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.
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.
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.
A very distinct dream 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 of 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 emotions, 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 and Dana Andrews was also not the typical pale co-star that so often appeared at her side but rather a charismatic and popular screen presence himself. But what did all this mean for her actual performance? Did Susan Hayward succeed in showing her personality in a more conventional surrounding or did the overall story offer her too little chances to craft a character that 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 and 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. 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 character that may never become as interesting as those early scenes suggest but Susan Hayward’s strengths 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. 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 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 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 again 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 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 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.
Two years after director Elia Kazan won an Oscar for himself and producer Daryl Zanuck for disclosing anti-Semitism and prejudices in America’s post-war society in 1947’s Best Picture winner Gentlemen’s Agreement, both men again joined forces to tell another story of hate, discrimination and twisted morals in the deep American South – only this time the focus of the proceedings was not put on religion but rather on race and the male-centered structure was replaced by a female point-of-view. Apparently both Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were eager to play this female perspective and central character in Pinky – a light-skinned black woman who left her home to become a nurse while pretending to be white and experiences open racism and rejection when she visits her grandmother in her old hometown. It certainly cannot be surprising that these two actresses and most likely many more desired to win this part – it’s a role that covers a vast variety of emotions as Pinky is emotionally and intellectually torn between her personal heritage and the life she leads and therefore gives an actress many opportunities to construct both a highly difficult character and a commentary on social interactions in present times. But even more than that, it must have been an especially appealing part because how many times did it happen that a big studio would dare to tackle a social issue in the middle of American society and hire a prestigious director to bring this story to life and on top of that actually focus on a central character that belongs to the social group whose difficulties it wants to portray and who experiences prejudice and its consequences? Gentleman’s Agreement needed a Christian writer to pretend to be Jewish to make its message more accessible to the audiences of its time and so the idea to place a black woman into the middle of Pinky and let her carry this kind of ‘social problems’ picture was certainly an ambitious project – or rather would have been. It stands as one of the great ironies of Hollywood’s history that the ‘bravery’ that Daryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan were most likely very proud to express in their picture was overshadowed by their willingness to conform to the racism behind the camera: Pinky told the story of a black woman pretending to be white and also touched her relationship to a white doctor whom she met up North while training to become a nurse – but the idea of a black actress exchanging romantic feelings with a white actor was apparently too much for audiences and censors in 1949. So what could be done? Eliminate the love story and focus exclusively on the racism that Pinky has to endure while she is visiting her grandmother and the feelings of both fear and guilt that are constantly haunting her? Or drop the idea to present the story of a light-skinned black woman and simply tell of the every-day racism that millions of black people have to face all their life? Both ways could have been possible but since Pinky had to appeal to white audiences primarily and was also supposed to make money and entertain, neither Daryl Zanuck nor Elia Kazan opted to follow this way – but they could also not come up with a solution similar to Gentleman’s Agreement because that would have resulted in a movie about a white woman pretending to be black pretending to be white. A concept like this could certainly not work as part of the movie – but for the creators behind the camera, it was an idea that worked in the process of the movie making itself. And so it was decided to exclude deluding from the story itself and make it a part of the movie simultaneously by casting a white actress in the part of Pinky instead – a part that is defined by the constant feeling of betraying one’s own heritage and accompanying dialogue like ‘I’m a negro’ or ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m colored’. Considering that Pinky is supposed to be able to pass of as white and therefore needs to create a believable aura of crossing the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the casting of the role must have seemed like an easy and maybe even helpful solution but it was a concept that already received criticism in 1949 even though it was successful nonetheless – Pinky was the hoped-for financial hit and also received three Academy Awards nominations for its female cast (interestingly enough in the same categories as co-nominee Come to the Stable), further establishing Eliza Kazan’s reputation as an ‘actor’s director’ and putting another controversial topic before American audiences. But it did not become the same phenomenon that Gentleman’s Agreement turned out to be two years earlier, failing to turn its message into a similiar kind of dominating accusation or present itself as an important contribution to a difficult subject. But Pinky was nonetheless a phenomenon in the career of leading star Jeanne Crain – that an actress who was primarily known as one of Hollywood’s most popular party girls was able to finally establish herself as a serious dramatic actress in a most unlikely role had all the ingredients of a ‘a star is born’ moment but her Oscar nomination would turn out be the only artistic recognition for her acting abilities and her role in Pinky did not gain her the kind of newfound respect and admiration that usually accompanies this honor. Pinky was undoubtedly the artistic highlight of her career but this highlight came and went without influencing the course of this career, touching it only on the edges and not within. Maybe the fact that Olivia de Havilland was such an undeniable force in this year’s Best Actress race made her nomination less noteworthy than it might have been otherwise or maybe Jeanne Crain’s reputation was still too strongly dominated by her image as a competent but not necessarily accomplished actress who was more than once cast primarily for her looks (her Technicolor beauty in Leave her to Heaven does indeed rival that of co-star Gene Tierney) – or maybe the fact that the unlikelihood of the role stood out too differently from other dramatic parts and possibilities of its times only emphasized the unlikelihood of Jeanne Crain’s casting, too, preventing her from truly taking advantage of the Academy’s blessings for other prestigious but more traditional roles. And finally, it’s just as likely that Academy members were convinced by the gimmicks behind the casting decision, considering her willingness to accept the part an achievement in itself that was able to overshadow any reluctance that they might have shown towards her so far but Hollywood itself was not convinced as easily, not sensing that her nomination for Pinky did truly suggest an unexplored talent for further dramatic and prestigious parts. But still – all the premises of Jeanne Crain’s work as Pinky, the unlikeliness of her casting based on her ill-suited background and her uncharted limits as an actress, and yet her apparent success in the role, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, surely turn both her performance and her nomination into one of the most intriguing cases in the history of this category as it defies conventions both behind and in front of the camera. The only predecessor to these specific circumstances would be the casting of German actress Luise Rainer as a Chinese wife in The Good Earth, even though Luise Rainer did not have to overcome any doubts about her credibility as an actress in general since she had already won an Oscar for her work in The Great Ziegfeld and was considered an important European import to rival other established stars like Greta Garbo or Norma Shearer. But in the casting of both actresses, talent only played a secondary role since the primary idea in this process was the necessity to cast a white actress in the central part to avoid any controversy or censorship problems. But even despite the dubious reasons that led to Luise Rainer’s portrayal of O-lan, her performance not only overcame any obstacles but captured the essence of a tortured soul and became one of the most remarkable displays of quiet grief ever presented on the screen, proving that outstanding artistry can create illusions that surmount any questions of authenticity. Was Jeanne Crain able to follow these footsteps and also accept the understanding of the part with serious dedication, letting herself disappear in this role despite the obvious impediments? Was she able to be convincing in a role that needs every bit of credibility to tell its message and prevent the movie from collapsing under its own construction? And even if the illusion was successful – what about the realization of the actual character? Luise Rainer’s performance did not only succeed because she created the impression of a Chinese wife but because she understood her character’s inner intentions and feelings and played a role that conquered any restrictions of a certain place and time, addressing more common and universal questions in this process. And so the attainment of Pinky’s emotions, thoughts, worries and hopes is undoubtedly the most important aspect that Jeanne Crain needed to convey, regardless of her skin color, and needs the most careful consideration when judging this particular performance.
It’s not clear if Daryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan wanted to tell an important story with Pinky or if they were merely hoping to copy the awards success of Gentleman’s Agreement but there are certain similarities that cannot be denied – while the Best Picture winner told of a man pretending to be Jewish to experience the prejudice of the people around him, Pinky tells of a colored woman whose skin is so light that most people assume that she is actually white. And so both movies feature central characters that hide their true natures, one to experience prejudice, the other one to escape from it. But unfortunately, neither Gentlemen’s Agreement nor Pinky are truly daring in their executions and Pinky often creates the impression that many opportunities of a story about a woman changing her own identity, possible statements about the nature of racism and its victims, had been wasted or ignored – mainly because the story of hiding and revealing, of the subtle but still dangerous nature of prejudices in modern society did not focus on the experiences of Pinky while she was away from home and pretended to be white, feeling both relieve and shame, but instead tells of Pinky’s return home to the South where everyone knows that she is actually black, crafting characters and scenes that are too cliché and one-dimensional, creating a place that exists of constant racism and rejection and often makes the movie’s accusations too simple and blatant. Pinky would certainly have needed a stronger variation in its subject matter and also more subtlety in its execution – in the end it’s clear that Pinky was written as a light-skinned black woman to make her more accessible to white audiences, making them see Pinky as one of their own and therefore experience racism more directly. The whole concept of Pinky could have easily served as a mirror, revealing the ridiculous and senseless ideas behind racism but Pinky unfortunately never goes this far and too fearfully stays on the surface of its own topic and never adds any insightful arguments or points-of-view to an already alive discussion even if critics at the time apparently saw Pinky as some kind of ‘eye-opener’ that reminded viewers that racism actually still existed...Overall, Pinky does condemn racism by putting a character in the middle who is unable to become a part of either environment and group but it never asks the question why this separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ even has to exist in the first place and leaves viewers wondering if the ‘rules of racism’ don’t apply once a character comes along who may be black but doesn’t look like it – but what does all this mean for her grandmother and all those black people that don’t have the same skin color as Jeanne Crain? Pinky unfortunately never concerns itself with this question and so it remains difficult to understand what exactly the story wants to say – after all, deep down it offers interesting ideas about the absurdities of racism and prejudices in general. Why do people who think that Pinky is white suddenly start acting differently when they learn she is black? It’s the same kind of irrationality that causes people to act different around men or women once they learned that they are gay – the person is still the same but the appearance changed for those who want it to change, for those who see difference as danger and like to put themselves in superior positions by degrading those around them. All this does provide a good opportunity to show the complete illogic of prejudice but the movie itself unfortunately never makes use of those opportunities and even contradicts its own intentions – more than anything, Pinky seems to say that racism does exist but that it doesn’t make sense in the case of Pinky since she looks just like every white person walking around on the street and therefore never addresses racism in general. Of course, the quality of Jeanne Crain’s performance is not connected to the quality of her movie but this already indicates that the opportunities of the part are not as extensive as it might have appeared – looking at the Best Actress nominees of 1949, the role of Pinky might on paper sound like the most challenging and demanding part of this line-up since there is such a vast variety of pretending, accepting, denying and suffering but reality shows that the part and the performance of Jeanne Crain are very often shaped by the limitations and false intentions around them.
Looking at the performance of Jeanne Crain, the maybe most surprising fact is that she is able to establish Pinky as the character she is supposed to be. She is obviously never a ‘light-skinned’ black woman but the concept of the story still succeeds within its own limits – Jeanne Crain manages to become the granddaughter of Ethel Waters and she also presents herself as the ‘colored’ woman she is supposed to be. But this is actually less the doing of Jeanne Crain but rather the movie itself – after all, movies can change history, put aliens on earth or show ancient monsters destroying New York City. If a movie presents its themes with straight-forward pressure, audiences can accept all of them and the script and especially the direction of Pinky follow this concept with such earnest and dedication and Jeanne Crain and every other cast-member join them with the same severity, never leaving any doubt about the seriousness of the plot and their parts in it. Various scenes of Pinky being thought of as white until the truth is discovered and the people around her change their behavior immediately make it easy for the viewer to accept the premise of Pinky and Jeanne Crain’s appearance does help to underline that Pinky is right when she accuses Miss Em, an elderly woman she takes care of, that the whites make the rules of racism – Pinky might be, as another character puts it, ‘whiter than I am’ but the fact that there are colored people among her ancestors makes her ‘black’ for those who feel that she is consequently inferior, only further underlining the ridiculousness of their thinking. And so, the difficulty that Jeanne Crain faced in her role was not creating the illusion of being a colored woman since the screenplay and the direction did the work for her in this aspect but rather to bring the believable emotions and feelings to a woman who is constantly torn between the life she is leading and one she could live if she denied her own heritage and ancestors. So it basically came down to the performance itself, regardless of any surroundings and circumstances, and the realization of Pinky’s inner character – a task that turned out to be both solvable and insoluble for Jeanne Crain as she crafted her role with a certain ambition and clearly developed ideas but lacked the overall energy and aptitude to add different layers to a character that constantly asks for deep complexity and even a tone of slight mystery. Jeanne Crain was able to create this mystery at the beginning of Pinky with an absorbing entrance and her voice when she talks to her grandmother the first time has the right combination of happiness and reluctance as if Pinky herself is unable to grasp that she is back in the place that she was so happy to escape from long ago. Also right from the start Jeanne Crain displayed a distinct tone in her role that she would keep for her entire performance – one of distance. She enters the poverty-stricken area of her childhood with the right amount of ambiguity and aloofness, showing how far Pinky has removed herself from her old life during the years she had spent passing as a woman she isn’t – or at least doesn’t feel to be. It is an emotion that works in the context of the story – after all, Pinky is not a part of this environment anymore, she later tells her grandmother that she had forgotten how it was like and she clearly has no emotional connection to her childhood memories apart from the feelings of love towards her grandmother. But while this tone does help to create the right atmosphere around this character, Jeanne Crain’s performance missed many other characteristics on the way, failing to display a true development in the character, often just reciting the lines she is given and taking Pinky where the screenplay is guiding her without filling her with ideas of her own. It’s an approach that misses a deeper psychological understanding of all the different influences in Pinky’s life and how it affects her – overall, Jeanne Crain does succeed in creating a Pinky that manages to convey the movie’s theme and conviction but her performance very often stayed on the surface of its own possibilities. Pinky could have been a complex creation but Jeanne Crain mostly only followed the moments that the script is offering her, going scene by scene instead of creating a whole and focused too strongly on the single-mindedness of her intentions, finding only one major emotion or feeling and forgetting countless others in the process. Her Pinky has distanced herself from her past but her experiences while she is visiting her grandmother are clearly affecting her but Jeanne Crain never explores these conditions any further, showing no signs that Pinky’s personality was still shaped by her home, much more than it has by her years up North – her acting style creates this distance in Pinky maybe even more than her acting instincts since Jeanne Crain often feels rather helpless with the demanded tasks and tends to think that an angry facial expression is a dramatic answer to all problems in her characterization. Of course, Pinky certainly has every right to be angry about her life and about being pushed around between different groups that are separated even when they have no reason to be but very often a stronger closeness would have been necessary for the part. Who is Pinky, what are her feelings, what were here experiences, how does she want to be, what does she want to achieve, how does she feel about herself? Jeanne Crain never answers any of these questions, keeping the viewer very often as much apart from herself as the other movie characters and her acting displays the same distance between Pinky and her grandmother as it does between Pinky and Miss Em – Jeanne Crain’s tendency to oversimplify her role by crafting her with spiteful rejection causes Pinky to miss any possible shades in the different relationships in her life, treating every character around her with the same distance and detachment. And more than that, Jeanne Crain also misses all opportunities to give Pinky a deeper understanding of her own life – she never suggests that Pinky goes to a man to get the money of her grandmother back because she has been there before and knows how to deal with situations like these, she tells her fiancée of her true family without any shades of nervousness, relief, testing or confessing and instead always keep up an almost hurtful behavior which, to Jeanne Crain’s defense, does work in the contexts of the scenes. Jeanne Crain’s Pinky knows about the prejudice of the people around her and very often she acts out of anger before she lets others give a chance, apparently wanting to be hurtful before being hurt herself – it’s an approach to the role that is able to captivate and give Pinky the necessary personality for the story to succeed but it also denies Pinky of many possibilities and feels like such an unnecessary reduction of her character that the resulting performance manages to be both satisfying and disappointing at the same time.
As already mentioned, the limits of Jeanne Crain’s acting talents seem to be more responsible for her performance than her acting intentions but she still found the opportunity for various striking moments within these boundaries. Again, her face during a close-up that serves as an opportunity for a voice-over to hear the thoughts of Pinky expresses almost no true emotion but it works as a display of a woman who has spent years telling herself that she is no real part of all this around her, a woman who is used to just pass along without getting truly involved. The best moments in Jeanne Crain’s acting therefore come when her own tendency for theatrical restraint serve the purpose of the scene without feeling like a reduction – when she tells her grandmother about what happened during her train ride up North, how she was mistaken for white and took the chance to become somebody else, Jeanne Crain suddenly finds a very provoking and yet understandable balance, pleading for forgiveness while never truly regretting her steps. And considering that Jeanne Crain chose to show the anger in Pinky at all moments of the movie, it is not surprising that she shines in those scenes that actually actively ask for these outbursts – her sudden rant opposite Miss Em in which she accuses the people in the town to hate her because she escapes their standards feels like a long-awaited moment of truth while her best moment comes opposite Ethel Waters when Pinky, after having been attacked by two men, decides to leave again and tells her grandmother that she quite honestly does not care if Miss Em lives or dies, letting all the hate from her childhood erupt in a single moment, showing a combination of spite and fear that dictates her own actions until the words of a grandmother cause her to re-think her actions, showing that Pinky is still shaped by the woman who raised her as a child. Scenes like this also make it clear that Jeanne Crain’s own performance is always improved when she is acting opposite either Ethel Waters or Ethel Barrymore, two supporting players who bring intelligence, dignity and professionalism to their roles and the movie and help to constantly raise the production to a higher level. Jeanne Crain often feels much more relaxed and honest opposite those two actresses but again only after she dropped her masque of ongoing spite and resentment – her scenes with Ethel Barrymore at the beginning, during which Jeanne Crain lets Pinky take care of her with open dislike again feel too one-dimensional and unsatisfying and Jeanne Crain tends to repeat the same note on the piano too many times while her acting style feels too melodramatic, often using blank stares during her line delivery as if she found no other way to express Pinky’s thoughts and emotions in these moments. But Jeanne Crain displays a much warmer tone that suits both her own personality and that of Pinky better when she begins to develop a feeling of respect and friendship towards Miss Em, finding exactly the right way to express her admiration for this woman who likes to be stubborn and strict but underneath hides the expected heart of gold. Unfortunately, Jeanne Crain doesn’t work as well opposite her other co-stars – she has no chemistry with William Lundigan who plays her fiancée and she often feels too out-of-place among the people around whom Pinky had grown up, again letting the opportunities to make Pinky’s experiences in the past visible for the audience slip by without even beginning to explore them. She is able to make her characterization appear logical in the context of the scene but Jeanne Crain lacks both the connection to her role and between the character and the scenes in these moments, often appearing almost lost in moments like getting into a fight with a local woman and then being arrested by the police or later accusing a judge to have doubts about her honesty because she is colored. It’s a tendency that also haunts various other scenes of her work and again displays Jeanne Crain’s inability to grasp a wider picture in her own performance, sacrificing too many expressions for the sake of one, and often feeling too passive in letting Pinky take her fate into her own hands – Jeanne Crain’s Pinky too often feels like a character that is only pushed around without ever acting out of her own wants and needs but a woman who spend years pretending to be somebody else is certainly a stronger judge of her own abilities. Especially during the latter half of the story, Jeanne Crain’s acting often feels too passive – Pinky makes various life-changing decisions without letting them influence her personality at all, she reacts to the news of Miss Em’s will without any noticeable thought at all and she follows the court proceeding with the same spiteful, sometimes almost bored expression that she displayed for the entire running time of the movie before (of course, the script does not do her any favors during this moment, letting Pinky take no part at all in her fight for justice). This single-mindedness in her acting makes many ideas of Pinky less understandable than they should have been, especially her final moments when she comes to the conclusion to stay at home and not return to her life of pretending, expressing Pinky’s reasons without the necessary determination or conviction. But strangely enough, even despite so many missteps in her performance, Jeanne Crain is still able to make the transition of Pinky believable because her own focus and approach on her actions might be limited but it is still consistent and so she succeeded in crafting Pinky as a plausible character even if many chances about the part had been wasted or ignored. Overall, Jeanne Crain gives a performance that is visibly narrow but still manages to serve its purpose nonetheless.
So, Jeanne Crain faced a strangely-written part that would not have allowed her to overcome all its contradictions but she herself, too, added to a portrayal that feels too passive and unaccessible to realize a fully fleshed-out characterization that would have been a better vessel for the message that Pinky so desperately wanted to bring across. Maybe the part itself is written too thinly but it could have actually been turned into a complex character in the hands of the right actress who understood the different aspects of Pinky’s personality and behavior and the reasons for them. Jeanne Crain clearly did not understand Pinky as a whole but she still managed to bring her to life in parts – her performance carries the picture and she is able to make this personal journey captivating enough to prevent the movie from losing its target completely. And even though Pinky never turned into the same kind of universal accusation that Gentleman’s Agreement wanted to be, it still tells its story with true conviction because Jeanne Crain understood that Pinky cannot be a universal theme and showed that she is a woman who is not standing as a larger symbol but only experiences her own circumstances. Her Pinky defies all expectations from both white and colored people around her and therefore does not fit it any group, making her fate rather tragic – it seems that no ‘side’ wants to trust her and sees her as a member of the other group. And so in the end, it’s more a personal than a general story about identities and a personal experience to show a general environment. Jeanne Crain is able to mix her usual spite with a touching self-realization when she encounters a vicious salesclerk but also shows it as a moment when Pinky begins to truly feel above the rejection of narrow-minded people. But again, those are effective moments that are mostly driven by the screenplay and give Jeanne Crain a clear guidance which she unfortunately never explores any further. Pinky could have been a woman who switches her identities according to the circumstances, who feels both pride and shame, who is actively deciding about her future but in the work of Jeanne Crain, she became a drifter who is shaped by things that just happen to her. Pinky cannot leave the house without either being arrested, assaulted or insulted and it’s easy to understand that she chose to build a strong shell for herself but Jeanne Crain does not display that Pinky is every truly affected by what happens to her as her overall anger and rejection never finds any variation or different levels. And so, an Oscar nomination for Jeanne Crain might seem like a slight exaggeration considering all the missteps in her work but still feels somewhat deserved for the way she moved herself within these missteps – as mentioned before, the part of Pinky did neither benefit nor harm the paths of Jeanne Crain in Hollywood as she was not able to turn it into a new-found foundation of an unexpected change of direction but it also did not cause a disruption in her overall career as audiences, too, reacted mostly positive to her casting in Pinky and accepted the premise of her character’s background. Hollywood had often not known what to do with new talent but in the case of Jeanne Crain, it seemed rather lost about what to do with an ostensibly familiar actress who suddenly surprised them with such an unlikely change of direction. But looking at Jeanne Crain’s performance, it is also rather easy to understand why the role did not lead to a new dramatic career – her 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. So, to come back to the initially asked questions: Jeanne Crain manages to be convincing in the role and serves it well by letting herself be turned into the vessel for the visions of her director and screenwriter but once the controversy over her casting has been put aside, it becomes clear that underneath all the gimmicks hides a rather ordinary performance that can easily be judged by the realization of the character’s inner core. And this realization, even though often satisfying and captivating, lacks too many nuances and too much depth to be truly outstanding.
When Olivia de Havilland received the second Best Actress Oscar of her career in 1950, the Academy could already look back at a history of 22 years. These years had seen favorites, dark horses, upsets and write-in candidates, likely or expected winners and open races – but Olivia de Havilland’s work in The Heiress had been the first overwhelming frontrunner, the first real ‘lock’ in this category to actually win the award. Of course, others before her had been considered overwhelming frontrunners, too – but their expected wins ultimately turned into some of the biggest upset losses this category had ever seen. Greta Garbo was already a living legend by the time she gave her most lauded performance as a dying courtesan in Camille and was the kind of undeniable star and praised actress that would usually be eagerly embraced by Academy members but they ultimately denied her the award and instead honored Luise Rainer who received her second Best Actress award in a row for her work as a Chinese peasant who has to face famine, revolution and infidelity in The Good Earth. And legend has it that in 1948, Rosalind Russell was already raising from her seat seconds before Frederic March announced the Best Actress winner to collect an award that had been so expected that one newspaper already printed their edition for the next day, announcing her victory in the headline – only to learn that Academy members did not feel in the mood for her dramatic performance in the moody tragedy Mourning Becomes Electra and gave their votes to Loretta Young for her charming and light performance in The Farmer’s Daughter. Rosalind Russell and Greta Garbo were certainly the strongest frontrunners that this category had seen in its existence so far but both went home empty-handed in the end. And the other Best Actress winners so far? Was there really not a lock like Olivia de Havilland among them? Cleary the lack of numerous pre-Oscar awards (or any pre-Oscar awards at all), the absence of campaigns and detailed analyses of the races made ‘locks’ highly unlikely in those times anyway but there still haven been favorites and unexpected winners over the years. The first Academy Awards saw Janet Gaynor as the winner who was announced weeks before the actual ceremony – without official nominations it’s hard to say if this decision could be called surprising or expected but her combination of three celebrated performances in popular and critically acclaimed movies certainly gave her a strong edge over the other female contenders that year. Mary Pickford was a likely winner the next year, being one the Academy’s founding members, one of America’s biggest stars and having invited the voting committee to tea and cake but the different circumstances of the voting procedures again make it impossible to call her a lock or a favorite. The same is true for Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler and Helen Hayes the following years who were all likely or obvious winners but still faced a rather open competition. Katharine Hepburn received all four of her Oscars in what could be considered ‘upset wins’ – she wasn’t very popular among the Hollywood community when she won her first award in 1933 and faced strong competition from the leading star of the eventual Best Picture winner Cavalcade and an established veteran but her breakthrough year and promising career perspectives still convinced members to give her the award for her aspiring young actress in Morning Glory. The following winner Claudette Colbert could be considered both – an upset and a favorite. She starred not only in the Best Picture winner It happened one Night but in two more Best Picture nominees and was therefore the most noticeable female star of the year, a position which should have made her a likely winner but Bette Davis’s omission for Of Human Bondage and the visible campaign made on her behalf gave her a strong possibility to win based on write-in votes alone. In the end, Bette Davis won the Oscar one year later – sentiment on her side and the uniqueness of her acting style surely turned her into the favorite on Oscar night but it would be overstated to call her a ‘lock’, mostly because Oscar races in those days were still a completely autarkic process that could not be predicted in the same way as they could be in later years. With a New York Film Critics Award and the most talked-about scene of the year on her side, Luise Rainer was the favorite to win for The Great Ziegfeld but she was still an outsider and among her competition was Hollywood royalty like Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer. Her second win the next year was, as already mentioned, the biggest upset the category had seen so far, but the second win for Bette Davis the year after was more expected even if her co-nominees like Margaret Sullavan and Wendy Hiller could also count on various passionate supporters. Vivien Leigh’s win as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind must appear like one of the easiest choices ever in the history of the Academy from a modern perspective but the category in 1939 was actually extremely close, with many commentators predicting a third win for Bette Davis for what was considered the finest achievements of her career so far as a dying young woman in Dark Victory. The following year, the Academy introduced the famous envelopes and began to keep the winners a secret until their names were announced during the ceremony, making the different races more open than ever. Ginger Rogers was a popular winner for her change of image in Kitty Foyle but certainly part of very wide race that included strong competition from Joan Fontaine in the Best Picture winner Rebecca, Katharine Hepburn in her comeback role in The Philadelphia Story and Bette Davis who continued to dominate this category with her performance as murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. The winners during the following years were all likely and expected choices and the Academy Awards began more and more to turn into the race they would be known for from those moments on – but even if Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, Jennifer Jones and Ingrid Bergman were the predicted winners, none of their wins could be called a ‘lock’, mostly because all those years offered other nominees that could easily have triumphed over those predicted winners and probably nobody would have called it any kind of upset or surprise. Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman were both considered part of a very close neck-and-neck race that could easily have ended either way. Olivia de Havilland’s first win at the Oscars came over a very even competition but especially Rosalind Russell emerged as her biggest threat during the awards season for her dramatic turn in Sister Kenny. One year later, Loretta Young followed the upset win of Luise Rainer one decade earlier with her own upset win and Jane Wyman won her Oscar in a close race against over-due contenders like Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck and the critically hailed Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit. So, most of those races had likely winners that appear like obvious choices but except for two nominees that ended up losing, none of them had the same momentum and dominated her competition like Olivia de Havilland who was not just the only nominee starring in a movie that was also nominated for Best Picture but she also won the most important pre-Oscar awards and most importantly had collected by far the most favorable reviews of the year – the fact that she had established herself as one of the most critically lauded thespians of her generations and was already a strong contender for the win during the previous season for her work as a mentally unstable woman in The Snake Pit was therefore only the final factor that turned her win into a truly foregone conclusion on Oscar night. So everything clearly came together ideally for Olivia de Havilland – but was her win ultimately a result of the favorable surrounding circumstances or was her performance strong enough to also win against a more competitive field that maybe would have included sentimental favorites or other leading ladies who carried a Best Picture nominee?
Throughout her career, Olivia de Havilland constantly showed a strong willingness to not only develop but also challenge herself as an actress, especially during the peak of her career in the second half of the 40s – but even before that she also knew how to establish her position as a popular star and use this position to display her distinctive talents and versatility as an actress, too. From her debut role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to her collaborations with Errol Flynn in popular movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood to her first ‘prestige’ pictures like Anthony Adverse, she carefully constructed an undeniable résumé and later showed that her willingness to challenge herself was not only reduced to her roles but also her determination to get them when she personally pleaded to Jack Warner’s wife to be released from her contract to play the most famous role of her career in Gone with the Wind. Later she used her success in the part of Melanie to demand stronger and more satisfying roles, taking her position as a star to expand her strength as a character actress. And when her studio would not be willing to let her go at the end of her contract, demanding an additional six months of work for her periods of suspension, she followed the footsteps of Bette Davis and defied the studio system, forever changing the way studios could dominate their contract players in the end. It was a deciding moment not only for Hollywood but also for Olivia de Havilland who gained greater control over her career path and was finally able to demonstrate her abilities as an actress and entered her most fulfilling phase as an actress, winning an Oscar for her work in To Each his Own and stunning audiences and critics with her roles in The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit and ultimately The Heiress. It’s a transformation that almost resembles her willingness to transform herself on the screen, playing characters from their youth to their days as middle-aged women or shy and repressed girls who turn into bitter avengers and like her Catherine Sloper, Olivia de Havilland discovered the limitations and the trap of her own characteristics and formed a new life for herself, even if for Olivia de Havilland this transformation was desired and the result of her own efforts. But even if Olivia de Havilland found a chance to develop her own personality on the screen, she constantly used the experience she had gained in the previous years as the solid foundation of her later characteristics – for most of her career, Olivia de Havilland used her own screen presence to emphasize the charm and the ‘niceness’ of her characters, crafting damsels in distress or women who stood as a symbol of goodness against the darker, more brooding characters of the story. She achieved the epitome of these qualities in Gone with the Wind where it was her task to craft Melanie with an almost saint-like personality that would never give in to any darker feelings as the years of war and austerity went on – and Olivia de Havilland fulfilled this almost impossible task without crafting Melanie as a symbol of naivety or denial, instead portraying her as a woman who maybe understands more than anyone around her and is always aware of the actions and intentions of the others but who remains true to her own philosophy of life. With this part, Olivia de Havilland showed that she understood how constant goodness can be a means to an end, how it can be used to achieve a certain goal or even simply shield a broader truth away from one’s own personality – it’s the exploration of an apparently simple character for the sake of a greater truth. Her own screen presence combined with her thoughtful approach to her roles helped her to craft those intriguing human studies without dishonesty or deceitfulness – it’s not hard to imagine Olivia de Havilland in the role of co-nominee Loretta Young in Come to the Stable since Sister Margaret was another woman who used her own modesty and kindness with clear determination but by this point in her career, Olivia de Havilland had already left this concept behind her, clearly proving that her search for more serious and demanding parts was not a hoax. And she used this chance to accept parts that not only asked of her to fill this goodness with an inner life but actually go beyond it and craft various contradicting emotions – her experience that she gained in the early years of her career clearly benefited her later characteristics but the goodness in those roles was not the ultimate goal anymore and instead only the foundation of a deeper and more complex development. This goodness was the basis of a woman whose inability to connect to her own child influenced her whole life, of a woman who appears to have forgotten about this goodness inside her and became mentally unstable and a woman who was destroyed by her own character and finally left this kindness behind her, finding her own voice in a strikingly different manner. It seems an almost logical step that Olivia de Havilland, after having played these kind, polite and gracious characters without too many shades or edges, finally began to explore their darker and deeper sides, often surprising the viewer with her direct approach that contained both mystery and honesty and she used her own talents to combine the technical aspects of her acting with the demanded emotions of her characters to constantly display their inner thoughts, feelings, ideas, fears and hopes. And this combination of technique and emotion also allowed her to craft the development and change of Catherine Sloper with stunning precision and cogency.
Wendy Hiller was the first actress to bring Catherine Sloper to live on the stage and apparently Olivia de Havilland immediately became interested in the material after she saw the Broadway production. And it is easy to see how the role of the young, shy and socially awkward woman who suffers from her disapproving father and suddenly finds herself an unexpected object of affection and later turns into a merciless and bitter revenger would appeal to an ambitious performer – but the role not only assuaged the appetite of Olivia de Havilland for great parts but also perfectly fitted her own style and strengths as an actress since it gave her the opportunity to portray the goodness and naivety of Catherine while also displaying her darker sides with a stronger technical approach that balanced the needed emotional intensity with a clear yet arcane approach, resulting in an emotionally devastating but technically fascinating performance. Her Catherine at the beginning of The Heiress is one of those pure and consenting characters that she had played many times before but there is a helpless and withdrawn quality that also separates her from those earlier creations. Catherine is a woman who is unable to overcome her own reclusiveness, who is unable to connect to other people even when she tries since she constantly fails to make others interested in her words, actions and ultimately herself. It’s a portrayal that might have seemed exaggerated very soon especially since Olivia de Havilland herself apparently exaggerated Catherine’s inability to behave the way she would like to but her portrayal benefitted from her focus of Catherine’s unwieldiness on the character of her father – and by giving a clear reason to Catherine’s actions and helplessness, she created an absorbing atmosphere and constantly added new dimensions to the character and the movie itself, positioning herself as its driving force and most complex asset. Her portrayal might appear too technical or calculated at some points but Olivia de Havilland actually displays the behavior and emotions of a woman who has been criticized and put down her whole life – even if she still has hope left inside herself. Dr. Sloper constantly compares Catherine to her late mother, a woman whom he idolized since her death and a day doesn’t go by without him blaming Catherine for her shy appearance, her lack of social skills or her looks. And so Olivia de Havilland’s constant immediate retreat, her way of recognizing her own mistake when her father criticizes her for carrying a fish she just bought inside the house herself or dancing shiftless at a party is much less a woman who cannot live up to her father’s demands but rather a woman who has experienced so many years of criticism and humiliation that she almost automatically acts the ways she does, wanting to show her father that she is herself aware of what she did and tries to please him as much as possible but always feels herself under surveillance, always feels the eyes of her father watching her and has entered a never-ending circle in which she already expects to displease her father before she even acts, consequently retreating more and more into her own shell. It’s a thoughtful and calculated approach but the result is a powerful presentation of a woman who finds herself cornered by her own intentions – even if she could be strikingly different. Olivia de Havilland shows how practical, outspoken and amusing Catherine can be whenever she is alone with her aunt and how she herself if very much aware of her inabilities to act just like her father wants her to – her quick ‘I can’t’ when her aunt asks her to be more social and talk to other people is delivered without any false hope or desperation, but a completely honest look at her own situation that Catherine must have taken many times already. But it is not until Montgomery Clift’s Morris Townsend enters the story that the ambiguity of the main characters becomes truly noticeable. Catherine’s aunt Lavinia is the only simple-minded and straight-forward character of the story, both in the writing and the acting by Miriam Hopkins while the other three main characters all offer different interpretations of their main motives and actions. The sudden interest of Morris in Catherine starts the main action of the story and poses the question if he is truly interested in her or only her money. Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend portray the two different men in the life of Catherine Sloper – two men who might appear to be the exact opposite of their actual behavior. Dr. Sloper appears cold and distant to the extent of being emotionally abusive but he might love his daughter and actually only have her best interests at heart. Morris Townsend is a loving, gentle and humorous man who wins the heart of Catherine easily and who could give her the kind of emotional support and love that she has missed for so long but be might actually only be interested in her money and her inheritance. Both actors keep these ambiguities of the script alive in their acting and fulfill their parts with the right amount of uncertainty while they fight for control over Catherine’s actions and thoughts. The character of Catherine actually appears to be of a rather passive nature in this structure at first – she is the one who is constantly influenced by others without taking any true action and the screenplay also presents a clear path for her development, focusing on her naivety and helplessness at first and her bitterness and independence later. But Olivia de Havilland, too, created a certain ambiguity in her character, one that might not have been visible in the structure of the script but came to life in her own interpretation – her shyness and insecurity remain a part of her character but she lets Catherine handle Morris’s interests still with much more complexity than the script asked for. Catherine might not know what to say or how to react but she still creates an undeniable charm in Catherine’s awkwardness thanks to her own distinctive screen presence that makes the ultimate question of The Heiress much more difficult than initially expected – does Morris love her or is he only interested in her money? Neither the movie nor any of the actors provide a final answer to this question even if the ideas of the characters are always clear. But beyond this, Olivia de Havilland also denied an answer to the question of just how aware Catherine might actually be – she clearly believes Morris’s words of love but there are small moments in her work during which she makes it seem as if she wants to believe them more than anything else, desperately longing for love and kindness, willing to accept it in any form it may come. Olivia de Havilland finds a tragic and desperate core in Catherine, a childlike innocence that fights for acceptance. The Heiress might be the story of the transformation of a woman but more than that it tells how innocence and kindness can be manipulated and destroyed beyond repair.
The chemistry between the three main actors was clearly influenced by their relationships behind the camera – Montgomery Clift apparently kept mostly to himself during the shooting while Ralph Richardson did his best to take attention away from all other actors and neither of the two men thought too highly of Olivia de Havilland’s acting talents. But it all resulted in a captivating triangle in which no character ever seems to truly touch the other. Even the relationship between Catherine and Morris is more defined by what is left unspoken rather than by what is said and done. Olivia de Havilland masterfully maneuvers Catherine through this unknown territory, letting her get caught between the two men in her life. There is something completely irresistible about her innocence during her scenes with Montgomery Clift, again letting it appear completely possible for just one moment that he might actually be interested in her (or at least as much interested in her as in her money) – when Catherine says the words ‘I love you’, Olivia de Havilland beautifully lets Catherine be overwhelmed by her own actions just as much as she is by those of Morris, hiding her face on his shoulder, enjoying the closeness in this moment that has escaped her all her life. It’s a quiet desperation for love that she later reprises when she says goodbye to Morris before going to Europe with her father and a moment that further underlines Catherine’s craving for emotional contacts – Catherine’s aunt later says that even if Morris might only be interested in her money he might still make her very happy nonetheless and Olivia de Havilland shows that maybe Catherine is even thinking of this herself, that she might be not entirely sure of Morris’s intentions either but is willing to accept them simply because the feeling of love and support is too overwhelming for her to ignore or send away. Olivia de Havilland is not afraid to appear desperate or pleading for love even if she seems to believe Morris’s intention. She let her be shivering with insecurity and wide-eyed surprise in one moment and smile brightly in the next – during the run of The Heiress, not only Catherine’s inner character changed but also her way of expressing herself and her face which used to be an open window into her soul turned into an enigmatic mask and that bright, slightly exaggerated smile that so often lightened up her face has gone forever. Furthermore, Olivia de Havilland did not turn Catherine into a woman who suddenly blossomed once Morris entered her life and instead kept that childlike innocence and showed that the only alteration in her character happened towards her father. Olivia de Havilland’s control over her characters is always most visible in such small nuances that slightly change her role with great consequences – the scene in which Catharine openly stands by Morris’s side against her father’s will is a grand decision that Olivia de Havilland portrays with subtle determination. But even then she makes it clear how much Catherine is still trying to please her father, that her marriage to Morris is not something she sees as an escape but rather hopes that she the love she thinks both men feel for her will lead them to also accept each other’s presence – until her father finally decides to take one last step to prevent this marriage and openly tells his daughter that there is nothing about her that a man could love except her money. It’s a deciding moment for both The Heiress and its title character and Olivia de Havilland uses the foundations that she laid in her performance so far – the fact that all of her insecurities are based on her desperate attempts to please her father – to turn her whole performance around. It is true that The Heiress doesn’t do its leading lady any favors by demanding a complete turn-around of her character in just a few scenes as Catherine turns into an almost completely different woman after she recognized Morris’s true intentions. It’s a change of character that would easily overstrain most actresses and there is also a high risk of losing the ‘old’ Catherine or letting the ‘new’ Catherine appear like an unbelievable extension of her character. But Olivia de Havilland carefully mastered this task by showing that the realization that her father actually despises her and that there is nothing she can do to ever please him is like a clearance for her character, a catalyst that causes a first discovery of her unforgiveness, of her ability to reject people once she recognized her true intentions – it’s a development that is completed by Morris’s betrayal that same night when Catherine suddenly learns that the two men she trusted never cared for her, that all the negative words of her father about her were apparently true and that all her years of trying and suffering had been a wasted life. Yes, the transformation might come sudden but Olivia de Havilland gave enough reasons to make it appear entirely believable which is maybe the most important aspect of her entire performance. When she tells Morris that even if her father would change his mind, she would not, Olivia de Havilland already gives a first hint at her new, deeper and unforgiving voice that will dominate the final part of her performance, casting a dark foreshadow on the further development of Catherine and slowly uncovering how the actions of her father and Morris will influence her own behavior from now on – in the acting of Olivia de Havilland, Catherine’s transformation does not appear like something that was put upon her from outside but rather like something that was waiting to happen and she gave logic to an almost illogical development.
Olivia de Havilland’s ability to balance the emotional and technical aspects of her work helps her immensely to keep constant control over her part while letting the pathos and tragedy of the character influence her own decision just as much. She beautifully shows Catherine caught between her sudden and newfound rejection of her father and her desperate attempt to fill this gap with the newfound love for Morris when she meets him outside in the rain, pleading him to marry her as quickly as possible while also carefully informing him of her disengagement from her father and his money. Olivia de Havilland plays this scene with a swift and urgent rhythm that she interrupts herself with a slower tempo, pledging her own love and affection while convincing him to do the same. His assurance that he will pick her up later that night is enough for her to be convinced of his love and loyalty even when she will be inherited or maybe she convinces herself even more, later telling her aunt that Morris ‘must come’ and take her away, must love her for all those who didn’t. In this scene when Catherine waits for Morris at night only to learn that he will never pick her up, Olivia de Havilland again constantly shows Catherine as a woman who faces one self-realization after another, realizing that her aunt, just like her father, also thinks that Morris is only interested in her money, and she bounces back and forth between the naivety and wide-eyed smile and the resentful, bitter and silent infuriation that shapes her future self. It’s a slow breakdown that not only leads to a single realization but instead leads Catherine to reconsider her whole existence and Olivia de Havilland shows with stunning precision how the pressure of those passing hours slowly destroys the goodness that has dominated her so far. And in her concussive scene when Catherine walks up the stairs to her room, having realized that she has been deserted this night, Olivia de Havilland brilliantly evokes an overwhelming feeling of forlornness as Catherine has not only lost her love but also her only opportunity to leave this house and now has to face her father again – even if she will chose a new roll allocation for their next meeting. For the rest of The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland excels in a technical and controlled display of Catherine who completely changed herself after the humiliations she experienced – Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine with a new voice, a new face and new body language that leave the old, shy and helpless creature behind and gave her a new self-assurance based on her hate and rejection. Again, it would have been easy to disconnect these two parts of Catherine but Olivia de Havilland made this transformation plausible and believable, explaining it with her own acting choices and fulfilling it with her ability to present two polar opposite of the same person. It’s a chilling and breathtaking metamorphosis – Olivia de Havilland’s cold and empty voice, her revengeful but also calculating line delivery are combined with a certain maturity that show that her Catherine has not only experienced humiliation but also learned from it. ‘She has such dignity now’, is how Morris later describes her new personality, a statement that might be more accurate than he thinks. Olivia de Havilland lets Catherine’s newfound rejection towards her father result in a fast eruption of accusations and anger, forever breaking the bond with him and her old life – and those moments are a true masterpiece of coldness and Olivia de Havilland uses every chance the screenplay gives her to distance Catherine further and further away from her former self. But she also finds some remaining traces of that gentle and kind woman she used to be – when she hears Morris’s voice again, Olivia de Havilland’s face suddenly softens and almost completely transforms her own appearance before it hardens again and she masterfully builds Catherine’s final revenge, teasing, manipulating, offending, rejecting and accepting Morris during their conversation, playing with him with strong self-assurance before she tells her aunt that she can be very cruel since he had been taught by masters – it’s a moment that Olivia de Havilland doesn’t play with bitterness or emptiness but actually a slight smile that seems to indicate that in this one moment Catherine is actually resembling her own father and his determination, proving that The Heiress does not only refer to her inheritance of her father’s fortune but also his character and personality, getting much closer to him despite having rejected him so strongly. But she then made the startling choice to let Catherine’s final walk up the stairs not be a lonely moment of triumph but instead shows that she might actually fear this moment, questioning her own decisions, recognizing that this chapter of her life has now been closed forever, wondering if anything in her life will ever replace this emptiness. Olivia de Havilland plays her moments of revenge with just as much self-doubt as pleasure and she keeps her future just as open as her whole relationship with Morris had been an unsolved secret.
The role of Catherine Sloper is certainly a thankful one that gives an actress many possibilities to run a vast amount of different emotions until the complete transformation at the end. But all those possibilities also provide many traps, even for the most experienced actresses, but Olivia de Havilland not only avoided any failure in this part, she actively exceeded her accomplishments by exploring the different aspects and motivations of Catherine Sloper and filling them with logic and reason. It’s a performance that combines emotional honesty with technical perfection and Olivia de Havilland is in constant control of every situation the script finds Catherine in – she can crumble emotionally when her father indirectly insults her looks in a new dress, she can give in to Morris’s affection in the early scenes just as easily as she can reject them later and she constantly sets the tone and atmosphere of the film itself. After The Heiress, Olivia de Havilland did not deliver any more performances that gained her recognition from the Academy and the quality of her roles did also not reflect her dominance over the second half of the 40s anymore – so maybe The Heiress was not only a peak but also the final peak for her career. But it is a performance that deserves to be called the highlight of Olivia de Havilland’s résumé – her Melanie might have immortalized her personality but her Catherine Sloper immortalized her talents. Yes, the stars all aligned perfectly for her win but her performance did not benefit from this since it is an achievement that could just as easily have won over a stronger competition. In the end, it’s an outstanding portrayal of desperation, hope, regret, hate and fear that stands among the finest this category has ever seen.