Best Actress 1928

Best Actress 1928

6/11/2014

Best Actress 1928: Louise Dresser in 'A Ship comes in'

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was maybe created by only 36 members in 1927 but the names and statuses of these founding fathers undoubtedly gave this new organization a prestigious and influential feeling right from the start – actors and idols like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford or Conrad Nagel, directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Lloyd or Henry King and producers such as Sid Grauman, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg or Jack and Harry Warner guaranteed not only a high level of visibility among Hollywood insiders but also the needed credibility and attention beyond the borders of the industry. Such a strong collection of well-known and respected personalities turned this new association into a powerful representation of the filmmaking community as a whole and gave it a legitimacy that would help to fulfill the intended and expected goals of founding father Louis B. Mayer – for him, the major concern for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was the conduct of labor disputes and the handling of different industry matters but he undoubtedly realized that the position of this organization in such matters would not only be strengthened by the involvement of powerful names but also by a powerful visibility that would create a severe desire by other members of Hollywood to become a part of this elite group, too, by one means or another. And so the different responsibilities of the Academy were primarily carried out in the background of a society that often only exists on a shallow surface – but in order to appeal to this society and its expectations, the Academy needed a distinct foreground that would nonetheless help to support its quiet or less obvious aims. And so the idea of a special award that would honor outstanding achievements in the craft of filmmaking arose and found its ultimate realization in the first presentation of the Academy Awards on May 16th, 1929. It was an inception that fulfilled various purposes – Louis B. Mayer apparently sensed that the awarding of different recognitions would help to keep a tight net of control around employees and artists as long as they believed that obedience and contractual performance would enable them to receive this honor at some point in their career themselves but the creation of this new award would also give this equally newly founded association the needed appeal and allure right from the start to create an aura of exclusivity and exceptionalism but most importantly influence and authority within its own industry. But to achieve these aims, the Academy needed to become a renown institution not only with those artists and performers it primarily addressed but also with audiences and movie fans around the entire country – and therefore used its first awards ceremony to honor a balance of respected and visible choices that would make their winners both popular and logical and in the end serve as the basis for its attraction in the years to come. The existence of two different categories for the best movie of the year was therefore only a consistent decision – the award for the Best Picture was given to the World War I drama Wings which starred one of the most popular female stars of the silent era as well as matinee idols Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen and appealed to audiences with a straight-forward story on patriotism, loyalty and duty and presented a stunning and groundbreaking re-creation of aerial battle sequences that gave the movie a distinct and almost epic atmosphere while the separate category for Best Unique and Artistic Production gave the new Academy the opportunity to also reward F. W. Murnau’s praised and expressionistic Sunrise that told a much smaller and more private tale but put it into an equally pioneering context of various cinematic innovations that influenced the art of filmmaking beyond the transition to talking pictures and stands as one of the greatest achievements from Hollywood’s silent era. These two awards were an opportunity for the Academy to reach out to a broader audience, attracting the attention of supporters of both movies to their ceremony and it also enabled Oscar voters to honor the different spectrums of silent storytelling, from restrained and poetic imagery that put the question of ‘how’ above ‘what’ and reduced the complexity of its tale without limiting the characters it presents, to a story that is much more strongly driven by its plot and lets its personalities influence the situation while integrating its technical values within the specific context of the story and its development. These two specific Best Picture awards as well as the other different decisions of the Academy this year also served as a statement that Hollywood was looking ahead, recognizing artistic trends and innovative techniques but this first ceremony also displayed its eagerness to equally focus on the pioneers of its own history, honoring undeniable and popular talents that would add additional layers of creditability, modernness and artistic respect – one honorary award was given to The Jazz Singer which revolutionized the art of filmmaking and stood as the herald of a new era that the Academy welcomed with open arms while a second distinction was awarded to Charlie Chaplin, one of the true giants of the early days of cinema and its evolution so far. Both of these honorary awards elegantly fit into the overall strategy to create an association that appears to be understanding of the sentiments and thoughts of its members but also the wider audience it wants to attract – something that was also true for the two acting Oscars that were given out that night. The first Best Actor winner Emil Jannings was often considered one of the greatest actors of his generation and his award made it possible for the Academy to benefit from his artistic reputation as it created a strong bond between organization and artist, highlighting its ability to be ahead of its time, recognize the greats of the past and ultimately honor the outstanding achievements of the present even if his award did not turn into an investment in the future, too – the Suisse-born actor had already left Hollywood before the actual ceremony since his thick German accent denied him the chance to fulfill the transition into the imminent area of talking pictures but his selection brought credibility and reputation to this new organization nonetheless. And the same was also true for the first Best Actress winner Janet Gaynor who combined critical acclaim with a high level of popularity that made her both a highly respected star and audience favorite but unlike Emil Jannings seemed destined to find a much brighter future in Hollywood’s changed environment – after having starred for years in negligible parts without being credited, her youthful appeal and striking innocence on the screen turned her into a thought-after leading lady before she established herself as one of Hollywood’s most admired stars in 1928 when she appeared in a combination of critical and financial hits and consequently became the most visible and praised female presence of the year which made her a both popular and logical choice for the first Best Actress award that was handed out on May 16, 1929. But with its two acting awards, the Academy not only recognized two respected, beloved and visible personalities but again found a way to engage a wider audience by honoring them not only for a specific performance but rather their whole body of work during the eligible time period, pleasing the supporters of Sunrise, Street Angel, Seventh Heaven, The Last Command and The Way of all Flesh equally, avoiding any controversy in its first year for choosing a specific performance by Janet Gaynor or Emil Jannings over another one and further widening the range of the Academy among all the groups it wanted to address. Obviously this does not mean that the Academy only made decision that would carry a popular appeal but it was still careful to balance artistry with wider recognition, positioning itself right from the start with great effect even if it altered various of its own rules to create a tighter area of recognition and putting more value on their own decisions: the next year would only see one choice for the Best Picture of the year, maybe limiting the number of winners but consequently adding exclusivity to the award, and actors would from now on only be honored for one specific performance, shifting the focus from ‘performer of the year’ to ‘performance of the year’. These were steps of an organization still trying to find itself after gaining the interest of the industry in its first year and it now turned itself into an even more prestigious club (and maybe even stepped too far when it focused on too many insiders for recognition) but kept interest alive by no longer announcing the winners before the actual ceremony and over the years establishing a system of pre-determined nominees that would compete in a final round of voting, therefore still keeping its attraction for the supporters of different performances and movies and bringing different talents, styles, personalities and themes to its own ceremony and laying the foundation for its own development and characteristics for the years to come.

This first Oscar ceremony showed that the Academy embraced performances that not only received critical praise but also won wide attention and acclaim by movie goers and industry insiders, too – in the Best Actress category, it honored a performer that combined a high level of visibility thanks to her appearances in three successful and acclaimed motion pictures but whose work also won loud praise and laudation by itself, too, making her a both popular and legitimate choice for this first award. It was an appropriate way to establish and warrant its own selections and the Academy would continue to appeal to the different target groups audiences, insiders and critics (though always to different degrees) when it acknowledged further giants of the screen like Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer and Marie Dressler who had all worked their way to the top of the industry and guaranteed the admiration of countless supporters and fans throughout the country. But even with this distinct focus on established stars or later on upcoming sensations like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, this new entity also constantly aimed to include achievements with less visibility or popularity – as an organization, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences aimed to recognize achievements only based on merit and worthiness, showing that popularity and talent, longevity and superiority don’t always go hand in hand and that outstanding artistic achievements can easily be overlooked by moviegoers, hidden within quickly forgotten motion pictures or too obscure for general mass appeal. And even if this goal often failed to be accomplished, it still stands as one of the Academy’s strongest principles and Oscar voters always aimed to include little-known or even completely unknown performers and artists in their line-ups, wanting to show that an organization of experts can find remarkable achievements that might otherwise have been ignored and award its distinction only based on talent and quality and that way win more legitimacy and respect for its decisions. Ultimately, it’s a concept that was rarely realized as Academy members were always influenced by trends as well as their own bias and industry connections but they still often found room for fameless names for whom the nomination (or win) would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience or the begin of sudden stimulation of their careers. And at its first ceremony, the Academy was already eager to display its ability to find hidden gems and recognize artistry in unlikely places and highlighting the work of unknown performers when they nominated a little-known, 51 year-old character-actress besides two of the most famous stars from the ceasing silent era in the Best Actress category. Looking only at her movie career, Louise Dresser could certainly be called a ‘late bloomer’ but the strong-willed performer from Indiana had been an entertainer and artist for almost her entire life after she ran away from her home at 16 to pursue a career on the stage before she made her movie debut at the age of 44 in The Glory of Clementina (but not as the title character). On the Broadway stage, she appeared in musical comedies and operettas and charmed audiences with her sophisticated elegance while she focused on her abilities as a noticeable character actress in her later movie work, most prominently playing Calamity Jane in Caught, Catherine the Great opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle and later as Empress Elizabeth opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. It was an overall lasting and fulfilling career that crossed different genres and fields, included both silent pictures and talkies and allowed Louise Dresser to make the best out of the possibilities she was given and for which she had left her home many years ago – and that culminated with the ‘Citation of Merit’ that was given to her for her work in A Ship comes in during the first Academy Awards presentation in 1929. It was an honor that shed a sudden light on an actress that was mostly unknown to American movie audiences but her inclusion in the first Best Actress line-up did not change the course of her career or her overall legacy – her name remains mostly as obscure today as it was already in 1929 and Louise Dresser did not experience a new revival in her professional life, mostly because the Oscars were still in their first year and did not bring the kind of publicity and fame they would in the years to come. Louise Dresser was therefore not destined for a new and exciting career as 21-year old fellow nominee Janet Gaynor nor was she one of the biggest female stars on the big screen like 30-year old Gloria Swanson (whom Louise Dresser had supported in 1923’s lost Prodigal Daughters) and she continued to appear in various talkies, apparently not feeling the problems that many actors faced during this transition period, before she abandoned her screen work after her final appearance opposite Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in Maid of Salem in 1937. Of course, the Oscars were not expected yet to truly change or approve careers and artistic choices and they had as little influence on Louise Dresser as they had on Janet Gaynor and Gloria Swanson who both would undoubtedly had continued their career paths the same way even without the Oscar statuette or their status as runner-up since they both benefitted from their fame and the popularity of their motion pictures more than this strange new award organization – two circumstances that Louise Dresser could not use to her advantage since A Ship comes in was basically as unfamiliar as the actress herself and couldn’t compete with the daring themes of Sadie Thompson, the artistic achievements of Sunrise and Seventh Heaven or the ongoing popularity of Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell in Street Angel. Instead, the movie came and went with little excitement or attention and the inclusion of Louise Dresser as one of the Best Actresses of the year consequently already raised a few surprised eyebrows in 1929 just as it does today and it poses the question if the Academy was successful in finding a hidden gem in her performance or if this new organization was still trying to really determine what it wanted to honor and what it truly considered the outstanding achievements of the year.

It’s obviously impossible to speculate about the reasons for this honorary mention of Louise Dresser since the first Academy Awards happened in a time without any other acknowledgments for acting and as a complete self-contained process that is not at all comparable to the Oscars as they became in their later years – but it is easy to imagine that studio producers and other elite members of the Hollywood community were familiar with Louise Dresser’s Broadway fame, especially since the beginning of the sound era caused a wide search for acting talents from the stage who were already familiar with the concept of acting and talking at the same time, and were therefore eager to include some name from the East coast in their line-ups, too, a trend that would continue for years to come as the Academy Awards often embraced work and performers from the stage and that reached one of its early peaks with the award for the movie debut of Helen Hayes whose reputation as one the most important stage actress of her generation basically started the moment she appeared in front of live audiences for the first time. But beyond the idea of Louise Dresser as a maybe unknown but still respected performer that could add a certain amount of credibility to the line-up maybe also stood the idea of Louise Dresser’s role in A Ship comes in as an example of the different kind of female characters the Academy was eager to honor: Janet Gaynor in Sunrise already displayed that the suffering but loyal wife who stood by her husband through good, bad and truly bad times was always a welcome opportunity to show how the strength of marriage can overcome the largest obstacles and resonated very well with audiences and critics at the time – the year 1929 saw the beginning of the Great Depression that would assist the rise of fascist movements around the world, it saw a world that was unsure about the direction it wanted to take and stood right in the middle of a clash between established traditions and waves of new trends and development that changed the world forever. And movies, too, were caught between these processes, trying to obtain the time of silent pictures while slowly accepting the changing trends around them, handling themes that would soon be washed away by the Hays Code and presenting female characters that run the entire amount of human conditions from dangerous and sexually open women to loyal wives and supportive mothers who only lived for the well-being of their family. It was therefore a time that was characterized by its lack of clear focus and welcomed a look back at a time that was often considered ‘simpler’ and yet ‘better’ and that was shaped by clear guides and role allocations – and so the character of the supportive wife and mother might have had a special appeal to the voting committee of the Academy even if a role like this very often doesn’t offer the artistic freedom and challenges that allows an actress to go beyond the limitations of the script. It is therefore not surprising that Oscars and nominations were primarily given to more dimensional characters or often ‘fallen women’ who went through a greater variety of human emotions but from time to time the part of the suffering wife was included among those recognized by the Academy – especially if the script allowed a variety of different angles and a more realized personality of its own. In the case of both A Ship comes in and Sunrise, this does not seem to be true as the presented female characters were mostly defined by their relationship to their surroundings – Janet Gaynor’s characters was called The Wife in contrast to George O’Brien’s The Man which underlined how his character was allowed a personality based on his being while she only exists in her connection to him and can only be defined as part of him and not as a single unit. Similarly, Louise Dresser’s part in A Ship comes in is officially called Mrs. Pleznik but during the movie she is mostly referred to as ‘Mama’ – it’s a construct that finds Louise Dresser in the same place as Janet Gaynor as both played women who only seemed to find any justification for living at all by being recognized as part of a family and a larger whole. But even if the preconditions of these parts resembled each other they still were realized by different manners and different circumstances. Janet Gaynor’s part was put in the context of a much more lyrical and figurative world in which the characters existed to convey a certain style and theme while carrying the overall message with their realization of the roles as both symbols for a greater understanding and actual human beings who would behave as they do even without the constructed world around them – it was a task that Janet Gaynor fulfilled with poetic humanity and even if her Wife can easily appear as a weak and undecided character who accepts the behavior of her husband without interpreting her own fate and desires, she constantly makes it clear how her character actively chooses this life for herself and how her idea of forgiving the sins of her husband actually turns her into the stronger part of this marriage and Janet Gaynor’s own work and the focus of the story on the relationship between both characters keeps The Wife constantly in the foreground of the proceedings, allowing her to blossom the inner life of the part without compromising her position in Sunrise itself. Louise Dresser finds herself under different circumstances as A Ship comes in also tells a very personal story but tries to give a more realistic feeling, therefore not allowing the actress to use the limitations of her part to her advantage – most of all, A Ship comes in is a story of misunderstanding, confusion, inability to adopt and the process of getting accustomed to new surroundings as the Pleznik family learns about the traits of its new country (understanding that the President of the USA is not an Emperor), accepts new duties (sending their son into war), sees the danger of their naivety (as the father goes to jail for a crime he did not commit) or simply has to get used to their new way of life (especially learning the language of the USA) – but for Mrs. Pleznik, there is no process but only a definite state as A Ship comes in finds her as puzzled by everything around her at the end as it did at the beginning, English keeps eluding her still five years after she came to the USA and she keeps spending her life inside their little apartment without any true contact to the world around her and is mostly unable to comprehend the changes in her husband and her children as they get more and more accustomed to this new way of life. A character like this could be an interesting object of study and could offer different opportunities to take a closer look at alienation, the inability to accept a new reality and how this loneliness influences the inner personality but A Ship comes in never turns into this character study and hastily tells a story that lets many chances pass by and mostly focuses on the character of Mr. Pleznik who unwillingly gets involved in a crime that was committed by those people who don’t show the same kind of respect and admiration for their new homeland and regularly adds further incidents that influence the life of the Pleznik family – but within this story, Mrs. Pleznik always remains an almost ghostly presence, one who never actively participates in the happenings around her and even if this characterization of a devoted housewife certainly fits the presented time as well as the tradition of this family and her scenes of misunderstanding or inability to communicate offer the most memorable and touching moments of the story and Louise Dresser’s performance, the role of Mrs. Pleznik never offers any true chances to widen this characterization or create any complexity and therefore could only exist on a particular surface without ever gaining the trust of the screenplay or the attention of the movie that would allow Louise Dresser to display any further dimensions in her part.

A Ship comes in is a movie that celebrates patriotism and the USA by presenting a family that come to this country to find a better life and even if they have to endure hardship and personal tragedies never question the virtues of this country and how it gave them more than they could ever ask for – still, it’s a very quiet and personal execution without any grand exaggerations and the story also never turns the Plezniks into a symbol of immigration itself but tells their own and unique tale without overemphasizing the events in their lives for a greater meaning. In a similar way, Louise Dresser’s Mrs. Pleznik remains a singular creation that doesn’t stand in a symbolic context like Janet Gaynor’s Wife in Sunrise – but this lack of greater context also denied Louise Dresser the opportunity to ever step out of the shadows of the other characters and plot points even if the emotions of Mrs. Pleznik sometimes remind the viewers about her honest dedication to her family and stand as the strongest constant of the story. When A Ship comes in introduces Mrs. Pleznik for the first time during their arrival on a boat in America and right before the health inspection that will decide if they are allowed to leave the ship and start their new life, Louise Dresser already shows the main sentiments that constantly shape her existence – a certain state of worry that something or someone might harm her family, a sense of duty to the demands of her husband and the determination to do all she can for the sake of her children. Still, those features are always explained and referenced by the story itself more than Louise Dresser since the camera only occasionally focuses on her and gives her the chance to explore Mrs. Pleznik’s motives and ideas. After this opening scene, Mrs. Pleznik’s life happens almost completely inside the new apartment of the family and Louise Dresser only appears whenever the script specifically asks for her character’s appearance, denying her the chance to create a logic flow in her role and instead only gives her the chance to craft single moments and scenes that maybe do present a coherent picture of Mrs. Pleznik but also underline the one-dimensionality of her personality. But even if these limitations are constantly visible, Louise Dresser does the most she can with the role itself – her face displays an ongoing honesty of her emotions, displaying her worries and happiness with open expressions as she feels joy over the new job of her husband or a sense of gloom whenever someone unknown knocks on their door. The actress also disappears into the part of Mrs. Pleznik without any false vanity and builds a strong and believable relationship with all her co-stars, creating especially moving moments at the end when her husband returns and she simply hugs him with silent tears, displaying the deep affection between these two characters and she always retreats to her feelings of comfort and familiarity that ask her to do the best she can for the sake of her children and her husband – Mrs. Pleznik never denies her own simplicity or her secondary role in her family and Louise Dresser’s performance is expressive enough to generate a feeling of despair and loneliness that never leaves any doubt about the sincerity of her emotions. Like Janet Gaynor’s Wife in Sunrise, Mrs. Pleznik is a mostly passive creation but where Janet Gaynor was able to give her character a strong basis and a strength that ultimately turned The Wife into the most deciding force of the story, Louise Dresser unfortunately had to surrender to the passiveness of the role – when her son gets home, beaten up by other kids in his schools, Mrs. Pleznik is allowed a shocked expression but leaves it to her husband to approach and comfort him. It’s a role allocation that certainly makes sense in the context of the story but leaves Louise Dresser with little to do in moments like this – she is therefore much more memorable whenever A Ship comes in actually focuses on her character’s inner turmoil, even if it is again shaped by inability to express it clearly. She is especially moving when she realizes that her son is pondering the idea to join the army – Mrs. Pleznik is again unable to comprehend how her family is changing around her, feeling at home in this country that is still so strange to her and can only see the danger that he will get himself into if he actually decides to fight for the USA and even if Louise Dresser herself is still not allowed to do more than grab the shoulders of Mrs. Pleznik’s son in maternal love and fear, she still assures the audience that, despite her apparent weakness, she is the loving and gentle force that holds this family together and also makes it clear how much her son really loves her, too. She later repeats these moving images when her son appears in his uniform for the first time – his father is certainly full of pride over his son and his decision but both already sense the sorrow they will bring over Mrs. Pleznik, making the scene about her even before she enters the frame, again underlining that even if Mrs. Pleznik doesn’t have a large physical presence in the proceedings, she still leaves a lasting impression simply with her honest feelings and loving support as she, often with slight confusion or downright puzzlement watches her family become ‘American’ while she doesn’t really understand any of it. She movingly dedicates this scene to the love of a mother as she is almost afraid to touch her son and lets Mrs. Plaznik, despite her imposing physique, appear strangely delicate, letting her inner state of mind influence her body language – even if she slightly exaggerates a last outburst of emotions just as she later equally overdoes a scene in which her husband tries to cheer her up and she goes along with it, giving fake hysteric laughs that only proof that Louise Dresser is always stronger whenever she is asked to retreat into the insecurity of Mrs. Pleznik’s own mind. This insecurity also highlights the strongest moments of Louise Dresser’s performance which both arise from Mrs. Pleznik’s alienation from the world around her – when she wants to plead in front of a court that sentences her husband for a crime he did not commit, she suddenly becomes alive with desperation, even more so because the judge cannot understand her and she to beg her little daughter to translate her hopeless begging. And later, she receives a telegram about the fate of her son and again has to ask her children to help her with the meaning of the text – and when her daughter breaks down crying, Mrs. Pleznik again can only desperately beg to be informed about what has happened and what everyone understands except for her. It’s an internal and external distance that kept her away from life itself that ultimately distanced her from her family, too, and Louise Dresser manages to make these sudden tragedies strangely devastating despite the fact that her character had barely ever established itself before during the running time of A Ship comes in.

The role of Mrs. Pleznik, a woman who is almost without any real opinion and mostly be defined by not understanding at all, certainly benefits from Louise Dresser’s external and internal realization but it is easy to imagine that most actresses of her generation would have achieved the same results in this part. Louise Dresser surrendered to the limitations of the part even if those limitations served the story well – it is not necessary to see Louise Dresser’s face when Mrs. Pleznik buys a funeral wreath since her defeated body language is already enough but the effect of scenes like this is mostly based on Mrs. Pleznik’s character itself and not Louise Dresser’s actual performance which mostly became a vessel for the limitations of the role without adding any shades or depth herself. She is certainly a good vessel for this task and she also fulfills the demands of silent pictures with precise focus but she certainly lacks the life, the poetic clarity, the vibrancy and mysteriousness of many other celebrated performances from the silent era that were able to constantly pose and answer questions about their characters, added depth and complexity with a single look or possessed a magic screen presence that made words unnecessary in the end. Louise Dresser’s performance in A Ship comes in unfortunately lacks these qualities as the movie holds her back too strongly and while she meets the demands of silent pictures with her expressive face she also to surrender to them at the same time since the alienation of Mrs. Pleznik often gets lost in the proceedings – it is easy to imagine that a talking picture might have had better use of the character and could have given her more opportunities to emphasize her distance from her new country. But overall, Louise Dresser also does not inhabit a personality on the screen that would put more emphasis on Mrs. Pleznik by itself – Louise Dresser would have needed a stronger role to truly shine just like Mrs. Pleznik would have needed an actress with a more visible personality and strength to truly shine. The Academy can certainly be applauded for casting a light on a mostly unknown character actress but considering the small number of performers who were acknowledged by the Academy for silent pictures, her performance does feel far too neglectable and nondescript to be highlighted by this specific honor. Janet Gaynor’s role in Sunrise was, despite certain similarities, memorable and loud. Louise Dresser, despite some moving displays of motherly love, unfortunately remained as silent as the movie that surrounds her.


12/10/2013

Best Actress 1928: Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise"

Louis B. Mayer said ‘Let there be gold’ – and there was gold. But little golden, naked statues were actually not an initial part of this new organization called Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which was mostly created to arbitrate with unions and serve as an elite club that would assemble the most important names of the most important branches in the industry. But Louis B. Mayer apparently also saw the weakness of the human spirit and its craving for attention and recognition, sensing that an award that would honor the greatest artistic achievements of the year could also keep a tighter control over filmmakers and studio employees since they would all aim to fulfill the needed tasks and obligations to become a part of the studio system that raises its children by both praising and punishing them whenever necessary and ultimately receive this new but also highest tribute, too. It was an ambitious goal but also one with an open ending – even Janet Gaynor apparently did not know what to think of this new recognition and later openly admitted that meeting matinee idol and the original ‘King of Hollywood’ Douglas Fairbanks during the first awards ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was far more exciting than being announced as the Best Actress of the year for her performances in the three silent movies Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. After all, the initial event of a newly planned tradition is always a little bit confusing and nobody can be sure just how this tradition will evolve in the future – or if it even will evolve at all. And furthermore, the excitement of the awards ceremonies as it became known in the later years had also not been established yet – there were no closed envelopes, no speculations and no frontrunners since the Academy had already announced the winners three months before the actual ceremony, giving other contenders an honorary mention for their artistic achievements, and the media also reacted with only little interest in this event that took place one evening in 1929. Therefore it is not surprising that the glamour and the sheer power that was involved in the founding of the Academy created a much stronger impression for many attendees and even winners than the awards themselves – an organization that was founded by names like Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner was certainly not to be underestimated among member of the Hollywood community even if the awards that were given out still lacked the prestige, importance and worldwide recognition they would win later and mostly possessed a certain aura of exploring reactions and examining possibilities to guide the further development of these new accolades. But the reputation of the Academy and their awards would grow even faster than expected when the ceremony itself became an annual highlight in the entertainment world that brought together stars and fans and recognized respected actors and pioneers like Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Claudette Colbert, Wallace Berry, Frederic March, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable for their work on the screen, giving the expression ‘Academy Award winning actor’ an unexpected level of popularity as the award began to outgrow a mere acknowledgment of excellence and became the definite symbol of achievement that was not only recognized anymore by a small group of experts but audiences worldwide. And Janet Gaynor herself would later also emphasize the importance of the Academy Awards when she became the first actress to be nominated for playing an Oscar winner in 1937’s A Star is Born which maybe showed a crowd of fictitious movie stars but still awarded them a real honor without the need to explain its significance in the life of either Vicki Lester or Norman Maine. And so Janet Gaynor might not have realized the meaning of her victory at the Academy Awards in 1929 but it was a triumph that would forever immortalize her name in movie history because even if artistic achievements stand for themselves, the connection with an award that would later be called Oscar almost immediately creates a certain distinction that is able to raise the profile of an actor or an actress to an undeniable level that seems to stand above the need to justify itself even if the careers of many Oscar winners did not live up to the expectations that are associated with their Oscar wins – and the first two acting winners in 1929 illustrate how different careers could be after the arrival of talking pictures revolutionized movie acting in just a short period of time. The first Best Actor winner Emil Jannings had already left Hollywood for good before the actual award ceremony because his thick German accent prevented him from continuing his career in America and he therefore re-directed his focus on work in German-language movies such as Der blaue Engel with Marlene Dietrich and later appeared in various movies of propagandistic nature during the time of the Third Reich. Janet Gaynor on the other hand understood how to benefit from her critical and commercial accomplishments in 1928 and successfully made the transition to talking pictures, continuing to play leading roles in various romantic comedies during the first half of the decade, even if her status as one of the first ladies of the screen slowly diminished before she finally retired from the screen in 1938, acting only occasionally from then on but still having left a permanent impression in movie history – an impression that was created not only because of her status as the first recipient of the Best Actress award but also because her win is associated with her involvement in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise which stands as one of the undeniable classics from the silent era, an influential and groundbreaking masterpiece that is often referred to as one of the greatest movies of all time and received the kind of iconic reputation that creates a lasting effect for everyone involved. Furthermore, Sunrise also holds the distinction of having won the first and only Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Production, an honor often referred to as an alternative choice for the best movie of the year even if the World War I drama Wings is by now considered the only official Best Picture winner from the first year of the Academy’s existence.

Looking back the history of the Academy Awards, the choice of Wings as the Outstanding Production of the year 1928 is neither surprising nor unusual since it demonstrated that Oscar voters tended to circle around certain topics and themes right from the start – the first decade of the Academy was dominated by war, history, music, humor or sheer grandness and all these styles and subjects would continue to be of importance in the following years and Oscar seasons to come. Wings, which focused on the aerial combats during World War I and offered groundbreaking battle sequences in the air and on the ground, immediately appealed the Academy’s preference for stories focused on war and surrounded by grand productions. One year later, talking pictures had already completely conquered the Academy and its members eagerly embraced this new trend, awarding not just any talking pictures but the lavish The Broadway Melody, Hollywood’s first all-talking musical. After this, All Quiet on the Western Front was the next movie that focused on the terror of war and was ultimately named the Best Picture of the year while Cimarron and Cavalcade were two large epics that taught lessons in American and English history, combining their large spectrums of time and place with the personal story of various families that would stand as a reflection for the changes that were happening around them. Between these two movies, the Academy honored a movie that was considerable smaller in scale but Grand Hotel was still an attraction that impressed with the sheer grandness of its cast that included names like Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore or Joan Crawford and was therefore a movie that maybe told small and private stories that offered a look behind the closed doors of an unknown world but realized it with actors that served as almost epic vessels for their characters, giving it therefore a grandness that could easily be compared to the larger spectacles that were honored before and after it, replacing lavish sets or imposing plotlines with personalities and star power. Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld and Gone with the Wind were other winners that combined a grand attainment with different popular themes from history to music to war or maybe all at once, while The Life of Emile Zola was another lesson that told of past times but focused on a smaller scale than Cimarron and Cavalcade, also telling about the life of a specific person, showing that real-life characters and events were another theme that was very popular with Oscar voters right away, ranging from Emile Zola to Florence Ziegfeld or the events on the Bounty. And finally, while Oscar voters might often be hesitant to award comedic performances or movies, they like to laugh from time to time and so the early years of the Academy Awards also saw wins for You can’t take it with You as well as It happened one Night which also turned Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert into prominent Oscar winners. So even if the Academy constantly honors very different stories and styles, the overall themes of their choices often tend to be rather similar and they would remain like this in the future, emphasizing a tendency for specific preferences in the different Oscar categories. And so during its first year of existence, the Academy also selected a field of female performances that would stand for a wide area of womanhood and that also consisted of achievements that would become precursors for many nominated performances to follow. Louise Dresser in A Ship comes in stands for the faithful wife and suffering mother, the woman whose life circles around her family and who quietly hurts whenever she cannot influence a situation according to her own wisdom and judgment. But the Academy has always reacted just as favorable to the other side of that spectrum, to women who not only life by their own rules and independent from men but who also sell their body and refuse any prejudice even if deep down they are just longing for love and marriage and a conventional life like almost everybody else – in this first line-up, this role was fulfilled by Gloria Swanson who had to work hard and risked a lot to bring the story of Sadie Thompson, a ‘fallen woman’ who has to face a fanatical missionary on the island of Tutuila, to the screen. And then there was the woman who received the honor of being named the Best Actress of the year for three different movies which all gave her the opportunity to explore the middle ground between these extremes – in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, Janet Gaynor played a woman who was forced to become a prostitute but who never displayed the same devil-may-care-attitude as Gloria Swanson, focusing more strongly on the personal pain and misery that the circumstances of her life had brought upon her, and for whom prostitution was merely a catalyst to start a tragic romance which highlighted her need for companionship, love and an ordinary life full of quiet happiness. And even if her characters and Sadie Thompson were aiming for the same goals and possessed the same dreams, Janet Gaynor’s performances still displayed a stark contrast to that of Gloria Swanson which was based in the fundamental difference of these specific characters, showing again that the specific stories vary very strongly while the themes tend to display a certain similarity, but also in their screen personalities as fierce recklessness and dominance came just as easily to Gloria Swanson as innocence and reluctance to Janet Gaynor. So the theme of Janet Gaynor’s work might be close to Gloria Swanson but her actual performance sets them strictly apart – something that was also true for her third winning role in Sunrise which maybe resembles the theme of the suffering wife that Louise Dresser also displayed in A Ship comes in since she played a woman who discovers that her husband wants to kill her and learns to love him again but Sunrise added a more active angle to the part as Janet Gaynor’s character does not only quietly accept but later actually influences and changes, too, becoming the person who decides the fate of her marriage, turning into a symbol of loving forgiveness, honest decency and kind womanhood in a picture that celebrates love by praising the strength that is needed to keep it intact and a story that maybe tells ‘A Song of Two Humans’ but goes beyond these two characters to find a broader and more extended meaning for its particular idea of human relationships – and Janet Gaynor’s work, too, turns into a distinct characterization but also stands for a specific idea behind this characterization, unique and universal at the same time and it also exists in ideal harmony with the style and theme of Sunrise, emphasizing both the endless devotion and symbolism as well as the overall strength and individuality of a role that demanded a tangible but also dream-like presence which would substantiate the vague and yet definite notions of the overall story.

When the Academy gave out its new awards for the first time, silent movies were already a dying art form – The Jazz Singer gave audiences a look into the new possibilities of motion pictures and very soon movie character would not only speak but sing, too, the artillery of the battlefields would become frighteningly real and movie monsters would be able to scare audiences with gruesome noises and sounds. But in 1928, the most prestigious movie makers and actors were still involved in silent but still very expressional projects that told stories without words and explained characters without dialogue. For Janet Gaynor, 1928 would turn out to be the highpoint of her career in silent pictures before the new technologies would again end this phase of her work and demand an equally new style and approach – her movies Sunrise and Seventh Heaven were not only popular with audiences but also with critics and industry insiders who awarded both productions with various honors and Street Angel further established her screen partnership with co-star Charles Ferrell which would last for another ten pictures. And considering that in 1929, the Academy did not specifically honor the best performance by an actress but instead gave the award for the best actress of the year overall, the selection of Janet Gaynor does not appear surprising since her work in three popular and acclaimed movies gave her a strong edge over other female stars of the year and her focus on delicate and kind-hearted women who had to overcome drastic obstacles that stood in the way of her happiness in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel gave an immediate sense of familiarity that appealed to audiences and critics alike. Like many actors and actresses of the silent age she was easy to cast in roles that would benefit from her personality – in worlds that knew no sound and gave no chance to extensively explain motives, motivations and thoughts, characters often had to be recognized by their exteriors rather than their interiors and the personality and looks of the stars established their role on the screen, giving it life without the need of interpretation but also never contradicting the audience’s expectations or defying the predefined course of the character. And Janet Gaynor, too, used her delicate features and natural innocence to shape her celebrated roles according to her image on the screen, actively crafting women that were often defined by their need for support and guidance but possessed an inner strength and will of their own, often outgrowing their doubts and fears, determined to find the happiness they aimed for all their lives and even at the age of 21, she already possessed a powerful understanding of love and experience, of looking back on a lifetime of pain and sorrow, giving meaning to her grief and contentment and her face held a beautifully transcendent quality, turning into a window to her soul and expressing her simple emotions and dreams with complex clarity. Her long, sustained close-up after her husband asked her to go with him on a boat trip across the lake, is maybe the most overwhelming visual moment in a movie that lives from its poetic imagery, and her slow change from fear and doubt to hope and finally to newfound joy while breathing with growing excitement is a display of unforgettable emotional sincerity. The three Oscar-winning characters of Janet Gaynor were never defined by any complexity but their straight-forward simplicity gave her the opportunity to find an undeniable inner core that would allow her to benefit from the techniques of the pictures around her and create women who lived a believable honesty and sobriety which never turned into naivety or plainness, delectably fulfilling the tasks of the scripts and adding the needed emotional but also intellectual dimension to her movies. As a movie, Sunrise seems to exist on a different level than mere story-telling and it crafts a tangible atmosphere of love and betrayal with overwhelming technical perfection but as a story, it represents the experiences of two characters and even if this story might only serve the vision around it and therefore appears of secondary importance, it still carries this style and brings it to live – the tale of this man and this woman who learn to love each other again maybe never gives the needed depth to a topic of this breadth but nonetheless doesn’t stay on the surface of these characters, using a combination of complex imagery and simple feeling to give this story an intricacy beyond its visuals, based on the human foundation at its center.

In Sunrise, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien play characters that are shaped by their individual experiences but that also stand for a greater meaning beyond their personal fates, establishing them almost as unwritten pages on which the viewers can reflect their own observations and like inkblot tests constantly represent a specific pattern and an unknown dimension behind any merely visible layer and the movie also never tries to give them a specific personality beyond their position in the story and their relationship to each other, only telling of one day of their lives, leaving all possible further aspects unanswered and unmentioned, using them to tell the story of their marriage and their love and that way commenting on a whole array of human emotions and relationships. But beyond this observation of the different stages of togetherness and alienation, Sunrise also examines a time that was shaped by the arrival of a new era and a clash of a modern, unknown future with a conventional, familiar past and both characters unknowingly fight for the preservation of traditions and the protection of their definition of values against a harmful outsider and the threat of new ideas and perceptions. It’s a generalization that finds its basis in its two central characters and, just as mentioned before, the looks and charisma of Janet Gaynor help to immediately establish her position as the supportive and loyal wife, as a symbol of traditional womanhood, even further emphasized with her tight and bright hair, and even beyond that natural innocence and honesty that is visible in every moment of her performance – her work exists as a complete opposite from that of Margaret Livingstone as her husband’s mistress who embodies sex appeal and deviousness in every scene while Janet Gaynor brings a sincere love and trust that not only carries the theme of the story but also gives its all the needed credibility since the story of Sunrise completely depends on the ability of Janet Gaynor to give reason and understanding to her character and her actions. Because even if her character exists as a vessel to for the observation of a greater truth, it also stands as a specific example that embraces a broader context and therefore tells both a dreamlike parable but also a particular story of two people – and Janet Gaynor, too, gives a performance that serves these themes, letting her role float with the story and refusing to let it become too detailed beyond its focus on love and marriage but she also plays this general idea with a distinct characterization that rested on her ability to express forgiveness and support without any vanity and therefore tell this fairytale with riveting realism. In the world of Sunrise, Janet Gaynor’s role actually never asks to become a true character and both characters of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor possess almost nameless names that are used to emphasize their impersonality within the story – George O’Brien is The Man, a name that introduces the universality of his intentions and actions as well as his unlimited standing in an Adam-and-Eve-like scenario, while Janet Gaynor is The Wife who loyally stands by her husband’s side and the fact that she is not called The Woman immediately sets the structure of the central relationship and the role allocation of its male and the female presence, highlighting that this woman only exists in connection to her husband and not as a pure individual. It is certainly an old-fashioned look at marriage and gender relations in which Margaret Livingstone’s Woman from the City embodies a dangerous kind of womanhood, one that freed itself from the dominance of men but it also helps to set the triangle of the presented human relationships and the movie does not need the name of Janet Gaynor’s character to imply specifically that she symbolizes not only the traditional and commendable kind of woman but also one who is pure and loyal, whose love knows no conditions since the sanctity of marriage created a bond that sealed their friendship forever and puts her above The Woman from the City almost by nature. But even if the classification as The Wife mostly underlined her position as a concrete symbol in the predefined structure of the story and her marriage, giving her a limited scope that sees her purpose in fulfilling a specific function, Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to give an inner life to this woman and always support Sunrise’s wider theme without losing the core of her character – The Wife exists as an allegory, shaped and guided by the screenplay and always remaining a construction within the world of Sunrise but Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to preserve these intentions while also giving her role an unexpected individuality, inhabiting the nature of support and forgiveness to the extent that her actions never appear to be a part of the movie’s structure but rather made of her own free will without turning either into a role model or a cautionary tale. And by crafting The Wife as a character independent from the world around her, Janet Gaynor was able to achieve an absorbing display of strength and decisiveness that showed her character as the ultimately stronger part in this relationship even if she at first only exists as a reflection of her husband’s deeds – The Man might appear to take a more active position, turning into a master over life and death but Sunrise shows him to be constantly reacting to the acts of the female characters, may it be by manipulation, begging or forgiving and loving and ultimately Janet Gaynor’s Wife turns into the more decisive power in the story and her willingness to forgive her husband for his sins becomes the turning point of the movie, the marriage and the character and Sunrise could not have succeed without the plausibility and realism, this simple display of utter sincerity that Janet Gaynor brought to a part that often escapes rational logic. Her performance speaks a very precise language, explaining the story at every step and leaving no doubt about the forthrightness of her actions – her quiet and defeated body language as she sits down at the table at the beginning, realizing that her husband has gone off to see his mistress, is able to be both stylized and piteous, setting the situation and the plot while also establishing her role and personality within the context of Sunrise, just as her later scene with her child which she comforts while silently crying over the apparent dissolution of her marriage. Another character states that the man and his wife used to be like children, laughing and enjoying their happiness, and George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor both absorb this statement into their performances – The Man possesses an impatient temper, often reacting with anger and violence or tears and helplessness, begging for his wife’s forgiveness with the same earnest a child would ask an adult to make something bad go away while The Wife lets herself be overwhelmed with emotions very easily, spinning with expressions of joy after her husband asked her to go on a trip with him and both characters together are not afraid to become almost child-like in their interactions, even appear a little bit silly in their humor but Janet Gaynor’s performance never forgets to include a certain wisdom, a simple knowledge that might be based on a purely emotional level but still guides both characters. But beyond this, Janet Gaynor’s work is always the point of reference for the audience and Sunrise itself, emphasizing the sorrow and pain in the beginning, the growing tension and sudden change of tone in the middle as well as the humor and love in the end – while George O’Brien becomes an almost emotionless menace during the boat ride, Janet Gaynor’s slightly confused face as she waits alone for him to came back and her subsequent growing fear that suddenly turns into open panic helps to craft the overall atmosphere during this pivotal scene and even if Sunrise began its story with a marriage on the verge of destruction, Janet Gaynor’s display of her character never leaves any doubt about her loyalty and love, creating the basis for the plausibility of the scenes to come, keeping the plot constantly going and preventing Sunrise from collapsing under its own premise – the tale of a woman learning that her husband wants to kill her and forgiving and loving him again in a couple of a few hours could have easily missed the necessary credibility but Sunrise’s style and the work by Janet Gaynor lets this fantasy not only be strangely intriguing but also plausible. When The Wife forgets her fears and finds the strength to not only forgive her husband for what he wanted to do and what he did but also gives their marriage a new meaning and a new start, Sunrise reaches its decisive point, the one moment all other aspects circles around and to which everything points and everything comes from and all this is due to Janet Gaynor’s simple but understanding display of Sunrise’s message which states that love is always worth fighting for, kissing and comforting him, smiling again and for the first time expressing a truly deep feeling of love and companionship and again avoiding any missteps in such a contrived story by taking a definite lead in this moment without letting it become about her but always keeping the focus on the relationship between both characters. On a first look, The Wife might appear to be the weaker character, accepting all of her husband’s behaviors without questioning his love and their marriage but Sunrise and Janet Gaynor show a woman that actually decides to be forgiving and who reveals more strength and wisdom than her husband ever did and also is the one who saves this relationship, mending what he almost destroyed and therefore turning into the stronger part of this marriage. After this scene, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien again find the inner children within their characters, letting them enjoy a day in a world that they don’t understand and the scenes at a barber shop, a photographer and later a dance hall let Janet Gaynor be amusingly relaxed and unconcerned and her child-like behavior helps to reveal the love between these two characters for the first time in the story after their relationship had only been defined by sorrow and lies and both actors share the right chemistry to make these moments both believable and exaggerated, letting it be strangely reasonable that this love should be restored in just a few hours. But Janet Gaynor’s innocence always moves the story along, creating a beautiful moment of youthful wishing when she longingly watches other couples dancing, and finds its highpoint in the final Madonna-like image that brings the character to a full circle even if only a small part of her personality had been discovered during this day.

Overall, the love in Sunrise does never feel perfect – the husband not only almost kills his wife but also tries to murder his mistress and in between threatens a man who gets too close to his wife with a knife and neither the screenplay nor George O’Brien’s performance ever disperse the feeling that he would act the same way again if another woman would ask him to but Sunrise succeeds because Janet Gaynor succeeds and her ability to believe the purity of this love makes it easy for the audience to believe it, too. Of course, the limitations of the part itself that only exists to support the vision of the story are perceptible during many moments of Sunrise – as mentioned before, director Murnau did not attempt to flesh out full characters within this tale but created symbols that needed a certain emptiness to fully internalize the ideas behind them and while the simplicity works beautifully in Janet Gaynor’s creation of the character in the context of Sunrise, it also keeps her performance within a narrow, predefined area that does not allow her to craft a personality beyond the borders of her movie but like a character in a fairy tale, she still exists in her own world and even if she might not feel truly authentic, she still possesses a captivating realism that makes her actions and thoughts constantly believable. Overall, her performance is a strange case of a role that is constantly overshadowed by the movie around it but still carries this movie, too – Sunrise depends on her ability to bring its message to live but simultaneously it also exists without the specific details of her performance, using its technical aspects of storytelling to narrate about two people without really focusing on their personalities. But Janet Gaynor was able to balance the different tasks of the role without forgetting the human being beneath it, adding dignity and warmth to a character that could easily have been portrayed as a wholly passive creation without the strengths that Janet Gaynor found inside of her – more than anything, Sunrise and Janet Gaynor’s performance symbolize the power of silent movies that are able to tell a lot with a just a little and even if the movie might overshadow the performances within it, they are still its basis and fundament without which it would have collapsed immediately.

9/16/2013

Best Actress 1928


The next year will be 1928 and the nominees were

Louise Dresser in A Ship Comes in

Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven

Janet Gaynor in Street Angel

Janet Gaynor in Sunrise

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

Ranking of the judged performances so far...

This is the ranking of the updated performances so far.

You can read the full reviews by clicking on the name. 

Best of the Best

1. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
2. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
3. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)


Fantastic

4. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


Great

5. Gene Tierney in Leave her to Heaven (1945)
6. Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)


Strong

7. Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942)


Very Good

8. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)
9. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
10. Deborah Kerr in Edward, my Son (1949)
11. Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942)


Good

12. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who's coming to dinner (1967)
13. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
14. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)


Acceptable

15Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
16. Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949)
17Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942)
18. Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision (1945)
19. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
20. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)

9/15/2013

Best Actress 1949 - The resolution

After having watched and reviewed all five nominated performances, it's time to pick the winner!



What’s on the screen is a strangely peculiar performance that offers occasional moments of grace and love but mostly lacks all of the qualities that would usually be expected from an Oscar-nominated piece of work. Still, Loretta Young’s distinctive screen presence and her ability to radiate warmth and kindness leave a maybe not lasting but often satisfying impression.



                     
Jeanne Crain's performance might be able to carry the movie and give Pinky a distinct personality but her boundaries as an actress are too visible during many scenes even if her own approach to the part managed to overcome any negative consequences. But overall, she lacked too many nuances and too much depth to be truly outstanding.



3. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart

Susan Hayward played Eloise with her usual confidence but lacked the youthful fervor and also the opportunities to give more dimension to her role. It’s a mixed performance that is saved in parts by the bookend scenes and her later quiet displays of overwhelming grief and anguish.



2. Deborah Kerr in Edward, my Son

There are various problems in this characterisation and the script it is based on but Deborah Kerr still made the transformation of Evelyn completely believable and gave a moving, occasionally heartbreaking and intriguing performance that maybe could have achieved more but still came to life with haunting reality.




Towering above her competition, Olivia de Havilland not only avoided any failure in this part but actively exceeded her accomplishments by exploring the different aspects and motivations of Catherine Sloper and filling them with logic and reason, delivering an outstanding portrayal of desperation, hope, regret, hate and fear that stands among the finest this category has ever seen.



Best Actress 1949: Susan Hayward in "My Foolish Heart"

A very distinct hope was shared by millions of women, professional actresses, amateurs and dreamers in America and all around the world between the middle of 1936 and the beginning of 1939 – that of one day becoming the face and the body of the most idealized, coveted and influential fictitious female character in the history of modern storytelling. After the release of Margaret Mitchell’s classic bestseller Gone with the Wind, the name and fate of the headstrong, beautiful, selfish but also captivating Southern Belle called Scarlett O’Hara turned into an unparalleled phenomenon around the world – and when David O. Selznick acquired the movie rights to this saga of the Old South, an equally unprecedented search for the ideal actress who would combine the fire, the appeal, the charm and the beauty to satisfy the countless different ideas and perceptions that existed of the central character already, began. Over 1,400 candidates were interviewed, ranging from hopeful wanna-be stars to more established actresses but David O. Selznick seemed determined to cast a performer who was still unfamiliar to movie audiences, avoiding a Scarlett that was shaped by the personality of a star and the perception of the viewers – and so contenders like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck were out of the running before the race even began. It was a highly unusual casting process in which fame and star power were only of secondary importance and which allowed the room and the time to find the perfect actress for a role that was already strongly shaped in the minds of millions of movie goers by now – talent scouts were sent to the Southern States to look at possible contenders and various experienced but not necessarily undeniable actresses were given closely observed screen tests that very often not actually gave them a real chance for the part but rather helped David O. Selznick to develop a feeling for the qualities that were needed from an actress to play the character of Scarlett O’Hara and fulfill all the demands that this role and the overall production were asking for. It was a mostly unsatisfying search during which Selznick constantly tried to convince himself of certain candidates but remained skeptical – until the most unlikely contender, a largely unknown British actress, crossed the Atlantic and won the part of this most American character, turning her from phenomenon into Hollywood legend when Gone with the Wind became the most successful and most viewed movie of all time. But even if the casting of Vivien Leigh destroyed the dreams of many other actresses, the casting process itself helped to create new careers nonetheless – David O. Selznick might have considered Lana Turner’s screen tests ‘completely inadequate’ but they still helped her to pass to another level on her road to stardom. And another beneficiary was Edythe Marrenner who, like Vivien Leigh, came to Hollywood specifically to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara – it was a hope that was short-lived but Edythe would leave her position as a photographer model behind, change her name to Susan Hayward and work her way up the career ladder, becoming one of Hollywood’s most popular female stars during the following two decades. It was a discovery that did not lead to any overnight success – at the beginning of her career, Susan Hayward was primarily cast in secondary parts, uncredited or even cut out of the picture completely but in 1939, the same year Gone with the Wind enjoyed its triumphant release, director William Wellman finally helped her to achieve a higher level of visibility when he cast her opposite Gary Cooper and Ray Milland in the popular hit Beau Geste. After this, she began to establish herself as a beloved leading lady on the screen, occasionally working opposite the most popular male stars of her time like Gregory Peck or John Wayne – but even if Susan Hayward was a fitting opponent to these actors, she nonetheless built her reputation as an actress who was willing to show the despair, faults and misery of her characters mostly by being the clear central point of her ‘women pictures’ around which all other aspects and characters would revolve. Like other popular contemporary actresses such as Rosalind Russell or Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward typically utilized her distinct personality in stories that not only completely depended on these personalities but also focused all their attention on it, living and dying with the performance of its leading lady. In these central roles, she displayed the necessary confidence to work from the outside first and later added the demanded emotions but more than that she always aimed to emphasize the pain and the suffering of her tragic creations, going overboard with expressions and feelings, letting every gesture be broader than the one before – few other actresses of her area were able to use such a distinctive and exaggerated style to their own advantage in the same way, finding critical acclaim in movies that fitted their complete structure entirely to the talents of its leading star. And so it does not seem surprising that the Academy always reacted the most generous when Susan Hayward found such a vehicle and such a chance to overwhelm her environment with both her acting style and her dominant personality – she received her first nomination for playing drunk and hopeless in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, was even more drunk and even more helpless in I’ll cry tomorrow and later unpredictable and hopeless in I want to live! Her work in With a Song in my Heart might not fit into this pattern but the lack of alcohol in this performance was more than compensated by her various musical numbers that allowed her to use her usual domineering screen presence for different reasons but with the same effect. Most of all, the Academy seemed to prefer the unusual side of Susan Hayward, the woman who was almost destroyed by her own faults or had to overcome personal misery – and while men did play a certain part in these developments, they never met her character on an equal level. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, With a Song in my Heart and I’ll cry tomorrow all featured a certain level of romantic storylines but they were never given first priority and her co-stars were similarly never on the same level of star power and screen personality and I want to live! was a star-vehicle from start to finish in which Susan Hayward never had to share the spotlight for a single second, not even for a romantic storyline. It is therefore not surprising that Susan-Hayward-pictures never received much recognition outside of Susan Hayward’s central and emphasized performance – she never appeared in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture and Thelma Ritter was the only actress who was ever able to receive an Oscar nomination for appearing in one of Susan Hayward’s showcases. It seems that the Academy preferred Susan Hayward on her own, starring in unconventional surroundings and playing characters that defied common appearances in the Best Actress category. But what about the movie and the performance that brought her the second Oscar nomination of her career? My Foolish Heart gives the impression of following this pattern since it is also a movie that was undoubtedly designed as a showcase for its leading lady, having only been nominated for one additional Oscar for its original song and it is also a story that features a woman under the influence of alcohol, standing in front of the ruins of her own life. But My Foolish Heart also has another side – it was the one time when the Academy felt enamored by a Susan Hayward whose life was circling around love and relationships as her character is constantly defined by her longing for romance and her grief over its loss and furthermore her movie did not offer a complete and natural one-woman-show but instead gave Susan Hayward and her male co-star a similiar chance for success and depended equally on the effects of their performances, providing not only her but also her leading man with the needed room and opportunities to develop their characters and their intentions, a circumstance that was emphasized even stronger by the casting of Dana Andrews who was not the same kind of pale co-star that so often appeared opposite Susan Hayward during her career but rather a charismatic and popular screen presence himself. But what did all this mean for Susan Hayward's actual performance? Did she succeed in showing her personality in a more conventional surrounding, in a world that was not able to catch up with her willingness to portray the flaws and faults of her characters and instead asked her to underline the common character of her role, or did the overall story offer her too little chances to craft a woman who is defined by more aspects than her search for love and affection?

As a short story, Uncle Wiggily goes to Connecticut was a popular commentary on the lies and false dreams in America’s suburb that told of Eloise Wengler who spends the afternoon drinking and reminiscing about her past and the love she lost while mistreating those around her, including her husband and her little daughter. Rewritten into My Foolish Heart, the story of the movie mostly focused on the flashbacks between Eloise and her lover Walt, dropping all social observations for the sake of a conventional love story that features happiness, misery, death and a child received out of wedlock and was rated negatively by most critics at the time of its release and also J. D. Salinger, the author of Uncle Wiggiliy goes to Connecticut but turned into a financial hit nonetheless, most likely due to the casting of two popular stars in the central parts. And the critics were right that My Foolish Heart lacks imagination and complexity, concentrating its attention too strongly on the trivial sections of its script – and giving Susan Hayward a part that too seldom benefitted from her willingness to let herself be completely accustomed to unusual circumstances and to unleash a combination of anger and frustration with distinct intensity. My Foolish Heart did not see her as an accused murderess, an invalid singer, a drunk singer or just a drunk but mainly wanted her to be an average girl next door with a head full of romance and a lack of ambition for any other aspects of life. It’s a task she was able to fulfill with a surprising lack of vanity but her screen personality never advanced the thin layers of the script and she was often not able to hide her own maturity behind the masque of girlish naivety. So it is not surprising that she is most effective in those scenes that stick the closest to its source material and that give her the chance to craft a character that rises with her willingness to be completely unlikeable whenever a role demands it – the bookend moments of the story during which Eloise gets a visits from her former best friend Mary Jane and drunkenly laments her current life and mourns the loss of what could have been. Few actresses were able to realize lines like ‘I’m insured’ after having almost been hit with a car or ‘Who said to forgive is divine? Probably nobody I’d care to meet anyhow’ in the same straight-forward way that never drew any attention to them but still exposed many facets and attitudes of the character at the same time. In her first scenes, Susan Hayward is able to shine with all the characteristics that came to her rather easily – she is spiteful but never mean, drunk but never a caricature and obviously suffers from a yet untold past while avoiding any obvious attempts to gain sympathy for either her performance or her character. It’s an intriguing entrance of a personality that may never become as interesting as those early scenes suggest but Susan Hayward’s strength in those moments is still able to create just enough curiosity about Eloise and what happened to her that the comparatively pale flashback scenes benefit from them even more than from the actual love story itself. When Eloise spits out her dislike for her husband or rejects him on the phone, Susan Hayward portrays her without any broader context, focusing on her aversion without trying to give any explanation, simply showing a marriage that clearly came to its end and existed without love or affection for a long time already. But she also finds more tender moments during her talk with Mary Jane – suddenly, her former lover Walt becomes a genuine presence and Susan Hayward plays her regret and inner pain over his loss with a touching quietness but also with the routine of a woman who has been having these thoughts constantly for the last years but is still unable and unwilling to let them go. Susan Hayward shows that Eloise is drowning not only in sorrow but also in self-pity, blaming her husband for her own reluctance to find a new phase in her life and refusing to be the kind of mother she could be – she is as honest in those moments as the script allows her, certainly resting on various clichés but also succeeding in presenting a woman who has given up any illusions and dreams, almost proud of her own bitterness and resistance to those around her. In those moments, despite the almost apathetic nature of Eloise, Susan Hayward’s acting style finds a fresh spontaneity and feels much more alive than in many scenes to come – her way of reacting to the news that her husband wants to leave her or learns that Mary Jane knows about his plan to take their child with him is done without any exaggerated histrionics and constantly stays true to the character that Susan Hayward has been creating so far, finding her somewhere between hate and confusion, letting her get accustomed to the new circumstances of her life while clearly unable to organize her thoughts in such a short time. But from this moment on, My Foolish Heart leaves this captivating structure behind and lets Eloise look back on her life, insisting that she used to be a ‘nice girl’ and recalling her relationship with Walt and its tragic ending – a step that maybe added a new aspect of Eloise's personality to the story and could have created an intriguing background to this character but unfortunately stayed too focused on the surface of a thin and underdeveloped romance, denying Susan Hayward many chances to strengthen her portrayal even if she was able to add occasional moments of haunting intensity. 

During her career, Susan Hayward has often emphasized the commonness of extraordinary characters, making their flaws a natural part of their personality instead of trying to find deeper reasons. But during the flashbacks of My Foolish Heart, she is asked to only highlight the commonness of a purely common character – a task that was not unsolvable for her but the script of My Foolish Heart too often guides Eloise through a variety of inexpressive scenes that neither let Susan Hayward go beyond the limits of the character nor answers any principal questions on its development. The introduction of Eloise as a ‘nice girl’ at a party where she is humiliated by a classmate who ridiculed her dress does not really help Susan Hayward to present Eloise as the plain and ordinary woman from Ohio she is supposed to be – most of all, Susan Hayward's personality never fits this description and premise and her strength on the screen is also too dominant for a woman who is mainly a vague presence but while this strength weakens Susan Hayward's work in some aspects it also helped her achieve the important task of carrying and shaping My Foolish Heart without surrendering too strongly to the sentimentality of the story. In the same way, the introduction of Dana Andrews’s Walt also works for and against Susan Hayward – the two actors share a chemistry that might not truly resemble a grand attraction, a great love at first sight that would change these two characters forever, but still possesses a natural innocence and suaveness and right from the start Dana Andrews displays the needed appealing charm that explains why Eloise is so immediately smitten with this stranger. But the love that is presented on the screen still follows too many clichéd formulas and Susan Hayward constantly stays within the boundaries of these formulas – even though the character of Eloise would have allowed a display of many darker and unconventional nuances. Susan Hayward’s quick and positive response to Walt’s suggestion that they could dance outside already indicates that Eloise is a woman who is not afraid to actively pursue a relationship, defying the thoughts and perceptions that would accompany a woman like this. But mostly, Susan Hayward often faces challenges that might appear rather simple but still cause difficulties for an actress of her decisive screen presence – she lacks the needed humor and naturalness to be convincing as a young college girl who is reading poetry with her roommate and impatiently awaits the phone call from Walt, eagerly running to the phone when he finally does call and bursting with joy when he asks her for a date. Such a single-mindedness combined with youthful spirit does not come naturally to Susan Hayward and her efforts are too obvious in these moments – but she again improves when she is alone with Dana Andrews, leaving age and mannerism behind and completely focusing on the intimacy between these two characters. The scenes between Walt and Eloise in his apartment offer an effective combination of humor and sexual tension but the movie again works against Susan Hayward when the date suddenly makes an unlikely turn and Eloise ends up washing Walt’s dishes, again underlining the flaws of the script but also Susan Hayward’s inability to make the conventional aspects of her role entirely plausible. She struggles with the same kind of problems during an awkward crying scene when she has to face her disappointed mother who cannot believe that her daughter would be thrown out of school for meeting a man at night but as the movie goes on, Susan Hayward finally begins to feel more comfortable in her part as the drama of the script slowly replaces the purely romantic aspects – she feels entirely believable in her mindset to keep her pregnancy a secret from Walt because she wants him to marry her because he wants to and not because he has to. She also finds little moments of surprising clarity in a scene on the steps outside the house when Eloise pretends that her ankle hurts to distract from the pains of her pregnancy – the way she looks at Walt, earnest, fearful but also loving shows the basic feelings of this woman as she faces an uncertain future. And Susan Hayward is just as effective in a later scene when she meets Walt in a bar for the last time before he goes to war and Eloise has to fight the urge to tell him the truth while remaining doubtful just how true his intentions really are and if she really can count on his love and support in the future, letting her give a darker angle to this romance and enabling her to add more maturity but also intriguing intensity to her part. And her later dramatic moments only further evince the impressions that Susan Hayward had been displaying for the entire running time before – that of an almost unknown subtlety. Susan Hayward never appeared as an actress who wanted to make a secret out of her emotions, shouting her anger or pain from the top of her lungs more than once – but in My Foolish Heart, she remained surprisingly calm and introverted, from her feelings of love to Walt to her inner doubts and fear right to her grief when he is suddenly torn out of her life. She reads his final letters with a touching display of disbelief and sorrow while her quiet tears as she sits down at a party are much more effective than any loud depiction of grief could ever be. But even if Susan Hayward finds an absorbing containment in her performance, she still cannot overcome the fact that very often Eloise is rather pale instead of quiet – her character only exists for the sake of finding and mourning a man and is never guided by any darker aspects that the script might be offering and that Susan Hayward would most likely have been very eager to embrace. After their first date, Walt comes to the conclusion that Eloise is not the kind of girl for one night and insults her with the intention of making her leave and forget him – but Eloise comes back to him, just as she walked with him into his apartment in the first place, always willing to take the relationship further and not asking for a wedding ring in return. She also slips out of school at night and brings him back inside and in a later scene when Walt tells her that she could remain with him and return the next day, Eloise is also willing to stay, fully aware of what he is asking – Eloise’s active persuasion of this love affair and her decision to go to bed with him despite not being married is never condemned by the movie but simultaneously does not offer Susan Hayward the opportunity to explore these parts of the character further. It was a wasted opportunity to give more layers to an unfortunately rather flat character and Susan Hayward, too, did not explore these grounds of her role any further. But most of all she suffers from the lack of explanation that the script gives her in the final parts of the movie – My Foolish Heart never answers the question why Eloise is not a nice girl anymore or why she turned into the drunk that can be seen in the bookend-scenes. The loss of Walt clearly affects her personality but the gap between the Eloise of the past and the Eloise of the present is still too wide and misses a clear connection. Most of all, the movie again missed the chance to give Eloise more depth when it rushed through her decision to renew her relationship with her old boyfriend with whom she broke up after she met Walt and who would become her estranged husband – does she still love him in some way? Is she only looking for any form of human contact? Or only for a father for her unborn child? Susan Hayward plays the scene with him in the car with a constant change of rhythm that is unfortunately unable to solve this mystery or create the aura that could support an enigma like this and while she might again be beautifully restrained when she tells Mary Jane that she has no idea what she should do next since she cannot tell her father of her pregnancy and she has also no other person to turn to, it is unfortunately another wasted opportunity that leaves too many questions unanswered, making it often difficult for her to find the right tone for her performance and the different moments within it.

Overall, the conventional tone of My Foolish Heart which also presented a mostly conventional character that never took advantage of its unconventional core, made it hard for Susan Hayward to use her usual strengths on the screen and she remained surprisingly colorless for most parts of the story, both unwilling and unable to go beyond the limits of an uninspired love story, always crafting Eloise in parts but not as a whole. Her chemistry with Dana Andrews is effective and satisfying but her best moments on the screen are those that see her without him, dealing with the loss of his character and the consequences of her own actions. Most of all, the single-mindedness of the part was both under- and overwhelming for Susan Hayward – she played Eloise with her usual confidence but missed the youthful fervor and light personality for the role and she also suffered from the lack of opportunities the script was willing to grant her. It’s an overall mixed performance, harmed by different factors and circumstances but also saved in parts by Susan Hayward's moments of drunk repulsion and her displays of overwhelming grief and quiet anguish.