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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1945-1946)

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.

1945

Ingrid Bergman, The Bells of St. Mary’s

Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

Greer Garson, The Valley of Decision

Jennifer Jones, Love Letters

Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven

Analysis:

The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way. It’s every bit as twee and entertaining as you’d expect.

Bing Crosby is sent to another failing parish. He has to decide whether or not it’s gonna be closed down. And their way of trying to save the place is to convince a businessman to put some money into the place to fix it up.

Ingrid Bergman plays the head nun at the school, who often disagrees with Crosby. So, you know, just like in the first film. Ultimately they’re on the same side, but they don’t like each other’s methods. So they bump heads a lot and eventually come to an understanding.

Bergman is amusing here. She’s always likable, and she shows it here. The scene I always remember is when she brings a boy in who’s been bullied by another student, and rather than be stern she teaches him how to box.

She was nominated because this film was the biggest movie of the year and everyone was gonna get nominated. Personally I’m surprised that the first movie won so many Oscars. The idea of this winning is unfathomable to me. It’s an enjoyable piece of work, but it’s not like there are truly great performances here. She maybe makes third because of how likable she is, but it’s not like she’ll come close to being the vote. Not after two consecutive years of much stronger work than this.

Mildred Pierce is a drama that they decided to make as a noir. Okay.

It’s framed around a murder, but ultimately is a mother-daughter story.

Joan Crawford plays a woman whose real concern is providing a life and a future for her daughters. So much so that it causes her husband to leave her. She eventually starts working in a restaurant and works so hard she eventually starts her own restaurant and even becomes a mogul. Only her daughter, vain and selfish, doesn’t respect her no matter what she does, and looks down on her.

It’s a really great film. Crawford is fantastic in it. If she lost this, I’d have blamed the weird noir framing device. If this were a straight drama, she’d have walked away with this. But even so, she still did, seemingly. I really like the performance. This performance is, to me — it’s like one of those movies… when I rank my year end favorites, there are always a bunch of movies that are very good that I like a lot that I just don’t have the real emotional attachment to where I’d want to put them at the top of my list. Usually they end up in Tier Two. That’s how I feel about this. She’s great, I think she deserved to win, but I don’t jump out and go “I need to vote for this” the way I do with some other nominees. That said, in a category like this, she floats immediately to top two, so she definitely still could and probably will be the vote. But my thoughts on the performance are solid but not spectacular.

The Valley of Decision is Greer Garson’s fifth consecutive nomination, and last nomination until she got the veteran one in 1960. It’s a drama and a romance, but also has some social issues imbedded in there as well.

She’s a maid who falls for the son of the house, who just happens to be Gregory Peck. Peck’s father owns the steel mill. And there are class tensions and obstacles and all that stuff. And eventually there’s a strike between the workers and management, and of course Garson is the only one who can broker the peace.

The film is okay. I don’t love it, but it’s fine. I think Garson is also decent in it. Typical performance out of her. Nothing I love. Some might love this enough to take it. I wouldn’t begrudge that. For me — ehh. Probably a #4. Good, but not close to a vote.

Love Letters is a movie that was written by Ayn Rand.

There were probably better ways to start that, but I feel as though that was the most interesting.

Joseph Cotten is a soldier who has been writing (insert title here) for his douchebag friend so he can woo this woman. The friend then dies under mysterious (read: murder) circumstances. He goes to visit the woman, but finds out she died too. But then he finds out that Jennifer Jones, this amnesiac woman he met, is actually the dead woman. She was found holding the knife that killed the other soldier without any memory of what happened or who she is. It’s like a weird version of a Hitchcock movie, They Knew What They Wanted and Random Harvest. I feel like not many people actually understand that amalgamation, but that’s what it is.

Jennifer Jones is good here. It’s kind of a — I want to say filler nomination, but it’s not. She was very good here if you look at this from a 1945 perspective. Now, most people would view this as a minor achievement that didn’t necessarily need to be nominated. The film and the performance don’t hold up particularly well. She’s fifth here for me. Not her fault at all. She just is. I liked her much better in her previous two nominations.

Leave Her to Heaven is one of the great noirs of all time. One of the few Technicolor noirs. One of the most gorgeously shot films of all time.

Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney meet and fall in love. She leaves her fiancée and marries him. He soon discovers that she’s crazy. Like, real crazy. She gets insanely jealous at anyone who tries spending time with him who isn’t her. She lets his crippled brother drown one day and pretends it was an accident. When she gets pregnant, she makes sure an “accident” happens so that way the baby doesn’t take any attention away from her. And then, after all this, Wilde starts to drift from her and into the arms of her sister…

It’s a great film. I really love it a lot. I also really love Gene Tierney’s performance. She’s someone who was only nominated once, mostly because I feel she was thought of as a beauty with limited range. I’m not sure I completely disagree with that, but I will say, this is some fantastic work by her. I love what she did here. I really rate her highly and always struggle with the decision of her vs. Crawford in this category. I don’t think there’s even a question that it’s between those two.

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The Reconsideration: You know what’s a comparable year to this year? 2014. Julianne Moore wins for a performance that I felt was very good, but didn’t immediately go, “Oh yeah, I’m voting for that.” I think it’s worth voting for, and could and probably would vote for it for many reasons. But the performance itself never gives me the kind of exhilaration that something like, say, Brie Larson’s performance in Room did. Or Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Those I said, “Oh yeah, those are the choices.”

That’s how I feel about Joan Crawford. She’s great and does a wonderful job, but it’s the kind of performance where I feel she’s going to win easily and don’t feel the need to necessarily vote for it if I don’t have to because I’m not emotionally attached to the win on a pure performance level. I like it on an intellectual level. She hadn’t won before, it’s her time, it’ll be a nice moment, and the category’s not so strong that it’ll prevent someone else from winning.

Meanwhile, also in the category — and here’s why the comp feels appropriate — is a performance of someone that’s almost pure evil. And if they’re not pure evil, they do really fucked up things. In 2014 it was Rosamund Pike. Here, it’s Gene Tierney. Both of those performances I go, “Shit, that was awesome.” Do I necessarily think the actresses or the performances themselves are automatically deserving of an Oscar? Not necessarily. But I like them the best. So does that necessitate a vote? I don’t know.

As for the rest of the category — Garson had one already, and has delivered better performances that feel like stronger entries in her categories. Not something I gravitate toward. Double ditto for Jennifer Jones, who had two vote-worthy performances in 1943 (where she won) and 1944 (for Supporting, where she didn’t, but could have. On some Jennifer Lawrence shit), and then got this nomination which is like, “Oh, yeah, great. But no.” (Like Jennifer Lawrence.)

Ingrid Bergman is lovely, but this is more of a laid back, fun performance that seemingly has more to do with the “franchise” she’s in than the actual performance. Plus she’d just won. I don’t see her as being worthwhile.

The real choice is between Joan Crawford and Gene Tierney. I flip flop between who I put 1 and 2, since I think each performance has its merits and drawbacks. Ultimately, I like the Tierney performance more. But Crawford delivers a performance that seems sure to win and is someone I would vote for under the right circumstances.

All that is leading me to what I pretty much know to be the case — because I know that Crawford is winning, and because I like the Tierney performance so much, I’ll take Tierney and hedge my bets. Let Crawford win. She’s deserving. But I’m gonna take my favorite performance more.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
  2. Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven
  3. Ingrid Bergman, The Bells of St. Mary’s
  4. Jennifer Jones, Love Letters
  5. Greer Garson, The Valley of Decision

Rankings (films):

  1. Leave Her to Heaven
  2. Mildred Pierce
  3. The Bells of St. Mary’s
  4. The Valley of Decision
  5. Love Letters

My Vote: Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven

Recommendations:

Mildred Pierce is a solid film. Won Best Actress, great drama/noir, great performances. Close to being essential for film buffs, and I probably would call it essential for film buffs, specifically those into the “film student” aspects of movies. I’d watch this as a study in how close the melodrama and noir genres are to one another, and how easily they can overlap. Otherwise I’d see it because it’s an awesome movie with great performances.

Leave Her to Heaven is a fantastic movie. I say it’s essential. What they do with color in this movie is astounding. If that does nothing for you, then how about this — Martin Scorsese calls this one of his favorite movies of all time and has lectured about how well-made this movie is. Is that something you might be interested in?

The Bells of St. Mary’s isn’t essential. But if you say Going My Way (which you should have, since that’s essential), then why wouldn’t you see this? This is every bit as enjoyable as that is. So unless you hated Going My Way, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to enjoy this one too.

Love Letters — ehh. Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten. It’s fine. I’d say see it if it comes on TCM and you’re around. But otherwise it’s not essential and not something you need to see.

The Valley of Decision is also okay. Gregory Peck and Greer Garson. That’s something. Otherwise it’s just okay. You can skip it. This is one of those TCM movies like Love Letters.

The Last Word: Crawford was a good choice and holds up. Tierney, I’m not sure would have held up. The other three would have looked weak. Crawford is the best choice here, historically.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1946

Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own

Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter

Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun

Rosalind Russell, Sister Kenny

Jane Wyman, The Yearling

Analysis:

To Each His Own is a full stop melodrama.

Olivia de Havilland is the most sought after woman in her small town. She’s not interested in all the men who are interested in her. She instead meets and falls in love with an army guy. They sleep together and he goes off to fight in the war. She gets pregnant. He dies. She can’t raise the child, because, you know… shame. She tries to make it so she “abandons” the child at the door of a family with too many kids. So they, unable to keep it, would allow her to “adopt” the baby as her own. But that doesn’t go well, because it’s a melodrama. So now she’s forced to look over her own son from afar. It’s a solid movie about a woman’s self-sacrifice for her child. When have we seen that before?

This movie has all the elements that get you an Oscar. She almost has an abortion and has to decide to have the baby instead. She has to give up her own child and suffer without anyone knowing the truth for fear of public shaming. And then she becomes rich and provides for her child as best she can while being inwardly unhappy. And then she gets the big moment at the end where she sees her son grown up, finally gets to act as the mother to him she always wanted to be, and then gets the happy resolution where he knows she’s his mother. Oh, and she plays young and old.

This performance has Oscar written all over it. It doesn’t fully hold up today, and might be seen as too on-the-nose and sentimental, but I don’t think so. I think it’s very affecting even now, and easily rises to top two in the category. The only question is whether or not she can overcome the next nominee.

Brief Encounter is one of the most perfect films ever made. There is not a wasted moment in the entire film.

This is a movie about an affair. Celia Johnson is an unhappy housewife who, one day, meets a doctor at the train station. They have coffee, which turns into another meeting, which turns into dates, which turns into love. Though eventually they cannot be together and have to part. It’s beautiful and tragic and guaranteed to make even the people who don’t watch old movies feel moved by it.

Celia Johnson is incredible in this movie. Full stop. She never stood a chance in 1946, but there’s no way anyone watching these films now doesn’t put her in the top two. Gonna be real hard not to take her, and if you see the film (and if you’re reading this, you either have or know you really should), you know why.

My one knock against it is the voiceover, which slightly detracts from the performance. Admittedly, there is a lot of great facial acting while the voiceover is going on, but I feel like it would be a slam dunk choice if we didn’t know what the inner monologue was but could figure it out just by her expression. But that’s just minor quibbling. She’s easily good enough for a vote and like I said, it’s gonna be hard not to take her in this one.

Duel in the Sun is a great movie. On a pure entertainment level, it’s awesome.

Jennifer Jones is half-white, half-Mexican. Her father dies and she goes to stay with another family, where she quickly becomes embroiled with the family’s two sons: Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. Cotten is the stable, but unexciting one, and Peck is the bad boy who’s got the sexual chemistry with her. And man, does it get explosive. Awesome, awesome stuff.

Jennifer Jones is back. Love Letters was kind of a ho hum nomination. This is her going off. She’s really great here. Very fiesty, very brash, very bold. I love the character, and I love her portrayal of it. Not sure it’s a great performance, but it’s a memorable one, and sometimes that counts.

Now… playing Mexican, which is a downgrade, because I cannot stand white actors playing other races. But, I wasn’t gonna take her anyway. I just really like the performance. She was always gonna be a third or fourth choice in this one. Ultimately, I think she drops to fifth because of the brownface aspect and maybe fourth on pure performance.

Sister Kenny is about as Oscar bait as it gets.

It’s about a nurse who helped people fight polio and fought to convince medical boards that her treatment actually worked.

Right, though?

The only more baity thing there would be if she were a nun and had a forbidden dalliance with a soldier who died.

Rosalind Russell plays Sister Kenny. She’s Australian. Which is nice. Otherwise, likable, selfless, strong, all that stuff you want. She hits all the right notes. It all just feels too obvious. There are a handful of these nominations that are so “Oscar” that they just fall flat to me. They feel like they’re painting by numbers rather than creating art. So I’m fine with the nomination, but she really only gets anywhere in the voting for me because I discount Jones for the race reasons. She really doesn’t ever make it past fourth, and is fifth in terms of performance. She’s one of those people I’d want to vote for, but it never seems to work out that I can.

The Yearling is an awesome movie. It’s Bambi meets Old Yeller.

A young boy finds a fawn in the forest after its mother is killed. He takes it home and the family starts to raise it. The boy is young and doesn’t have friends, and the deer allows him to have something. Of course the parents know what’s gonna end up happening with the deer when it gets too big (since it can’t stay with them and can’t go back into the wild), which adds to the impact of the eventual ending.

Jane Wyman plays the boy’s mother. She’s lost three other children, and finds it difficult to show affection for him, worried that it will be all for naught and she’ll lose him too. So she comes off as cold and distant, even though (of course) she loves her son.

It’s hard not to love Jane Wyman in anything, and I really love her here. I think the film is wonderful, and this is one of those situations where I’m probably overrating the performance a bit due to my love for the film, but I think she’s wonderful. Not someone I’d actually vote for, but someone I’d rate as a solid #3 in this category. She’ll be too sentimental for some, but not for me. It’s hard not to think of her as deserving after seeing that final scene.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This category will always come down to a toss up.

Rosalind Russell is very solid in Sister Kenny, and I know she fought hard to get the movie made. But she doesn’t factor in here at all for me. Jennifer Jones gives a spirited performance, but I’d vote for her below even Russell because of the race thing, plus she’d won already. And Jane Wyman is awesome, but this is one of those “nomination is the reward” deals.

Olivia de Havilland. Celia Johnson. Those are the two, and those are pretty much the only two anyone would take. And still… I have no idea who to pick or how to pick between them.

On a pure performance level, I can go back and forth all day. Brief Encounter is a better film and one I love way more, which makes me lean toward Johnson. But de Havilland has her merits too, and just watching her performance puts her on equal if not better footing than Johnson. Plus de Havilland has given many great (and nominated) performances over the years. And Johnson — most people (not all, but most) couldn’t name one other movie she made outside of Brief Encounter. That shouldn’t (and doesn’t, really) factor into how you vote for this, but I feel like I should mention that, to play devil’s advocate for those starting to let outside factors creep into their decision-making.

I always have a tough time with this one. But much of the time, this is how I shake out — I think I go with Olivia de Havilland. Not because she’s due, but because the more I think about it, the more I think my love of the Celia Johnson performance has to do with my love of the film more than the strength of the performance. Now, two out of every five times, that’s not how I feel, but right now, that’s how I’m feeling. de Havilland — I can also see not loving her performance and easily taking Johnson over her. It’s tough. Sometimes I go that way too.

So I’m just gonna take de Havilland and feel better about the fact that she was overdue by this point and would earn two Oscar wins from all her performances she gave over her career. It’s not pretty, but at least it breaks the tie.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
  2. Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter
  3. Jane Wyman, The Yearling
  4. Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun
  5. Rosalind Russell, Sister Kenny

Rankings (films):

  1. Brief Encounter
  2. The Yearling
  3. To Each His Own
  4. Duel in the Sun
  5. Sister Kenny

My Vote: Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own

Recommendations:

Brief Encounter is one of the most essential films ever made. It’s also a film that I feel is impossible to hate. Everyone loves this movie, and with good reason. It’s perfect.

The Yearling is a great, great family film. One of those films everyone loves. Not essential, but very highly recommended.

Duel in the Sun is probably an essential film. It gets talked about a lot. It’s something you should see as a film buff just to be safe. Plus it’s awesome. Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish. Why would you not want to see this?

To Each His Own is really only essential because of the de Havilland performance. Were she only nominated for this (or not nominated at all), then it would just be a solid melodrama from 1946 and a film that’s solid and strongly recommended, but not something that would need to be seen by all. So I’ll leave it as a solid recommend, with emphasis on de Havilland’s performance and the notion that if you really want to discuss who should have won this category, you need to have seen this movie.

Sister Kenny is not essential and really only worth it for Rosalind Russell. It’s a fine film, but there’s no need to see it. But it’s good, so I do recommend it.

The Last Word: Olivia de Havilland was a great choice and holds up well. Celia Johnson probably would have held up okay as well, but there’s no real way of knowing for sure. No one else would have been a good winner. I think they made the best choice, and there was also another good one to have been had.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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