My current Top 5

My current Top 5

12/07/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Simone Signoret in Room at the Top (1959)
18. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
19. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
20. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)

21. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
22. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
23. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
24. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
25. Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (1998)
26. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
27. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
28. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
29. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
30. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)

31. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
32. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)
33. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
34. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
35. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
36. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
37. Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952)
38. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
39. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
40. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)

41. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
42. Martha Scott in Our Town (1940)
43. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
44. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
45. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
46. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
47. Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)
48. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
49. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
50. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  

51. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
52. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
53. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
54. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
55. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
56. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Joan Crawford as Myra Hudson in Sudden Fear


I have to confess that I have never been a true fan of Joan Crawford in the way I am a fan of Katharine Hepburn or (on a reduced level) Bette Davis. I respect Joan Crawford and I understand her important place in Hollywood history but I never get the urge to watch a movie because of her. With that out of the way, I will say that no matter what kind of movie it is, Joan Crawford is always completely watchable and entertaining, no matter what she does.

This is also true for Sudden Fear. If I don’t think that Joan Crawford was necessarily a truly great actress, I will say that she was undoubtedly a star of gigantic proportions. This was something that was visible in every single one of her performances – even in Trog, no matter how humiliating her role may be, you sense that you are watching someone special. She had that star-quality, that little something extra that made you take notice and recognize her as someone who was just on another level than most actors around her. Again, this is not necessarily due to her acting but simply her undeniable presence. But even if I maybe don’t see Joan Crawford as an amazing actress, I do agree with Bette Davis on one thing - that she was a professional. This is another thing that is always visible in her work – that you are seeing a pro who knows what she is doing at every second of the movie, who has prepared her character, thought-out every detail and every movement until it reached her own level of satisfaction. This is why her acting is always like a flat line for me – it constantly stays on the same level, a level that is entertaining and sometimes reaches a certain greatness and is never bad, but one that is also not truly exciting or engaging for me personally. Of course, all this might change in the future when I re-consider more of her work but for now I can say that while Joan Crawford never has truly bad acting moments in her work, I also never feel that I am watching something truly outstanding but rather a performance that is created thanks to her preparation and star power – and this is also true for Sudden Fear.

Sudden Fear is one of the „damsel in distress“ movies that appear in this category from time to time, similar to Sorry, Wrong Number or Wait until Dark, and maybe a bit to Gaslight or Suspiction but these movies depend less on suspense and shock than on psychological developments. In Sudden Fear, Joan Crawford plays Myra Hudson, a rich heiress and successful Broadway author who marries an unsuccessful actor only to find out that he and his former girlfriend plan to murder her. As a movie, Sudden Fear is no masterpiece but offers some satisfying suspense and good performances but its most intriguing aspect is that it not really starts as a suspense movie. Instead, the movie feels like a standard romantic melodrama for quite some time before Gloria Grahame’s bad girl shows up to steer everything in a completely different direction. Sudden Fear is obviously very much a product of its constructed plot (when Myra explains the mechanics of her dictating machine, you immediately know that this will be important later on) and the actors never give a real feeling of spontaneity but the whole things still works fine – mostly thanks for Joan Crawford’s central performance.

Joan Crawford might not be the most interesting female character in Sudden Fear (that honour belongs to Gloria Graham whose line delivery “Keeps the circulation going” is probably also the best moment in the movie) but as the potential victim turned revenger, Joan Crawford is the central character whom the audience follows along and who needs to be interesting enough to have the sympathies on her side. And here, Joan Crawford’s afore-mentioned star power comes into play. As she knows just how to play every single emotion and build the character of Myra, her fight for her life remains engaging until the end even if her most interesting work as an actress comes in the first half of the movie.

Myra meets her new husband when he is an actor in her new play. During rehearsal, she has him fired as he is not her “idea of a romantic leading man”. In what is probably the most inspired idea of the script, Myra doesn’t see the romance in his performance but then falls in love with him later during a train ride and is seduced by Lester using the words from her play – the very words she had condemned unconvincing when he was saying them on the stage.

The most interesting part of Joan’s performance during the first romantic half of the movie is that she hints as something that the movie doesn’t – the obvious age difference between Myra and Lester. Joan Crawford was 15 years older than Jack Palance and this is also obvious from their locks. The movie never mentions this fact nor does any other character. But Joan Crawford communicates in her performance that Myra is aware of this age difference and she adds a certain desperation to her performance, the fear of losing Lester while constantly being in awe that he actually chose her. This is certainly the most impressive part of Joan Crawford’s performance and one that deserves all admiration for being only added by her work alone and also for not letting any vanity get in her way.

When the suspense part of the movie kicks in, Joan’s performance unfortunately loses some of its fascination even if that part includes the most obvious “acting” and is probably the reason why the Academy decided to include Joan Crawford in its line-up. The most famous moment of the movie is most likely the scene when Myra realises that her husband and his lover plan to kill her when they accidentally recorded their whole plan on her dictating machine. What follows is a long, wordless scene in which Myra reacts to the recording with every conceivable emotion, going from disbelief to heartbreak to pure fear – I’m also impressed that the movie so openly suggests that Myra has to throw-up after having listened to the recording (how many glamorous movie stars of the past have thrown-up on screen?). Again, the scene works because Joan knows how to keep the attention of the viewer – a less interesting screen personality might lose the ability to keep the viewer looking at her silent reactions after a couple of minutes but not Joan Crawford. Sudden Fear is actually a throw-back to the beginning of Joan’s career in silent movies because it very often almost feels like a silent movie. Scenes of Joan Crawford lying awake in bed, searching through the house of her husband’s lover, seeing her own image in a mirror and realising what she wants to do, sweating with terror as she is  hiding in a closet again only work because Joan Crawford is such a strong screen presence.

What I mostly appreciate about Joan Crawford’s work after the found out the true intentions of her husband is that she not only relies on the fear in her acting but also adds an element of shame, connecting her work to the desperation earlier. When she throws out the pillow of her husband and looks at the other side of the bed, you realize that Myra is condemning herself for having allowed herself to fall for this man and share her bed with him.

I know all of my praise so far might make it hard to understand why I didn’t place her higher. First of all, even if Joan does invest very strongly to make Myra a three-dimensional person, she loses most of the interesting aspects of her work once she starts her fight for her life. While she again handles every technical aspect of the part very well, portraying fear and terror very believably, it always has a sense of “old Hollywood” and she never reaches the same level of true desperation and believable anguish as nominee Audrey Hepburn did in Wait until Dark. Also, she does sometimes surrender to the melodrama of the movie (scenes such as dictating her “romantic” will or listening to Lester reciting her “romantic” lines just feel a bit too much) and she is unfortunately over-the-top when she hears the voice of Lester in her head, covering her ears with her hands, her eyes so wide that they almost fall out of her hear. Again, I am very open to praising the obvious preparation that went into this performance and the technical precision that realised it but even with all the thought-out details in her work, Joan Crawford’s work is still held back by the limits of a movie that mostly exists to create tension and suspense and not a true heroine. The praise therefore happens on a limited level, complimenting an actress for having nothing and turning it into something worthwhile.

11/22/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Simone Signoret in Room at the Top (1959)
18. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
19. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
20. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)

21. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
22. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
23. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
24. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
25. Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (1998)
26. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
27. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
28. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
29. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
30. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)

31. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
32. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)
33. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
34. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
35. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
36. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
37. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
38. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
39. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
40. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)

41. Martha Scott in Our Town (1940)
42. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
43. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
44. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
45. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
46. Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)
47. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
48. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
49. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
50. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)

51. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
52. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
53. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
54. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
55. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Simone Signoret as Alice Aisgill in Room at the Top


I don’t want to comment yet if I would have voted for Simone Signoret in 1959’s Best Actress race but I can start my review with the words that it is still one of my favorite Oscar wins for reasons that go beyond the actual performance. To say it better – even if it might not be my favorite winning performance, it is still one of my favorite wins. 

Because how many times does a win like this happen? Simone Signoret plays the elderly lover of a young man with limited screen time that a lot of other actresses might have caused to go the supporting route. Also, even if she was an internationally acclaimed actress, she was still up against four American superstars – Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. Especially Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor had roles that were extremely showy while Simone Signoret played a part that was often a cliché. Add to that that Simone Signoret underplayed her part and actively refused to take any chances that would have allowed her to go broad and it just makes you happy to think that Academy members really voted for her to win because they actually thought that she was the best and they were able for once to forget their love for BIG acting (just look at the previous Best Actress winners Grace Kelly, Anna Magnani, Ingrid Bergman, Joanne Woodward and Susan Hayward who all had chances to let their acting overwhelm the screen and took it eagerly). So this is a fantastic win simply because of how unusual it is – and the best thing is that the enthusiasm for Simone Signoret’s performance is also mostly completely justified.

As mentioned above, Simone Signoret played the part of Alice Aisgill, a middle-aged woman who starts an affair with a much younger man who wants to get ahead socially by courting the daughter of some rich business man while also falling in love with Alice. As also mentioned above, the role of Alice is very often a cliché and doesn’t actually offer a lot on paper – Alice is a sad woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, seeking opportunities for have affairs until she falls in love with Joe; at this moment she finally seems to find a chance for a better life but her happiness has ultimately no place in Joe’s ambitious plans. It is also a secondary role as Joe is the clear center of the story and other characters in his story come and go just the way Alice does. 

So, there is a lot going against Simone Signoret in this part – and it’s so fascinating to see how she took all of these disadvantages and turned them into something truly captivating. Because everything that is so fascinating about Alice as a character comes only from Simone Signoret’s performance and presence – not from the screenplay not from the direction, not from her co-stars, only from her. Her unique appearance, that French accent, that completely calm style create a performance that is as unexpected as it is fulfilling.

I am not sure if there is another performance in this category that so much defines the words “mature” and “erotic”. Simone Signoret embodies the kind of mature wisdom that is so often attached to performers but in her case, the praise is more than earned. Her Alice has not necessarily seen it all nor knows everything but she has accepted what life has to offer while grabbing every chance for happiness at the same time. There is nothing “flirty” about her, she is as straight-forward as one can possibly be without creating any false illusions but you’d be hard-pressed to find a performance that radiates more sex-appeal. After watching Room at the Top, it feels almost impossible to not think that Simone Signoret could be the most beautiful woman on earth. Her Alice is a cool, composed figure without any grand emotions but she possesses a face and eyes that can tell the whole story of her life. And she portrays all this in such a calm and composed manner that it creates a fascinating contrast to everything that we might expect of her.

So it is no surprise that Simone Signoret always shines most in scenes that ask her to portray her depth of feelings, that constant sadness, that hesitation of joy and that sexual maturity, and mostly focus on her face – sitting in the car next to Joe talking about her marriage, seducing him only with her eyes, being a friendly advisor in his quest to conquer another woman, saying goodbye to him at a train station or quietly telling him all he did wrong and how he threw away every chance for happiness without ever raising her voice but still creating the most condemning effect.

My main reason for not putting her higher in my ranking despite my enthusiasm is that, even if she is able to overcome the obstacles put in her way, she is still held back by the screenplay that never really explores Alice as a character – even Simone Signoret cannot fully explain just why Alice is so obsessed by Joe, why she would have been involved with her husband in the first place and why the character would end up the way she does. And since the fascination from Simone Signoret comes from her being such a calm presence, any scenes that demand a more “active” acting from her don’t achieve the same effect – mainly her first break-up scene with Joe feels a bit out-of-place when she walks around the apartment and insults him in a more direct manner.

So, this is a unique and truly one-of-a-kind Oscar winner that proves that, in some cases, less is truly more.

11/19/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
18. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
19. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
20. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)

21. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
22. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
23. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
24. Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie (1998)
25. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
26. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
27. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
28. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
29. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
30. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)

31. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)
32. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
33. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
34. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
35. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
36. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
37. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
38. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
39. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
40. Martha Scott in Our Town (1940)

41. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
42. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
43. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
44. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
45. Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)
46. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
47. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
48. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
49. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
50. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)

51. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
52. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
53. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
54. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie  

Since I am lazy and my initial opinion of Emily Watson's performance did not change, I just refer you to my original review here.

11/18/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
18. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
19. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
20. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)

21. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
22. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
23. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
24. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
25. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
26. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
27. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
28. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
29. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
30. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)

31. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
32. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
33. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
34. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
35. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
36. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
37. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
38. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
39. Martha Scott in Our Town (1940)
40. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 

41. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
42. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
43. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
44. Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)
45. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
46. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
47. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
48. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
49. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
50. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)

51. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
52. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
53. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Martha Scott as Emily Webb in Our Town


Compared to my initial ranking of Martha Scott’s performance (1940 was actually the first year I ever reviewed on this blog…memories…), I decided to upgrade her a little bit as there are some moments in her performance that are truly beautiful but she also faces various challenges that prevent her from going any higher on my list.

The character of Emily Webb is certainly one of the most odd entries in history of the Best Actress category. It is a very well-known part in a very famous play so it makes sense that the Oscars recognized her when the play was turned into a movie in 1940 but at the same time she is part of the overall concept of Our Town that doesn’t really present characters but rather puts them in a larger context and mostly asks them to becomes symbols for the play’s message. I admit that I don’t know a lot about Our Town but having seen the movie and a couple of staged productions on YouTube, I see that these are not characters that we are supposed to be involved with but rather characters that are telling us a very specific message – in the case of Emily, it is the message of living your life as if every day was your last, of seeing the beauty around you and treasuring those few precious moments we have on tis earth. Therefore Emily becomes a memorable messenger but she never becomes a character. Emily possesses no depth, no true inner life and no character arc – and this case, this is even wanted and therefore doesn’t allow Martha Scott to do anything else than become the “body with a voice” that carries the playwright’s message.

Apart from these limited opportunities in creating Emily, Martha Scott also faces the problem of a very limited screen time that doesn’t give her the chance to expand Emily in any way. Of course, the amount of screen time does not matter but rather what you do with it but as mentioned just now, Martha Scott didn’t really have much to do with it. 1940 was an interesting race, with newcomer Martha Scott in her film debut up against Hollywood legends Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and winner Ginger Rogers. The prestige of the movie version of Our Town certainly helped Martha Scott to be carried over in the Oscar race and most likely there was hope to create a new star. This hope didn’t turn into reality as Martha Scott was never seen at the Oscars again and also her subsequent film career never turned her into a true star (though supporting parts in the classics The Twelve Commandments and Ben-Hur did secure her legacy). The fact that Martha Scott was able to break into the leading category also shows that the love story of Emily and George became the most cherished aspect of the movie – Martha Scott is not on the screen for a lot of time in a movie that is a true ensemble piece with various characters and their own stories but the love story is the red thread that lingers during the entire movie and the only real plot line that feels to move from point A to point B. This, in addition to her final scene which is certainly the most famous scene of the play, surely helped Martha Scott to enter the leading category.

But what about the performance itself? How did Martha Scott interpret a role that possesses so little character? In this way, Martha Scott actually succeeded very well. Emily Webb is the ideal American girl, smart and beautiful, marrying the boy from next-door to become the perfect wife and mother. And Martha Scott does truly inhabit this aspect – she is a very charming actress and she also as no problem to play a teenager who experiences love for the first time. She communicates the unconditional love that Emily has for her parents, her hesitation opposite George and her understanding of herself as a person. Also, it is nice to see how Martha Scott, who had originated the role of Emily on the stage and acted here in front of the camera for the first time, so easily adjusted herself to his new medium – her acting is very subtle and quiet, her close-ups never exaggerated and she clearly understands what acting in a movie demands opposite to acting on the stage. But even with these positive aspects, there is still few highlights that can actually be pointed out. She is lovely when she talks to William Holden’s George in front of their house and they talk about their future plans and has the right tone when she asks her mother if she is pretty but these are all moments that any competent actress could realize and the limitations of the part also make it difficult to build any emotional connection to Emily. However, in one small moment, she truly shines and is able to create Emily as a person and also establish her position in the overall messaging – when her father catches her late at night when she is not in bed but rather looking out the window, she delivers the lines “I just can’t sleep yet, Papa. The moonlight’s so wonderful…” with an almost overwhelming beauty. It’s just a small moment but here she establishes how Emily cherishes life and how she already sees things that others don’t and how she understands the wonders that are happening around us all the time without us noticing them. But again, it’s only a small moment and you have to wonder if two beautiful line deliveries are really enough to carry an actress to an Oscar nomination. Because what’s also visible in these moments so far is that while Martha Scott understands her part and plays it accordingly and also displays the right innocent charm, she is not the kind of actress that demands attention. It’s easy to imagine producers in 1940 casting a rather established actress like Ginger Rogers or Olivia de Havilland in this part or it might have been a comeback role for Luise Rainer if she had still been interested in Hollywood and audiences had still been interested in her. Of course, I won’t complain that Martha Scott got the chance to preserve her performance for all time – so many stage performances only exist in memory or in photos so it’s wonderful to see that Martha Scott’s work has not been lost. But still, she doesn’t possess that true star quality that could make Emily more interesting simply by the presence of the actress playing her – obviously, Emily is not supposed to be kind of girl who is a star but in the structure of Our Town, she is the one that in the end will become the one who takes us on the most important journey of the story and Martha Scott lacks this quality that makes it easy to follow her. Maybe this is also one of the reasons why she didn’t establish herself as a well-known leading lady after her first success on the screen.

I can imagine that Martha Scott was a stronger presence as Emily on the stage – simply because the idea of Our Town works better in this environment. Our Town doesn’t really ask the audience to become involved but rather to observe and understand and this is always easier on the stage since this environment is more obviously make-believe while it’s easier to get lost in a movie. This also affects Martha Scott’s final scene even if this one also presents her greatest success. Up to that moment, it’s hard to understand what exactly made Martha Scott stand out enough to garner an Oscar nomination (an earlier scene where she and George confess their love for each other was also a slight misstep in her work as her attempts to underplay Emily’s feeling resulted rather in the opposite) but when Emily apparently dies in childbirth and then re-visits her sixteenth birthday only to lament how much she lost and how much she will miss the ordinariness of life with all its beauty, Martha Scott finally gets the chance to stand out and create some unforgettable moments. On the plus side of this scene it is to say that Martha Scott again avoided any exaggerated acting in this moment and express all her pain and love through her face and her voice that slowly begins to crumble as Emily realizes “So all this was going on…and we never noticed”. She evokes a certain pain these scenes comes very unexpected and suddenly and therefore enhances the effect of her speech. It is certainly the only true unforgettable moment in the movie and in her work but it is enough to leave a satisfying impression after having made the viewer wonder about the purpose of the character for so long. In this scene, Emily Scott inhabits the message of the play very clearly without making it too obvious – she never gives the impression of delivering this message but rather makes it appear that it is Emily who is having these thoughts and feelings. It is a beautiful and touching moment that stays with the viewer or a long time. On the minus side, there are again some obstacles that make it very hard for Martha Scott: first of all, the scene, while impressive, does again not really need any character – the scene itself happens rather out of context and in some way could be delivered by anyone. Because Emily is such a small presence during Our Town, it never really feels that this is her personal loss and so her speech does not really feel like a part of her. Obviously, Martha Scott did deliver it beautifully but is doesn’t really seem to be part of her creation of Emily as a person. Also, the medium of motion pictures again seems to be working against her – on the stage, it’s easy to imagine how the losses of Emily overwhelm the audience. In the movie, her ghost-like appearance that sometimes make it hard to clearly see her face and the fact she often just hovers in the background lessen the impact of her monologue. Personally, I don’t think the fact that the movie changed the ending of the play truly matters in regards to her performance – if Emily dies or lives in the last scene does not really influence her speech before. But still, the scene never truly feels as affecting as it could be – and I finally understood why when I saw the stage production with Penelope Ann Miller in a Tony-nominated (in the featured actress category) performance as Emily Webb online. In her performance, that final scene finally displayed all its potential and suddenly it became obvious just how devasting this monologue and this speech can truly be and how it can truly evoke an overwhelming feeling of loss and regret in just a few moments. Martha Scott’s approach to the part was obviously different, less emotional and more intellectual which also works on its own but doesn’t seem to grab that scene so completely.

So, it’s a performance where it’s hard to point out anything negative as Martha Scott did a lot with a role that barely exists as a true person but the effect sometimes still feels too small. Still, the beauty of her approach and her final scenes are enough to give her this position in my ranking.   

11/15/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
18. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
19. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
20. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)

21. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
22. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
23. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
24. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
25. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
26. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
27. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
28. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
29. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
30. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)

31. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
32. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
33. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
34. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
35. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
36. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
37. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
38. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
39. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
40. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)

41. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
42. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
43. Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)
44. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
45. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
46. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
47. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
48. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
49. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
50. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)

51. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
52. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Eleanor Parker as Mary McLeod in Detective Story


I don’t want to go into too much detail in this review as I have already written about Eleanor Parker’s nominated performance in Detective Story once before. Many of the things I have written still stand from my point of view but I still upgraded her performance a little bit, as I began to appreciate certain aspects of her work more.

What obviously did not change is the estimation that is an extreme case of borderline between leading and supporting – and I personally still see it as a supporting performance. Detective Story is populated with various stories that happen during one day in a New York police station and Mary’s story is just one of them. The screen time of Eleanor Parker is also likely to be found somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes (maybe a bit more, I didn’t time it…) so it is a very small part – however, the structure of the movie makes the presence of Mary very dominant during her screen time and puts all of the attention on her actions in the past, the present and the future so there are chances for Eleanor Parker to overcome the limitations by the script. Unfortunately, she only used them in very small parts.

In Detective Story, Mary life is suddenly turned upside down when her husband learns that she had a child out of wedlock in the past and from one moment to the other, he stops seeing her as an ideal woman and only as a “tramp”. It’s a part with a certain potential – there are various layers to the character of Mary and an actress can find different ways of interpreting them, hinting at an unknown side that hasn’t been visible and she can also decide how to react to the accusations of her husband.

Unfortunately, Eleanor Parker took a very limited approach in this aspect – her Mary is not only seen by her husband as the ideal wife because that’s how he wants to see her but rather because, in Eleanor Parker’s work, that’s what she also wants to be and is. When accused with the “crime” of her past, she immediately reacts with a never-ending stream of tears and begs to be forgiven for what she has done. Any possible depth disappears in this characterization – maybe Eleanor Parker did not want to be seen on the screen as a woman who is nothing less than appalled with her own actions or a woman who doesn’t understand the anger of her husband but it is a very frustrating realization of the role as it exists only on the surface and doesn’t go beyond tears and sorrow.

These complaints about the role have already been included in my initial review from a couple of years ago, so what made me upgrade her a bit? First of all, even if Eleanor Parker’s acting style often feels very theatrical in contrast to the rather modern work of her co-stars, she still demand attention and her emotional work still comes across a welcome change of pace in the movie. In this way, her (even if limited) approach sets her apart from the rest of the cast, which somehow works in the context of the story, while still setting up a strong relationship with Kirk Douglas – the two actors don’t spend a lot of time together but they succeed in establishing the patterns of their marriage very easily and make the drama of Mary understandable. But most of all, Eleanor Parker succeeds in the drastic turn-around her character makes at the end of the movie. In a way, her performance resembles the work of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, only on a much smaller scale. After the initial shock that her husband is apparently unable to forgive her, Mary makes the decision to leave her husband and during the conversation turns more and more bitter, finally telling her husband that she won’t be driven into an asylum like her husband’s father apparently did with his wife. Her voice in this scene is sharp like a knife and Eleanor Parker possesses a face that can change from sweet and confused to bitter and unforgiving in just a second. It is a short scene but it is the best one in the movie and even if most of her work is unfortunately rather forgettable, this one moment delivers an emotional punch that is enough to grant her this little upgrade in my ranking.

10/09/2018

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman (1978)
8. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
9. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
10. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)

11. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)
12. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
13. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
14. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
15. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
16. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
17. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
18. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
19. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
20. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)

21. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
22. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
23. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
24. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
25. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
26. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
27. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
28. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
29. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
30. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)

31. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
32. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
33. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
34. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
35. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
36. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
37. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
38. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
39. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
40. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)

41. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
42. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
43. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
44. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
45. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
46. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
47. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
48. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
49. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
50. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)

51. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Jill Clayburg as Erica Benton in An Unmarried Woman


If I should ever make a list of performances that feel the most “lived-in”, where I have the feeling that I am watching a real person on the screen and are not even aware that I am actually watching a movie at all, Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman would certainly be on that list. Considering my ranking, I don’t mean to say that these kinds of performances are automatically the best – I also appreciate the work of other actors where I know that I am watching a movie but I am still in awe of the finished product. In the end, it all comes down to the role itself and Erica Benton is certainly a dream role for any performer but it’s still breathtaking to see Jill Clayburgh inhabit her so completely from start to finish.

In my first ranking, I had already appreciated her work very much but for the life of me, I cannot understand why I didn’t value it as highly back then as I do now. Reading various sites on the Internet, I am also surprised to see that this performance is somehow divisive and actually has as many fans as it has naysayers. And I get the flaws of the film from, especially from today’s point of view – Erica may have lost her husband but she gets to keep her apartment with a view of New York, she continues to work at an art gallery from time to time when she doesn’t meet her friends and she can tell all of her worries and sorrows to an expensive therapist. Yes, it’s certainly not a realistic picture of how most women have to deal with a broken up marriage but it’s a single story told in a time when many movies didn’t yet tell a story that showed that life can go on without a husband. And even if the flaws of the movie are obvious, Jill Clayburgh more than makes up for them.

From her first moment jogging with her husband to her last scene carrying around a big picture through New York, she creates a wholly authentic and living character. She starts it on a very relaxed level, having a little argument with her husband, then making love before doing her famous dance in her apartment. It’s a picture of a very happy and satisfied woman and relationship and Jill Clayburg’s unique charm and personality help to make it very likeable and engaging instantly. She has the exact right attitude towards her husband, her friends or her daughter to create a three-dimensional portrayal.

When her husband finally leaves her, it is again a scene that feels overwhelmingly real – there is no grand emotion but Jill Clayburgh’s face can express a thousand feelings and thoughts in one second. And she later makes a believable journey as she finds herself – it’s a very subtle transformation, similar to co-nominee Jane Fonda in Coming Home as both women don’t change her character but still become new people.

I think one of my main reservations about this performance in the past was that it loses some of its sparkle when Erica starts dating again. I agree that her relationship with an artist isn’t the most interesting part of the picture but Jill Clayburgh again totally nails every aspect – when she tells him how she is just happy, it’s just another of many small moments that become absolutely unforgettable in her work.

I have to say that I am not too familiar with Jill Clayburgh’s filmography – I have seen some of her other movies but she never excited me on the same level as she did in An Unmarried Woman and even though she got another Best Actress nomination a year later, she was pretty much dropped again very quickly from awards races and critical acclaim. It just seems that everything fell right into place in this one performance but these cases do happen. In one scene, Erica and her friends are talking about movie stars of today and how they are not comparable to movie stars of the past such as Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. And while I certainly would not put Jill Clayburgh ever on the same level as those legends, there was one small moment in time when she was totally their equal.

9/09/2018

Who will be reviewed next?

I decided to give new hints this time. Do you know who will be next in my ranking?






Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
8. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
9. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)
10. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)

11. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
12. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
13. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
14. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
15. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
16. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
17. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
18. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
19. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
20. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

21. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
22. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
23. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
24. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
25. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
26. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
27. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
28. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
29. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)
30. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)

31. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
32. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
33. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
34. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
35. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
36. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
37. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
38. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
39. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
40. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)

41. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
42. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
43. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
44. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
45. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
46. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
47. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
48. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
49. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
50. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Helen Hayes as Madelon Claudet in The Sin of Madelon Claudet


When I look at my ongoing experiment to rank all Best Actress nominees and look back at my first trial many years ago, I suddenly realize that Helen Hayes’s performance is probably the one that I have downgraded the most. This actually hurts me as hers is a performance I actually like very much but trying to be as objective as possible, I now think that there are various aspects that I don’t admire as much anymore as I used to and the kind of role in this kind of movie is also not so highly on my list anymore.

But even though, one thing is perfectly clear – coming right after Ruth Chatterton in a very similar role (the suffering secret mother), Helen Hayes seems at first almost like a revelation, simply because her work feels much more relaxed and modern in many moments and most of the time never feels as dated and over-melodramatic as Ruther Chatterton in Madame X. Even if there are exceptions. It’s clear that Helen Hayes, even though a stage actress just like Ruth Chatterton, understood the medium of film much better. But it has to be said that she also benefitted from better material. While both Madame X and The Sin of Madelon Claudet are no masterpieces, Madelon Claudet at least feels a bit more lively and entertaining and moves at a much better pace. It was a clear sign that movies had developed a lot during those few years.

But again, The Sin of Madelon Claudet is no masterpiece – far from it. It succeeds in telling an entertaining and touching story and it is, without a doubt, perfectly designed as a showcase for its leading lady. Already hailed as a true sensation on the stage and one of the most admired performers in the American theatre, Helen Hayes’s movie debut was certainly anticipated by critics at the time – and they weren’t disappointed. While the flaws of the movie were recognized right away (and according to Helen Hayes, even led to fear during the making of the movie that the whole thing would be cancelled at some point), Helen Hayes was able to survive all this and win the Best Actress Oscar, apparently earning more votes than her two co-nominees combined. The win did however not lead to an exciting movie career, even if she would win a second Oscar almost 40 years later. She mostly starred in forgettable movies (of course with some exceptions, mainly A Farewell to Arms) and later returned to the stage, acting only occasionally in movies. Her was a career that more defined by “respect” than by “stardom” – she was always valued very highly by critics and her peers (she was apparently Spencer Tracy’s favorite screen actress), of course later winning the elusive “EGOT” but she never turned into a true star. Audiences wept when they saw her suffering mother in The Sin of Madelon Claudet but Helen Hayes never had that certain star appeal. Apparently, she went on a promotion tour for the movie with producer Irving Thalberg with his wife and movie fans couldn’t push Helen Hayes out off the way fast enough to get a look at the glamourous Norma Shearer. Obviously, all this doesn’t matter when evaluating performances but it makes it easier to understand why she reached the top so quickly on the big screen but never achieved the same effect in movies as she did on the stage.

So, what about her performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet? What’s the reason for me to downgrade her work despite liking it? I think the main factor why I still appreciate her work is that Helen Hayes was a lovely and relaxed screen presence and she handled many of the script’s faults very well and overall carried the whole movie on her small shoulders, making a story that should make me roll my eyes all the time bearable. My main reason for letting her slip down in my ranking is the fact that there are still many scenes that make her stage roots too visible and the script often also prevents her from going deeper and sometimes simply doesn’t allow her to go beyond the obvious plea for tears…

Helen Hayes’s work right away unfortunately starts on the wrong foot. Her first scene with her lover in her bedroom feels like a filmed scene on the stage and I would like to know if this was also the first scene that had been shot…Helen Hayes clearly feels much too limited here and the way she moves her body and her hands suggests a performance for the last row of the balcony – not overdone but too obvious. She becomes much more alive and natural in her next scene when she shares a little apartment with the man she loves. The way she puts his cold feet in warm water, tries to hide her tears or angrily talks to a man who insults his paintings are done very well and feel surprisingly modern – but again, with just a hint of “too obviously unforced” meaning that it’s so obvious that she tries to appear relaxed and spontaneous that the effect is sometimes destroyed. After this, life begins to go downwards for Madelon Claudet very quickly – her lover goes back to America and even though he promises to come back, he never does. But the “sin” of living with this man soon forces Madelon to pay a price when she gets a child. Helen Hayes does some of her best work in the scene right after giving birth – Madelon doesn’t want the child and doesn’t even want to see it but when it is put next to her, you can see her feelings change to a sudden and unconditional love. It’s a clumsy scene in itself but all credit goes to Helen Hayes for making it work and thus laying the base for the story that follows.

I also enjoy a later scene when she plans to wed a man from her village – but he will only accept her as a wife without her child. Madelon refuses and her father plainly ask her “Have you no shame” to which she replies “Not about this”. She delivers these lines very matter-of-fact, even a bit amused and that way prevents them from becoming melodramatic. I can just imagine Ruth Chatterton, widening her eyes, shrieking “Not about”, changing her voice to a dramatic whisper “thissss”. After this, Madelon becomes the mistress of a rich man and while these parts of the movie offer the least interesting opportunities for Helen Hayes, I still appreciate that she never makes Madelon appear like a gold-digger – she evokes the feeling that Madelon appreciates the chances she gets but that she also truly cares for this man and wouldn’t be his mistress if she didn’t. Her weakest moments appear when it is revealed that he is actually a criminal and they get taken away by the police and he commits suicide in a full restaurant. The way Helen Hayes reacts to she shot is too over-the-top, wrinkling up her face in pain and screaming “Carlos!”

If you thought by now “Wow, there is a lot happening to Madelon but isn’t the movie about a prostitute?” Yes, that comes later. If you’re thinking now “Wow, there is really a lot happening to her in general”, again yes. This is also what is working against Helen Hayes. The movie rushes through the life of Madelon in little episodes, throwing her from one extreme to the other as if it never really knew what to do with her. In this way, it resembles another movie with an Oscar-winning lead performance, The three Faces of Eve, another movie that sometimes appeared like a test scene for an actress, not knowing what to do with her and therefore just letting her do everything. The same happened her more than 20 years earlier. Helen Hayes gets to play poor, she gets to play rich, she gets to play proper, she gets to play immoral – it’s thanks to her talent and screen presence that she was able to still tell this story convincingly but she cannot overcome many of the screenplay’s faults.

Helen Hayes's overall strongest scenes come when Madelon gets out of prison after 10 years. She feels more spontaneous and authentic in this moment than many other actresses of that era, famously touching the leaves of a tree, reacting amused to the new fashion style or being determined to walk the stairs of the prison down alone. When she later meets her son again, it’s another highlight for her – she truly shines when she doesn’t let him know her real identity and tells him his mother was dead; it’s obviously again meant to create tears but never feels manipulative.

Interestingly, the most famous part of the story – Madelon Claudet becomes a prostitute to support her son – only takes up about 5 minutes of the whole movie. After those 5 minutes, Madelon is an old woman who visits her son, now a successful doctor, one more time. Again, it’s a manipulative moment and Helen Hayes sometimes takes it a bit too far in her “old cute lady” act but you have a feeling that after all she endured, Madelone deserves that moment.

So, it’s a touching portrayal of a character and a plot that has been done countless times and when it comes to performances in talking movies, Helen Hayes was the first Best Actress winner who really felt “natural” in her acting and there are many moments where she truly shines but she is also obviously too new to the medium in some moments and the script never allows her to create a truly deep character – after following Madelon her entire life, you don’t see any noticeable change in her, even after all her hardships and tragedies and you never really learned anything about her as a character. Still, it’s a strong piece of work that elevates an otherwise forgettable film.