My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1942: Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver"

The Academy had not been paying a lot of attention to World War II during its first couple of years – while the armies in Europe were fighting against the terror of Nazi Germany, Academy members gave their blessings to the epic saga of the Old South Gone with the Wind, Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romance drama Rebecca and John Ford’s ode to better childhood memories How Green was my Valley. But by 1942, America had become completely involved in the conflicts in Europe and Asia and Hollywood reacted accordingly, creating hymns to patriotism and the virtues of duty, often headed by the most popular stars in front of and behind the camera. But the time had not yet come for an American home front drama like Since you Went Away which portrayed the life of a family living without a father and a husband – in 1942, the threat of the war that was fought across both oceans might have become more tangible for the American population but the battle fields and air raids were still far away. And so to give this tragedy and danger a more conceptional dimension, director William Wyler took a different approach and showed the point of view of a family from a country that most Americans surely felt closest to during these times to portray the horror of war, the struggles of the people oversea, the importance of alliances and solidarity – and the courage and determination of the British people. His Mrs. Miniver not only showed a nation under attack, people whose lives were changed and destroyed by the Blitz but also made it clear to every American viewer that Great Britain would not give in to the threats of its enemies and that a fight at its side would be worth it – neither the soldiers nor the priests nor the British aristocrats nor the British housewives would ever accept anything less than a complete victory in this war and formed a strong and unusual bond to stand together against the German armies. It gave American audiences a stylized look at a familiar and yet unknown country, displaying a world of innocence and kindness which was suddenly and without reason exposed to hostility and death – Winston Churchill himself praised the propaganda effect of Mrs. Miniver, clearly understanding that this movie portrayed the British people both as fighters and victims, creating sympathy as well as admiration, making it easy to feel an urge to support them in their combat and marvel at their strength at the same time. And to make this concept even more accessible for American audiences, the central characters in Mrs. Miniver were portrayed by a cast of recognizable American and British actors who created the needed familiarity and closeness to fully communicate the meaning and the importance of this family and village from oversea in the overall events that happened across the Atlantic – rising star Teresa Wright brought a large amount of youth, charm and innocence to her role and the picture, character actress Dame May Whitty added a sly sense of humor and aristocratic pathos with her recognizeable sarcastic style that could combine light comedy with serious drama quite effortlessly, popular leading man Walter Pidgeon embodied the loving but also unflinching patriarch of the family who would always recognize the sacrificies that needed to be made in this fight and typcial supporting actor Henry Travers provided a different kind of humor and showed the importance of dreams and ambitions as well as the need to go on in times like this. These four actors received Academy Awards nominations (or in the case of Teresa Wright the Oscar itself) for portraying archetypes for certain characters whose fates intervened and were changed because of World War II with Teresa Wright embodying the young war bride who married the love her life in a hurry before everything might be too late, Henry Travers and Dame May Whitty symbolizing the new and unexpected connection of different classes standing together and Walter Pidgeon as the head of the family who might not be able to fight directly against the Germans but still does his best to help the cause and protect his wife and children. And in this structure of Mrs. Miniver, all these character are circling around its central aspect, the one person who seems to combine more than just one reflection of its time – Kay Miniver is the wife and the mother who does not stand only for a certain archetype but rather for the general perception of war, for courage and fear, she is the woman who holds everything together, who accepts and rises to the challenges put before her, who stands as the one connection between all these characters and who finally does all this without ever losing what could be considered a more traditional female role in the Miniver household. And a central female and British movie character could only mean two words in 1942 – Greer Garson. After having given her motion picture debut no more than a few years earlier and only appearing in a handful of motion pictures, she had established herself not only as the first British actress of the screen but basically the first actress of the screen period. Her prime during those years was an unmatched peak of financial and critical success, crowned by perennial Oscar nominations and an almost constantly rising level of popularity. And when she received the Best Actress award for her work in 1943, it was certainly one of the most logical outcomes in Oscar history as her win marked one of the few instances when an actress received the award both at the peak of her popularity and for the part that stands as the signature role of her career, not only because it saw her achieve the highpoint of her artistic composition but also because the part perfectly combined her own personality, her own background and the time around her as it was the only time during these years that her movie and her role actively concerned themselves with her home country and the battle it was fighting, making Kay Miniver a role that exists on a much more personal level in Greer Garson's filmography.

When Mr. Chipping climbed up the Austrian mountains and got caught in thick fog which prevented him from climbing down again, he not only found his future wife sitting on a mountain top and waiting like him for the fog to go away – he also found an actress who would soon turn into one of the most popular stars of the next decade and who charmed and fascinated audiences around the world with her undeniable poise and innocence which she smoothly mixed with British elegance and sophistication and turned into a combination of experience, wisdom, mature appeal and lovely youthfulness and who clearly filled some kind of need for American viewers during the time of World War II which corresponds precisely with the peak of her popularity and her career. Greer Garson specialized in movies that inspired the audience with the strength of her characters in a story that almost always included a fight for a greater good and love, movies without too many edges or complications that presented a wonderful distraction during these hardened times. And Greer Garson added to the overall innocuousness of these pictures with her inoffensive and charming screen presence that seemed to know no faults and she could be lovely without appearing flat and wise without appearing arrogant and found a sometimes maybe uneven but still engaging balance of a unique and distinctive style and a harmless and appealing everyday personality. Greer Garson had basically perfected this acting style from her first moment on the screen and even if she maybe did not truly develop in any way as an actress or tried to move her talents into a more challenging direction she still always brought her characters to life with charm, grace, humor and dramatic intensity – her characters may often have been one-dimensional and undeveloped but her acting always added a refreshing spark and aliveness which helped to make her performances much more engaging than they might have been otherwise. And her star power during the first half of the 1940s clearly indicates that her charm and loveliness was more than enough for movie audiences and even turned rather limited pictures like Mrs. Parkington or Madame Curie into commercial and critical successes. But by focusing on pictures that would make her performances their sole reasons d’être, Greer Garson unfortunately also tended to contradict one her strongest assets – her ability to be part of a team and to benefit from a movie and a story that offered more aspects than her central performance. Never in her career would she ever be again as charming as she had been in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a movie that never depended on her character and with Robert Donat offered her the strongest screen-partner of her career. And she was a formidable addition to Laurence Olivier in Pride and Prejudice, a movie that integrated Greer Garson into its universe instead of putting her at its center and enabled her to give one of her most praised and remembered performances besides Mrs. Miniver. But as Greer Garson’s popularity began to increase she also began to focus more strongly on movies that could be considered typical ‘star vehicles’ in which she would be the central and most of the time only noteworthy aspect, surrounded by a lacking script and a usually pale supporting cast. But throughout her career, the quality of Greer Garson’s performances mostly corresponded with the quality of her characters – she might have been able to deliver appealing work with substandard scripts, too, but her performances were always most worthwhile if they were given in a context that didn’t try to rest on them but support them instead. Like co-nominee and co-star Teresa Wright, Greer Garson possessed natural instincts for the screen which allowed these two actresses to fill their parts with spark and personality but they also depended on the support of the script to clearly establish their characters for them and fit them to their personality while also adding depth and an inner life that both actresses often were not able to add themselves, putting their own focus on the outer life of their character instead of their internal development. Greer Garson was a warm and engaging personality on the screen but she was also an actress who was in constant danger of repeating herself over and over, in both her acting and the kind of characters she played. She obviously clearly struck a chord with audiences, critics and Academy members, all of whom loved to see her ‘one woman shows’ but compared to contemporaries like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson was rarely able to lift her material to a higher level and be noteworthy for the honesty and depth of her characters instead of their constant goodness. And because she usually offered hardly any surprises in her performances, Greer Garson faced her biggest problems whenever she did what she loved to do the most – carry a picture on her shoulders. She pleased audiences with her frequent collaboration with Walter Pidgeon but they never achieved the same kind of effortless chemistry as so many other famous on-screen pairs like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or William Powell and Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon never seemed to have any interest in crafting memorable characters and was always more than willing to be just another aspect of a movie designed to only showcase its leading lady. But Greer Garson mostly excelled in an environment that was able and willing to rise with her and who also needed more than a central character to truly shine, most notably a well-written script and a supporting cast that would take some of the pressure from her shoulders and allowed the movie to re-focus its attention from time to time, letting the audience breath and Greer Garson find a chance to focus more strongly on the details and peculiarities of her own character instead of trying to inhabit the whole movie with her performance, therefore reducing the danger of repetitiveness. Unfortunately, Greer Garson too seldom chose this way for her career, enjoying her position as the central aspect of most of her movies, unchallenged by co-stars, writing or directing – but 1942 proved to be an exception to this rule when Greer Garson starred in two popular and critically acclaimed movies with co-stars who were all as dedicated to the success of the picture as she herself. She worked opposite an Oscar-nominated Ronald Colman in the romantic drama Random Harvest and opposite a whole cast of Oscar-nominated performers in the Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver in which even Walter Pidgeon appeared much more alive and unconventional than usual. In Mrs. Miniver, Greer Garson found herself as part of a team instead of its unquestioned leader – which overall resulted in a performance that deservedly stands as the signature work of her career because it gave her the chance to display all the qualities that made her both an appealing personality and an accomplished artist even if the limits of her talents may have still been visible during certain moments.

Maybe it seems contradicting that Mrs. Miniver is one of the few films that didn’t completely rest on Greer Garson but that it is still named after her character – but even if Greer Garson is surrounded by a strong ensemble, the script still turns her into the one aspect of the movie that pulls everything together. Mr. Ballard names his rose after her, Carol comes to her and meets Vin for the first time, Lady Beldon talks to her about their marriage, she is the one who listens to the planes in the air, hoping for her son to come back, she is the one who maybe stays at home while her husband goes to Dunkirk but has to get involved in the war on a much more personal level than he does, fighting a German soldier in her own kitchen, she is the one who witnesses the death of others but she also remains the supportive wife and mother who gives comfort and advice to those around her. So Greer Garson may not be one to carry the picture on her shoulders alone but she is still presented as its center, the one character that is floating above all the proceedings, symbolizing the need for help and the courage more than anyone else – like the captain of a ship, she is the one responsible for the success of the journey, overviewing the proceedings without fulfilling all deeds herself. And Greer Garson was able to lead the cast while remaining a part of it, dominating the picture without suffocating it and her work effectively corresponded with the tone and style of Mrs. Miniver, making her character the one who is constantly affected the most by the happenings around her but who also helps to support this style and tone. Right from her first moments on the screen, her ability to portray women who are loving, kind and gentle sets the tone for the story to follow even if the subplot of a hat that might be too expensive for the Minivers rather contradicts many intentions of Mrs. Miniver – Greer Garson is able to create a familiar character in her feeling of guilt over spending too much money and wondering how she will tell this news to her husband but this goal to establish the Minivers as an average English family fails very soon as it not only wants to portray them as average but also as role-models, too, whose virtues and courage would even inspire the last row of the movie theatre. But because symbolizing those virtues is a task that demands full and complete attention all the time, the Minivers soon begin to lose their averageness when their maid takes care of their house, a new car is bought or their son comes back from the university. Beyond this, the script also wants to portray the innocence of the British people by focusing on the Miniver’s daily life and worries but denying them every thought about the political situation around them again lets them appear too constructed and bended for the sake of the movie’s overall message. And the character of Kay Miniver also occassionally suffers from this construction and she is not helped by the writing when it lets her list those things that she likes but are too expensive like ‘hats or good schools for the children’, letting her appear strangely ignorant without exploring her thoughts any further and these contradictions also influence Greer Garson’s work in various aspects – the script does help her by showing her exactly what to do and how to express her emotions at different times but while it knows what Kay Miniver has to do it has a much less clear vision of who it wants her to be. Kay Miniver is supposed to represent the average British housewife who lives up to the demands of war time but simultaneously the movie also too often puts her on a pedestal of moral superiority, emphasizing her almost saint-like perfectness in a way that’s supposed to turn her into an admirable role-model but sometimes distances Kay Miniver too far from this goal. Greer Garson’s own performance is caught somewhere between this – she possessed certain qualities that made her characters very approachable and believable, giving them a trustworthy earthiness among her elegant features, but her often stylized acting style and equally stylized personality also contradicted this earthiness very often and made her characters too noble and respectable for their own good. Overall, the script and Greer Garson herself established Kay Miniver somewhere between this averageness and role-model function, sadly letting her lose some of her credibility on the way. But even with those contradictions, the part of Kay Miniver still fit Greer Garson like a glove – precisely because this sometimes unbalanced combination came to her so easily and even if it sometimes disputed the purpose of this character, she still handled those aspects of her work with engaging precision and integrated them with elegant determination into context of the movie. And most of all, her charm and grace helped her to become the woman who is worth fighting for – she turns herself into a symbol of both courage and need for help, a woman who fights her own fights but who would also encourage the men around her to go out and protect her virtues. When her son comes home and sees his mother and his fiancée waiting for him, he makes it clear very quickly which woman is his number one, underlining the strong position of Kay Miniver in the story and Greer Garson's performance in the movie.

But even if Greer Garson was able to mostly handle Kay Miniver’s two different aspects, the truth remains that even the signature part of her career was not one that enabled Greer Garson to overcome all of her weaknesses on the screen. The script clearly guided her but it also left room for some of her melodramatic and affected acting choices which range from sitting in her bed as if she is posing for a painting to delivering certain lines and words with clear exaggeration of dramatic intention. Most of all this shows that even if the part of Mrs. Miniver was fitting Greer Garson like a glove she was still an actress with surprisingly visible limits, especially for an actress who received seven Oscar nominations during her career as she seldom tried to truly inhabit the inner life of her characters. She played her parts with confident and competence but offered little variations and most of all weakened her overall effect with the aforementioned artificiality in her acting. But beyond that the character of Kay Miniver is not only a product of contradicting intentions but also a presentation of deliberate limitation. The movie may be named after her but it is Mrs. Miniver instead of 'Kay Miniver', underlining that the character is never defined by herself, never allowed to develop her own point of view and always created in relation to others around her, may it be her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law or the unexpected visitor in her kitchen. And so the final result is a performance that is as contradicting as everything that went into it – Greer Garson suffers from the writing but also benefits from it like rarely again in her career, there are limits in her character and in her acting but she still handled all variations of her character successfully mostly because Mrs. Miniver is a movie that offered Greer Garson dramatic moments without forcing her out of her comfort zone and also opportunities to be lively and even humorous without appearing too misplaced. She can be disarmingly honest in her conversations with Lady Ballham and a little manipulative at the same time, she reacts to the fact that a rose will be named after her with the kind of charming delight that anyone would express at this moment and she knows how to both support her husband and take the lead whenever it is necessary. It is mostly the last aspect of her work that Greer Garson handles with beautiful conviction – she never steps out of her role as the wife and mother, the woman who prefers to stay in the background, but she still plays a much more crucial part in holding the family together even if she remains a rather passive character. Kay Miniver seldom takes a more active approach to the storyline, things instead happen to her – the German soldier in her kitchen, war, her part in the rose contest, all these things come to her and demand her response. But in this passivity she is still a much stronger force than Mrs. Miniver’s other main female character, Teresa Wright’s Carol, who might actually be a bit more active but still never suggests at the same inner strength like Greer Garson does. Most of all, Greer Garson uses this strength to portray how her husband and her children are the foundation of her life and her face wonderfully displays her constant worries that this war might take this foundation away from her. And it’s nice to see that despite the propagandistic nature of Mrs. Miniver, Greer Garson never portrays Kay as a woman who busts with pride as she watches her eldest son go and fight the Nazis – instead, Greer Garson lets Kay react like any mother would, with constant worries and fear for his life, unable to stop him or push her own fears aside. And so she lets Kay appear completely helpless when she looks at her husband after her son told them that he already finished his training and when he says ‘Soon I will be able to do…whatever it is they want me to.’, Greer Garson brilliantly delivers the simple word ‘Fighting.’, letting herself go in the context of the scene, believably showing a mother who knows that she can’t control her son’s life and that he must make his own decisions even if she doesn’t agree with them. All these worries for her children provide some of Greer Garson’s most memorable moments on the screen – she is able to reflect that her fear during a German air raid is always a fear for the life of her children instead of her own and when she hears some planes above her house and hopes that her son will be among the pilots, she displays a whole array of emotions from fear, hope and uncertainty to nervousness and anticipation without losing the foundation of her character. She may feel a little bit lost during her scene with the German soldier, unable to combine her usual dignity with the fear and apprehensions that Kay is experiencing in this moment but she improves vastly once Kay is in control of the situation, displaying an unforgettable look of disgust and horror on her face after she slapped the soldier to stop his agressive words and she again finds a chance to deliver a single line brilliantly when she sends a doctor away with a quick ‘Thank you’, trying to control her calm appearance and keeping up a display of quiet dignaty while feeling the urge to be alone as quickly as possible to let the shock of the situation unfold itself in the privacy of her own home. Furthermore, Greer Garson also beautifully controlled her performance – she isn't a natural actress but constantly keeps a tight controll over her emotions but she knew how to express this acting style without feeling forced and even within this approach, Greer Garson still was often able to add a spontaneous vitality and zest while avoiding any loud dramatic intensities. Greer Garson's personality on the screen often tended to feel too stylized for its own good but she always beautifully withheld a too exaggerated approach, prefering to grief or rejoice more quietly and often even naturally. And so her final moments with Teresa Wright are among the most touching she has ever given on the screen, restraining her acting to let the drama of the situation speak for itself, displaying the horror of the situation in her eyes and her haunting delivery of the line 'Oh God'. But still there remain some unfortunately moments in which Greer Garson also let her acting choices appear too controlled and found herself unable to inject them with her usually authentic demeanor, not able to truly let go and work with her instincts instead of her head, failing to bring the needed emotional intensity – this is especially visible in the scene when she learns that her daughter-in-law had been hit by a bullet, a bit of news she registers with a languid and vague ‘Oh no, darling…where?' that feels too stiff to be convincing at this moment. But these scenes are thankfully rare and Greer Garson beautifully balances the dramatic moments of her performance with a lighter touch whenever it is appropriate. She can be both proud and embarrassed of her son when he talks about his ideas of poor and rich people, she can watch the romance between him and Carol blossom with motherly delight and she can intriguingly tease her husband when she tells him that a rose was named after her. Her later scene with the German soldier also paved the way for one her most enjoyable and relaxed moments on the screen, when she tells her husband about the whole situation in a very nonchalant, playful and even sexy way – this single moment also shows that Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson have never been better together than in Mrs. Miniver because this was the only time they truly appeared to be a team of equals. Blossoms in the Dust had Walter Pidgeon leave too early and didn’t find any balance in their relationship, Madame Curie had him too timid and shy while he was bursting with unbearable arrogance and ignorance in Mrs. Parkington. But in Mrs. Miniver they are a true couple from beginning to end, showing their love but also a strong friendship for one another that serve as the movie’s most steady foundation – it's again a display of the fact that Greer Garson was always at her most relaxed on the screen when she could trust in a strong and dependable cast around her, one that was willing to work and keep pace with her. And so, the casting of Greer Garson as Kay Miniver is a welcome and intriguing merging of identities as both women quietly control the proceedings around them without dominating them – they are the center of their worlds but neither is feeling the need to stand out and both Greer Garson and Kay Miniver let her co-stars and her family be a group of equals, giving Mrs. Miniver a more realised intensity and enabling Greer Garson to be the kind of mother and wife but also actress and personality it required.     

Overall, Greer Garson played her role like she almost always did, by following the guidelines of her character without adding any depth herself but the structure of the script was enough for her to shine in a part that highlighted all of her strengths and allowed her to deliver some memorable and moving moments but also to become a strong symbol of maternal love, marital support and determined volition, for fear in the face of the enemy and the courage than can arise from it. Her performance is filled with the right amount of charm and seriousness, showing how Kay Miniver adjusts herself to the tasks she was given without losing the core of her identity, making the part not only tailor-made for her but also allowing her to embrace this portrayal of womanhood without scarifying the integrity of the character for the sake of sentimentality. Thankfully, Greer Garson never tried to steal or dominate the movie and instead flowed along with the story, holding back whenever the focus shifted, making her more real and three-dimensional than she might have been otherwise. It’s not a perfect performance in any way – for this, both Greer Garson’s acting and the quality of the writing lack the necessary substance but it’s a strong and thought-through portrayal that manages to impress despite its limitations.


joe burns said...

Great writeup! But I haven't seen her yet. What did you think of Teresa Wright?

dinasztie said...

I liked this performance.

Anonymous said...

Incisive analysis and nice appreciation. I think, after seeing Random Harvest, Madame Curie, and Mrs. Miniver all within a short time, that there must have been a clause in Ms. Garson's contract that her character would be described as "beautiful" while she got a big closeup. but I still enjoy her work. I wondered though why Kay Miniver would have brought Carol home and called for an ambulance then, instead of going directly to the hospital? Wasn't shlepping her out of the car, into the house, dangerous for them both?
Any thoughts on that? Thanks.

Fritz said...

I totally agree, that is a big plot hole - how could Kay carry Carol all the way into their house??? She might not have brought her to the hospital because it was too far or might have been too dangerous but she certainly would not have been able to bring her inside.