strengths as a four-time winner is the fact that she never really beat anyone who deserved to win. That is, in her four wins — 1933, there was no other major competition, 1967, all the other contenders had (or later won) Oscars, so it wasn’t so bad, 1968, she tied with the person who should have won, and 1981, maybe she beat someone else who should have won, but it wasn’t that bad. Here, if she would have won — it would have caused problems. She just wasn’t as good as Fontaine or Rogers, so, really, I see no need to vote for her.

Rogers —Kitty Foyle is a film about a “shopgirl” as Katharine Hepburn called it derisively.

Rogers plays a woman who is deciding between two men, one a doctor who she’s been in love for years, and the other a rake of sorts who holds some sexual sway over her. It’s like deciding between Mr. Right and Mr. Right now. And the film is about her having to make the decision — ‘a get on the train or don’t’ type of decision — and flashing back to how she got there.

It’s a really strong performance. I loved it a lot. I think it was good enough to win on its own, even though I felt Fontaine’s performance was slightly better. But I feel like Ginger is an actress who should have an Oscar more than Fontaine, so I vote for her. (Plus Fontaine won the year after this, so it all worked out.)

Scott — Our Town is an interesting, interesting film. Based on a Thornton Wilder play, it’s basically about life in a small town. And most of the film is just about life in the town. It’s very laid back, and it feels like how it would be living in the town. And then there’s a great third act switch, where the main character, played by Scott, dies. She dies, and we see everyone dealing with her death — kind of like when Jimmy Stewart was never born in It’s a Wonderful Life. And here, it’s all a dream that she’s experiencing (in the play, she dies, but here, I think it might be more interesting), and then she wakes up and is much more grateful for life. And I liked that. It feels like something that would be a major issue in such a small town like this.

I really loved this film. I need to watch it again, because it was one of the first films I saw on the Quest, but I remember really loving this film a lot.

Scott is actually really, really good here. She’s lively and upbeat — and I love when people are upbeat, especially actresses. I think she did a fantastic job here. Maybe it’s kind of a supporting role, in a way, but, honestly, whichever category they nominated her in, she had no shot at winning. So why not let it be here? The competition was too strong for her to win, so I’m glad she got nominated. More people can see this performance and this film because of it.

My Thoughts: Fontaine gave the best performance, but I’m voting for Rogers. I love Ginger Rogers, and her films with Fred Astaire show you just how multi-talented she is. And since Fontaine would have more opportunities to win this award (I’m operating with the benefit of hindsight. No reason to pretend like I’m not), I say Rogers was absolutely the best choice here.

My Vote: Rogers

Should Have Won: Rogers, Fontaine

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. She’s Ginger Rogers, for one. And she was terrific in the role. Perfect decision.

Performances I suggest you see: Rebecca is a tremendous film, and should be seen by all. Might not be essential within the canon, but I say it’s essential for me. I think everyone needs to see this. It’s great, it’s Hitchcock, and it’s a Best Picture winner. The sum of its parts makes this essential.

The Philadelphia Story is a classic comedy, and as comedies go, it’s essential. End of story.

Kitty Foyle is a great film anchored by a fantastic performance by Ginger Rogers. I recommend every movie Ginger is in, but this one I recommend very, very highly  because it’s very, very good.

Our Town is a great film. I really liked this. Definitely one of the hidden gems of this Oscar Quest. If you’re gonna look for hidden gems, this is one of them. It’s amazing. I really recommend this very highly.

The Letter — Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. I cannot stress this enough.


5) Davis

4) Hepburn

3) Scott

2) Rogers

1) Fontaine

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