The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actress, 1949-1950)
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.
Jeanne Crain, Pinky
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart
Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son
Loretta Young, Come to the Stable
Pinky is the Gentleman’s Agreement of race movies. They even got Elia Kazan to direct it.
Pinky is a light-skinned black girl who goes up north and passes for white so she can go to school. Now she returns home and has to deal with southern racism once more. She goes to caring for an invalid (Ethel Barrymore, ever playing the invalid) who comes to regard her almost as a daughter. I like the film quite a bit. It’s no Gentleman’s Agreement, but it’s good.
Jeanne Crain will never get my vote in this category for one reason — she’s white. And she’s playing black. If she were playing mixed (which I thought she was for the longest time, because how else do you explain that casting?), then I’d be slightly more okay with it. But this — no.
The performance is good and she’s very likable. I put the performance second just because I don’t really like any of the other movies. But she stands zero chance here for me because it’s not okay that they straight up cast a white woman as a black woman.
The Heiress is a great melodrama.
Olivia de Havilland is a spinster of sorts, who lies with her domineering, disapproving father. We watch as she meets and falls in love with Montgomery Clift, who is seemingly also in love with her. But her father thinks he’s only after his money, and forbids her from marrying him. But this is the first time she’s ever had a chance at real happiness, so she wants to elope with Clift. Her father says if she does, he’ll disown her. She doesn’t care, and makes plans to elope. Only the night they’re supposed to run off, Clift doesn’t show…
I won’t spoil the rest of it, but man, is de Havilland fantastic in this movie. She wins this category in a landslide. If it were stronger, maybe there could be a discussion about it. But not with the category the way it is. I can’t even pretend like there’s an alternative in this one. Without her in this category, this is the single weakest Best Actress category of all time. As it stands, it’s still probably bottom ten. Maybe even bottom five.
My Foolish Heart is another Susan Hayward melodrama. Based on Salinger, too.
Hayward plays a drunk who gets a visit from an old friend of hers. She drinks so much she passes out. And while passed out, she reflects on her life. How there was one guy she was gonna marry, but then she ends up marrying her friend’s fiancée instead, and basically ruining everyone’s life including her own.
Hayward is fine here. But I really found the movie boring. I wouldn’t take her. This is a lesser performance of hers, I feel. Good, but not something I’d take. In a category like this, she might end up third. But still, not a chance.
Edward, My Son is Deborah Kerr’s first nomination. She got a lot of attention from Black Narcissus (and the other Powell and Pressburger films, but mostly for Black Narcissus) and this was her first film after that. Clearly the result of a well-run campaign to make her a star.
Kerr and Spencer Tracy star as parents. Their son gets sick and Tracy burns down his factory to pay for medical care. This becomes a trend, as we see that Tracy will do just about anything for his son. And this turns the son into an entitled asshole. Kerr realizes this and tries to knock some sense into Tracy, but he refuses to see it. So Kerr becomes an alcoholic.
It’s a big, meaty dramatic role. Kerr is good in it. I don’t love the film, but she’s solid in it. Overall, this is a pretty weak category, so she’ll fair okay in it in the end. But there’s no one who can take down Olivia de Havilland in this one. She towers over the rest of the category.
Come to the Stable is one of those religious films that I can’t stand. Full disclosure.
Two nuns show up in New England because they saw a postcard with a beautiful church in a field and they think that’s a sign that they should build a church there. So they travel with no means to build a church and figure “God will provide.” And we watch as they go about building a church, eventually with their hopes coming down to a tennis match. I am not making that up.
Loretta Young plays the head nun. She’s… pious, I guess, in this. I dislike the movie and don’t care for the performance at all. This is an easy #5 for me. And, if I were spiteful, I’d say her winning unfairly in 1947 eliminates her from the competition. But honestly I don’t even care about that. I just don’t like the movie and think the performance is one of the weakest nominees I’ve ever seen. That’s why I wouldn’t take her.
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The Reconsideration: Olivia de Havilland wins this by a mile. How could you take anyone else here? They’re all minor nominations or incomprehensible ones. de Havilland destroys the competition and is the only one to take.
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Rankings (category and films):
- Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
- Jeanne Crain, Pinky
- Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son
- Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart
- Loretta Young, Come to the Stable
My Vote: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
The Heiress is one of the great melodramas of all time and is borderline essential. So, since it’s so good and so memorable, I’ll say it is essential. Just see it. It’s fantastic.
Pinky is a very good movie. Not essential, but strong. Highly recommended.
Edward, My Son is fair. Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr directed by George Cukor. That’s something. I don’t love it, but I’d give it a light recommend on cast alone.
My Foolish Heart is a film I don’t much care for, so I can’t really recommend it.
Come to the Stable got a lot of nominations, but isn’t well remembered and for my money isn’t very good. It’s light and easy to watch, but not fun for people like myself who have issues with religion and religious movies. To each his own here.
The Last Word: de Havilland is the only choice here and is one of the better choices of all time. Good thing, too, because without her, this category would be unbearable.
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Anne Baxter, All About Eve
Bette Davis, All About Eve
Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
Eleanor Parker, Caged
Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
All About Eve is pretty self-explanatory.
It’s an incredible film. Two nominations here.
Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, the most respected actress on broadway. She’s aging, but still on her game. She befriends a huge fan, Eve Harrington, who stands outside her dressing room every night for months until she gets a chance to talk to her. She lets Eve into her life, and pretty soon it seems to everyone but Margo that Eve is ingratiating herself more and more and manipulating things so that soon she is the star instead of Margot.
Davis is wonderful here. Everyone is. This is perhaps her most iconic performance. She could have won this and no one would have batted an eyelash. The two wins slightly hurt her for me, but on pure performance this category has four potential winners. It’s not a matter of who’s most deserving but rather who you take.
Anne Baxter plays Eve. And she’s wonderful too. For my money, she’s better than Bette. Because she has to play the conniving one, who has to act all innocent and then show her dark side as the film goes on, and then play everyone in different ways. Her scene with Addison near the end of the film is one of the great acting clinics of all time. Between the two, I take Baxter. And that’s on a pure performance level.
Born Yesterday is one of those films that only works if the leading actress works. As a story, it’s just pretty good. But when you have the right actress, as evidenced here, the material soars.
A gangster shows up in D.C. to buy a few senators and throw his influence around. He wants to become more genteel. Rather than hustle neighborhoods, he wants to hustle politics. So he shows up to become a proper criminal. He brings along his girlfriend, a vulgar showgirl who seems dim-witted, but is actually quite intelligent under the surface. He thinks she needs etiquette lessons, so he hires a guy to teach her stuff. And that’s a lot of the film.
Judy Holliday plays the girlfriend. She has that kind of voice and demeanor — think Jennifer Tilly. Specifically in Bullets Over Broadway. The loud girlfriend of the gangster who doesn’t seem particularly bright whose voice can come off as incredibly annoying. But here, we see she’s actually quite bright as we learn more about her and in the end, she gets one over on the gangster.
For those who don’t know Judy Holiday (and most people in 1950 didn’t. She only really had one role in Adam’s Rib), this performance was a revelation. Watch this clip:
It’s not a pure comedic performance, and her originality as an actress really enhances the performance. She’s as good as the competition here, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Caged is a women in prison film. It’s a noir, but it’s also a really great film. Very hard boiled and very gritty. The kind of movie you don’t see with women as protagonists.
Eleanor Parker plays a woman thrown in prison after attempting a robbery with her husband. And we watch as she slowly gets used to life in prison, becoming hardened by it, and adapting to life behind the walls. It’s half gritty prison drama, half melodrama. And it works. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
They label this as a noir, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. It’s one of those films that was shot almost like a lower budget, campy B movie, but instead almost comes across like a realistic social issues film. It’s kind of a mix of both. Though, because of that, it pretty much relegates Eleanor Parker to “nomination is the reward” status. It’s always gonna be looked at as “performance elevating B material,” which is something they never vote for.
Plus, in this category, she’s a de facto #5 simply because the other four are so good. She’s great here, and in another year would contend. 1949, she’d be #2 with a bullet and duking it out with Olivia de Havilland. Here, she’s #5 and really has no chance at making her way to #1. Which is a shame, but on the other hand, we have a really great film nominated that people are going to see because of the nomination, which is overall a good thing.
Sunset Boulevard is one of the most famous films of all time. Everyone knows it.
Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond. You know. Her.
This is a tough one to rate, because the role is written to be theatrical and wildly over the top and batshit crazy. So do you hold it against her when she plays the role to the max or not? This is a really strong category, and you’re gonna have to look to the smaller details in order to pick a winner. The negatives here are the almost over the top qualities to the performance. The positives are that this is one of the most iconic performances of all time.
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The Reconsideration: This is a fascinating category to go back and analyze.
Let’s start by saying, as great as Eleanor Parker is in Caged (and she is great), she stands zero chance here. Shame, but that’s what it is.
Now, onto the double nomination…
Anne Baxter would have won Best Supporting Actress if she went there, and there’s a case to be made that she should have been in that category anyway. But she’s not. And because of that, you have a vote split problem, one that probably ended up hurting them both when actual voting happened. I prefer Baxter’s performance, even though Davis’ is the more iconic of the two. I’m curious if they’d have actually taken her if she were the only one from the film in this category, since I feel like at this point they were just barely tolerating her and thought she was all finished as an actress and were ready to discard her. But that’s neither here nor there. I take Baxter over Davis, and that’s how I feel there.
Now, there are the other two…
Gloria Swanson delivers the single most iconic performance in the category and one of the most iconic performances of all time. And that’s enough to make most people take her automatically and say she got robbed of the Oscar. And in 1950, that’s seemingly how it was looked at. She comes back from obscurity to deliver this tour de force that everyone loves, but then she loses the Oscar. (Kinda feels a bit like Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler losing to Sean Penn.)
Most people will say the Judy Holliday win is a joke, but if you watch her performance, she not only holds her own, but would actually make a great winner who wouldn’t be questioned in most other years. It’s just this one that makes everyone jump all over it.
And I’m gonna be perfectly honest — I’ve seen Sunset Boulevard a dozen times over the years. I know that performance well. And I know how I feel about the All About Eve performances. Having seen Judy Holliday again recently, I take her. I understand the win, and I support it. I think Gloria Swanson also would have been a wonderful winner, but maybe I’m just a sucker. I think Judy Holliday delivers the goods, and she was my favorite performance in the category. So she’s my vote.
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- Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
- Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
- Anne Baxter, All About Eve
- Bette Davis, All About Eve
- Eleanor Parker, Caged
- All About Eve
- Sunset Boulevard
- Born Yesterday
My Vote: Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard are two of the 50 most essential movies ever made. Must be seen by all film buffs. Full stop. No discussion.
Born Yesterday is essential for Oscar buffs, very highly recommended for all film buffs, and should be seen because it’s so well made and so entertaining. No reason not to see this.
Caged is an amazing film that I recommend highly. It’s one of the great hidden gems of the 50s and a film that I think everyone ought to see. Trust me on this one. You’ll like it. It’s great.
The Last Word: Holliday is a good winner and, despite how it looks, holds up. They did fine. Gloria Swanson would have held up just as well, and probably better on paper given the iconic nature of the role. Bette Davis also would have held up just fine if she had won too, given the film and the role. If Bette won Best Actress and Anne Baxter won Best Supporting Actress, nobody would have questioned it and it would have made sense. But, as is, with Judy Holliday winning, I think they did just fine. You need only watch the Holliday performance to see how good she is and how deserving she was.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)