My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1940: Martha Scott in "Our Town"

It’s always interesting to find one nominee among the five contenders for Best Actress whose name is not as familiar today anymore as it maybe used to be when the nominations were first announced. Because the level or popularity of a certain performance is certainly in no way an indication for its quality and, who knows, maybe some underseen gem is hiding behind this unknown name. Expectations are completely open when neither the actress nor her acting style nor her movie are truly familiar. And in a line-up that included Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Ginger Rogers, the fifth nominee Martha Scott can easily be called ‘the forgotten nominee’. To be fair, she is not a truly forgotten nominee like other names this category has seen (Maggie McNamara? Ann Harding? Diana Wynyard?) – she played Charlton Heston’s mother in two of Hollywood most well-known epics, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, and acted on the stage, on the screen and on TV. Maybe it is because of the fact that her competitors were such still famous actresses that her name just automatically appears to be unfitting. And, of course, 1940 also offered what many consider the career-height of another Hollywood legend, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday – her omission is often mentioned as one of the Academy’s biggest oversight and if she had been included, this line-up would truly have consisted of five legendary actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age. This omission makes Martha Scott’s nomination even more interesting – clearly her entrance into the world of motion pictures was extremely well-regarded in 1940 – Martha Scott is a prime example for an actress who may have lost her popularity over the years but made a large impression during the beginning of her career. She created the part of Emily Webb in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town and later reprised the role when the play was turned into a movie in 1940. Maybe the fact that the movie stayed very close to the original play was the reason why newcomer Martha Scott was able to accompany the role of Emily to the screen instead of being pushed aside for an already established film actress. And casting a stage-performer who has already achieved a high reputation for her or his performance in a later movie version can often add credibility and a high level of critical respect (prime examples are Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac or Shirley Booth in Come back, little Sheba who all won Oscars for their efforts) and sometimes the exclusion of a stage performer can even result in a lot of criticism or even outrage (with Julie Andrews omission for the role of Eliza Dolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady probably being the most famous example). Martha Scott would probably fall somewhere in the middle of all this – surely there would have been few complaints if an actress like Olivia de Havilland or Ginger Rogers had taken over the part in the movie version and in fact, many other actresses were tested before Martha Scott was finally considered for the role, but at the same time she had already connected herself with the name of Emily Webb strongly enough to make her casting something of a logical choice and an anticipated star-making sensation. Well, the sensation lasted only one Oscar season but she was, after all, the only cast-member to receive an Oscar nomination despite a supporting cast of such seasoned veterans like Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi or Thomas Mitchell. So, choosing Martha Scott for the role of Emily did add respectability to the production and was therefore clearing a risk that paid off – and in the case of Martha Scott, it was not only her mostly unknown name that presented a risk but also the fact that she had never acted on the screen before. Our Town marked Martha Scott’s movie debut and it’s well-known that movie acting and stage acting are worlds apart. And just because a certain performer is successful on the stage does not guarantee the same level of success for the screen. Is the actor or actress able to adjust the acting for the camera or is he or she acting for the last row of the second balcony instead?

So far, there has been very little talk of Martha Scott’s actual performance. Why? Is it a very hard performance to write about? Yes, it actually is. Again – why? Did she not succeed to transfer her acting style from the stage to the screen? Luckily, this is one aspect of her performance that cannot be criticized – Martha Scott made the transfer to the screen with a beautiful subtlety and played her part with a touching and lovely restraint that suits both the style and the message of the movie.  So, her work does not need to hide behind that of fellow nominee Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story who also reprised her own stage role without any sign of stage acting (but of course, Katharine Hepburn had the advantage of having already established herself as a screen actress of first class). No, the problems cannot be found here – Martha Scott clearly had an intuitive understanding for the film camera right away and played her part with a very honest quietness that is much different from the quietness that can be found in a stage performers. In this aspect, her performance shines and it shines much brighter than that of the cast members around her – Martha Scott easily established herself as the most interesting cast member of Our Town, mainly because her role allowed her to be a silent flow that goes along with the story instead of appearing to interrupt it like the supporting cast does. And Martha Scott also feels truly genuine in crafting Emily Webb – her quietness, her shyness but also her determination to succeed in school, this typical presentation of a young, American girl who is well-behaved, likeable, beautiful, bright, charming and responsible comes across as very natural and believable in her performance.
So, with this early praise, why is it hard to write about this performance?

Maybe it is because of the fact that Martha Scott always remains more admirable for what she is than for what she does. Yes, she establishes the character of Emily Webb beautifully – but after this, she has nowhere to go, neither with the role nor with her characterization. What surprises about Our Town is what little presence Martha Scott is during the first 50 minutes of the movie. She is barely on the screen and mostly reduced to some little conversations with William Holden who is playing the boy next door and with whom she slowly falls in love. Martha Scott knows how to portray this youthful and frightened discovery of love and she is always believable as a young teenager but it’s hard to find a moment in her performance that goes beyond the surface of this underdeveloped character. I mentioned before that Martha Scott is the most interesting cast member – that is true but mainly because the other parts are even less developed and present even less depth and complexity. Emily Webb is never really a person but rather a symbol and always open to interpretation – and therefore Martha Scott plays her too harmless, without any edges or interesting angles, as straight-forward as possible, never truly developing any kind of personality to constantly keep her like a white piece of paper on which the viewer can write his or her own thoughts on this woman. So, her performance is charming and lovely to look at but it’s almost impossible to find any true character – Emily falls in love with George, she talks to him a few times and gets married. All this happens in a couple of scenes stretched out over the storyline. Again, she does all this fine – when she asks her mother if she is pretty or helps George with his homework at night, she shows Emily’s natural simplicity but this simplicity also affects her performance in too many ways. Emily is barely a character and no scene shows any development – or even a foundation for any possible development. A later scene in which she meets George in a Soda shop and they talk about their plans for the future and slowly realize their feelings for each other again gives Martha Scott the possibility to display Emily’s innocence but again – it’s all too simple, an almost lifeless presentation because there is almost no life inside Emily.

Martha Scott uses her screen time wisely and despite all the obstacles is able to make Emily a lasting character despite her limited appearances and character but this is mostly due to the fact that, in the limited surrounding of Our Town, Emily is the only person to ever achieve any kind of visibility. Because of this, her performance is strangely touching and completely unremarkable at the same time, a bizarre example for ‘wanting more’ from an actress but not getting it. In some cases, the viewers want more because of the strength of the performance or the character but in some cases, they only want more because the performance feels so incomplete and narrow. Unfortunately for Martha Scott, the latter is the truth. She does the most she is allowed to do but this is just too little – both because the screenplay simply sees Emily, despite her intelligence and dreams, as a woman who, even though not ready to get married, only exists to eventually do get married, and because the structure of the movie asks her to be as flat and pale as possible to prevent her from pushing the character in any kind of direction. Martha Scott cannot be blamed for any of the flaws in her work – but this doesn’t change the fact that everything in Our Town is constantly holding her back.

So, her nomination for Best Actress is, in some ways, a head scratcher. But what probably explains it is her final scene, the only one in which she truly becomes the center of attention. After she has given birth to a child, Emily apparently died and watches as a ghost over her family and herself when she was a teenager, remembering the joy of living and taking over the part of the movie’s conscience, telling the viewers to notice the beauty of life while living, finding fulfillment in the little things that shape our daily existence. Martha Scott handles those strange scenes beautifully as she finds the right way to play this long monologue, realistically and yet strangely unearthly. But she also suffers in this scene – playwright Thornton Wilder apparently not only wanted to put the weight of the play and his own ideas onto Emily’s shoulders but rather the weight of the whole world. Just like the rest of the movie, Martha Scott is not truly to blame for all these shortcomings as she succeeded in creating a strangely lost and helpless feeling but the heavy-handed monologue she is given only feels powerful while it lasts but becomes strangely unsatisfying when it is over.

Martha Scott clearly felt very comfortable in her role but there was nothing she could do nor that she was allowed to do to find any kind of woman in the thin creation that is Emily Webb. A beautiful performance, turned into an indecisive miscue by the screenplay and the direction. It’s frustrating to see an obviously talented performer being held back so strongly but her dedication and success in the dreamlike final sequence help her to receive

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