The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1941

Oh boy — 1941 again. Let’s just cover it like this. Citizen Kane lost. That covers all the editorializing that needs to be done.

How Green Was My Valley wins Best Picture, Best Director for John Ford (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actor for Donald Crisp (talked about here). Best Actor was Gary Cooper for Sergeant York (talked about here), and Best Actress was Joan Fontaine for Suspicion (talked about here). Those are what they are.

And we end with this one, which — while it’s not for the right film at all, is a really great decision.


And the nominees were…

Sara Allgood, How Green Was My Valley

Mary Astor, The Great Lie

Patricia Collinge, The Little Foxes

Teresa Wright, The Little Foxes

Margaret Wychery, Sergeant York

Allgood — How Green Was My Valley is a film about a family of coal miners. The whole thing is told Mockingbird style, of a child as their older self remembering events from their childhood.

And most of the stories told are fairly loosely connected, which makes it more interesting, since these things build up and give you a greater sense of this world than a straight plotted film might have done. And we see stuff like the boy’s sister’s failed romance, a big strike at the mine, and how the sons fight on the workers side, while the father is on management’s side, and how it creates a rift between them. Stuff like that. It’s a good film. Shouldn’t have won, but good.

Sara Allgood plays the mother of the family, and it’s a typical mother role that always got nominated during this time. It’s like Wycherly, except where Wycherly was the patient, loving mother, Allgood is the strong, loving mother. She’s the strong Irish woman, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. And she also is the typical mother we all know from these films.

I don’t see how anyone could really vote for her here, since how do you differentiate between her and Wycherly? I think the performance was fine, but — can you really vote for another one of these? The entire first decade of this category is nothing but these roles.

Astor — The Great Lie is not a very good film. I’ll tell you that up front. It’s a standard Bette Davis melodrama, and it’s not even remotely interesting, as some of them can be.

Mary Astor plays a woman who who finds out her marriage to her husband is invalid because her previous divorce never actually got finalized before they got married. So he leaves her and goes and marries Bette Davis. Bette, of course, is innocent throughout this whole ordeal. Then, while traveling overseas, his plane disappears and he’s presumed dead. Remember, this is a melodrama. You know what this means.

Then Astor finds out she’s pregnant with the guy’s kid. And Davis, being the loving, caring, melodramatic lead, makes her a deal. She says that she’ll financially support Astor if she allows her to raise the child on her own. So Astor agrees. So Davis starts raising the child, while Astor goes away around the world (she’s a pianist, so she’s playing all over). Then, the husband returns. Surprise, he’s not dead. And Davis lies to him and says the child is theirs. Then Astor, pissed, starts torturing Davis, since she wants both the child and the father (since they were hers, were it not for a technicality). Then of course he finds out and is like, “I don’t care. I want her. Take the child and go.” And Astor is like, “Shit, he really loves her,” and sadly leaves without the child.

Melodrama with a capital everything. Trust me, it’s really not that good.

Astor’s performance is okay, but it’s not one I’d vote for on its own. However… she was also in another film this year, named The Maltese Falcon. You may have heard of it. She plays Brigid O’Shaughnesssy. I feel like that performance allows me to vote for her here without any guilt. It’s like when we all voted for Kate Winslet for The Reader, knowing she was better in Revolutionary Road. That sort of thing. The category’s weak, so she’s an easy winner. It’s the Academy’s fault they voted for her for the wrong film.

I will say, though, that while browsing her Wikipedia page, I came across this quote, which I think is quite good:

She has been quoted as saying: “There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who’s Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who’s Mary Astor?”

That is exactly what it is.

Also, since I’m here, check out her with Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in Across the Pacific. It’s basically John Huston getting the Maltese Falcon cast back together. It is one of the greatest movies I never knew about until recently. It’s so funny. The innuendo between her and Bogart is just sublime. Trust me on this. You want to see this movie.

Collinge — The Little Foxes is another Bette Davis melodrama. Christ.

It’s basically about Bette trying to be a strong, independent woman. And she basically needles her sickly husband until he dies. And then she alienates everyone around her. I don’t like it at all. I’ve watched it twice. Liked it even less the second time.

Collinge plays Bette Davis’s sister in law. Her greedy brother married her solely so he could get his hands on her land. And she’s a drunk, so basically she wanders around drunk all the time, saying stupid things, while her husband ignores her and focuses on making money off her land. It’s kind of a comic relief performance, but it’s also one of those where she has that one moment of clarity where she says something smart even though she’s been drunk and incoherent for much of the film. Yeah — throwaway nomination. I understand why she’s here. It’s the type of role that would be here. But I’m not voting for her. Mary Astor had a better year, and I like Teresa Wright more, even though she’d win in 1942 anyway.

Wright — Double nomination. Love these.

Wright plays Davis’s daughter. She pretty much hangs around the plot and sees everything that goes on. She overhears all the terrible things her family is doing, and finally, at the end, confronts her mother (since Davis basically killed her husband and lied about it) about her father’s death, and then runs away with a dude to get the fuck out of there. It’s that role. The good person surrounded by evil/doomed people, who runs away to try to find some happiness. If it had to compare it to someone, it would be Thora Birch’s character in American Beauty. Without the nudity and stuff. You know what I mean.

Wright is fine here, but her best work would be after this. This is that first nomination people get to make sure Oscar keeps them in mind for the future. Generally you get the first one, and build toward the win. That’s what this was.

Wycherly — It’s Sergeant York. You probably should have seen it.

Wycherly plays York’s mother, and it’s basically the “Mother” role you think it is. At the beginning of the film, York is a drunkard, always out causing trouble and is a general ne’er-do-well. And she’s very patient about it. So basically that means, every time we see her, she’s got that weight on her heart, speaks in slow, measured sentences, with that heartbreaking score underneath at all times, and is like, “Well — you best go get your brother. You know where he is.” And you know it means he’s out at the bar. And it breaks her heart that he does this, but she loves him, so she puts up with it. You know exactly what type of role this is. And then she gets to be proud of him when he succeeds.

It’s a “Ma” role, and there are dozens of these within the first ten to fifteen years of this category. This is no different from most of the others. It’s a Beulah Bondi special. Are you really gonna vote for another “Mother” role? I’m not. Two is my limit (Jane Darwell and Anne Revere).

My Thoughts: This is a great choice. First, let me say that the two Foxes nominations cancel each other out. Then, Allgood — mother role. Good but not worth a vote. Wycherly — mother role. Same. And Astor — good in Great Lie, but she was also in The Maltese Falcon as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Those two performances (plus the fact that she was in Across the Pacific with Bogie as well — watch that movie. Holy shit, if you want to see one of the most fun films from the 40s) put her as an easy winner here. Easy winner.

My Vote: Astor

Should Have Won: Astor

Is the result acceptable?: Hell yeah. She’s awesome.

Performances I suggest you see: Just stick with Sergeant York and How Green Was My Valley. The former, is essential. If you don’t see it, you don’t love movies. And the latter, you should see it because it’s great, and because you should see what beat Citizen Kane. Can’t complain justly if you haven’t seen it.

Otherwise — meh.


5) Collinge

4) Wright

3) Astor

2) Allgood

1) Wycherly

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