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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best 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.

1941

Bette Davis, The Little Foxes

Olivia de Havilland, Hold Back the Dawn

Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust

Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire

Analysis:

The Little Foxes is about just how fucked up Bette Davis’ family is.

They’re all well off in the south. Her brothers have money but she’s reliant on her sickly husband, who she hates. She does just about everything she can to be independently wealthy, including scheming to blackmail her own brothers when they commit theft and basically killing her husband. Though in doing so, she drives everyone away from her.

It’s a very, very solid performance by Bette. I don’t love it, but I respect it. It’s good enough that even though I don’t want to take it, it almost makes it to the top.

Hold Back the Dawn is a romance about an immigrant.

Charles Boyer is trying to get into the country. So he tries to find a lonely American woman he can marry. Enter Olivia de Havilland. She’s a schoolteacher and incredibly naive. He starts to woo her, and it goes perfectly. Only he starts to feel guilty because she’s just so goddamn likable. And you can guess how it goes.

de Havilland plays the same type of character she played with Melanie — she’s so pure and lovable that you can’t help but fall in love with her. Admittedly, this is not something I’d really consider for a vote, but she’s so lovely here that I almost want to take her. Between her and her sister, yes, her sister deserved the Oscar before this, but I’d probably take her this year on pure performance alone.

Suspicion is Hitchcock again. A famous plot, but not a particularly well-remembered movie, compared to his other films.

Joan Fontaine meets and falls in love with Cary Grant. They get married. And as soon as they’re married, he starts acting weird. Real suspicious like. She wonders if he’s actually trying to kill her…

If this sounds a lot like that Simpsons episode with Sideshow Bob or any number of cartoons, you’re right. That’s where the plot came from.

Fontaine is fine here. This performance feels a lot like the Rebecca performance, only more uneven. She feels like she’s given much more to overt reactions that spell out everything she’s thinking. I was not the biggest fan of this performance at all. This feels a lot like Jimmy Stewart winning for The Philadelphia Story — clearly the performance she’s winning for came the year before this.

Blossoms in the Dust is a movie that I knew because we analyzed one of the sequences in a film class. But I’d only ever seen that scene before embarking on this Quest. The film was actually way better than I imagined. Especially for something so difficult to find.

Greer Garson plays a woman who loses her child in an accident and decides to start her own orphanage and take in all those children who need homes.

I really loved this movie and thought Greer Garson was magnificent in it. In a category like this, she jumps right to the top, as I respect all of the other performances, but don’t love them.

Ball of Fire is a Howard Hawks film written by Billy Wilder.

Barbara Stanwyck is a showgirl who needs to hide from the police, who are after her mobster boyfriend. She moves in with a group of professors, one of whom is Gary Cooper, who is researching slang. He loves the way she talks and wants to study her. (It’s like Pygmalion in Brooklyn.) She teaches the professors to open up, and they teach her… I don’t know… I guess how to appreciate non-criminals.

Stanwyck is really charming here, and she also had The Lady Eve, so she was a dual threat this year, and the nomination was well, well warranted. (Let’s also not discount Meet John Doe either.) That said, I’m not sure where I rate this.

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The Reconsideration: This one is interesting. This might be the first time I out and out have a winner as my #5.

I think Joan Fontaine is a fine actress and I loved her in Rebecca, but I don’t think her performance here is particularly different or revelatory in any way. I’d actually vote for everyone else over her in this category.

Barbara Stanwyck is awesome in Ball of Fire, but I wouldn’t vote for her. I like her performance, but maybe she makes third for me for a vote. At best.

Bette Davis is tremendous in The Little Foxes, and this is the best of her nominated performances thus far. On pure performance, she might rate second in the category, but I like the remaining two nominees more, so she unfortunately ends up as a solid #3.

Olivia de Havilland is lovely here and I like her and her character a lot. But, Bette Davis delivers a better performance, and also… Greer Garson. So sorry Olivia, you’ll have your shot again next time.

Greer Garson meanwhile — I love her film and I love her performance. I can easily see others putting her as low as fourth, but I think she’s astounding here, and is easily the one I vote for. This is one of those categories where theoretically any of the nominees could be someone’s number one. So I’m not gonna begrudge any decision made. But Greer Garson is my vote.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust
  2. Olivia de Havilland, Hold Back the Dawn
  3. Bette Davis, The Little Foxes
  4. Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire
  5. Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

Rankings (films):

  1. Blossoms in the Dust
  2. Suspicion
  3. Ball of Fire
  4. Hold Back the Dawn
  5. The Little Foxes

My Vote: Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust

Recommendations:

Ball of Fire is a Howard Hawks movie written by Billy Wilder. Do I need to say anything else?

Suspicion is Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, and a Best Actress winner. That cross lists for just about every type of film buff there is. It’s not objectively an essential movie, but is there anyone who wouldn’t see this?

Blossoms in the Dust is a film that I love. Wonderful. Somewhat harder to find, but not the way it used to be. I highly recommend this. It’s not essential at all and will probably never be, but I think everyone should see this because it’s great.

The Little Foxes is William Wyler directing Bette Davis. These are solid 4 star movies and definitely worth seeing. Not all time essential but a film buff solid recommend. Great acting here, and class all around. Most people will find their way to this eventually.

Hold Back the Dawn is the film in this category that holds up the least, but it’s actually okay. de Havilland is lovely here and it’s a decent film. I recommend it as one of those that you should watch if it’s on TCM or if it ever makes it to the top of your Netflix queue.

The Last Word: Fontaine holds up fine as a winner, but I don’t know if she holds up for this particular performance. Greer Garson would win the year after this, so I get her not seeming like a good choice. Bette Davis winning a third for this probably also wouldn’t have been great. Olivia de Havilland would win for better performances after this. And Barbara Stanwyck is awesome here and never won an Oscar, but I don’t know if this is the one. It would have been fun, but I don’t think it would have held up. So, actually, Fontaine seems to be a fair choice, all things considered. Though, here, I feel like this is actually one of those categories where everyone has their own choice. So I think you can legitimately pick any direction you want. As for history, this isn’t the worst choice they could have made, and I don’t know if there was a bad choice to be had in this one.

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1942

Bette Davis, Now, Voyager

Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver

Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year

Rosalind Russell, My Sister Eileen

Teresa Wright, The Pride of the Yankees

Analysis:

Now, Voyager is a beautiful film. One of the all time great romances.

Bette Davis is a spinster and “ugly duckling.” She’s kept under the thumb of her overbearing mother, whose convinced her she’ll never amount to anything or attract a man. She has a nervous breakdown and is sent to a hospital to recover. There, her doctor convinces her that she is worthwhile and she comes out a whole new person, able to stand up to her mother. And the rest of the film is about her going away on a trip and meeting and falling in love with a man. It’s great.

Two things of note: first, this contains one of the most famous lines in all of cinema, “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” And second, when you watch this movie, as most people do around my age, you’ll notice a scene that was blatantly stolen by Titanic. Which is always fun when people go in unexpectedly and notice it.

Bette Davis is great here. One of my favorite performances of hers. Unfortunately, she only rates third here for me. She’s great, but I’d take two other performances over hers. Her having won twice might have a slight bit to do with it, but even so, she still wouldn’t be the choice even if she hadn’t won.

Mrs. Miniver is a film about the middle class during war. That’s pretty much it. It’s a drama that turns into a war film.

That actually about covers it too. I don’t really need to say much more. They’re an average family. We spend a lot of time with their issues — son falls for a rich girl, local rose competition, etc — and then war starts to disrupt that.

Greer Garson plays the titular character, and she… is classy. I mean, there’s not a whole lot to the character. She’s just the matriarch. There’s not so much a defined change in her character as much as her being the strong symbol of endurance for the family.

The thing about this nomination is — she also had Random Harvest this year. And that’s the performance I’d have taken here. Because she’s wonderful there. The Miniver performance, I get it as a winner, but I’m not sure I take just that on its own. That said, do you not vote for someone because they were nominated for the wrong performance? Something we’ll have to decide later. She definitely rates top two though, no matter how you slice it.

Woman of the Year is the first Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie. It’s awesome.

She’s an independent woman and he’s a sports reporter. They fall in love. Conflict comes when he wants her to stop working so much and be home a bit more. That’s pretty much it. There’s more there, but nothing I need to get into for the purposes of this article.

Hepburn is great here. But she’s always great. In terms of her nominated performances, this is middle of the road. Nobody actually votes for this. She’s a fourth choice at best in this one.

My Sister Eileen is Rosalind Russell’s first nomination. They remade this as a musical thirteen years after this.

Russell and her sister move into a shitty apartment in New York. She’s a reporter, her sister is an actress. We watch them try to make it, deal with all the quirky apartment problems women in movies have, and also fall in love. It’s a really good film.

Russell is charming here. Very much the kind of performance you’d expect from her. It’s no Hildy Johnson, but it’s serviceable. I’d rate her fifth here. There were probably better choices for this spot, but she fills it out well.

The Pride of the Yankees is a biopic of Lou Gehrig. You know, the guy with the disease.

It’s a perfect film. It really is. Great biopic, very entertaining, and quite simply one of the most iconic screen moments of all time, even if it is replicating one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

Teresa Wright plays Lou Gehrig’s wife. Which was really what his disease was, am I right fellas?

No shame.

She’s first seen heckling him in the stands, and then they go on a date, and so on and so forth. It’s a perfect Hollywood version of how he would meet his wife. Teresa Wright, as she was in all these early films, is utterly charming in every way. It’s hard not to love her. It was easy for them to not vote for her here because Greer Garson had Mrs. Miniver and Wright was also nominated for Supporting Actress for Miniver. That was a slam dunk for her. But I think she’s absolutely wonderful in this film. Sure, it’s not the most taxing of roles, but man, do I love her in it.

There is the problem of her being a borderline supporting role, but she really carries a lot of the latter stages of the film. She’s wonderful in the real dramatic scenes, and I think she rivals the top actresses in the category for the vote here.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Objectively, it’s kinda hard to not take Greer Garson, who had both Mrs. Miniver and Random Harvest going for her. I’d probably take her for Random Harvest alone. Add a Best Picture winner to the bunch and it’s hard to not take her.

Bette Davis gives one of my favorite performances of hers, but I don’t think I take her over Garson. Not to mention, the two wins hinders her slightly for me. Still, she might give the second best performance in the category.

Hepburn is good, but this isn’t as good as The Philadelphia Story and rates fourth for me. Russell is fifth.

Teresa Wright is the only alternative for me. And I love her a lot. And… hmm. This is tough.

Greer Garson deserved this. Between Random Harvest and Mrs. Miniver, this was all hers. Totally deserved in every way. But, I would want to vote for the Random Harvest performance. So we get ourselves in a situation kind of like 2008. Kate Winslet. Do you take the lock for the wrong performance or take the performance you liked best?

I’m gonna stick with my heart and take Teresa Wright. Greer Garson totally deserved this, but I’m also voting knowing she’s going to win, so I’m basically hedging my bets here, knowing how it’ll turn out.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver
  2. Teresa Wright, The Pride of the Yankees
  3. Bette Davis, Now, Voyager
  4. Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year
  5. Rosalind Russell, My Sister Eileen

Rankings (films):

  1. The Pride of the Yankees
  2. Mrs. Miniver
  3. Now, Voyager
  4. Woman of the Year
  5. My Sister Eileen

My Vote: Teresa Wright, The Pride of the Yankees

Recommendations:

The Pride of the Yankees is an all-time essential. You might not love it, but goddamn if it’s not one of the most iconic sports movies ever made.

Mrs. Miniver is essential for all. Best Picture winner, great film, big part of film history. Film buffs have to see this one.

Now, Voyager is essential. All-time essential. The story, the acting, all great. Must be seen by film buffs.

Woman of the Year is essential because it’s the first Hepburn and Tracy film. This is like seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Thin Man. This is one of the most iconic screen pairings of all time. You have to see this one.

My Sister Eileen is not essential, but it’s fun. I recommend it highly. It’s pretty great. Only psychos who don’t like 40s movies should skip this.

The Last Word: Garson for sure is the best choice here and is the best choice historically. I love Teresa Wright and took her for reasons outside of pure performance. She was fine with just the Supporting win. Bette Davis would have been good on pure performance, but having two already… not sure that was the best choice against Garson’s two performances. Russell never stood a chance and Hepburn had two and had a nice nomination but nothing more there. Garson is the choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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