The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1935-1936)
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.
Elisabeth Bergner, Escape Me Never
Claudette Colbert, Private Worlds
Bette Davis, Dangerous
Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams
Miriam Hopkins, Becky Sharp
Merle Oberon, The Dark Angel
Escape Me Never is a film that took me a long time to find, but when I saw it, I actually enjoyed it. Mostly for the performance.
Elisabeth Bergner plays a girl found starving on the street and is taken in by a pair of brothers and throws their life upside down. The film is basically a star vehicle for Bergner, and she’s really the best part of it.
I always remember how unpredictable she felt in all her scenes. Most actors felt like they had their stances and their movements. She had that freedom of a baby or an animal, where you never quite knew what she was going to do. She felt as though she could wander across the set at any time. Which was really nice and made me like the performance a lot. Definitely wouldn’t take her, but she’s definitely a second choice for me. I imagine not for most, but for me, I did like this performance a lot.
Private Worlds is a drama about doctors.
Claudette Colbert is a psychiatrist whose job is threatened when the new supervisor at her hospital disapproves of how she does her job and the fact that she’s a woman. And of course she has to convince that she’s more than capable. And of course the two fall in love. Because this is 1935.
Colbert is good here. The movie is okay but a bit too melodramatic, and her performance is capable as per usual, but not something I’d vote for over others. She feels like the “solid nominee but no vote” that you see a lot.
Dangerous is Bette Davis repeating the success from Of Human Bondage and cementing her screen persona for years to come.
Franchot Tone is a well-off dude who is married and happy, until he meets Bette Davis. She used to be a celebrated actress but is now a washed up drunk. But Tone always liked her because it was her performance who inspired him to become who he is. So he takes it upon himself to sober her up and “save” her. He falls in love with her and wants to marry her, ending his marriage to do so. But she says no (since she’s secretly married), and goes to ask her husband for a divorce. It doesn’t go well, and things kind of spiral from there. And it ends, as Bette Davis movies usually do, with her sacrificing herself to do the right thing.
It’s Bette Davis doing her Bette Davis thing. Not my favorite performance of hers. I say she won because of all the acclaim from Of Human Bondage. People cried so foul when she wasn’t nominated (and practically gave her the award anyway) that they were gonna vote for her no matter what this year. I’d put her middle of the pack here. It’s fine, but not something I’d vote for.
Alice Adams is a film that I fell completely in love with when I saw it. George Stevens directed it. His films have a habit of doing that.
Katharine Hepburn is the daughter of a middle class family who meets and falls in love with a rich man. And that’s pretty much it. It’s hard to discuss the film on a plot basis, because it’s so simple. It feels like half the film is her inviting the rich guy over for dinner and trying to make it so the family comes off as classy and sophisticated, even though they’re just regular people.
Hepburn is just wonderful in this movie. This is better than the Morning Glory performance and, honestly, it’s the best performance in this category too. Even Bette Davis said Hepburn deserved to win.
Becky Sharp is the first all-color film. Which counts for something.
It’s a version of Vanity Fair, and is about the rise and fall of a woman who is too shrewd for her own good. She schemes her way to high society and then screws it all up.
Miriam Hopkins plays Becky Sharp, and the character is basically a huge bitch. That’s a gross oversimplification. Scarlett O’Hara is the same way. But at least there, she got more screen time to enhance the characterization. Here, not so much. But Hopkins is good. I do like the performance. I feel like today it might come off a bit too shrill and too one-note, but I definitely would put this top three or four in the category, even though I wouldn’t vote for her at all.
The Dark Angel is a melodrama about a trio of friends, two guys and a girl. You can guess where it goes from there.
The three have been friends since childhood, and the two men are in love with the girl, and she has a crush on only one of them and has to choose between the two. She chooses the one she had the crush on and they plan to marry. And through circumstances, one goes missing, she ends up with the other one, it’s a whole deal.
The film is pretty good, and mostly acts as a vehicle for Oberon. The men are fine, but it’s her role the film revolves around. She’s okay. I can see why they nominated her, but wouldn’t put her any higher than fourth here, maybe fifth.
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The Reconsideration: If you see all six of these films — and that’s a relatively big if considering the year and the films — I find it hard to believe that nine out of ten people wouldn’t take Katharine Hepburn in this category. She’s just so lovely and wonderful in Alice Adams, she becomes just about everyone’s choice. She’s mine easily.
I tried to think of who else I could take — I love Becky Sharp and Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, but she’s just playing bitch face over and over. There’s nothing else to it. Bette Davis is doing the same thing she did in Of Human Bondage, which wasn’t my cup of tea the year before this. Oberon just looks good and does a good job for the nomination but not for the win. Colbert is solid, but I don’t love the performance, though some might. That’s fair. And Bergner, I think is wonderful because she doesn’t fit with the other perofrmances of the era. But she’s not Katharine Hepburn.
It’s Hepburn for my by a mile, and were she not here, Bergner would be the choice. But she is here.
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- Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams
- Elisabeth Bergner, Escape Me Never
- Miriam Hopkins, Becky Sharp
- Bette Davis, Dangerous
- Merle Oberon, The Dark Angel
- Claudette Colbert, Private Worlds
- Alice Adams
- Becky Sharp
- Escape Me Never
- Private Worlds
- The Dark Angel
My Vote: Katharine Hepburn, Alice Adams
Alice Adams is incredible. George Stevens seemingly never made a bad movie. This is so awesome, and Katharine Hepburn is sublime in it. Essential for people into 30s movies or into Katharine Hepburn. Highly recommended for everyone else.
Becky Sharp is an essential film for film students and those really into film history. It’s the first all-color film ever made. (Feature film.) For that alone, it must be seen. Otherwise it’s just okay. Looks great, color wise, but other than that, just a pretty good film. I wouldn’t recommend it that much if it weren’t in color.
Escape Me Never is only worth it for Elisabeth Bergner’s performance. Her performance is totally unlike those of this era. The film is whatever, but the performance is great. That’s what I recommend.
Dangerous is very ehh. If you love these types of Bette Davis movies, go for it. Only essential because she won. So Oscar buffs and Bette Davis fans. All others are fine without it.
Private Worlds is solid. Moderate recommend for those into 30s movies.
The Dark Angel is fair. An average to good 30s melodrama. Light recommend for people who think it sounds interesting.
The Last Word: I’ve always looked at this as a compromise year. Bette Davis was the lightning hot “upset” loser the year before this, so she went back and played basically the same performance and won the Oscar this year. Not the worst, but also something that’s clearly for reasons other than pure performance.
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Irene Dunne, Theodora Goes Wild
Gladys George, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie
Carole Lombard, My Man Godfrey
Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet
Theodora Goes Wild is a really great idea for a romantic comedy, and I’m somewhat surprised they never remade this in the 80s and 90s, the heyday of the rom com.
Irene Dunne is a Sunday school teacher who secretly writes romantic fiction under a pen name. So you have her church, who is outraged over this scandalous bestseller, and she’s secretly the author of it. And she quietly goes to New York to meet with her publisher and encounters Melvyn Douglas, who is attracted to her. So he follows her back to her town and discovers she’s living two lives. And of course comedy and romance ensue.
Dunne is really good here. It’s a comic performance, and I can definitely see wanting to take her here. Only problem for me — there’s a better comic performance in the category. Which all but eliminates her right there.
Valiant Is the Word for Carrie is a film where, when I tell you the logline, you’ll understand exactly why it was nominated in this category. A quintessential “Oscar” film.
A prostitute befriends a young boy whose mother is dying. The town disapproves of her and she gets run out of town. She takes the boy and a girl (who shows up through a train crash — it’s plot contrivance thing) to the city with her and they start a chain of laundromats and become rich. Then there’s this whole thing about the boy, who the girl is in love with, but he feels responsible for another woman, because he thinks he’s responsible for her brother’s death, and she’s using him for his money — it’s a whole thing. And of course in the end the prostitute sacrifices herself for the boy and girl’s happiness.
I did like the film when I saw it, but it’s been years. George is solid in the part, but I don’t know if she ends up higher than fourth for me in this category. Maybe third on pure performance, but probably fourth for the vote.
My Man Godfrey is one of the great comedies of all time.
William Powell is a homeless man found in the city dump by a rich family looking for a “forgotten man” so they can win a scavenger hunt. He’s insulted, naturally, but when he sees how annoying one of the sisters is, and how likable the other one is in her innocence, he agrees to help the second one just to stick it to the first one. And the girl ends up taking a liking to him and basically getting the family to hire him as their butler. And much of the film is him navigating this crazy family, as we also slowly find out more about him and also see the sister fall in love with him.
Carole Lombard plays the sister who falls in love with Godfrey. She’s flighty and manic, but wonderful. It’s one of the great comic performances of Lombard’s career, and she had quite a few of those. She’s fantastic here, and if you’re gonna take a comic performance in this category, this is the one to take. Most people would probably have her top two here, and it’ll all come down to whether or not you take her over Luise Rainer.
The Great Ziegfeld is a biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, who you may have heard from for his Follies.
William Powell plays Ziegfield, and we follow him over three hours as he goes from carnival barker to renowned showman.
Luise Rainer plays his first wife. She’s a French star he falls for and woos. He makes her part of the show, until she realizes that he cares more about the theater than about her. And they end up divorcing. Her big scene is the one where she finds out he’s gotten remarried, and she has this telephone call to him where she pretends to be happy for him, even though she’s really crying and devastated. That’s the scene that won her the Oscar.
She’s better than you’d think in this movie. Most people would dismiss her as a one scene wonder, but when you watch the performance, she’s actually quite good. And in this category, she rates top two. Whether or not you take her over Carole Lombard, that’s something you need to decide. But don’t discount the performance because it’s thought of as one that won because of a specific scene (or because you like Lombard so much you want to make her seem better by discrediting Rainer).
Romeo and Juliet is something I don’t really need to tell you about.
Norma Shearer plays Juliet. You may have heard of this character.
She’s fine. I can never bring it upon myself to actually vote for a Shakespeare performance unless I absolutely have to. And here, I don’t have to. Shearer maybe makes third or more likely fourth for the performance, and she’s fifth for the vote. Can’t take Shakespeare. This is a very straightforward performance in a solid film. Not for me.
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The Reconsideration: It’s funny, looking at the two categories where Luise Rainer won. I can see how she won both, even if she wouldn’t automatically be the choice for anyone at first glance.
This one — I don’t take Shearer. Juliet is such a snooze of a role this far into the Oscars. Gladys George is good, but I don’t take her over anyone else. So she’s out.
Between the two comedic performances, I take Lombard over Dunne, so Dunne is out.
It’s between Lombard and Rainer. Lombard is utterly delightful. Rainer has her one big “Oscar” scene and not a whole lot else going on. It’s a tough call.
Honestly, I love Carole Lombard in this movie so much I’m just gonna take her. I think that’s my preference. Nothing against Rainer winning at all though.
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- Carole Lombard, My Man Godfrey
- Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld
- Irene Dunne, Theodora Goes Wild
- Gladys George, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie
- Norma Shearer, Romeo and Juliet
- My Man Godfrey
- The Great Ziegfeld
- Theodora Goes Wild
- Romeo and Juliet
- Valiant Is the Word for Carrie
My Vote: Carole Lombard, My Man Godfrey
My Man Godfrey is an all-time comedy and an essential film for all film buffs. Must be seen. It’s hilarious. Definite all-time essential.
The Great Ziegfeld is essential as a Best Picture winner and as a 30s movie. Second tier essential. It’s a big classy film with a lot of actors generally liked by all. Definitely worth seeing, and a very good movie at that.
Romeo and Juliet is what it is. You know the story, so it comes down to how much you want to watch a classy 30s version with the biggest stars of 1936.
Theodora Goes Wild is an amusing 30s romantic comedy. I recommend it. Not essential, but fun.
Valiant Is the Word for Carrie is fine. Not overly memorable outside of the title. Very light recommend if it sounds interesting to you.
The Last Word: Rainer isn’t a bad winner. I think this performance makes more sense than the one the year after this. Lombard is the most enduring actress on this list and her film and performance are the most loved and remembered. Would she have been a better winner? Who knows. But I enjoy it so much that I took her. I imagine those two would be the likely choices here for most.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)