The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Supporting Actress, 1941-1942)
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.
Sara Allgood, How Green Was My Valley
Mary Astor, The Great Lie
Patricia Collinge, The Little Foxes
Teresa Wright, The Little Foxes
Margaret Wycherly, Sergeant York
How Green Was My Valley. I’m asking. Seriously. How green was it? Did I have a stroke? Is this dementia? Why can’t I remember how green my valley was?
That was what I said when Maureen O’Hara died. How green her valley was. Anyway…
This is a film about Welsh coal miners. Most people assume Irish because it’s John Ford and has his usual stable of actors in it. But it’s not Irish. It’s Welsh. It takes place in a small town where pretty much everyone works for the mine. So we follow one family who all work there. And it’s John Ford, so there’s a larger story going on but mostly it’s these little scenes that build together to give you a sense of family and community. It’s a terrific film.
Sara Allgood is, not surprisingly, the matriarch of the family. It’s a typical mother role. She’s fine in it, but there’s really nothing that makes me want to vote for it. It’s one of those deals where, on its own, I could see someone maybe wanting to make a case for her. But at this point, I’ve seen so many of these “Ma” roles that it takes more for me to want to actually vote for one. There are two of these in the category. This one is the more — strong and feisty one. She’ll openly speak her feelings rather than silently stand by her family. Making her one some people might want to vote for. Which I get.
The Great Lie is a melodrama. In the best and worst way, depending on your point of view.
Mary Astor is a pianist who marries a guy she just met. Though because of some loophole (she wasn’t properly divorced before they married), the marriage isn’t legal. So because of that, he realizes how crazy that was and goes off to marry Bette Davis. But then he goes missing on a trip overseas and is presumed dead. Thing is — Astor is pregnant with his kid. So, because it’s a melodrama, Bette Davis says she’ll raise the kid as her own in exchange for giving Astor enough money to live (because I guess being a pianist doesn’t pay). Then the guy shows up alive, and Astor wants him back.
Astor is pretty great in the role, but is kind of a lead. Though she disappears for a good chunk of film. So I get it. She gets some nice scenes where she and Bette spar, and she gets to play a nice range of emotions. And the bow on the whole thing is her sacrificing happiness for her child’s well being, a classic trope of the category. For sure she’s one of the top two performances in the category, and that’s before you take into account extenuating circumstances (she was also in The Maltese Falcon this year).
The Little Foxes is another melodrama, but is William Wyler directing Bette Davis. So comparatively to The Great lie, it’s better. Nothing against Edmund Goulding, but William Wyler did melodrama better.
Bette Davis is the matriarch of a family who is trying to be a free, wealthy woman. (It’s a Bette Davis movie. That’s usually what she wants.) She has a sickly husband, whom she hates, and her brothers are greedy pricks, and the whole movie is about them all struggling to create marriages and get more money and all this underhanded shit they do.
I never much cared for this movie, I think in part because the characters are so unlikable. Though I always feel like I ought to go back and revaluate it, so I’m constantly going back every few years and checking it out again to see if my opinion has changed. I’ll never deny that there’s a pedigree to this movie and that a lot of people will like it quite a bit. I just have never particularly cared for it.
The two roles we concern ourselves with are Teresa Wright’s and Patricia Collinge. I’ll start with Wright, because she’s the easier of the two.
Wright is one of those actresses who, the minute she burst onto the scene, was someone you took notice of. I don’t know if it was deliberate by the studio or not, but she comes across exactly like the ingenue you’d want her to. She’s utterly charming, and leaps off the screen. She was Oscar nominated for her first three roles. No joke. Look at her IMDB. First three credits. This movie, Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankess. Nominations for all of them. Two of them in the same year. And a win. Oh, and her next movie was Shadow of a Doubt. It was like she was the Jennifer Lawrence of the 40s.
She plays the daughter of the family, who is the focal point of a scheme for money. They’re trying to marry her off to her cousin so they can get at her father’s money. She mostly hangs around as the pure one in the film, who is actually a decent person and not compromised by something or other. And she gets those ingenue type situations. Which I can’t quite explain, but you know them when you see them. There are a lot of ingenue roles that will show up in this category over the next decade. They’re those supporting parts designed to break in a new star. There’s one the year after this too. She’s solid in the film, but this isn’t the performance of hers that you vote for.
Collinge, on the other hand, she’s a much more interesting case. Her character is the alcoholic wife of one of the brothers. He’s only married to her for her money, and he hates her. She has this great scene in the film where she’s pouring glass after glass, going on and on about stories of her youth, like a typical drunk, until finally she has this moment where she’s brutally honest, about how she doesn’t like her own son, and how her husband doesn’t love her, and how much of a sham her marriage is, and why she drinks, and tells Wright that she’s gonna end up just like her. (In fact, here it is.) I’m really impressed by what she did and I know last time, I didn’t think all that highly of the performance. This time, I think she might actually be my vote.
Sergeant York is pretty famous. You’ve probably heard of the film. It’s very much a product of its era. This movie was considered an American treasure for a lot of years, and most people now treat it as such because of that reputation. But I can’t tell you how many people I know who’ve seen this movie (several of whom on my recommendation as an “essential” movie) who find it completely dated. It’s solid, but very much of that time period, where we glorified war heroes and provided uncomplicated, Americana type takes on their stories, designed to make us feel patriotic and want to fight in a war.
The story is about a country bumpkin whose a complete fuck up, but boy can he sure shoot a gun. He’s a rabble rouser until one day, he gets struck by lightning and decides to give his life over to Jesus. And then war breaks out. And he’s drafted. Though he’s sworn off violence. So a lot of the film is him coming to terms with whether or not it’s all right for him to kill people in war. And then he goes on and becomes a war hero by capturing an entire platoon by himself. Pure 1941 Hollywood stuff.
Margaret Wycherly plays York’s mother. She’s the other Ma role in the category, and she’s the more patient, silent type. The one that puts up with her son’s shit because she knows deep down, he’s a good guy. I don’t remember seeing a whole lot here in terms of performance. It feels like she went along with the movie. I feel like she’s easily a fifth in the category and would be that for most people. The other four are much showier, much more substantial performances.
– – – – – – – – – –
The Reconsideration: This is a fun one to talk about, because this is one of the few times so far that I’ve out and out flipped my thinking in a category. It happened a couple times in Best Director, I think. Where something that was fourth jumped up and actually either became the vote or was right there.
Last time I did this, the two Ma roles got tossed off pretty early, and not much has changed there. They’re fine, but I wouldn’t vote for them, nor would most people. Fine.
From there on, though, it gets interesting. I love Teresa Wright and would think about voting for her, but honestly she’s just solid and even last time I wouldn’t have done it. She feels like a #3.
So without even thinking, and this is how I got to this point, Collinge became a #2. Which meant I had to go back and check out the performance again to see if she justified being put that high. And man, when I saw that performance again, I was blown away. I did not see that coming.
And then there’s Mary Astor. Who is really solid in the role, and going back to see it, it’s much better in terms of performance than I remembered. I always thought, “Well, the movie’s not very good, she’s fine in it, but she was in Maltese Falcon, so combined I can vote for her and feel okay.” But honestly, the performance is worth it on its own. In this category. Don’t think I’d vote for her in years around this. But here, she’s worth a vote.
So it’s between the two. And honestly, I think because The Great Lie is such a melodrama, there are some parts of Astor’s performance that, while good, feel like they’re of the era, meaning they come off as a little hammy to me now. And what Collinge does in her screen time is really solid. So I think I’m gonna take Collinge. Astor is well worth a win, but I’m gonna take Collinge here. If only because I like the idea of feeling like I discovered something new and like the idea of taking something wildly different.
– – – – – – – – – –
- Patricia Collinge, The Little Foxes
- Mary Astor, The Great Lie
- Teresa Wright, The Little Foxes
- Sara Allgood, How Green Was My Valley
- Margaret Wycherly, Sergeant York
- How Green Was My Valley
- Sergeant York
- The Little Foxes
- The Great Lie
My Vote: Patricia Collinge, The Little Foxes
How Green Was My Valley is an essential film. For film buffs, it’s essential because it’s great, because it’s John Ford, and because it’s also a Best Picture winner, which should carry some weight even if you don’t care about the Oscars. Now, as an Oscar buff, in any way, shape or form, you must see this movie. Because it won Best Picture over Citizen Kane. So, at the very least, you cannot complain or discuss that result without having seen both movies. (I’d argue that to really make an argument, you should see all ten movies from that year, but at minimum, I’ll take the two.)
Sergeant York is an essential film because history has deemed it essential. I try not to talk it up, because while I like it a lot and think it’s a good movie — it’s very dated, very much of its time, and feels as much nowadays. This is your grandfather’s favorite movie. You know what I mean? You need to see it because it’s thought of as an American classic, but it’s definitely not something you need to force yourself to love. Oh, also, Howard Hawks movie. Just sayin’.
The Little Foxes is William Wyler, so there’s that. He’s always worthwhile. And then Bette Davis, lots of Oscar nominations. It’s worth seeing, but you’re under no obligation to actually see it. This is more of a deep cut kind of film than anything. You’ll randomly see people reference this movie. This is a TCM kinda movie. You can get by without having seen it, but seeing it puts you on that level of, “Oh, yeah, I know that movie,” when people bring it up. So it’s worth seeing at some point if you’re a certain level of film buff.
The Great Lie is not essential for anyone unless you’re into the Oscars. Because she won for it. Otherwise, you see it if you love melodrama, Mary Astor or Betty Davis. Otherwise, no need to see this. It’s just okay.
The Last Word: The two Ma roles seem to cancel each other out and I don’t think anyone would actually vote for them. Teresa Wright might be some peoples’ vote (especially if you’re voting as if it’s 1941 and don’t know what kind of performances she’s going to give the year after this. That happens a lot. Where someone gives a great performance, you want to vote for them, and sometimes they actually win, and then the year after that, they give an even better performance), but I think she’s just solid and proves herself a force to be reckoned with in the future. One of those nominations.
Collinge and Astor are the two that feel most worth a vote. And Astor, I keep wanting to vote for her for outside reasons aside from the performance. Collinge is the one where, when I think of the performance, I want to vote for it. So that means I need to take her. I’m cool with Astor winning, and think she, in all, was worthy of a win this year, but I just really like the idea of taking Collinge, so that’s what I’m gonna do. They feel like the choices to me.
– – – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – –
Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager
Agnes Moorhead, The Magnificent Ambersons
Susan Peters, Random Harvest
May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver
Now, Voyager is a film that is actually quite wonderful. It features a trope that Hollywood has used for years — the uckly duckling becoming the beautiful swan, and it was the basis for a really famous reference that most people will catch. I won’t spoil it here, but… yes, it was taken from this, but made more explicit.
Bette Davis is a spinster who is completely being dominated by her overbearing mother. (The spinster coming into their own trope always seems to work. Marty counts as one of those. The Rainmaker is terrific. It just is one of those plots that works for me.) Friends think she’s gonna have a breakdown, so they send her to a psychiatrist, Claude Rains (who’s always the fucking best). Naturally, away from her mother, she starts doing real well. And upon her return, decides to take a cruise, on which she meets Paul Heinreid, with whom she falls in love. Though he’s married, so that can’t last. And the rest of the film is a series of her ups and downs with her mother until she eventually becomes free of her control, and her finding romance, all that good stuff.
Gladys Cooper plays the domineering mother. A role built for this category. Of course she was nominated. She’s great. Definitely someone to consider, though I can’t help but feel like she might end up falling to middle of the pack, if not near the back of the pack, given the rest of the category. But she’s really solid.
The Magnificent Ambersons is Orson Welles’ “lost” masterpiece. Lost because they took the film from him and recut the shit out of it. It’s still great, and has been recreated as best it could be, but it’s still not his finished product.
The film is about the fall of an American family. Old money vs. new money. The matriarch of the decaying old money family loves a new money automobile millionaire. And her son decides he hates the millionaire and resents the fact that his mother never really loved his father, so he tries to ruin it. So basically a representation of old money trying to hold onto all its power and stop the rise of new money.
Agnes Moorehead plays the aunt of Tim Holt, the heir to the old money. She has two real big scenes. The first is when she spitefully reveals that Holt’s mother never really loved his father, and later in the film, after she’s gone crazy, and gets to act nuts.
She’s one of the great actresses, and one of the best character actors of all time. She could play anything. And when you see the types of roles she played, you believe it. She’s terrific here. She’s spellbinding. Go back and watch this performance. It’s one of the great pieces of film acting you’ll ever see. The scene where she’s lost it holds up today as good acting. I’d be shocked if she wasn’t top two for everyone ranking this category.
Random Harvest is one of my absolute favorite 40s films. It’s one of those movies that’s so brilliant in concept and so likable it’s hard for me to think that everyone’s not gonna love it when they see it.
Ronald Colman is a dude who got gassed during World War I and is now in an asylum where he doesn’t remember who he is. On the night the war ends, he wanders off (because everyone’s out celebrating) and stumbles into a vaudeville type show and meets Greer Garson, a singer. They fall in love. They make a life together. All is good until one day Colman gets hit by a car and suddenly all his memories come back to him. He remembers who he is and goes back to his previous home, forgetting all about his time with Garson. And the second half of the film is him in this other life and Garson tracking him down, essentially working for him without him knowing who she is. It’s a hell of a movie.
Susan Peters plays a girl who was just a kid when Colman went off to war and now is turning 18. Therefore, she’s eligible and has of course turned from a kid into a beautiful woman. And she’s all set up to marry Colman, which makes perfect sense except… for some reason Colman is not in love with her, and he can’t quite figure it out.
Peters is fine in the film. She gets a nice moment where she lets Colman go because she realizes he’s not in love with her, and gets a lot of moments designed to make her really likable beforehand. (She doesn’t play the trope that they play now, where she’s clearly the wrong woman who is vain and vapid and not the one he should be loving. In contrast, she’s actually a wonderful person and would make a good wife. Her only flaw is that she’s not the other woman. Which makes her more of a tragic figure we can identify with.)
I keep feeling that this is another one of those “ingenue” nominations. Yes, she’s good, but the part is clearly designed for someone like her and it feels manufactured to get an up and coming actress a nomination and make her out to be a rising star. I feel like in a weaker category she could have ended up middle of the pack, but since I see this performance all the time and didn’t really feel for her character that much outside of the scenario itself, she’s fifth for me.
Mrs. Miniver is a film very much of 1942. But that’s more of a discussion for Best Picture. We’re here to talk about the performances, and there are many good ones in it.
The film is about a middle class family during World War II. We spend the first half of the film dealing with them and their daily lives. Then the war starts to take over. It’s actually a really engaging film. It’s hard to get into it without getting into real specifics and spending more time on that than we need to.
May Whitty plays a noblewoman whose granddaughter is Teresa Wright. She’s the one who sort of runs the town. Her big role is that she doesn’t agree with Wright’s marriage to Garson’s son, and then comes around, and then later on, she is prominent in the rose competition the town holds, which she always wins. Basically, she’s the crusty old woman who gets to soften up at the right moments. (Remember Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln? Or anything, really? Kinda like that.) That’s what this performance is.
Whitty is good, and in a Judi Dench kind of way, she might have won in the right situation. But here, this doesn’t feel like the right situation. I wouldn’t put her above at least three other people, making her a default fourth for me in the category. She’s good, but would not vote for her.
And then now — Teresa Wright — she plays Whitty’s granddaughter who falls in love with Miniver’s son. She’s the character you fall in love with. She and Miniver’s son date and get engaged, and it’s sweet and all. And then he goes off to fight in the war, and she knows he could be killed, but also that if he does, it won’t matter because she truly loves him. Though, tragedy strikes, but not in the way you’d think.
Wright is really good here and makes you fall in love with her. This is the kind of performance where you want to vote for her because of how charming and lovable she is over pure acting. Which is fine. That happens a lot, and is understandable. Plus, this year, she was nominated twice. So it makes sense that people would vote for her here. I think she’s a solid top two in the category. That said… it’s hard for me to take her, no matter how much I loved her in this, over Agnes Moorehead. That performance is too good to pass up.
– – – – – – – – – –
The Reconsideration: It’s Agnes Moorehead all the way for me. Just seeing that performance is undeniable. I can’t even think about taking anyone else. Peters is not someone anyone would take, especially with Wright in the same category. And then you have two older women roles, and Cooper is clearly the one to take over Whitty. I think Cooper is solid, but I don’t think most people would take her. So really it’s Moorehead vs. Wright. And I totally understand a Wright vote. But just watching all of the performances carefully, I don’t see how it’s not Moorehead. That’s the one that can legitimately hold up today and be applied to today’s acting standards and still come out looking pretty good. She’s my choice.
– – – – – – – – – –
- Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons
- Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver
- Susan Peters, Random Harvest
- Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager
- May Whitty, Mrs. Miniver
- Random Harvest
- Mrs. Miniver
- Now, Voyager
- The Magnificent Ambersons
My Vote: Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons
Random Harvest might be my favorite film from this year. It’s so good. It’s an essential film for film buffs and is one of those movies I’d wager most people would fall in love with upon seeing. Required viewing.
The Magnificent Ambersons is Orson Welles, and the film he made right after Citizen Kane. It’s essential for film buffs purely because of the story behind it. I think that’s important to know, plus it’s just a great, great film. So it’s essential, and it should be seen if you love movies.
Now Voyager is kind of essential, in a weird way. Its final line is listed as one of the most famous film quotes of all time. So there’s that. Plus you will catch a references from Titanic in this (because Cameron was quite influenced by it). And it’s just a great movie. So this is highly recommended, if not full on essential.
Mrs. Miniver is a Best Picture winner. So essential for Oscar buffs, and moderately essential for all film buffs. It’s objectively probably not ALL TIME essential, but still really worth seeing for a lot of reasons (not the least of which the cast and director). It’s basically essential, so just see it.
The Last Word: I think this is Agnes Moorehead’s category. Teresa Wright is also a solid choice and is acceptable, even if the overall performance is not quite as good as Moorehead’s. The rest — I don’t think you can take Peters or Whitty here. And Cooper… maybe. But even so, over the other two? I think it’s one or the other, with Wright winning on the likability (and overall year) factor and Moorehead winning on the pure acting factor. They’re both good choices.
– – – – – – – – – –
(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)