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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1943-1944)

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.

1943

Jean Arthur, The More the Merrier

Ingrid Bergman, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph

Greer Garson, Madame Curie

Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette

Analysis:

The More the Merrier is one of the great, great all time comedies.

Charles Coburn is a millionaire coming to stay in a hotel. Only his room isn’t ready and won’t be for a couple of days. So he rents out a room with Jean Arthur, who puts half her apartment up for rent due to the housing shortage during the war. Coburn moves in and quickly rents out half of his half of the apartment to Joel McCrea, a soldier, who he tries to set up with Arthur. It’s so good.

Arthur is great here. I love her in everything, and especially in this. She does the comic stuff great, and she’s really affecting in the emotional scenes as well. I’d want to vote for her, and almost can make a case for taking her, but unfortunately she always seems to lose out in the end to the other two big performances in the category.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a big classy adaptation of the Hemingway novel. Nominated for all the Oscars and all that stuff.

It’s about a bunch of revolutionaries in the Spanish Civil War trying to blow up a bridge.

Ingrid Bergman plays one of the revolutionaries. She’s playing Spanish here, which… not the best, especially given the accent. Her parents were gang raped and killed, and now she wants to fuck Gary Cooper.

It’s a nice performance. She’s really good here, and objectively, she’s probably what I consider the second best performance in the category. That said, she wasn’t nominated for Casablanca, which is admittedly not an all-around better piece of work than this performance, but is a more memorable and more iconic performance. Might have been better for her to have been nominated for that. But, she wasn’t, so we’re gonna use this performance in the end. Which may or may not hurt her in the end. This is the same thing we ran into with Greer Garson in 1942. Being nominated for the wrong performance can be a crutch or just be another reason to take someone. We’ll see.

The Constant Nymph is a film that I remember seeing and really not liking all that much.

Joan Fontaine starts as a teenager (in one of the more awkward openings on this Quest. She does not play sixteen well at all) who has a major crush on Charles Boyer. He’s a famous composer. He has no idea, and falls in love with he cousin. They marry, but it doesn’t go well, particularly because of the amount of time he’s spending with her, as she seems to be a muse of some sorts.

I don’t much care for the movie, and I really don’t much care for Fontaine’s performance. She’s lively at first, and plays it well. I just… am not a fan. Fifth for me, and this would rank pretty low on my list of all time nominees.

Madame Curie is a woman you may have heard of.

Greer Garson plays Curie.

Yeah.

You can see why she was nominated.

Not my favorite of her performances, but solid, as per usual. Pretty uninspiring and ho hum all around. She doesn’t rate higher than fourth for me. Not a chance I take her when she was so much better twice the year before this. Not to mention the other three really good alternatives.

The Song of Bernadette is a biopic of someone no one’s heard of. But I will say, it’s actually a religious film I like. Which doesn’t happen often.

Bernadette is a well-meaning girl who is just not very good at things. She tries to be a good student, but she isn’t. She is what she is. And one day, while playing at the local toxic waste dump (as you do), she sees a vision of the Virgin Mary. She mentions this to people, who either say she’s crazy or flock there to also pray to it. And she keeps going amongst the toxic waste to pray. And then they put her through all this questioning and discover she’s not lying to them. That is, she’s not deliberately making up a story for attention. To her, this happened. So they take her into a convent and make her part of the order, and we follow her along this journey… until her eventual death from radiation poisoning. go figure.

I do actually really like this movie. It’s too long, but it’s very engaging and the acting is top notch.

Jennifer Jones plays Bernadette, and I really fell in love with her character. She’s so pure and innocent that you just want to root for her. And this was her first role. Admittedly she’d become more polished as an actress after this, but in terms of pure emotional impact, it’s hard to beat this one.

To me, this is my favorite performance in the category and the best performance in the category. Jean Arthur comes close to being my favorite, but honestly I think Jones takes it. The only way this category would be in doubt for me is if Ingrid Bergman were nominated for Casablanca. Then maybe we’d have something to talk about. Absence of that, Jones takes this easily for me. And you have to keep in mind — I don’t want to take a performance like this. It’s not in my nature to support a film like this. But great is great.

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The Reconsideration: The key to this category is Ingrid Bergman. Because no one takes Joan Fontaine. She’d won already, and this was a weak film and a weak performance for her. Greer Garson also has no chance here. She won for two stronger performances the year before this and this is just a filler nomination.

Jean Arthur is awesome and is great in The More the Merrier, and some might take her here, and even I might consider it. But that all depends on what we do with Ingrid Bergman.

Ingrid Bergman, were she nominated for Casablanca, I feel stood a much better shot at a win in this category. The For Whom the Bell Tolls performance is objectively stronger, and I’m not arguing that it isn’t. But the Casablanca performance is much more iconic. That makes me want to vote for her more. With just the one, I go, “Yeah, she’s good, but I don’t love it…” and I’m looking for reasons not to take her. And I have two.

Jean Arthur is awesome. Bergman gives a better performance but I like Jean Arthur’s performance more. Plus, there’s Jennifer Jones.

Jennifer Jones is so great in The Song of Bernadette that not having Ingrid Bergman here for Casablanca basically seals the deal for her. It would have been a tight, three way race with the Casablanca performance on here. Now, it’s Jennifer Jones, and then, “Well I like the Arthur performance, and the Begman one is very good, but Jones has both.” So the vote is Jennifer Jones.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
  2. Jean Arthur, The More the Merrier
  3. Ingrid Bergman, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  4. Greer Garson, Madame Curie
  5. Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph

Rankings (films):

  1. The More the Merrier
  2. The Song of Bernadette
  3. Madame Curie
  4. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  5. The Constant Nymph

My Vote: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette

Recommendations:

The More the Merrier is one of the great comedies. I want to say of all time, and it might be one of the great comedies of all time. But at the very worst, it’s one of the great comedies of its era, which still makes it something that should be seen. It’s hilarious. And it won an Oscar, which makes it essential for Oscar buffs. Most film fans would enjoy this movie.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is a famous novel turned into a classy film with big stars. Objectively this sounds pretty essential. I don’t think it necessarily is. I think most casual film buffs would be fine without it. I think serious film buffs should see it just to round out the resume, but otherwise it’s just a solid film that’s worth seeing.

The Song of Bernadette is really only essential for Oscar buffs. There’s no other reason to call it essential outside of that. It’s good. It’s one of the few religion movies I can actually stand, which is saying something (a lot, probably).

Madame Curie is fine. Not great, not terrible. Overall light recommend, but you can skip it. This is a TCM watch if you’re in the middle of a Greer Garson marathon.

The Constant Nymph — I don’t particularly care for. Not something I really can recommend. This one’s on you if you want to see it.

The Last Word: Jennifer Jones was the choice for me, and I think she holds up well. Bergman would win the year after this for, what I feel, is a better performance. Jean Arthur didn’t need to win, and would have fared better winning in the 30s for a performance like this. Fontaine and Garson had Oscars, and them winning for these performances would have looked pretty bad. Jones is the choice, and although the film is dated, the performance looks good.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1944

Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away

Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington

Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington

Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

Analysis:

Gaslight is a movie that’s almost a Hitchcock film, but instead is a psychological drama. Not so much a thriller so much as a drama.

Ingrid Bergman’s aunt, a famous opera singer, gets murdered. So they send Bergman off to go learn opera and keep her away from… you know… the murder house. And she becomes a famous opera singer in her own right. And then she meets and falls in love with Charles Boyer, who convinces her to move back into the murder house. And pretty soon after, weird shit starts to happen. Bergman starts to see and hear things, which Boyer is unable to see. She begins to think she’s losing her mind, and pretty soon she is losing her mind. It’s awesome.

Bergman is great here. Truly great. She wins this in a landslide. When you have For Whom the Bell Tolls and Casablanca and lose for them, and then you deliver this performance? Oh yeah, she wins this in a landslide. Anyone else going through this category is going to have only one alternative choice to Bergman, and while that is a legitimate conversation to be had, I think it’s tough to go against her here.

Since You Went Away is a big, three hour movie about the home front during war.

Claudette Colbert’s husband goes off to war. And at first she’s thinking she’ll just pass the time until he comes home. But then life starts to change. It gets more difficult without a steady income. So she has to take on a boarder, and get a job. And now her daughter is falling in love with a soldier. Etc. Etc.

She plays the strong mother who has to overcome the harsh circumstances of… you know, life during war. It’s Mrs. Miniver, but American. She’s dignified and delivers a great performance, but I don’t know if I take her. It’s solid, and maybe rises to second overall, but I don’t know if there’s enough for me to want to take her for the vote. You can, with complete justification, but I don’t know if I would.

Mr. Skeffington is a movie about Bette Davis and a jew. Kind of.

She’s a spoiled woman who is known for being beautiful. She can get any man she wants. Though the only one she seems to care about is her brother. She finds out her brother stole money from Claude Rains, who has always secretly had a crush on her. To keep him from being prosecuted, she marries Rains. She doesn’t particularly care for him and openly sleeps with other men. She doesn’t even give a shit about her own daughter. And of course in the end her beauty fades and her hubris ruins her, and she realizes she truly does love her husband, because he’s the only one who stuck by her.

I don’t much care for the film, and I think this is a pale imitation of Bette Davis’s better work. Easily fifth for me, and this just feels like Bette being nominated because she’s Bette.

Mrs. Parkington is confusing as shit, especially next to Mr. Skeffington.

Greer Garson is a woman who goes from a housekeeper to a rich guy’s wife. And we follow her from humble beginnings all the way to old age, where she’s dealing with some family shit about giving money to her kids or some such stuff.

It’s — she plays old and young. They like that. And it’s a solid performance as we’re used to getting from her. I like this better than Madame Curie, but I think this is just a decent performance of hers and not something worth taking.

Double Indemnity is a film everyone knows, so that’ll save us some time.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, one of the femme fatales of all time.

It’s certainly an iconic performance. We can argue over the individual acting merits of it all we want, but in terms of being memorable, this is definitely the most memorable performance in the category. Which has to count for something. She definitely makes top three at worst and probably top two. After that it comes down to whether or not you take her.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Knee jerk reaction says to take Barbara Stanwyck. Most people would, especially those starting out. I imagine I did five years ago. But honestly, I go back and watch that movie once every two years or so, and I never saw much of anything in her performance. I don’t think she’s particularly subtle and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of depth there. In terms of a noir and in terms of having a memorable character, check and check. She’s great. But if we’re talking Oscar — I don’t know if I fully see it. And I’m not so blind to the surface value of it all to take her despite that.

Actually looking at pure performance, Bergman and Colbert are better. We can argue about Colbert, but I think she’s better. And then, factoring in all aspects of the performances… I’ll take Stanwyck over Colbert, but I still take Bergman over both of them. I think they made the right choice. It’s not as well remembered as Stanwyck’s performance, but I think it’s markedly better.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
  2. Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity
  3. Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away
  4. Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington
  5. Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington

Rankings (films):

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. Gaslight
  3. Since You Went Away
  4. Mr. Skeffington
  5. Mrs. Parkington

My Vote: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

Recommendations:

Double Indemnity — I mean, do film buffs not know they need to see this? Then let me be the one to tell you… yeah, you need to see this.

Gaslight is an essential film for film buffs. You should see it. Oscar win, a borderline Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock didn’t direct (only a handful of those good enough to have that distinction) and a great film at that. No reason to not see this if you love movies.

Since You Went Away is essential for film buffs, specifically those into film history. This was a big film for 1944, and is a great film on top of that. You should see it if you love movies.

Mr. Skeffington — ehh. It’s okay. Davis and Rains. You can get through it. Moderate recommend. Not essential in the least though. You see it because of the Oscars and because of the actors, that’s really about it. Or if you can’t get enough melodrama.

Mrs. Parkington is even less essential than Mr. Skeffintgon. It’s Garson and Pidgeon again. Which is nice and worth it if you’re into them. And you get Agnes Moorehead too, which is nice. Otherwise just an okay movie that if you want to see, you should, but if not, no one would even know or care that you haven’t seen this.

The Last Word: This is a tough one. I think Stanwyck might have held up. The performance isn’t technically outstanding, but the film and character would have made it hold up. That said, Bergman holds up just fine and wasn’t a bad choice by any stretch. Colbert would have been a solid choice but wouldn’t have held up. Maybe if she didn’t already have one, I could see it as a career/situational win. But as things stand, I’m not sure she’d have looked good over the other two. And Davis and Garson are filler nominees. No way they hold up. Bergman and Stanwyck are the two to take, and either would have (or has, in Bergman’s case) held up just fine.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Ed

    Missing Madame Curie recommendation

    September 5, 2016 at 5:38 pm

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