The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1939
1939 is the best year for American movies. The Golden Year, as they call it. And it really was. And the best thing about a year that’s this strong is when it has a definitive Best Picture winner, like this one does.
Gone With the Wind wins Best Picture, Best Director for Victor Fleming (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (talked about here). Best Actor this year 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 realized it so much that they gave him an Oscar the year after this for an unworthy performance. And Best Supporting Actor was Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach, which, as I said here, is a brilliant decision (with my deepest condolences to Claude Rains).
And then there’s this category, which — it’s Gone With the Wind. It’s Scarlett O’Hara. Come on now.
BEST ACTRESS – 1939
And the nominees were…
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Irene Dunne, Love Affair
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
Davis — Dark Victory is about Bette Davis, a socialite, who finds out she has a brain tumor and will die. She was once carefree, but now is worried about this, but resolves to end her days with dignity. And then there’s an affair, but then she breaks it off and goes back to her old lifestyle — it’s a whole melodrama. You don’t need a plot.
It’s not bad. If I had to rank the Bette Davis films, pre-old period (which I consider to have begun with The Star in 1952), this would be pretty high on the list. I’m normally not partial to these films, so the fact that I kind of like it should tell you something.
She ain’t getting my vote though. The two wins in five years are enough to discredit her here. No fucking way. Also — Scarlett O’Hara.
Dunne — Love Affair is an earlier version of An Affair to Remember. Two people meet while on a cruise and fall in love. They resolve to meet again in six months atop the Empire State Building. When the six months come, as she travels to meet him there, she gets hit by a car and is paralyzed. She recovers, and months later, they reunite, and she hides her condition from him. But then he finds out about it and is like, “I love you anyway, we’ll make this work.”
It’s a great film. A classic story. Dunne is the woman in the story, obviously, and she does a good job here. Can’t vote for her though. Her best chances to win were in 1937 and 1948. Here — Scarlett O’Hara. No shot at all.
Garbo — Ninotchka is a classic comedy that all need to have seen.
Ninotchka is played by Greta Garbo. She’s a stern Russian official who is basically a machine. She is sent to Paris on official business. Three Soviet officials have stayed in Paris, living a lavish lifestyle when they were supposed to gather information and return. There, she meets Don Ameche, who takes a fancy to her. He wants to start dating her, but she doesn’t know the meaning of that. She’s born and bred Soviet. He wants to go to dinner and dancing, she wants to go to the gas works and see the sewer system to see how things operate. But eventually — he wears her down, and shows her the joy in life. And she falls in love with him and with Paris, but eventually she is sent back to Moscow. But eventually they end up together, and it’s all happy.
Seriously, just watch the film. It’s hilarious, romantic — it has everything a great movie should have. Perfect.
Garbo is terrific here, and, most years, would probably win for this. But — Scarlett O’Hara.
Garson — Goodbye, Mr. Chips is about Charles Chipping, a teacher. We begin with him as a young man, first starting out. In order to control his students, he becomes a stern disciplinarian. He’s pretty uptight himself. Because he doesn’t know better. But one summer, he mets Greer Garson. And she’s joyous, and carefree, and teaches him how to live. And they fall in love and marry, and he becomes a better teacher. He gets nicer, becomes fun. But then she dies giving birth (along with the child), and this nearly ruins him. And then he presses on, teaching and teaching and teaching, and eventually becomes the figurehead of the school. He’s that teacher that’s been there forever that everybody loves. It’s such a brilliant movie. It really is. You need to see this one.
Garson is really great as Chipping’s wife, but I can’t help but feel that she’d be better suited in the Supporting category with this role. I get why she was pushed lead — because she was being groomed as a big leading lady, and it started the trend of all her Oscar nominations. I get it. But because the role was so slight (she comes in late and dies early), she doesn’t really count as a lead actress to me. And that’s not the best first step when you’re up against Scarlett O’Hara. So I can’t vote for her. (She won her Oscar after this anyway.)
Leigh — Scarlett O’Hara.
My Thoughts: No contest. Leigh by the biggest landslide in the history of the Best Actress category.
My Vote: Leigh
Should Have Won: Leigh
Is the result acceptable?: You’re not very perceptive, are you?
Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Gone With the Wind, you’re dead to me.
If you haven’t seen Ninotchka, we can’t be friends.
If you haven’t seen Goodbye, Mr. Chips, you probably should get on it, because it is a great, great film, a classic, and I probably wouldn’t like you if you didn’t.
Love Affair is a great, great film, and, while most people will have seen An Affair to Remember instead, this is still a very strong version of that same story. Definitely worth checking out.
Dark Victory — pretty good film. Not terrible. I’ve seen worse Bette Davis films. (Trust me. I have.) Recommended. Plus you get Bogie before he got famous. That’s something.