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The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1946

1946 is a simple year. The Best Years of Our Lives wins Best Picture, Best Actor for Frederic March (taked about here), Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell (talked about here) and Best Director for William Wyler (talked about here). All were perfect decisions, and were going to happen no matter what, given the film’s subject matter and its timeliness about a major historical event. I know we all love It’s a Wonderful Life, but it didn’t have a chance.

Best Actress this year was Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own (talked about here). That was a perfect decision, and she was well overdue by this point.

That actually covers it for the year. The only category left is this one, which was a terrific choice, since the category was really weak, and, based on performance and historical factors involving hindsight, this was actually the best decision in the category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – 1946

And the nominees were…

Ethel Barrymore, The Spiral Staircase

Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge

Lillian Gish, Duel in the Sun

Flora Robson, Saratoga Trunk

Gale Sondergaard, Anna and the King of Siam

Barrymore — The Spiral Staircase is a really great little thriller. Very well-done. It’s short, it’s tight, and it’s really well-directed.

The film is about a serial killer who targets, well, handicapped women. Any woman with some sort of affliction is who he goes after. And Dorothy McGuire plays a mute, who is worried the killer is going to come after her. And the film is really well done. She’s in this house during a thunderstorm, caring for Ethel Barrymore, who continues her streak of playing infirm women. This one is especially bad, since her character is so overdone. Basically all she does all film is be old and basically ramble on and on. But the problem is, you know that what she’s saying is actually what’s gonna happen. She talks about this whole thing with a gun, and you’re like, “Oh great, by the end of the movie, she’s gonna have a gun and shoot the killer.” Which she does, and it’s like, “Really? The rest of this film is so good, and you couldn’t find a way to gracefully set that up?”

That’s pretty much all she does. She got a bunch of these nominations, and already won for it, two years earlier. So there’s no way in hell I’m voting for her for this performance. I love the film, but there’s no way I’m voting for her.

Baxter — The Razor’s Edge is one of those “A” pictures. The ones that you know — this is gonna be nominated for Best Picture. Based on a classic novel, big budget, stars — you know this is gonna get some Oscar nominations.

Basically it’s about Tyrone Power, who seems to have a great life. He’s engaged to Gene Tierney, is going to live in high society, something everyone else would enjoy. But he wants to go find himself. So he leaves to travel Asia. And ten years later, he returns. And he comes back, immerses himself back in the lives of Tierney and her family (who all basically only care about wealth and social status), and eventually decides that he doesn’t want to be involved in this lifestyle and leaves to go live a simpler life.

Anna Baxter plays a childhood friend of Tierney’s. And at first, it seems like she’s settling into a great life too — she’s engaged to a good man and is going to start a family. But then, tragically, they get into a car accident where he (and their child) is killed. And then when Power gets back from his journey, he finds her to be a terrible alcoholic. Power, feeling sorry for her, helps get her sober and marries her in order to help her. But Tierney, horribly jealous of this, orchestrates for her to fall off the wagon again, which leads to her going on a bender and eventually disappearing and being murdered. And this is ultimately what leads to Power deciding he doesn’t want to be involved with this lifestyle.

This is the type of performance that would definitely win this award. Here’s a woman who starts happy, loses her family in an accident, becomes a drunk. Then she sobers up, gets married, and you think, “Finally, she’s going to be happy. And then her friend ruins her happiness out of jealousy, she falls back into alcoholism, and eventually dies. It’s a great arc. And Baxter is great in the role. In some categories, the role would be too on the nose to win, but here, she’s actually a top choice. It’s a really weak year. Plus, she was good enough to win Best Actress four years after this for All About Eve, so her winning here is a nice consolation prize.

Gish — If you know film history, you know Lillian Gish. You know what she was to early motion pictures. That alone makes her at least a second choice here. I’ll tell you that up front.

Duel in the Sun is a big budget western, one that probably didn’t need to be told with all this money, but even so, damn, it looks good. This is what Technicolor is about. Jennifer Jones plays a half-breed woman who faces discrimination, and then there’s this feud between brothers — Joseph Cotten is the good brother and Gregory Peck is the not so good one. And Jones is supposed to marry Cotten, but is sexually attracted to Peck, and then of course there’s a shootout and the lovers die in each other’s arms. It’s a very big, bright, colorful production. I don’t really like the film, but it’s not bad.

Lillian Gish is the matriarch of the family, and doesn’t really have a whole lot to do. She’s basically just herself, gets a scene or two, and then a death scene. It’s basically the equivalent of the Ruby Dee American Gangster performance. That’s the screen time equivalent. Anyone voting for this category pretty much knows — if you vote for Gish, you’re voting for her and not the performance. That’s all it is.

Robson — Oh my god.

I’m not even going to tell you about the film. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. New Orleans. There’s some scheme about a trunk, and a love story — whatever. The film doesn’t matter.

And the reason the film doesn’t matter is because we’re here to talk about Robson’s performance. And holy shit.

This is, by far, the most racist performance I have ever seen nominated for an Academy Award.

Flora Robson, a white woman, plays a cajun mammy.

I shit you not. She plays a cajun mammy. It’s so offensive.

I can understand if you have an actual black person playing the role. Okay, then it makes sense. But a white person? Have you seen Bamboozled? When they make the black actors do blackface and be the worst, most terrible black stereotypes? That’s what this is like.

I cannot take this movie seriously when it features that performance.

Sondergaard — Anna and the King of Siam features a less racist (but still kinda racist) supporting character. But Gale Sondergaard basically made a career of playing Asian women, so we’re used to it by this point. Plus Rex Harrison does the same thing here.

The film is basically The King and I but without the music. Same exact story. Rex Harrison is the king, Irene Dunne is Anna. And Gale Sondergaard plays the king’s first wife. Or head wife. She was the first one, and is like the figurehead wife, as he now has all these mistresses. But her son is the one who will become the new king eventually, so she’s a very important character within this world. And basically, her goal is to make sure the son is educated so he can be a good king. And she also has the added empathy of knowing that the king used to love her but now treats her more as an associate since he has like twenty concubines now and multiple children with each. It’s a good performance. I actually consider her a #3 here, even though I’d never vote for her since she had an Oscar already. But I did like the performance. And the film. This film is, to me, like Pygmalion to My Fair Lady — this is the version you watch when you just want the story, and the musical is the one you watch when you want all the bells and whistles. I like that we have that. I think we need more musical and non-musical versions of things. Get on that, Hollywood! (And also, Broadway. Just be sure to write good songs. Don’t just throw something together.)

My Thoughts: It’s Baxter all the way. It’s not even close. Barrymore had one. She’s out. Gish is a veteran nomination. She was barely in the film, and this is just their way of honoring a pioneer actress. Love the nomination, had no shot to win. Robson is way too much of a racial character (how you gonna have a white woman play a Creole nanny and win an Oscar for it? Seriously, Hollywood?) And Sondergaard — good, but she won one already and did not need a second one. So that leaves Baxter by default. Fortunately, her performance was terrific. So she’s an easy winner in this category. We should be so fortunate to have categories as easy as this one most of the time.

My Vote: Baxter

Should Have Won: Baxter

Is the result acceptable?: Best decision in the category. Not to mention (here’s those historical factors), she was good enough to win Best Actress for All About Eve. So this even works out historically, giving her an Oscar. Great all around, this one.

Performances I suggest you see: The Spiral Staircase is a solid film. Really well-made and well-directed. Nice little film. Highly recommended.

Anna and the King of Siam is a great film, and also comes highly recommended. I think of this as the Pygmalion to The King and I’s My Fair Lady. It’s just the non-musical version of the film. Just as good, just without all the bells and whistles. Straight story, no extra time with the musical numbers. Sometimes you want the full experience, sometimes you just want the quick version. And this allows you to have both. Highly recommended. Great film.

The Razor’s Edge is a decent film. I didn’t love it (because I’m not the biggest Tyrone Power fan), but Anne Baxter and Clifton Webb are terrific in it. I’d watch it for their performances. (And I have. I’ve rewatched this film just to see their performances again. I rarely do that.)

Rankings:

5) Robson

4) Barrymore

3) Sondergaard

2) Gish

1) Baxter

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