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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1937-1938)

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.

1937

Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth

Greta Garbo, Camille

Janet Gaynor, A Star Is Born

Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

Analysis:

The Awful Truth is one of the great comedies.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are married. They both return home one day and there are some questions about where they’ve been. He says he was at a conference for a week, and comes back heavily tanned, as if he were on a beach the whole time. She comes back from what she says was a friend’s house and it turns out she was with her tennis instructor. Suspicions lead to divorce. The rest of the film is them messing with each other’s attempts at dating and an eventual reconciliation. It’s hilarious.

Dunne is awesome here. This is her most memorable nominated performance. If she deserved to win for anything, it was for this. She’s hilarious here. The third act, where she pretends to be Grant’s sister and screws up his attempts to bag a socialite, is hysterical. Definitely top two in this category, which is surprisingly pretty strong all around.

Camille is a Greta Garbo romance. She’s a lower class girl who becomes a high society woman. She is a prostitute of sorts, her income being paid by one man. But then she falls in love with another man. Their love requires her to give up her money and him his social status. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.

Garbo is a limited actress in the way most stars who speak English as a second language are. I say the same thing about Penelope Cruz, and even to an extent Marion Cotillard. I find them much more compelling when they are speaking their native language than when they’re speaking English. And that’s how I find Garbo. She’s good here, but I just saw the same thing I always see out of her in her performances, which isn’t enough for me to vote for. It’s not that the performance isn’t worth voting for, it’s that I don’t see that thing in it that makes me want to.

A Star Is Born is the original version of the classic story. Technically What Price Hollywood was the first version, but this was the first one that people remember.

Janet Gaynor plays a small town girl named Esther Blodgett who comes to Hollywood to be a star. She lives in a boarding house getting tiny parts until one day she meets Norman Maine, an alcoholic movie star who was once the biggest actor in town but is now fading into obscurity and more known for his drunken scenes than his acting. They fall in love, and as her star rises, his continues to fall.

It’s a great film. Janet Gaynor is one of those actresses who is just so lovable on screen you can’t help but root for her. This is one of those situations where, I’m sure if I were in 1937, I’d be head over heels in love with this film and want to vote for Janet Gaynor on that alone. But because it’s not, I can really only go by how my brain works at this moment in time. Which is — I think she’s great here, even though objectively I see how the role can be somewhat limited and how there’s not really a whole lot for her to accomplish except to be likable and play opposite Fredric March, who gets all the showy scenes. I would probably rank her second for a vote because of my love for the film and performance, but I don’t know if I’d put her higher than third in terms of pure performance. All that is adding up to — I’m probably not going to vote for her.

The Good Earth is one of those books you read in middle school. Or at least, it was for me. And having read the book before I saw the movie, I completely get why Luise Rainer won for this. O-Lan is one of the great literary female characters.

The movie is about Chinese peasants, specifically a man and his wife. The man believes land is the only thing that matters and works tirelessly his entire life to keep and buy more of it. And we follow him and his wife over time, through prosperity and difficulty.

Luise Rainer plays O-Lan, the wife. She proves to be a sturdy, dependable woman. The kind who goes and gives birth out in the rice paddy without a sound and comes back an hour later with the baby and gets back to work. She’s hard working and practical. It’s a great role.

Luise Rainer does a good job with it, but we bump up against a fundamental problem with me and a role like this — this is a white woman playing Asian. I can’t support that. So as good as Rainer is in this role, I still can’t vote for her on principle. Plus, on pure performance, maybe she makes fourth for me. I don’t love it. I think it’s a capable and solid performance, but there’s nothing there that makes me want to vote for it.

Stella Dallas is a really solid melodrama. Not the same story as Stella Maris, the Mary Pickford film. For those wondering.

Barbara Stanwyck is an ambitious woman who manages to charm a businessman at just the right moment in his life, and he marries her. They have a child, and Stanwyck pretty quickly gives all of her love and attention to the child. Rather than try to advance herself in society, she tries to make it so her daughter can advance. And she overdoes it in just about every way.

It’s one of those movies where she gets to play a lot of emotions and sacrifice her happiness for her daughter’s in the end. I get why they nominated her. This is Stanwyck’s weakest nominated performance but is a very solid performance for 1937. I’d say she’s fifth on pure performance and fourth on charm for me. Wouldn’t take her, but the nomination is solid.

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The Reconsideration: Strong category with the potential to have been way stronger if certain un-nominated performances made it on. I won’t get into those now, since that’s not why we’re here, but there were quite a few alternatives that could have made it on and been just as strong if not stronger than these nominees.

As for the category as is — Garbo is an easy fifth for me. Stanwyck is an easy fourth, though I’d take her over Luise Rainer, since I don’t support the “whites playing asians” thing. Irene Dunne is hilarious and definitely could be taken. And Janet Gaynor has the film I like the best even if the performance is just very good.

There’s a fundamental problem for me in this one. The winner I refuse to vote for on principle because of white playing non white thing. Garbo I’d never take because I don’t much care for the performance. Stanwyck is solid, but I don’t like the performance enough to vote for it.

So by default, that leaves me with Janet Gaynor, who I love and whose film I love, and Irene Dunner, whose film I love and whose performance is just very good.

But you know, as much as I love the Gaynor performance, I know it’s not “I need to vote for this right now” good, it’s just “I love it so much I want to take it” good. And Dunne is so great, specifically in the last third of The Awful Truth — I’ll take Dunne this time.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Janet Gaynor, A Star Is Born
  2. Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth
  3. Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
  4. Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas
  5. Greta Garbo, Camille

Rankings (films):

  1. The Awful Truth
  2. A Star Is Born
  3. Stella Dallas
  4. The Good Earth
  5. Camille

My Vote: Irene Dunne, The Awful Truth

Recommendations:

The Awful Truth is an all-time comedy and essential for movie buffs. You won’t be disappointed.

A Star Is Born is an essential film, and I think it’s the best version they’ve made thus far. Most would go for the Judy Garland version, and that’s fine, but I think you should see this version as well.

Stella Dallas is a great melodrama and a solid 30s movie at that. Highly recommended but not essential.

The Good Earth is not essential but recommended strongly. It’s the only film version of a classic novel and a very good film at that, even if it’s not as complex and good as the novel itself. Still a solid film, and I think you should see it as a movie buff just to at least be somewhat knowledgable about the book.

Camille — ehh. It’s La Dame aux Camelias. I don’t care for the film all that much and don’t really recommend it. If you love Garbo, go for it. Otherwise, not something I like that much.

The Last Word: Rainer doesn’t really hold up particularly well, nor would any of the alternatives. Had Stanwyck won, well great, Stanwyck has an Oscar but for a lesser performance of hers. Gaynor wins, she has two, the performance is partially weak, but it’s understandable because the film is a classic, so it’s understandable. Garbo wins — Garbo has an Oscar, and for a film that’s the weakest in the category. Dunne — actually would have been the strongest choice all around, it seems. I mean, sure, Rainer is strong on paper, given the character, but Dunne’s film is the most well known, the most loved, and she’s an actress who never won an Oscar despite numerous nominations. Would have checked all the boxes. Especially in a year that’s strong but not wholly memorable, performance-wise.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1938

Fay Bainter, White Banners

Bette Davis, Jezebel

Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion

Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette

Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

Analysis:

White Banners is a film that took me a while to find, but when I did, I ended up really, really liking it.

Claude Rains is a science teacher/inventor and Fay Bainter is a homeless woman who comes to his door, offering to work for him for room and board. Rains is barely making ends meet as it is, with a daughter and a new baby, and Bainter ends up being very helpful and finding ways to keep the family afloat. Meanwhile Rains tutors Jackie Cooper, the son of a rich man. So he’s spoiled and such. And Rains does his best to keep the kid on the straight and narrow. He sees that he’s a smart boy but isn’t focused. So he gets him to help with his inventions.

Bainter has a role that’s much more than it seems. At first, she’s the street peddler who begs for some kindness, and turns out to be a smart, capable woman. She helps the family get twice as much out of their budget than they were able to on their own. She’s smart, and provides good advice. Then, we find out — she’s actually Jackie Cooper’s mother. She had him with a traveling salesman and had to give him up for adoption because she wasn’t married. And she’s there to make sure her son is growing up proper and becoming a good man. Of course she ends up having to leave without letting her son know who she is.

Bainter is really, really good in this movie, and I like how they kept a lot of it grounded in the character relationships rather than resorting to crazy situations to move the plot along. She won Supporting Actress this year, but this was by far the better of the two performances and the one that should have won. She rates top two for me here and might end up being the vote in the end.

Jezebel is a film that seems hilarious to me now. If you don’t know context then it’s fine. But for me, it’s so amusing.

The short version is — they were prepping Gone With the Wind at the time, and Bette Davis was an early contender for Scarlett O’Hara, but ultimately they didn’t choose her. So Warners basically said, “Fuck it, we’ll make our own.” It’s based on a play and all that, but clearly you can see that was at least in the early thinking here. And this was kind of like a, “Hey, you didn’t get Scarlett? Well, here’s this movie.”

Bette Davis is a headstrong girl who likes doing what she does. She rides horses and does things women don’t usually do. But she don’t care. She comes into a party in horse riding clothes, covered in dirt, but isn’t ashamed about it. Then one day, there’s a party, and rather than wear the traditional virginal white gown (this is the South), she wears a red gown. This makes her look like a whore and makes people talk about her around town. And then that fucks up her engagement and everything and she’s so headstrong and stubborn she refuses to apologize and fix things. Cut to a year later and her ex-fiancé returns to town, just before an outbreak of Yellow Fever. And naturally Bette ends up sacrificing herself in the end.

She’s fine here. I see this as melodrama that’s over the top and I see Bette Davis doing her usual thing. She’s not a terrible winner, but I wouldn’t vote for her. She’s third at best for me in this one. Arguably I’d take Norma Shearer over her in terms of likability, but in terms of pure performance, Davis is third.

Pygmalion is a movie everybody knows, whether you’ve seen it or not. It’s My Fair Lady without the music. And just the brilliant writing and acting. Pretty good consolation prizes.

Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle, “The Rain in Spain.” All that stuff. Everybody knows this story.

Wendy Hiller plays Eliza, and she’s wonderful in the part. Automatically she’s top two. The part speaks for itself.

Marie Antoinette is a biopic of Marie Antoinette. I mean, that’s really all you need to know.

Norma Shearer plays Marie, and, yeah. She’s good. I liked the film a lot, and I think she’s very solid in it. I wouldn’t take her. It’s much like her as Juliet. Solid, but only marginally interesting for a vote unless you’re absolutely stuck with no one else to take.

Three Comrades is a Frank Borzage film and a nice little romance. The least remembered film in the category, though White Banners also makes a play for that spot as well.

Three German soldiers all fall in love with the same woman. But not in a competitive way. She makes them all grow closer together. And she ends up falling for one of them, but she’s dying. So she ends up marrying one of them and all three care for her just to make her last days as happy as possible. It’s a charming movie about friendship and it’s quite better than I thought it was when I originally watched it.

Sullavan is very good here and I completely support the nomination. Give me another five years and she might work her way into a vote.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This was a perfect time to reward Bette Davis. Totally get it. Wouldn’t vote for her at all, but I get it.

The category shakes out thusly —

Shearer is fifth for me. Another Juliet type nomination. She’s great in it and I love the film, but she doesn’t have a whole lot of heavy lifting to do. Bette is fourth because, while she’s good, I just don’t love these types of performances from her. In the era, they worked. For me, nomination but no vote.

I love Fay Bainter in White Banners, but I get that the performance is more sentimental than great. But I do think she’s fantastic and almost do vote for her here.

Margaret Sullavan went from a forgettable fifth to a solid second for me in five years. I wonder what another five is gonna do. She almost became the vote here due to the major contenders falling away.

But still, I love Pgymalion and I think Wendy Hiller was outstanding as Eliza, so she remains my vote. It would take a lot for me to not take her here. Bette Davis was always gonna win this, so the vote really wouldn’t matter, but I still love Wendy Hiller in this movie and I have to take her.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion
  2. Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades
  3. Fay Bainter, White Banners
  4. Bette Davis, Jezebel
  5. Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette

Rankings (films):

  1. Pygmalion
  2. Marie Antoinette
  3. White Banners
  4. Jezebel
  5. Three Comrades

My Vote: Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion

Recommendations:

Pygmalion is an essential film. My Fair Lady is the one everyone sees, but I deem this one essential because this is the play in its purest form. And everyone needs to see this to appreciate the writing and the story itself. Plus the acting of Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. They’re incredible here.

Marie Antoinette is an awesome movie that I love. But maybe not everyone else will. (I also love the Sofia Coppola version. To put all cards on the table.) It’s not essential, but it is very good. I recommend it highly, but it can be skipped should you really not want to see it for whatever reason.

Jezebel is essential for Oscar buffs, and it’s a pretty good film. I’ll call it a solid recommend. Very representative of star-driven studio melodrama of the late 30s. Probably third tier essential, maybe second. Should be seen by serious film buffs. But not immediately. Just eventually.

White Banners is a great film. Might be too sentimental for some, but I love it. I think it’s great. Highly recommended for people who love movies.

Three Comrades is a solid film. I like it a lot. Recommended, but not essential at all. But if you like Borzage in silents, you’ll probably like him here too.

The Last Word: Bette holds up okay. Not great, but okay. Did she need two? Maybe. Did she win for the right two? That’s debatable. But she has two, so that’s that. Shearer wouldn’t have held up, nor would Bainter have. She won Supporting this year anyway (which looks good because of the double nomination, but not great because she has nothing to do in the film she won for). Sullavan might have been a solid choice, but I need more time to formulate a conclusion there. I think Hiller would have been a wonderful choice, but I’m not sure if she holds up any better or worse than Bette Davis has. So either one seems fine, with a dark horse Margaret Sullavan potentially also being a decent winner.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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