The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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.
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Irene Dunne, Love Affair
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
Dark Victory is a Bette Davis melodrama. You’re gonna be seeing a lot of these for the next few years. Specifically the next six.
Because, fun fact, Bette Davis was nominated five out of six years, from 1938-1944. And, an even more interesting fact: between 1938 and 1945, not a single year passed where neither Bette Davis nor Greer Garson were nominated. And four times, they were both nominated. This is the first of those four times. So expect a lot of Davis and Garson for the next few days.
This movie is about Bette as a socialite who gets diagnosed with a brain tumor and months to live. Those around her decide to let her die with dignity, so they don’t tell her she’s dying. And she starts fucking her doctor, as one does. But then she ends up fucking Bogart, who plays a romantic co-lead for possibly the first time ever. And it’s a real different change of pace for him. But yeah, dying heiress. You know the drill how this is gonna turn out.
This is one of the Bette Davis movies where I actually really like her performance. If she gave this in 1938, I might vote for her. Here, not a chance. But at least she’s starting to trend away from “bitch” performances and into complicated women who go through tragedy with dignity. (She’ll do that a couple more times coming up, and I tend to like it each time.) Still, no chance here. That’ll be a recurring theme in this category.
Love Affair is a movie that’s been remade a couple of times, and is very well known. The famous version is An Affair to Remember.
Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer meet on an ocean liner. They fall in love, even though they’re both engaged to other people. They agree to meet in six months at the Empire State Building. Only, when the date arrives, through chance, one of them doesn’t make it. And the rest of the film is about overcoming adversity and maybe finding love. It’s actually a really great film.
Irene Dunne — this isn’t my favorite of her nominated performances, but it may be her best. Which, of course it had to come in this year, where she really stood no chance at winning. She probably ends up fifth for me on performance and fourth for a vote, owing to Bette’s two wins already. Either way, not happening.
Ninotchka is one of the great all-time comedies.
Three Russian emissaries are tempted to stay in Paris and leave the Soviet Union. Because fuck yeah. They send Ninotchka to get them back. She’s the ultimate Russian — does not laugh, does not smile, only about business. They ask her what she wants to see in Paris, she says she wants to see the mainframe structure of the sewers and transportation systems. Because she wants to see how best to utilize what they have in Russia and how theirs stacks up to her home. And she meets Melvyn Douglas and slowly he warms that cold, cold heart. It’s a nearly perfect film. So great.
And we are now three for three on “this is the best nominated performance of (said actress) but there is no chance I will vote for her.” Because Greta Garbo is awesome here. And if I were gonna vote for her for anything, it would be for this. But I cannot do it because she stands no chance in this category up against Scarlett O’Hara.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a film I wanted to hate on principle when I saw it because Robert Donat won Best Actor for it over both Clark Gable for Gone With the Wind and Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But you know what — he’s very good, as is the film. This year is called the Golden Year for a reason.
It’s a film about a teacher. It spans 50 years. we begin with him as a new teacher, getting his feet under him, and we end with him retired, dying and the most popular, beloved teacher at the school. And we see his life throughout the years. It’s great.
Greer Garson plays the love of his life. He meets her while mountain climbing and falls for her. She’s younger, but neither really care. She’s lively, she’s energetic, she’s seemingly everything he is not. And they have a storybook romance… until she dies in childbirth.
Garson burns so bright in this film that the idea of her dying in childbirth and not coming back to the film actually does leave you suspended in the air, feeling the descent back down to earth. It hangs heavy on your emotions. She’s really good in this movie.
Problem is — I’m not sure if she qualifies as lead or supporting. She’s kind of a supporting performance here. So that’s troubling. Fortunately that’s only a side debate, because she never had a chance at this anyway. So the argument of lead/supporting doesn’t really matter all that much.
Gone With the Wind is a movie you should know about. Don’t think I need to get into it.
Vivien Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara, one of the single most famous characters in the history of cinema. And this is one of the single most clear-cut choices for Best Actress there has ever been. It’s impossible not to take her here. Taking someone else would be to admit that Leigh is best (or at the very least, equally worthy of a win) but you prefer someone else. Which is always acceptable as long as you’re honest about why you’re doing it.
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The Reconsideration: It’s Vivien Leigh. I don’t have to say anything else here. There’s never anything to reconsider about this category.
Logistics, though — I actually put Garson second on performance, even though she’s probably a supporting role. I’ll take Dunne third and Garbo fourth, even though I enjoyed Garbo’s performance more. And Davis is fifth, but she’s one of the strongest fifths there’s ever been.
Oh, and have I mentioned how good Vivien Leigh is yet?
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- Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
- Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Irene Dunne, Love Affair
- Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
- Bette Davis, Dark Victory
- Gone With the Wind
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Love Affair
- Dark Victory
My Vote: Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind is one of the ten most essential films of all time. It just is. It’s so important for film and film history. Everyone knows they need to see this.
Ninotchka is an essential comedies. One of the great comedies and romantic comedies of all time. If you love movies, there’s no reason to not see this.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is second tier essential, but should be seen. Essential for Oscar buffs and essential for people who love great movies. It’s incredible.
Love Affair is one of the most famous romance films of all time and is an essential film for movie buffs. Not Gone With the Wind level, maybe not even Ninotchka level, but you should see this because it’s great and it’s a classic.
Dark Victory is a strong Bette Davis melodrama. Not essential, and could be skipped, but I think it’s one of the better ones and should be seen. I recommend it strongly. Plus you get to see Bogart as a romantic… not lead, but supporting part. Which is interesting. It’s a solid film and one you should check out.
The Last Word: This is one of the five best decisions of all time. No one can argue that Vivien Leigh didn’t deserve this. She’s the only choice.
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Bette Davis, The Letter
Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
Martha Scott, Our Town
The Letter is the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman.
I hate that I spoil the movie every time I say that, but… she does.
This is a remake of the Jeanne Eagels 1929 version. Bette has a lover, kills him. She says it was in self-defense. It seems weird, since he’s a respected member of the community, but there’s nothing to refute her story… except a letter that allegedly confirms an affair between the two. Davis does just about everything she can to make sure that letter doesn’t see the light of day.
This is one of those classic Bette Davis “bitch” performances. (See: All About Eve, The Little Foxes.) She’s good in this, but for me, in this category… fourth. It’s fine, but I’ve seen her be better (and, even though it’s not factoring into my decision, I will see her be better.)
Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock’s first American movie.
Joan Fontaine plays a naive young girl who meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier, recently widowed. They quickly run off and get married and return to his estate. There, she realizes the ghost of his ex-wife hangs over the place, and it threatens to overcome her if she doesn’t learn to stand up for herself. Which she eventually does. And at that point, she starts to wonder just what happened to the ex-wife, and the circumstances surrounding her death…
Fontaine is very, very good here. Of her three nominations, this is the best performance by far. And this is the one I feel she should have won for. She definitely rates top two for me, and the only question is whether or not I take her over Ginger Rogers.
The Philadelphia Story is an all-time comedy.
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn divorce. It’s messy. A year later, she’s gonna marry another guy. A magazine wants to cover the whole thing, so they enlist Grant to bring the reporters to the wedding. He does, and hilarity ensues.
Hepburn is awesome in this movie, and I can see wanting to take her. Not sure I do, but she rates top three at worst here, because she’s so goddamn likable here. We’ll see where it ends up.
Kitty Foyle is Ginger Rogers going dramatic.
She plays a saleswoman who has to decide which of two men to run off with. One is a doctor, the other is a married man she’s loved for years. And we flash back to her life as she makes this decision.
This movie… yeah. I want to love this movie. I think it’s good, but not great. And the same goes for Ginger’s performance. I love her as an actress and I want her to have an Oscar. I think the performance is fair. I think she’s perfectly good and acquits herself well. If she weren’t nominated, I wouldn’t have cried foul at all. The thing with her is, I want to take her because she’s Ginger Rogers. But if I’m being perfectly honest, she’s second for me in performance. Maybe even third, if I really went and compared her closely to Hepburn. But I can tell myself she’s worth taking over Hepburn. I don’t know if I can say the same about Joan Fontaine.
Our Town is something I knew because I knew the play, but I really didn’t know the movie until I saw it for this Quest. And man, did I really like it.
The film is pretty much about a small town. It’s laid back, and we watch all the people in the town interact. It’s very much a series of vignettes.
Martha Scott plays the daughter of the main family. We see her as a teenager and then as she grows up and gets married. And then, in the third act, we find out she died in childbirth. And we follow her spirit as she returns to relive a day of her childhood, realizing we should cherish every day.
It’s a very affecting performance, and that third act is the reason for the nomination. However, the film ends differently than the play does. In the play, she goes to the cemetery and remains dead. In the film, they reveal it was all a dream and she wakes up happily to continue her life. The performance is undercut by the change. If she really were dead, it would lend more emotional impact. But still, I get the nomination, and I think she did a great job. I’d still put her fifth though. I don’t think she stands any real shot at getting a vote here.
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The Reconsideration: I want to take Ginger Rogers, I really do. I root for her to win this, and I’m glad she did. But Joan Fontaine gives the best performance in the category. She’s the vote. She has to be the vote. I’m happy with how it turned out (even though it meant Fontaine would win a makeup Oscar the year after this), but I have to vote for what is truly the best performance. Which, here, is Joan Fontaine.
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- Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
- Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle
- Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story
- Bette Davis, The Letter
- Martha Scott, Our Town
- The Philadelphia Story
- Kitty Foyle
- Our Town
- The Letter
My Vote: Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
The Philadelphia Story is an all-time movie. Every film buff must see this. It’s IMDB entry level stuff.
Rebecca is also essential, and is also one you’ll get to pretty fast (because of IMDB). Which is good.
Kitty Foyle is really only relevant because Ginger won for it. Without that, it would be another forgotten drama she made, like Bachelor Mother. Good, though. A solid recommend, but only essential for Oscar buffs.
Our Town is awesome, but not essential. Good as a case study for Hollywood changing a play to fit how they do things. Overall a really good movie that I recommend pretty solidly.
The Letter — who doesn’t want to see Bette Davis get shanked by a Chinese woman? (Oh, and I guess it’s also really good and it’s William Wyler and all that stuff. But seriously — shank shank.)
The Last Word: Very happy to see Ginger Rogers have an Oscar. All things considered, it holds up fine from a logistical standpoint. Bette had two and would be better after this three times over. This didn’t need to happen. Martha Scott is a filler nominee and would have been a horrible winner. Hepburn had two and would win another two later. And, for my money, she’d deliver better performances later too. And Fontaine would win one the year after this. Sure, for a lesser performance, but still. All four have Oscars and it all works out. That said, from a performance standpoint, she doesn’t really hold up as a winner. Fontaine was better, and some would argue that even Hepburn and Davis were better. But she’s Ginger Rogers, and we love Ginger Rogers. So, on some level, this is a fair decision. Even though this is one of the weaker winners on a performance level that there’s been. (But it’s Best Actress. How many times are we gonna say that over the next 75 years?)
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)