The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1928-1929

(Note: THIS CATEGORY IS NOT FINISHED. I still need to watch one of the nominees. I still have not been able to find The Barker in any cheap/acceptable format. If anyone has it or knows where it can be procured, let me know, so this category can be finished.)

1928-1929 is a unique year in Oscar history. It’s the only year without any official Oscar nominees. Which means (I guess), everyone was sent a ballot, and just voted. And whoever won, won. Interesting way to do it. Then again, it is the second one. I guess they were seeing what worked.

The Broadway Melody wins Best Picture, mostly because it was the only film among the “nominees” (which is basically the set of films that got the most votes, I guess) that used sound the best. Frank Lloyd won Best Director for The Divine Lady, which I don’t much understand. Why they’d give a non-sound film Best Director is beyond me. And Best Actor was Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona (talked about here). The transition to sound made it tough to gauge performances, so we pretty much just ignore this decision. (Though, Baxter did do some good work in the 30s, so it actually kind of worked out.)

This category — pretty much a blank except — Mary Pickford was the biggest star in Hollywood from like, 1915 through this point. Her and Douglas Fairbanks were basically considered ambassadors from Hollywood to the world. So it makes perfect sense that they’d go and give her an Oscar. Again — you have to treat these categories differently from how things normally work nowadays, because here, it’s all about legitimizing the awards. They’re just getting started, and they want to award what they think is best. And who better to award than your biggest star?

BEST ACTRESS – 1928-1929

And the nominees were…

Ruth Chatterton, Madame X

Betty Compson, The Barker

Jeanne Eagels, The Letter

Corinne Griffith, The Divine Lady

Bessie Love, The Broadway Melody

Mary Pickford, Coquette

Chatterton — Madame X is a melodrama that’s been made other times, so you probably know the story. Woman cheats on her husband, is thrown out and forbidden to see her son. She descends into depravity, I guess is the better term, than prostitution. Since she’s not necessarily a prostitute, but she does bounce around from dude to dude, sleeping with them in exchange for the lifestyle. And years later, a sleazy dude she’s with finds out about her and tries to blackmail her husband. But she shoots him because she doesn’t want her son to be involved with a scandal. And then coincidentally, at her murder trial, her son is appointed to defend her. And before he can find out who she is, she makes a big speech and dies.

It’s a big melodrama. It’s the kind of role that it makes sense would win, only — we’re in the second year of the Oscars, and you need to legitimize the category. This performance isn’t going to do it as well as Mary Pickford will. Like today. If you’re starting an awards show, who are you going to give your first Best Actress award to? Meryl Streep. (I mean, keep in mind, there weren’t film awards before this, so you’re selling people on the idea of an award for acting. So naturally you give it to the most popular star in the world. That’s what I mean by that.) So Chatterton, while really fine in the role, shouldn’t have won. It wouldn’t have helped the category.

Compson — I haven’t seen the film and can’t find it. I’ll update this once I can find it.

Eagels — The Letter was actually remade with Bette Davis in 1940 (it’s the film where she gets shanked by a Chinese woman! I love when it comes back to that. It’s like this blog was founded on that), so you’ll probably know the story. (Eagels does not get shanked by a Chinese woman here. Which is why I’m not voting for her.)

Woman shoots a man and claims it was self-defense. Everyone thinks she’s a hero. However, it slowly comes out that it may not have been in self-defense. A letter emerges that she wrote to the dude she killed that clearly implicates her in a murder.

This film is very similar to that other one, except no Chinese woman. Which means, if you’re gonna watch one version of this story, watch the one where someone gets shanked by a Chinese woman.

Though this version is good. Eagels gives a terrific performance. And it’s only like 60 minutes long. Two reasons why Eagels shouldn’t have won. One, not Mary Pickford. I believe I’ve explained that already, and will do so at least twice more. Second, this nomination (which wasn’t even really a nomination) was posthumous. She died of an overdose before the awards. And I really don’t think the Academy wants to award an Oscar to an overdose. Not in 1928. (Maybe in 2008…) So she had no chance here. Great performance, though.

Griffith — The Divine Lady is about Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Google it, philistines.

The whole film is basically shot in close-ups, so it really puts emphasis on the acting performances. And I’m convinced that, were sound not the new thing, this would have won this category. But they had to give it to a sound performance. It was the wave of the future. They couldn’t give another silent performance an Oscar. Plus, she’s not wearing hockey pads Mary Pickford.

Love — The Broadway Melody is a nice little musical about sisters trying to make it in Vaudeville who both fall for the same man. And at first he loves one of them (Love), but then starts to fall for the other sister. Which causes problems between the two of them. It’s a good film. And musical numbers. Considering the sound issues they had during this time period, it’s really impressive.

Love does a really good job with the performance. Again, though, she’s not Mary Pickford. There’s no reason to make this unnecessarily longer. Nobody’s winning but Mary Pickford. These early categories operate under different rules.

Pickford — Coquette is a Mary Pickford special. This time, with words.

She plays a southern belle who flirts with a lot of men and teases the hell out of them. Then she falls in love for real, but her father doesn’t want her to marry the man, because he thinks he’s below her. And she makes plans to run away with the dude, but then the father shoots the guy. And she’s so upset that she refuses to lie to the police to save him. But then at the trial she has a change of heart, but he also has a change of heart and tells her not to bother, and then he confesses and shoots himself in the middle of the courtroom.

There’s nothing particularly special about the film or the performance. But it is Mary Pickford, and having Mary Pickford win this award would be like — actually, it’s kind of like the trend we see now, where actresses get awards because they’re big stars and everybody likes them. Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock — none of them are particularly tremendous actresses, but they’re big stars, in nice roles to give awards to, and it was “their time.” Same for Mary Pickford, but with the added element of it legitimizing the category. You can sell this to the public if Mary Pickford won the award. So it makes perfect sense.

My Thoughts: She was the biggest female star in the business. If she didn’t win, the ceremony might not have lasted much longer after this. She’s the only one who should have won. And since it’s practically impossible to gauge these performances, I’m taking her and leaving it at that. (You can’t honestly say you prefer one performance to another, here.)

My Vote: Pickford

Should Have Won: Pickford

Is the result acceptable?: It’s Mary Pickford.

Performances I suggest you see:


6) Compson

5) Chatterton

4) Griffith

3) Eagels

2) Love

1) Pickford

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