The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1942

1942. It’s pretty cut and dry and understandable all the way through. I like that.

Mrs. Miniver wins Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here), this category, and Best Supporting Actress for Teresa Wright (talked about here). Picture had to happen, because it’s a war film made during the peak war years, promoting family and strength and togetherness, and — it just had to win. It wasn’t going to not win. Director was going the way of Picture, so that’s that Teresa Wright — she was also nominated for Best Actress this year, and was up-and-coming. There was no way she wasn’t winning something. And this category I’ll tell you about in just a second.

The other categories this year were Best Actor, which went to James Cagney for Yankee Doodle Dandy (talked about here), which was a terrific decision (especially since Gary Cooper won the year before this), and Best Supporting Actor, which went to Van Heflin for Johnny Eager, which was a bad decision in a terrible category. So whatever.

And this category — had to happen. She was really overdue by this point, and the only reason she didn’t have won already was because she lost to a makeup Oscar. So now she gets her makeup Oscar, and everything works out just fine.


And the nominees are…

Bette Davis, Now, Voyager

Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver

Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year

Rosalind Russell, My Sister Eileen

Teresa Wright, Pride of the Yankees

Davis — Now, Voyager is a great and classic film. It’s about Bette Davis as a slightly overweight and unattractive spinster. She lives with her domineering mother, who pretty much berates her all the time. And her mother thinks she’s going to have a nervous breakdown, so she sends her to a psychiatrist. And over the film, the psychiatrist helps her come into her own, and she blossoms as a person, gets a man, and eventually tells her mother off. It’s a film most people should have seen.

Davis is really good in the film, but there’s no way she’d ever have won here. She won twice before this for vastly inferior performances, and I refuse to vote for someone who won twice a third time unless I really agree on the performance (or circumstances). I don’t, so I’m not.

Garson — Mrs. Miniver is a story about a family. The Minivers. We spend the first hour getting to know the Minivers. Greer is the mother, Walter Pidgeon is the father. And we spend the first hour with them, finding out their daily problems and such. We see their son fall in love with Teresa Wright. Little things. Then — war. We see this middle class family as they deal with the outbreak of war. Specifically in England. The blitz. And it’s a really solid film. What’s great about it is how it uses everything it establishes in the first half to make the second half work even better. It endears you to the characters, then puts them in an impossible situation. Plus there are really great scenes and sequences, like the German pilot escape in the community and the flower contest.

Garson plays the role really well. But I can’t help but think that this is the kind of win where — you knew she would win one at some point. She had a run of about five or six years here where she just kept getting nominated for everything and was really solid. You knew they’d give her one at some point, and this was not only the first opportunity for them to do so (since the year before this was about making up for Joan Fontaine not winning for Rebecca, even though I felt Garson was the best in the category, with her performance in Blossoms in the Dust), but she was playing the titular role in a Best Picture winner (since they knew what they were voting for when they voted for her). It was an opportunity to easily give her one, and reward a film they loved. So this was a perfect storm of win for her (and her second best nominated performance, after Blossoms, I feel). It makes sense that she won.

Hepburn — Woman of the Year was the first of the nine films Katharine Hepburn made with Spencer Tracy. It’s one of their best. Tracy is a sportswriter who is an everyman, while Hepburn is a smart, educated and liberated woman. She is very educated, worldly, and he is more traditional. And they start a mini-feud over something she writes in the paper that unintentionally slights him. And he retaliates, and eventually they start a playful war of words, which eventually blossoms into them dating, falling in love, and getting married. However, after they marry, pretty soon he gets upset, because it seems like her priorities are all about things that aren’t him. And eventually he leaves her, and she, in order to get him back, goes home and says she’s going to be a devoted housewife for him, and then there’s this hilarious scene where she attempts to cook, but fails miserably because she doesn’t know how. And then they reconcile, with him saying he doesn’t want her to be a housewife, he just wants a wife. It’s a fun movie.

Hepburn is fine here, but it’s not like it’s really anything more than a light comedy (much like The Philadelphia Story, another film for which I think it’s laughable that people think she should have won). She already had an Oscar, and was going to win 3. This is nothing more than a minor nomination for her, despite being a great film.

Russell — My Sister Eileen is another lighthearted comedy. Rosalind Russell is a theater critic whose sister is an aspiring actress. The sister is about to appear in a play, so Russell writes a rave review of the performance. Problem is, on the night of the opening, the sister is replaced at the last minute. And the review runs anyway. So Russell is fired. And she and the sister end up going to New York to start over, and the film is about them trying to make it. They end up in this shitty apartment (with all of these comical problems, like a landlord who keeps swindling them into signing a lease and coincidentally not telling them about all the problems the apartment has, or the windows, which are pretty much open to anyone walking by, at any time of night), trying to get work. And there are comical neighbors, and all these situations — and eventually things end up okay and they find love. It’s a lot of fun.

Russell is her charming self, but there’s really nothing here that’s worth an Academy Award. I think of this as karmic retaliation for her not being nominated for His Girl Friday. The film she really should have won for was Mourning Becomes Electra. This is just a filler nomination.

Wright — And, Teresa. Man, do I love her, this film, and this performance.

The film is a biopic of Lou Gehrig, from his youth all the way to his death. Gary Cooper is terrific in it. Really, really first-rate. I thought he was so much better here than he was in Sergeant York. And Teresa Wright plays his wife. And she just had this thing about her that made her so goddamn charming without the slightest bit of effort. Here and Mrs. Miniver — you just love her. She was going to win for one of these performances. It makes sense how they did it, her going supporting and Garson going lead for Miniver. But, to me, this was my favorite performance in the category, and, as I’ll explain in a second, is the one I’ll be voting for.

My Thoughts: This is really easy. Davis had two, Hepburn should not have won for that film, and Russell was better in other years. So that leaves Garson and Wright. And while I prefer Wright, Garson was the best choice. She needed to win an Oscar. And Wright would win Supporting, so everything worked out.

I’m voting for Wright, though, since I voted for Garson the year before this, and because I liked Wright’s performance better. (It’s hindsight logic mixed with rationalization, but whatever. We know how it worked out.)

My Vote: Wright

Should Have Won: Garson, Wright

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. She deserved this. This is the Meryl Streep of the 40s, right here. Everything worked out just fine with this.

Performances I suggest you see: All of them.

Mrs. Miniver is a great film and a Best Picture winner. That should build up its own level of essentialness.

Now, Voyager. Classic film, and perhaps my favorite Bette Davis film that has nothing to do with Eve. Really great, and it’s in that level where, it’s been referenced so much throughout history (see: fucking in the car in Titanic, and the blatant steal in Bruce Almighty. Just to show you how wide-ranging this film is), it’s kind of essential. It’s not, just because there are so many, and some of the less film-inclined movie watchers won’t give a shit about it, but if you love movies, you should see this one, because it’ll make you a better film watcher.

Woman of the Year is a Tracy/Hepburn film, and is one of their best. They were always great together, and this film is just thoroughly delightful. Highly recommended.

My Sister Eileen is a delightful comedy, one of the better ones of the 40s that wasn’t made by Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks. Very enjoyable. Highly recommended.


5) Hepburn

4) Davis

3) Russell

2) Garson

1) Wright

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