The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1939-1940)
The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.
I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.
This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.
Olivia de Havviland, Gone With the Wind
Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair
Gone With the Wind is a movie you may have heard of.
I’m not even going to get into the story of it all because 1) you should have seen it by now or know you need to, and 2) it doesn’t really do us much good for the purposes of this article.
Olivia de Havilland plays Melanie, who is basically an angel. That’s the role. She’s so pure and good that it’s almost sickening. She’s the one who is married to Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett O’Hara is really in love with. And she knows that Scarlett loves her husband, but she doesn’t care. She thinks the best of people.
She’s really great in the film, and it’s hard not to love Olivia de Havilland. You could definitely take her here without even a second’s hesitation. But then there’s the issue of…
Hattie McDaniel. She’s also in this movie. And she’s Mammy, the maid of the O’Hara house. Who gave birth to at least three or four generations of girls. She’s tempestuous, outspoken, and larger than life. She’s the one who put Scarlett in diapers, so she won’t put up with her bullshit. She’ll call her out on it. Which is a big deal in 1939. I get why she won.
Wuthering Heights is not Gone With the Wind. But you’ve heard of it, because books.
Heathcliff, Cathy, forbidden romance. Read a book if you don’t know what this story is.
Fitzgerald plays the tragic supporting female of the novel. You know, the one the male lead marries, who’s madly in love with him even though he could never really love her back. This is the kind of performance made for this category. There’s an air of tragedy about her performance. You really feel bad for her. She’d have won if not for Gone With the Wind.
Drums Along the Mohawk is a film that nobody remembers. But here are some things to pique your interest: John Ford, Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert. And some of the best Technicolor I’ve seen in this era.
Fonda and Colbert start a farm in upstate New York, but it’s made difficult because a little thing called the Revolutionary War is about to break out.
Oliver plays a woman with her own farm. She’s the loud, enjoyable character. Shows up, gets a lot of funny moments, but also has real depth to her character. You know who she is? Kathy Bates. You know how Kathy Bates is always the one showing up, saying whatever the fuck she wants and not giving a fuck? (I keep thinking back to her in Titanic, but she’s done it a bunch.) That’s Edna May Oliver in this movie. She’s awesome. You can’t help but love her.
She’s definitely someone you consider for a vote. Seriously, this category has four potential winners, and the other three categories before this maybe had two, total.
Love Affair is such a beautiful film. And you’ve seen it remade, probably. Or heard of the story. They remade it as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. This one is Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.
Two people meet on a cruise ship and fall in love. They plan to meet in six months at the Empire State Building. Only something horrible happens to conspire against them. Until, you know, love conquers all.
Ouspenskaya plays, surprise, the wise old grandmother. Boyer brings Dunne to her for her approval. She’s like that old Italian woman in the neighborhood people go to for advice. And she gives the cryptic advice that gives him the strength to follow his heart. You know the drill.
One scene. That’s all she has in this movie. Less than five minutes. No way you vote for her. Not against this competition. This is basically a cameo.
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The Reconsideration: I’ll start by saying you’re insane if you take Ouspenskaya here. That said, you can go pretty much any way you want here. Oliver is so amusing, you could easily take her on comedic value alone (because hey, Thomas Mitchell won on that in 1939). Fitzgerald has the tragic woman angle on her side. You could easily take that. Oh, and then there’s Gone With the Wind. Everybody loves Melanie. And then Mammy? How do you not love Mammy? You have four people to choose from, and they’re all worth it.
This is one of those situations where context helps and hurts. Without context, I don’t know what I vote for. But I have context. And Hattie McDaniel winning is a huge deal. (Didn’t change how horribly the industry treated black actors, but it’s a watershed moment that means a lot regardless.) I think that breaks any kind of tie I could have had. She’s so awesome in this movie, and I think that deserves the vote.
In the end, the only two I’d want to vote for are McDaniel and de Havilland. And all things being equal (maybe a poor choice of words), why not take Hattie?
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- Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
- Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind
- Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
- Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
- Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair
- Gone With the Wind
- Wuthering Heights
- Love Affair
- Drums Along the Mohawk
My Vote: Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind. What? Do I actually need to tell you?
Wuthering Heights is a really solid film. William Wyler, Laurence Olivier. Worth it. Not essential, but highly recommended. Looks terrific. Maybe the best adaptation of that novel there’s been.
Love Affair is really good. An Affair to Remember might be better, then again a lot of people might prefer this version instead. I can’t say it’s essential or that you need to see it, but you should see at least one version of this story. And I recommend this as a great film. Look, it was nominated for Best Picture in the “Golden Year.” That should mean something.
Drums Along the Mohawk is awesome. I really liked this despite knowing nothing about it going in. John Ford, Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert. And it looks great in color. You don’t need to see this, but… no, I’ll leave it at that. Those three names ought to do all the work for me. Otherwise I got nothing for you.
The Last Word: No to Ouspenskaya. The other four are worth a vote. Fitzgerald is probably slightest of the four. I feel like almost everyone would take one of the two actresses from Gone With the Wind. And you’re right either way. I just think, if you’re gonna take anyone, why not take Hattie McDaniel? One, she’s worth a vote, and two — it’s a big moment, historically. That should count for something. Shouldn’t be the reason you take her, but it’s all right to acknowledge it.
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Judith Anderson, Rebecca
Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
Barbara O’Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path
Rebecca is Hitchcock’s first American film. A gothic romance.
Joan Fontaine is a woman who, while on vacation, meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier, a widower. They impetuously get married. So now, after their vacation, they return to his house, Manderley. Which has a weird air about it. Almost like it’s haunted by the ghost of Olivier’s dead wife. And at first, it’s overwhelming, but then Fontaine starts to come into her own, but pretty soon she starts to see that Olivier is not over his wife’s death and that the staff doesn’t really want her there. And she starts looking into how Olivier’s wife died…
Judith Anderson plays Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s housekeeper. At first she’s like a ghost. Omnipresent, gliding in and out of rooms, cold, intimidating. Pretty soon, she starts manipulating Fontaine, because she doesn’t want her at the house. She’s really good. Really, really good. This is one of those categories where, if she’d have won, no one would have questioned it. She’s right there. This category feels like a 1 and a 1a.
The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. Tom Joad, Dust Bowl, Oklahoma — read a book, guys.
Jane Darwell plays Ma Joad. She always played someone called Ma. She’s the matriarch of the Joad family. The literal backbone of the family and the film. She’s a rock. And over the course of the film becomes more and more the head of the family. It’s the perfect storm of actress and role. Completely understandable that she won.
The Philadelphia Story is an all-time comedy. With names like George Cukor, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, most people will get to this pretty early on. And with good reason.
The film is a comedy of remarriage. Grant and Hepburn go through a nasty divorce. Cut to a few years later, and she’s engaged to be married to another guy. One who’s known as a playboy around town who is probably not the person she should be marrying. The film takes place over the course of a single weekend. Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey play two reporters who show up to write a story about Hepburn’s father, who has been carousing around town, cheating on his wife (which the family wants to keep secret). And then Grant shows up to ruin the wedding, and the family has to lie and play it off like they meant for him to be there. And hilarity ensues.
Hussey is really entertaining in the role. It’s an enjoyable performance. Don’t know if you can vote for it, but it’s one you may rank fairly high because of how good she is. Though for me, the category is really strong, so I don’t know if I can put her any higher than maybe fourth.
All This, and Heaven Too is a Bette Davis melodrama. But I really liked this one. It held my attention more than most of the others.
It’s a frame story. She’s a teacher whose students have heard rumors about what she did before she got there and gossip about it. So she decides to tell them, because that’s never a bad idea.
She was a governess for a rich family’s children. The husband and wife are in an unhappy marriage. Charles Boyer is the husband and Barbara O’Neil is the wife. She’s got some sort of mental illness, constantly having all these mood swings. But he stays with her for the children. Eventually, he grows to love Bette, which only makes O’Neil get worse in her behavior. Then some shit goes down. It’s melodrama, so you can guess.
O’Neil is actually really good. She gets to play mental illness and change moods violently over the course of scenes. I remember watching the film, which was fine, and going, “Oh man, who is this actress?” You don’t do that often in the 40s, because either you know who all the actors are or the performances aren’t good enough to really make you sit up and wonder who the person is. She’s definitely someone I’d consider highly for a vote in this category.
Primrose Path is the film on this list you’ve never heard of. The logline is interesting as shit though.
Ginger Rogers is a woman determined not to become a prostitute like her mother is and her grandmother is. Yes, that’s the story. The family business is prostitution. And it’s a romance with her and a regular guy who can take her out of the cycle.
Marjorie Rambeau plays Rogers’ mother. She does what she does to support her family. And she gets those scenes where she gets to tell Ginger there’s a better life for her out there. I get why she was nominated. But it seems like the part that should have been here was the grandmother. Though this is one of those instances where rather than go with the most entertaining performance, they took the one with more weight to it. So I can’t say they were wrong.
The subject matter is tough. They can’t really say they’re prostitutes in 1940, and they certainly can’t vote for her. Not that it affects what I’m doing.
I think she was good, but don’t think she’ll end up higher than fourth (if that) for me. I just liked other performances better.
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The Reconsideration: This and 1939 are the first times I feel truly represent what this category is all about. Now we can treat the category like we normally would, and not with kid gloves.
Starting right off the top, the only two I’d out and out not vote for are Ruth Hussey and Marjorie Rambeau. Rambeau is good, but it’s a combination of her film being the slightest and the role just being a decent thing in an okay movie that make me feel she’s #5 in the category. Then Ruth Hussey — she’s awesome, the film is awesome, but I guarantee you most people after seeing this movie would go, “Which one’s she?” And you’ll figure it out quickly. But people generally remember everyone else in this movie before they remember her. Not to mention — and I say the same thing with Jimmy Stewart — I don’t really see how anyone from this movie won acting Oscars. So she’s out.
Then, O’Neil. She’s great, and I actually had to stop and go, “Whoa, this actress is terrific,” before I looked up who she was and where I knew her from (she’s Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in Gone With the Wind, FYI). But in the end, she’s only someone I’d put in that third spot. The “really solid but no vote” spot. She’s not ultimately able to compete with the other two.
This category always feels like it’s between Judith Anderson and Jane Darwell. The performances are on such different wavelengths, it’s hard to compare them. The way I shake them out is such — my immediate gut instinct is to say Judith Anderson, because of how creepy and omnipresent she is for the first half of the move. But by the time we get to the end and find out she’s just crazy, the performance loses some steam for me. And then Darwell, I feel, is really the entire backbone of the movie, which I respect a shit ton. A performance doesn’t have to be showy to be the vote. In the end, I think it’s Darwell for me. I just love the film, love the performance, and the idea of her as “Ma” is something that feels right to me. I know some people would argue for another performance over her, which is fine. I get that. But for me, she’s the vote.
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- Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
- Judith Anderson, Rebecca
- Barbara O’Neil, All This, and Heaven Too
- Ruth Hussey, The Philadelphia Story
- Marjorie Rambeau, Primrose Path
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Philadelphia Story
- All This, and Heaven Too
- Primrose Path
My Vote: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath is an essential movie for film buffs. Full stop, end of story. Must be seen.
The Philadelphia Story is also essential. But in the level below Grapes of Wrath. I’d say as a person you should probably see Grapes of Wrath once in your life. This movie, see it, because it’s amazing, is an all-time film and has one of those casts you dream about, but don’t rush to see it first thing. There are others that are top tier essential. This is “put it on the list” essential and get to it in a relatively timely manner.
Rebecca is an essential movie too, but not at the level Grapes of Wrath is essential. Or even Philadelphia Story essential. It’s Hitchcock, it won Best Picture, it’s a great movie… you can wait a while before you get to this, but you should probably get to it for those reasons. So like a third tier essential movie.
All This and Heaven Too is worth it if you like melodrama, Bette Davis or Charles Boyer. Or are doing a version of the Oscar Quest. Otherwise, not remotely essential. I will say, though, as far as melodramas go, I’m hit or miss with them. And this was one I really liked. So there’s that. I do recommend it. But it’s not essential in the least.
Primrose Path is not essential at all. In fact, most people who are super into the Oscars probably won’t have seen this. It’s fine, but you could never see this and not really be missing out. It’s Ginger Rogers, so that’s a plus. And it’s about prostitutes in an era where they can’t really call them that. Which is interesting. So there are reasons to check it out, but you don’t need to see this at all.
The Last Word: Seems like a category between either Anderson or Darwell. Maybe some others would make a case for any of the other three, but I feel the overwhelming majority would be voting between those two (also because the majority will likely only have seen those two movies, and maybe The Philadelphia Story. Let’s be honest. Most people voting aren’t actually seeing the entire category. That’s the world we live in). That said, you’re right. Take either one and you’re right. Just don’t shit on the other when you make your choice (because there’s a tendency to do that). For me, how quietly important Darwell is to her film is more impressive than Anderson’s performance, so I take Darwell. But they’re both worthy. O’Neil is also great, so if you want to make the case for her, be my guest. I wouldn’t be opposed. Otherwise — don’t think you could rightly take the other two (but I feel there is always the odd person who would make the case for Rambeau, which I also can see, but not agree with). Still, I think it’s Anderson or Darwell here, and they’re both solid choices.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)