The Oscar Quest: Best Supporting Actress – 1938

I don’t like 1938. As I’ve said on a number of occasions, it feels like a year where the Academy said, “We don’t know what to do…well, what worked for us before?” and went with that.

You Can’t Take It with You wins Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra (talked about here). It feels like they were trying to recapture that 1934 magic. It feels weak and insincere. Best Actor was Spencer Tracy for Boys Town (talked about here), which I consider the single weakest Best Actor-winning performance of all time. Not the worst decision of all time, just performance that won. Best Actress was Bette Davis for Jezebel (talked about here), which I also don’t like but can sort of accept. And Best Supporting Actor was Walter Brennan for Kentucky (talked about here), which is pretty weak and feels like them saying, “What do we do? Well, we like Brennan, let’s vote for him.”

And this category — this one I actually like. Mostly because it’s weak, and because Fay Bainter was also nominated for Best Actress this year, and I feel the two performances easily add up to one award. And this one was the right one, I felt.


And the nominees were…

Fay Bainter, Jezebel

Beulah Bondi, Of Human Hearts

Billie Burke, Merrily We Live

Spring Byington, You Can’t Take It With You

Miliza Korjus, The Great Waltz

Bainter — Jezebel is an interesting film for me, historically, since it only exists because of Gone With the Wind. Bette Davis really wanted the Scarlett O’Hara role, and when Selznick turned her down (or however that worked out), she got the Warners people to writer her a Scarlett O’Hara-type part. And they took a small part of Gone With the Wind and wrote an entire film around it tailored to Bette Davis.

The film is about Davis, a headstrong woman in the 1850s South, who is engaged to Henry Fonda. And one day, against the urges of everyone, she wears a red dress to a party, which is a no-no, since apparently it’s not modest and makes people think she’s a whore. And afterwards, everyone gets upset at her, Fonda breaks off the engagement, and she’s shunned. And then there’s a series of duels, and people get killed, and Fonda marries another woman, and then a big cholera epidemic breaks out, or smallpox, or leprosy or something, and Fonda catches it. And they send everyone with the disease away to this one island to be quarantined, and Davis, knowing she fucked up, sacrifices herself to go with Fonda to the island to care for him, knowing that most likely he will die and she’ll catch the disease and die too. It’s melodrama with a capital everything.

I just rewatched this recently to get a handle on Bainter’s performance, and I realized — this is really not that good a film. I thought I’d liked it because I came away with decent memories when I watched this in a class in college, but I realized — the reason I came away enjoying the film was because it was so laughably bad. It’s hilariously melodramatic. It’s campy as hell. And Bette Davis won Best Actress for it!

Fay Bainter plays Davis’s aunt, and she really doesn’t have all that much to do. She stands around acting horrified, and telling Bette she fucked up, and giving her advice and shit. This nomination came from the film and not the performance, and the win came out of the fact that she was nominated in both lead and supporting. And honestly, I’d actually rather her win lead than this category, since that was a much better performance than this was. But, she’s still Fay Bainter, and that carries some weight come voting time.

Bondi — Beulah Bondi is one of the quintessential “Mother” actresses in film. She made a career playing mothers.

Here, she’s Jimmy Stewart’s mother. Jimmy Stewart is Walter Huston and Bondi’s son, and we trace his development from child to adult. Huston is a stern pastor (not too stern, but enough. The kind of stern where you’re like, “Huston isn’t that stern and Stewart isn’t that rebellious, yet the law of movies dictates that they treat each other as such), and Bondi is there, trying to be a good mother but also defer to her husband. Like, when the kid gets some magazines from the only man in town who can read (Charles Coburn, the drunken town doctor), the father takes them away, because he doesn’t like what’s in them (even though they’re simple magazines). And then Bondi, seeing the kid upset, goes and sells her good silver spoons to pay for a subscription to another magazine for him. And then, later on, he gets a medical book from Coburn and becomes really interested in that, and all but forgets about the magazine subscriptions. (As we all do. How many things seemed so important, only to be forgotten about weeks later?) And she doesn’t tell the father, even though she knows he wouldn’t be thrilled about the boy having it.

Then, as he gets older (and turns into Jimmy Stewart), Bondi stands by as Stewart and Huston clash, watching them, worried, but not saying anything, as mothers in these films often do. And then Stewart becomes a doctor (and Huston dies). And Bondi, insanely proud of her son, really wants to see him. And he always seems to be busy. He neglects her without really realizing it. He’s so busy doing the doctor thing, he’s always like, “I can’t come home. You understand,” not realizing how badly she wants to see him even though she’s like, “That’s fine. I don’t mind.”

There’s actually a great moment at the end where Stewart meets Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln starts asking him all these questions about his family, and Lincoln is like, “Motherfucker, write to your mother. She sold everything she owned so you could do this. Stop being such an asshole and write to her. And if you don’t be a better son, so help me I will have you thrown in jail.” It’s pretty funny. And awesome at the same time.

Bondi plays a standard mother here. It’s poignant, though. She’s definitely a contender for me.

Burke — Merrily We Live is a comedy that seems to be an attempt to recreate what My Man Godfrey did. Only worse.

The film begins with the screwy family finding out that their butler (who was a tramp, and was hired by Burke, the crazy mother) stole their silver. It’s almost exactly like Godfrey. Burke is exactly the same as Alice Brady in Godfrey. Except the joke here is that she always hires tramps as butlers. And then another one shows up and she immediately hires him, and the rest of the family is like, “Oh Mom, not again!” And the rest of the film is basically a comedy of errors. It’s kind of fun, but on the whole not that great.

Burke is delightful in the role (as she often is), but it’s really just a rehash of the Alice Brady performance in Godfrey. Of course, her being who she is (Glinda), that’ll merit some attention, but I can’t vote for her, knowing Alice Brady didn’t win for the original version of this performance. Can’t do it.

Byington — You Can’t Take It With You is a great, great film and classic comedy. I’m not even going to give you a synopsis, just see it. It’s pretty essential. (Honestly, who wouldn’t want to see a Frank Capra movie?)

Spring Byington plays Penny, a woman who basically sits and writes plays while all the chaos goes on around her. It’s a nice part. She gets some good laughs. But I can’t vote for this. It’s too — slight, I guess is the word. It’s just not substantial enough for a vote. To me, she was only nominated because all serious Best Picture contenders require an acting nomination. So, she’s good and all, but — I can’t vote for her.

Korjus — The Great Waltz is a loose biopic of Johann Strauss. It’s not a very good film. The plot doesn’t matter. Trust me.

Milja Korjus has the easiest role in the world. She is an opera singer who plays an opera singer. So all she needs to do in this movie is song. That’s all she does in this. Buy holy fuck, does she sing well. Normally I ignore performances that are all about singing or dancing (see: Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point), but I do understand the nomination here. You literally sit there and marvel at her voice the way you do the blue lady in The Fifth Element. Her character is irrelevant. She’s a rich lady who steals Strauss from his wife for a brief spell before they get back together for the happy ending. It’s completely irrelevant. You know she’s only here to sing. And, god-damn can she sing.

Though I will say, the direction here is much more interesting than I expected a film like this to be. Kudos to the director.

But yeah, Korjus is good just because she sings really well. I’m not voting for her, but I like the nomination.

My Thoughts: It’s weak. What do you do? To me, it’s between Bainter and Bondi. Korjus just sang, Burke recreated a performance (essentially) that already lost this category, and Byington never had a chance. So it’s Bainter and Bondi.

Bainter was good enough to win Best Actress this year for White Banners, while Bondi was amazing in Make Way for Tomorrow the year before this, and was completely overlooked for it (as was the film itself). So, that being even, I separate it by — which performance did I like better? And here, that was Bondi. So I vote for Bondi. (My dislike for Jezebel also played into this decision.) I like Bainter, and I’m totally cool with her winning, but I’m voting for Bondi.

My Vote: Bondi

Should Have Won: Bainter, Bondi

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. For the work she did this year, she deserved it.

Performances I suggest you see: You Can’t Take It With You is one of Capra’s best (top five for sure), and a Best Picture winner. That makes it pretty essential.

Jezebel, I think, is a film people should watch just because — it’s a Gone With the Wind knockoff, it’s so melodramatic it’s hilarious, and you get Bette Davis and Henry Fonda putting on these terrible southern accents. Some people love this movie, but I think it’s so hilariously over the top.

Of Human Hearts is a really solid film. I liked it a lot, and it’s definitely worth a watch. Bit of a hidden gem from the Quest, since it’s nearly impossible to find.

Merrily We Live — it’s light and watchable, but honestly, I think you should just watch My Man Godfrey. It’s basically the same story, just better in every regard, twice.

The Great Waltz is really only worth it for Korjus’s singing. Find clips of her singing in the film and leave it at that.


5) Korjus

4) Burke

3) Bainter

2) Bondi

1) Byington

One response

  1. Jacob

    Actually, that’s not how Jezebel came to be at all. Jack Warner bought the film rights to the play of Jezebel for Bette after the success of Of Human Bondage (it was less of a present than most thought it was. Of Human Bondage was released by RKO, and he felt cheated because the first film of Bette’s that was successful was a film he had no financial stake in. So he bought the rights the Jezebel – which had flopped on Broadway – as sort of a way to get back at her), and the memo that he sent saying that Davis would be starring in a film version of the play was dated in 1935, a year before Gone with the Wind’s publication.
    Also, Davis was initially offered the part by Selznick. She turned it down, however, because part of his proposition would be that Errol Flynn would be Rhett Butler to her Scarlett O’Hara, and, in her own words, “Errol was a really a very beautiful man. A true star. But a good actor, he was not. At that time, only Gable could have played Rhett Butler.”

    April 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm

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