Barbara Stanwyck provides some unforgettable moments and is able deliver a moving and emotionally engaging portrayal but unfortunately it is mixed with too many moments of uncomfortable over-the-top acting that almost ruin the entire experience but at the same time, she deserves some credit for following the screenplay and showing the ugly and unlikable sides of her character.
It’s a performance that could have been a lot of things but unfortunately settled for only a little bit. Janet Gaynor does all the things she is asked to do but, despite a role that seems so juicy and challenging on paper, all this is actually rather undemanding and simple. The movie doesn’t ask much of her but she adds her own charm and grace to give a quite loveable performance.
Nothing in Irene Dunne's work feels forced, ever line is delivered in a rather casual way but still always includes a little irony, a little sarcasm or some hidden meaning. With the gifts of a real comedian, she plays her part in a way that never seems to try to be funny even thought her Lucy is very aware of her own behavior and her merry character. She jokes, she trades sarcastic bon-mots with her husband and recognizes even the slightest bit of humor in (almost) every situation.
In a part that was tailor-made for her, Greta Garbo didn’t need to stretch herself as an actress and she solely concentrated on the dramatic effects of her work but at the same time, these dramatic effects are so wonderful to watch and so easy to admire. She created something flawless here even if it’s not. Marguerite Gauthier isn’t her greatest performance but everything that made her such a legend is on full display.
Overall, the whole performance could have been a complete disaster – the obvious miscasting of European actors and the nature of the part might have ended in a boring, inappropriate or at worst unbelievable performance but in the hands of Luise Rainer, O-lan becomes one of the great female characters in movie history. She often seems invisible because she is so withdrawn and always prefers to stay in the background but when her husband tells her that everything they have is owed to her, it becomes really clear how strong O-lan’s and Luise Rainer’s presence really is. An all-around stunning achievement.
Somewhere between her celebrated work in silent movies, her acclaimed transition to talkies and her well-known reclusiveness, Greta Garbo has made the step from actress to legend, from star to myth. Her name has become a synonym for timeless elegance, class, intelligence, culture and eternal grace. She was able to portray a seldom-known feeling of joie de vivre in front of the camera even though she was mostly cast in dramatic, suffering roles that asked her to anticipate an almost unknown level of happiness before everything would crush right in front of her eyes. Stars like Bette Davis praised her instincts for the camera and her face that seemed to haven been made for movies – like a mystic character out of an old saga she possessed the most distinctive features, a face so memorable like set in stone but soft and delicate, almost surreal in its reality. In her movies, she was a mature woman and a little girl at once, a character who seemed sublime and arrogant at the first look but turned out to be warm and gentle, spending too much time thinking of the needs of other people or the consequences of her doings. Her voice seems so deep but always turns out to be just a whisper, even though still strong, like her whole appearance that is so delicate but imperturbable at the same time. Yes, there is something magical and mystical about Greta Garbo and most critics and viewers in 1937 seemed to agree that she found the perfect vehicle to immortalize all her qualities forever in Camille.
With a New York Film Critics Award and critical praise under her belt, plus her legendary reputation as one of the greatest stars and actresses of her time, the Oscar win must have seemed like a sure thing but the audience at the Academy Awards gasped when Luise Rainer’s name was called for the second time in a row. Maybe it was Greta Garbo’s apparent indifference to the Oscars (but this didn’t stop Katharine Hepburn from winning an Oscar a few years earlier) or the fact that The Good Earth seemed to have had more supporters among Academy members than Camille – or maybe Oscar voters simply preferred Luise Rainer’s performance which shouldn’t be a surprise since it is one of the finest ever captured on the screen. In the end, it’s all pure speculation. Today, the question is if Greta Garbo’s celebrated performance can really live up to its legendary reputation. The answer: yes and no.
In her movies, there always seem to be two Greta Garbos: the star and the actress. For Greta Garbo, the star, this is the perfect vehicle. The character is tailor-made to highlight everything that is so admirable and captivating about her. Marguerite Gauthier is a well-known ‘Dame’ in the high society of Paris, a careless woman who enjoys life and spends far too much money. But once she falls in love with a young man, her life makes an unexpected, tragic turn and on top of that, a fatal illness is slowly taking her strength and her life…It’s a showy and dominating part in a movie that only exists to worship its leading lady and offers Greta Garbo the possibilities to demonstrate her ability to laugh and smile, enjoy life with her whole body and emotions, and to suffer and be in agony. These things always came surprisingly natural to her even though she very often still expressed them in a highly stylized way but this always worked very well in the context of the stylized movies she starred in – and Camille is no exception. Greta Garbo seems like a little sparrow, observing and delicate, but with the elegance of a swan and the glamour of a peacock (okay, not the most sophisticated comparison but somehow it fits).
Then there is Greta Garbo, the actress. There is no denying that Greta Garbo possessed natural instincts for the camera, how to move her head, her eyes, how to create an aura of sophistication and poise and how to use her talents to maximum effect. But at the same time, there is something…too obvious about Greta Garbo, especially in her dramatic work that never truly reaches her relaxed, hilarious and artistically much more exciting work in Ninotchka. The same things that are so fascinating about her as a personality sometimes seem to stand in her way as an actress. There is something very distinctive about all her performances. The way she moves her upper body, mostly to the back, the way she lets her head move to the side or throws it into her neck when she is laughing is very enthralling but unfortunately becomes repetitious too soon. There is never something truly deep about her work. Instead, Greta Garbo seems to be so concerned with creating an image of Greta Garbo that she seems to forget about Marguerite. Everything that happens in Camille seems to stay on the surface of her face. Greta Garbo doesn’t possess an inner fire or an inner strength, there seems to be rather something reflecting about her. Her face doesn’t seem to create this famous magical glow but rather projects the feelings and emotions directed at her. Greta Garbo knows how to pose but somehow she doesn’t get beyond the posing and actually craft a real character.
So, this may not be a character study but it’s a true movie star performance and while one can mourn the fact that Greta Garbo didn’t seem to truly grab the part in its fullest, there is still very much to admire and praise nonetheless. The character of Marguerite may have been a simple farm girl before she became a ‘Dame’ in Paris, but Camille begins right with the glamour and the fancy costumes – because nobody could do this better than Greta Garbo. Camille is not a movie that aims for realism. Blanche DuBois said she wants magic instead of reality – Camille would have been the perfect movie for her. It’s highly stylized and presents life not as it is but as the audience imagines it and it exists in its own universe of romance and tragedy. And Greta Garbo perfectly understood this. There are constant moments that a woman of her expressiveness could have played much more complex and interesting but instead she focused every bit of her talents to the style and rhythm of the story and used her acting precisely to express what she and director George Cukor wanted. It is only thanks to Greta Garbo’s wonderful combination of movie star qualities and talent that Camille could become such a classic. It’s basically cheap melodrama but thanks to her, it reaches a very high level nonetheless. Thanks to the beautiful art direction, the beautiful costumes and the beautiful people it creates an aura where an actress like Greta Garbo can exist and act without any barriers. Marguerite may be a woman from a small farm but Greta Garbo plays her almost like a Queen nonetheless because that’s what she is best at. Camille is the perfect movie for her because everyone and everything in it only seems to exist to let her shine – and make it easy for her to do so. There is no sense in denying the simple fact that Camille is Greta Garbo. The supporting players do well but there is one bright ray of light around Greta Garbo that leaves everyone else in half-darkness. Robert Taylor gives a competent performance and has the handsome face to create a believable aura of romance but he is stuck with a character that constantly drags every bit of life and energy out of the story. Armand is the kind of man who makes a hard face and flat lips whenever his girlfriend laughs and says bitterly ‘Are you laughing at me?’ or who suspects betrayal and affairs behind every act or word. That way, the passionate love between the two seems too unexplainable and not even Greta Garbo’s talent for soft romance and playing a victim of uncalled jealousy can change that. But strangely, it doesn’t really matter because even the love story of Camille feels more like a one-woman-show – everything that happens in Camille only seems to exist in relation to Greta Garbo and her performance.
In this aspect, Camille easily succeeds. There is something dreamlike about Greta Garbo and like few other actresses, she is able to grab the audience’s attention in a quick and complete way. She portrays a very believable devil-may-care attitude and especially her beginning scenes in the theatre reflect a wonderful sense of enjoyment, of a fun-loving little girl who appears like an alter ego of Greta Garbo in these moments – both women know how to use their smile, their eyes, their mouth, their carefully constructed personality. There is nothing truly original about her performance. Camille couldn’t have been announced with a slogan like ‘Garbo talks’ or ‘Garbo laughs’ because she isn’t doing anything new here. Her whole performance is essential ‘Greta Garbo’ – the way she acts surprise, embarrassment, laughter, the way she moves her head or makes a pout. She’s been there and done that but there is still something that makes it seem much more special in Camille. It’s a performance that could be describes as ‘standard’ but Greta Garbo is still so otherworldly that ‘standard’ is more than enough. And it’s still commendable that Greta Garbo obviously knows exactly what she is doing and, more important, what she can do. She never leaves her comfort zone but since the character is perfectly tailored to her abilities as an actress and her personality as a star, she doesn’t need to. Sure, there could have been other ways of playing Marguerite, there could have been other actresses who might easily have created a deeper and more complex woman but Greta Garbo and Camille exist in a world of glamour, of drama and of pure movie style storytelling that doesn’t need or want too much complexity. Greta Garbo doesn’t aim for the top but settles for less – but she does that admirably.
Greta Garbo’s strong presence that is so natural and artificial at the same time also helps to cover the fact that, basically, Marguerite Gauthier isn’t really a challenging part. She laughs, she cries, she suffers but she does it all very straightforward, without any rough edges and ultimately acts very ‘scene by scene’ without every creating something ‘whole’. But still, all these single moments are of incredible beauty and poise. There are some wonderful moments when Greta Garbo, who seems so transcendent all the time, becomes suddenly very earthy. A visits to the countryside with Armand gives Marguerite the opportunity to question the maid about milk and the cows – it’s a wonderfully human and even amusing moment that connects Marguerite for a few moments with the past that was never shown.
Unfortunately, Greta Garbo too often lets this ‘acting by scenes’ change her character and she continuously jumps between a mature and deciding character who takes charge in the relationship to Armand and the helplessness of a little girl who retreats frightfully whenever she might have upset him. Generally, Greta Garbo’s face seems like an open book but unfortunately, she very often retreats into this mask-like hiding place whenever a moment becomes too dramatic or demanding. There is something very tense about the scene when she asks her older partner for money even though the relationship is basically over but her face appears too empty to make it truly captivating. On the other hand, Greta Garbo deserves a large amount of praise for her noble suffering. She doesn’t play the sympathy card but everything she does, she does with dignity. When she wants to meet Armand late at night but is interrupted by her partner, she doesn’t show the pain of unfulfilled love but a rather cold and unforgiving face that seems to suggest a grand schemer. But overall, Greta Garbo’s performance mostly concentrates on the emotional side of her character and she doesn’t portray Marguerite as a thinker but as a spontaneous, emotional woman. That way, she plays a very real character but does it in an almost surreal way due to her light and flighty acting style. She is a magician who creates illusions, she is a ballerina who expresses real emotions in a very stylized way.
But even though her performance may sometimes be unsatisfying from an acting point of view, Greta Garbo saves the best for last in her famous and celebrated final scene which certainly lives up to its reputation. She portrays a wonderful amount of emotions from disappointment, fear and weakness to a girlish excitement and happiness. Her weak smile, her whisper of the word ‘Yes’ when Armand makes plans of their future, her final moments before she leaves him forever are as subtle as they are attention-seeking. Only Greta Garbo could have been so alive and so ghost-like at once.
Yes, Camille is a true showcase for Greta Garbo – but only in limits. Greta Garbo, the star, has never been better used. Greta Garbo, the actress, also delivers on a very high level but the feeling remains that there was still room for more. Greta Garbo didn’t need to stretch herself as an actress in this part and she solely concentrated on the dramatic effects of her appearence but at the same time, these dramatic effects are so wonderful to watch and so easy to admire. She created something flawless here even if it’s not. This isn’t her greatest performance but everything that made her such a legend is on full display. It’s Greta Garbo’s in her fullest bloom and for this she gets
Among the drama, the suffering, the dying and the tears that formed the Best Actress line-up of 1937, one performance stood out as the proof that, sometimes, the Academy does like to laugh. Irene Dunne’s witty and charming performance as socialite Lucy Warriner in the classic screwball-comedy The Awful Truth further established her as one of the great screen comedians even though she was just as well cast in musicals or dramas. Overall, her five Oscar-nominated performances impressively show her talents and her repertoire which included epics like Cimarron, comedies like Theodora goes Wild or drama like I remember Mama and while one can debate if the ever actually deserved to win a competitive award, it’s certainly a shame that the Academy never rewarded her with an Honorary Oscar.
The Awful Truth is a movie that seems to be universally loved today by everyone who has seen it even though it sometimes feels overshadowed by other comedies of the time, like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. It’s no coincidence that all of these three movies starred Cary Grant in the leading role as he was undoubtedly the most gifted comedy actor that ever graced the screen while various actresses of the time established themselves as gifted comedians – like Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne. To be honest, I have never been a true fan of The Awful Truth – while I admire its wit, its players and its playfulness, I never consider it truly funny or captivating. Leo McCarey’s win for Best Director is also rather a mystery to me but I won’t deny that there is still much to enjoy in the whole production.
Most of all it’s the leading stars who delightfully carry the story and provide the charm, the sparkling personalities and the ability to appear easygoing while never forgetting about the emotional core of their characters. Cary Grant had the ability to develop wonderful chemistry with every leading lady he had – and Irene Dunne is no exception. Both sparkle as a married couple that is waiting for the divorce to become final while the awful truth is much too obvious – that they still love each other and will never find new partners that could complete them in the way they had. Both are from the upper end of society where life is a big party that consists of cocktails and dancing – and the usual risky confusions and sexual misunderstandings. So, when one day Jerry comes home unexpectedly and finds out that his wife is not at home only to see her walking in the door a few moments later with her singing coach with whom she spend the night because the car broke down, it all leads to divorce very soon – also because Jerry didn’t quite spend his holiday the way he had told his wife. Both seem to feel a stubborn anger – but maybe divorce is only another way for them to amuse themselves and very soon they begin dating new partners to provoke some jealousy.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne perfectly portray two characters from the upper class who enjoy every moment of life and for whom no real worries seem to exist. Thanks to their wonderful chemistry and their natural way of appearing ‘high class’ without being snobbish or arrogant they create a wonderful couple and it’s very easy to imagine the two going from club to club, dancing the whole night, drinking champagne and laughing at each other’s jokes. The biggest plus in Irene Dunne’s performance is that she is able to remain so completely natural throughout the whole movie. Nothing in her work feels forced, ever line is delivered in a rather casual way but still always includes a little irony, a little sarcasm or some hidden meaning. With the gifts of a real comedian, she plays her part in a way that never seems to try to be funny even thought her Lucy is very aware of her own behavior and her merry character. She jokes, she trades sarcastic bon-mots with her husband and recognizes even the slightest bit of humor in (almost) every situation.
Actually, the nonchalant part of her performance doesn’t begin right away. Right at the beginning, Irene Dunne uses her charming and appealing personality to establish the character of Lucy but in these first scenes, her comedy work seems to be a bit too forced and it feels that she is rather trying to emphasize her performance too hard. But these impressions get lost very quickly once she finds the free-spirited screwball-heroine in Lucy. The court-room scene during the divorce hearing becomes an early highlight of her work when she talks non-stop to the judge about how she met her husband and that they agreed to live happily ever after – until today, she adds with a coquet laugh. In scenes like this, Irene Dunne seems very much to enjoy herself and lets her satisfaction with her part and her screen-partner shine in her own performance. Her Lucy becomes a true whirlwind, sassy, outspoken and extravagant. As every true comedian, she makes acting look easy. But actually, like every true comedian, she doesn’t even make it noticeable that she is acting at all.
Right after their divorce, The Awful Truth begins with the typical fight of the sexes. Since Lucy is a woman and this is the 30s, she doesn’t flirt or finds herself a little adventure but instead immediately gets engaged to a simpleton from Oklahoma. It’s clear that this isn’t a match made in heaven since the rather clumsy Dan, who travels to New York with his mother, is no man for a woman like Lucy – and Lucy surely knows this, too, but at the beginning it’s her spite and her anger that makes her get engaged to him. Dan is a rebound for her to get back at Jerry and make him jealous but this plan doesn’t work out since he is having too much fun to see her with this man who so obviously isn't even close to being in the same league as her. While Irene Dunne uses the opportunities the script offers her very wisely, her performance in these scenes often feels a bit pushed into the background. Not because of limited screen time but rather because she often is overshadowed by Cary Grant and the hilarious Ralph Bellamy. When Lucy and Dan meet Jerry and his new girl-friend, a naïve chanteuse, she makes some sarcastic remarks in his direction that Irene Dunne delivers with great comic effect but Cary Grant gets the last laugh when he paints Lucy a picture of her future life in Oklahoma City – and since Irene Dunne has established her character as a fun-loving and sophisticated New-York-girl, her painful reaction shots are comedic gold, just as her embarrassed face when Dan forces her on the dance floor and moves rather…unconventional. Irene Dunne wonderfully and hilariously shows the anger and embarrassment in Lucy as she realizes that she has lost this round. The most fun in her performance comes at moments like these when she is caught in awkward situations – the scene when Dan is reading his ‘poetry’ to her is another example and it’s very amusing to see her sophisticated character deal with him. Irene Dunne certainly makes good use of these scenes but, as mentioned before, is often in danger of being overshadowed by her co-stars. But luckily she is always able to prevent this from becoming damaging to her performance since she is able to fill even the most banal moments with a refreshing idea, with an alive outburst of emotions or a dry joke – all with entertaining results.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne both show how alike Jerry and Lucy are and how wonderful they fit together. It seems that there is nobody else to hold up to their speed. So it’s no surprise when Lucy finally admits to her aunt and to herself that she is still in love with him. Here, Irene Dunne is also allowed to play some more serious moments and she effectively puts them into the context of her own character and the nature of the story. When she learns about Jerry’s engagement to another woman, Lucy tries to hide her true feelings and Irene Dunne is able to say a lot with no words. Her expressive eyes and face, which suddenly loses its glow in these moments, tell the story.
In her most famous scene, Irene Dunne pretends to be Jerry’s sister in front of his fiancée and her family to embarrass him and end their engagement. Her loud and inapt behavior, her dance routine and pretended drunkenness are certainly very funny but also feel a little bit too over-the-top sometimes and Irene Dunne unfortunately also goes a little too far in the later scenes in the car and with the police officers and ends up being rather annoying in these moments. But at the end, she triumphs again with the sudden display of cool eroticism when Lucy and Jerry sleep next door to each other and wait until their divorce becomes final at midnight. Suddenly, Irene Dunne makes everybody notice what should have been noticed the whole time – her sexiness and sensual side. The way she looks at Jerry at the end, lying in bed, makes clear that there is something else that Jerry and Lucy seemed to have done pretty well together…in a moment that feels suddenly very private but also very fascinating she thrillingly shows that ladies like her are still no saints.
Irene Dunne's Lucy has the style and the grace of Jerry’s fiancé, but not her snobby character, and she has the humor of his first girlfriend, but not her naivety or vulgarity. Her Lucy is a wonderful mix of various styles who doesn’t take herself too seriously but also knows what’s best for her (and Jerry). That way Irene Dunne memorably played a woman from the high society while destroying so many of these images at the same time – and having fun at it. It's a performance that is constantly very amusing and could be best described with 'elegant comedy'. For this, she gets
It’s not exactly clear which events or persons were the inspiration for the movie A Star is Born, but according to various sources Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage to actor Frank Fay, who married the unknown Stanwyck and saw his career decline while she became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, might have been one of them. While this is pure speculation it’s still interesting to see Barbara Stanwyck joining the top actors in Hollywood with her first Oscar nomination the same year that Janet Gaynor received a nod for her rising actress in A Star is Born.
Barbara Stanwyck’s first nomination came for the kind of role the Academy loves to honor – the self-sacrificing mother who is willing to do everything to help her child get a better life. Because of this, she may resemble Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce – both women who focused their whole existence on the welfare of their child, even though they did it in different ways. Madelon Claudet lived at the lowest end of society and had to sell her body to earn money to put her son through medical school who, on top of that, also believed that his mother was dead because she wanted to save him from the embarrassment of being associated with a woman like her. Mildred Pierce wasn’t quite so noble and her support for her spoiled daughter brought her in the other direction – to the financial top. Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas is somewhere in the middle but she also shows a very important difference to these prototypes of suffering mother – a difference that ultimately harms her performance.
Stella Dallas doesn’t have a scandalous past that hurts her relationship to her son like Madelon Claudet. Nor does she have too little money which displeases her daughter like Mildred Pierce. Stella Dallas is a very normal child of a working-class family who marries into wealth and that way has no problems to fulfill most of her daughter’s dreams. The only thing that is working against Stella Dallas is – Stella Dallas herself. The problem that the picture presents is the fact that Sella isn’t the most refined woman in the world – in fact, she is rather frumpy, sometimes loud and vulgar, behaves out-of-place too often and has an enormous lack of good taste. That way Stella Dallas became a rather two-faced character compared to other suffering movie-mothers – on the one hand she wants to do everything for her daughter but on the other hand she herself is the reason why her daughter might not achieve the social status her mother hopes for. Mildred Pierce and Madelon Claudet worked hard to get their children to the top – Stella Dallas basically has to disappear to keep her daughter at the top.
Because of this construction of the story and the ambivalent character it becomes difficult to truly get interested in both Stella Dallas and Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. Barbara Stanwyck is caught in a part that constantly asks her to change her character and her acting – sometimes she is over-the-top, impossibly unrefined and careless, sometimes she appears very nice, loveable and smart. It’s a steady up and down and the character is bended constantly to create a stirring melodrama but more than once Barbara Stanwyck seems to lose the grip on who Stella is and what she wants to express. How is Stella really? Why does her character develop in such a strange way? There are no answers and Barbara Stanwyck’s interpretation also leaves much to be desired.
She begins the movie in a rather charming way, as a young girl, hoping to get married to a rich man. Barbara Stanwyck already shows that Stella isn’t necessarily a very lovely girl once you get to know her closer – she is rather impatient, bitchy and vulgar. But Barbara Stanwyck mostly holds these ‘qualities’ to herself at this point and only hints at them. It’s clear that Stella wants to enter a better class and live a better live than she does right now and has her own plans to fulfill this dream but at the same time she is not only marrying for money but seems to be genuinely interested in her future husband. But only a few scenes later, after Stella gave birth to her daughter, she seems already tired of him and shows more signs of her uncouth nature.
It becomes hard to understand why Stella is devoting herself so much to her daughter since she doesn’t seem to care about anything than her own pleasure. Right after she comes homes from the hospital she immediately wants to go dancing despite her husband’s objections. This is why the development of the character becomes too confusing too often because while one would expect that Stella Dallas would learn to fit into her new life and status she becomes more and more out-of-place as the movie goes on, walking in a direction that could harm the reputation of her daughter. It’s never clear why she develops like this – the lovely and lively Stella from the beginning doesn’t connect at all with the later Stella who walks around a country club in an outfit that looks like a bad second-hand store threw up on her. The inconsistency in the writing and Barbara Stanwyck’s acting make it hard to care for Stella Dallas at all. Because it is not only the writing that goes more and more over-the-top during the run of the movie – also Barbara Stanwyck too often goes into a rather uncomfortable acting zone that not only distresses the viewer but even seems to bother Barbara Stanwyck herself. In a lot of scenes that involve the more trashy side of Stella, Barbara Stanwyck becomes frustratingly unconvincing since even she herself doesn’t seem to believe in what she does. Especially the scene on a train, when a friend of Stella is spreading around itch powder among the other passengers, is incredibly embarrassing as it is so out-of-place among the melodrama of the story and even Barbara Stanwyck seems to be uncomfortable to be there – and to hide this, she decided to overdo her whole performance in this scene with some loud, fake laughs and stereotypical white-trash behavior. It seems that in the end Barbara Stanwyck is the kind of actress, intelligent and very aware, that simply isn’t able to convincingly portray this kind of woman.
But thankfully there are also the other moments in her performance – the scenes with her daughter where she gets a chance to show a more serious and devoted side and she crafts a lot of emotional and honest moments that display Barbara Stanwyck’s full talents and are realized by her with a surprisingly modern realism. Especially the melodrama, the tear-jerking moments are the highpoints of her performance and she thankfully does it without overemphasizing the sentimental aspects but rather plays them in a way that serves the story but also works in context of her overall characterization. When no guests arrive at her daughter’s birthday party, Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas shows a welcoming sense of self-reflection (which unfortunately doesn’t last) and gives her the chance to deepen her character and show her talent for dignified tears and suffering. Barbara Stanwyck has also a very good chemistry with Anne Shirley who plays her daughter and there is one thing that she does excellently – showing her heart of gold. Stella Dallas may not be a perfect character, but Barbara Stanwyck clearly demonstrates that her love for her daughter is real and that way it makes perfectly sense that her daughter would stand by her even if other people laugh about her.
As mentioned before, she doesn’t have to make sacrifices in the same way that Madelon Claudet or Mildred Pierce did because Stella has a rich husband and is able to give her daughter a pleasant life – the problem is rather her own character which finally leads her to make the ultimate sacrifice, getting out of her daughter’s life and allowing her to connect with social groups that would never accept a woman like Stella Dallas. It’s mostly the moments when Stella starts to realizes her own faults that give Barbara Stanwyck her greatest opportunities. Her celebrated wordless scene in the train when she learns how much she embarrassed her daughter in a country club is a wonderful example of facial acting but she tops this moment at the end when she watches her daughter’s wedding from outside the house. Suddenly, all the traces of the past Stella are gone and what remains is a glorious face, shining from within, filling the dark screen with a wonderful amount of light and warmth, a relaxed feeling of joy and satisfaction that she could achieve what she always wanted the most – a happy life for her daughter.
Barbara Stanwyck provides some unforgettable moments and is able deliver a moving and emotionally engaging portrayal but unfortunately it is mixed with too many moments of uncomfortable over-the-top acting that almost ruin the entire experience but at the same time, she deserves some credit for following the screenplay and showing the ugly and unlikable sides of her character. Her best work was yet to come but it was a memorable first encounter with the little golden guy which gets
Time can do a lot to movies. It can turn them into classics or it can lead them into oblivion, it can make them important or meaningless, timeless or dated. In some cases, movies can terribly suffer from the fact that we see things different today – we say ‘times have changed’ and quickly a movie can become obsolete. Even a classic like Gone with the Wind can suffer from this – its treatment and presentation of the black characters receives more and more criticism every year and slowly spoils it reputation. The Good Earth is another movie that faces this problem. The fact that European actors with make-up portray Asian characters may have been standard in 1937, but from today’s point of view it seems almost like an insult not only to Chinese people but also to Chinese actors who were deprived of the chance to star in a movie about their country. Yes, The Good Earth will certainly not win an award for political correctness but nobody should brush this movie aside too quickly because it is done in a very tasteful and dignified way that never tries to put the central characters down – The Good Earth isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Paul Muni and Luise Rainer aren’t Mickey Rooney. Their performances are very respectful and they thankfully never try to imitate or fulfil any stereotypes but rather their performances help to make the movie’s themes very universal – a story about two people who have to fight for their land, for their share of happiness and for their survival.
In the centre of this tale is the character of O-lan, the quiet, strong, self-sacrificing and withdrawn wife of a Chinese peasant, played by Luise Rainer who had just won an Oscar the year before for her very different portrayal of the temperamental, extrovert French diva Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld. The stark contrast between these two women surely made an impression on Academy members and critics alike and allowed Luise Rainer to become the first person ever to win two acting Oscars – and in consecutive years. But, as every Oscar follower knows, things didn’t quite turn out like expected and Luise Rainer’s career ended almost as quickly as it had begun and the legend of the ‘Oscar curse’ was born. Looking back it surely doesn’t seem too shocking that Luise Rainer’s career never really took off – there is something so…different, unique, almost exotic about her acting style, even in the part of O-lan which basically required her to be so withdrawn to the point of hardly moving at all, that it must have been difficult to cast her in more ‘conventional’ parts.
But even though, her win over the odds-on favourite Greta Garbo must certainly have been a surprise – but it’s not hard to see why Academy members voted for her a second time. Her O-lan is a truly epic achievement, a revelation of expressiveness, of subtle emotions and quiet spirit. It’s a performance that is so different, so inimitable and exists on a completely different level of excellence. Luise Rainer is even more delicate than Audrey Hepburn, even more sensual than Greta Garbo, even more wide-eyed than Bette Davis. She usually appears so flittering, nervous and almost pending but she was somehow able to completely reduce these aspects of her acting style while preserving this unusual screen presence that seems to come from an inner strength, an inner fire, an inner drive. Luise Rainer symbolizes this eternal question where this inner strength comes from, she is a prime example for a woman who seems to use her physical and spiritual energy and completely applies it to her work as an actress. She always appears as if she uses every bit of strength she possesses for her performances, as if acting is both exhausting and fulfilling for her. And by reducing her extrovert acting style and concentrating on the strength and exhaustion of her work she created one of the most fascinating characters in movie history, a woman who seems to have a never-ending source of strength inside of her that allows her to keep going, keep working and keep living despite appearing so weak and helpless.
Luise Rainer magnificently portrays that O-lan's quietness, her introvert nature and her obedience don’t actually come from being weak or helpless but instead from a life of oppression, slavery and poverty. Like a tortured animal, she has retreated into the most inner parts of her own body and mind, trying to remain mostly invisible but at the same time she is able to achieve all tasks she is asked to do and, sometimes, even becoming her own master when she takes matter into her own hands – but never for herself but always for the sake of her husband and her family.
Speech is silver, but silence is golden. In the performance of Luise Rainer, silence becomes a diamond. Her face can express so many emotions at the same time while keeping up the façade of a woman who tries not to express any emotions at all. O-lan is a woman who wants to attract no attention. When she, for the first time in the story, begins to talk out of her own will and tells about her dreams of returning to the Great House with her own son, Luise Rainer becomes truly magical as she does so many things at once – she lets O-lan dream, she lets her slowly break her silent mantle and forget herself until she realizes her own behaviour and quickly, almost ashamed disappears behind her façade again.
If there was a ever a performance that deserved to be praised for doing so much with so little, it’s Luise Rainer’s work in The Good Earth. She knows that her dialogue is limited and her character rather one-dimensional – O-lan is the prototype of the obedient, suffering wife but she uses her facial work and few lines to create a complex and rich character. She knows that her lines are limited and so she found a perfect way to communicate them with only slight chances in the nuance of her voice. Thankfully Luise Rainer didn’t try to fake her voice in any stereotypical way and hide her German accent which only could have been a disaster. Instead, she worked from the inside to create O-lan as a character – the fact that she also rejected any make-up helped her to find the emotional realism she so gloriously displayed. She delivers her lines in a mostly exhausted way as if it is taking all her strength to find the words and the courage to speak them out loudly but Luise Rainer is able to fill that tone with something else, an underlying meaning. Sometimes she is angry, sometimes she is sad, sometimes worried, sometimes content – Luise Rainer shows a large amount of emotions and feelings in O-lan that she expresses in the most subtle way. But it’s still mostly her quiet moments that almost give a new meaning to the expression tour-de-force. As in her speaking scenes, she let O-lan become a true firework of emotions but both O-lan and Luise Rainer repress and control them to fulfil the tasks they are given to do. So many of her most memorable moments belong to the most fascinating movie scenes in history thanks to her expressive face – the way she slowly prepares herself to kill the ox, the look of disappointment and disbelief when her husband couldn’t do that for the sake of his children, her joy when she feels the envy of her former master when she presents her first son or her work on the field just moments before she gives birth. Luise Rainer is always able to fill the tension of the moment with her delicate but at the same time earthy performance and that way carries the story in the most effective way. The rare moments of happiness in O-lan’s life are also done in a magical way by Luise Rainer who possesses a quiet and shy smile that brightens up the whole screen.
Luise Rainer also uses her own acting to expand the character of O-lan far beyond the written words. The look on her face when her husband asks her if she was beaten in the Great House tells her whole life story in just a few seconds. She wonderfully chose her first moment to let O-lan raise her voice – when she teaches her sons how to beg. This way she again creates a living and always threatening past for O-lan. The fear of this past is also influencing her behaviour and her hopes and thoughts about the future which makes O-lan the more important and responsible character in her marriage to Wang Lung. He seems to live for the day while his wife thinks ahead. This becomes obvious very soon when he throws away the seed from a peach and she picks it up again, saying “A tree will grow from this seed.” When she realizes that a famine might be ahead, she remembers that this was the reason that her parents sold her and so she does her best to keep her family intact, even giving them earth to eat when nothing else is available any more. When Wang Lung wants to sell his land because they have nothing, no money, no food and his wife expects another child, O-lan, exhausted from giving birth, appears and says that they will keep the land: "We'll not sell the land. We'll keep it. We'll go south. And when we'll we return, we still have the land." When her husband asks her about the child, she just says: "The child is dead." Did O-lan kill the newborn? She doesn’t show and her voice doesn’t reveal the truth but Luise Rainer’s desperation, anger and despair create a scene that is as sad as it is strained.
Especially in the scenes in the city, Luise Rainer shows an O-lan who has her own will to survive. Her matter-of-fact delivery of the line “Meat is meat.” is especially unforgettable and gives O-lan a very practical approach. When O-lan offers her husband to sell their daughter to get money to return to their home, Luise Rainer makes sure that, despite her apparent determination, O-lan doesn’t really mean what she is saying and that her offer is mostly made out of loyalty to her husband. When the mob in the city loots the Great House, Luise Rainer becomes particularly memorable. Her fear mixed with a sense of determination until it is finally replaced by pure panic is done incredibly effectively and in these scenes Luise Rainer lets O-lan for the first time appear really active and her acting seems much more uncontrolled and disengaged, in perfect harmony with the chaos around her.
In the second half of the story, Luise Rainer adds a heartbreaking dimension to her performance when her husband decides to take a second wife – in fact, O-lan is the one who suggests that he takes this new woman into the house. Even in this situation, she keeps loyal to her husband and his wishes. Her quiet suffering, unnoticed by everyone around her, her afflicted acceptance of her fate is shattering to watch and Luise Rainer creates some of the most moving images that ever graced the screen. Later, she tries for the first time to defy her husband when she complains about his second wife which again becomes an outstanding scene where Luise Rainer shows how O-lan tries to repress all her anger, moving her upper body back and forth, the words slowly debouching.
Overall, the whole performance could have been a complete disaster – the obvious miscasting of European actors and the nature of the part might have ended in a boring, inappropriate or at worst unbelievable performance but in the hands of Luise Rainer, O-lan becomes one of the great female characters in movie history. Luise Rainer shows that O-lan is a fighter in her own way – she never leaves the guidelines of her husband but she does her best to support him and find means to keep their dreams, their lives and their family intact. O-lan often seems invisible because she is so withdrawn and always prefers to stay in the background but when her husband tells her that everything they have is owed to her, it becomes really clear how strong O-lan’s and Luise Rainer’s presence really is.
This performance is definitely legendary – but only because in the historical context. And this is a true shame because Luise Rainer's performance is a piece of work that should be legendary simply based on its own merits. One of the greatest performances in motion picture history that easily receives
I guess I am not the only one who was introduced to the character of Vicki Lester, née Esther Blodgett, by the celebrated and by now kind-of legendary performance by Judy Garland in the musical-remake of 1954. In fact, Judy Garland has left her mark on this role in such an overpowering manner that it’s probably unknown to most people that Vicki Lester had been brought to life before and would be again – but the second remake also has its fair share of followers and was a big success in its days thanks to leading lady Barbra Streisand who continued the transformation of Vicki Lester who started as an actress in 1937, then became a singer/actress in 1954 and finally turned into a full-fledged singer in 1976, always depending on what the actress taking on the role could offer. It all started in 1937 when Janet Gaynor originated the part and it seemed fitting that the actress who was the first Best Actress winner 9 years earlier would also become the first actress who received an Oscar nomination for playing an actress who wins an Oscar.
The part of Esther Blodgett who becomes superstar Vicki Lester is by now almost a synonym for the classical underdog story who makes it against all odds in show business, a classical Hollywood fairytale. But more than that, it also has all the ingredients for awards-attention and is a wonderful part for any actress since it demands so much: an actress has to take the character from her early days of being an unknown and slowly carry her into the sphere of stardom – and all this coupled with a tragic and sentimental love story that is just as classical as the part itself and turns into a cynical payoff with Hollywood where apparently fame and success can’t exist for two people in love at the same time.
Surely like everybody who watched the remake of 1954 with Judy Garland I quickly recognized the part of Vicki Lester as a true challenge for every actress – but the original version of 1937 proved that this challenge can easily differ in its degree of difficulty. 1954 showed that the role was heavily dramatized and made much more demanding to turn it into the perfect showcase for the comeback of Judy Garland. Of course, Judy Garland had the advantage of also being able to show off her strong pipes, something that Janet Gaynor couldn’t and I certainly won’t hold that against her. But the absence of musical numbers is certainly not the reason why Vicki Lester seems like a much lesser challenge in 1937 than it was in 1954. In both version, Vicki Lester went the same path of success and had the same emotional problems with her alcoholic husband, Norman Maine, who used to be a famous actor himself but his star is sinking just while Vicki’s fame is rising. The big difference can be summarized like this – in 1937, Vicki Lester was a dreamer. In 1954, she was a worker. This means, that in 1954, Judy Garland’s Vicki was a hard-working performer who was happy to get paid and simply never had the chance to become a true star. But Judy Garland showed in her first musical numbers that Vicki did have the star potential, that she had everything it takes to become a big success if only she was given the chance. Like so many movies that portrayed young and aspiring actresses, like Morning Glory with Katharine Hepburn or 42nd Street, A Star is Born shows the bitter truth – that luck is just as an important ingredient to a successful career as talent. To be at the right time at the right place, to know the right people or simply a coincidence which can come in the form of being asked to replace the star of a show on opening night despite being a total unknown or giving a show-stopping performance in front of a famous actor who becomes an important mentor. But even though luck may be an important part in a career, it can only bring you so far if you don’t have the talent that must take over the role of luck. In 1954, A Star is Born showed the audience that Vicki Lester had the talent it takes. It may have been a fairy tale but it was believable because it doesn’t stretch the imagination that a woman with the talents of Vicki/Judy would be destined for greatness. In other words, it was always clear why Vicki became such a sensation. But in 1937, things were different.
The original A Star is Born seemed to be addressed to all the dreamers in America who went to the movie theatre and dreamed of being up there on screen one day themselves, who had ideas and images of Hollywood, of movie stars, money and fame. Because in 1937, Esther Blodgett is just that – a young and naïve girl from North Dakota who spends her time reading movie magazines, watching movies and dreaming about her favorite stars, like Norman Maine for example. Nothing in Esther’s life seems to indicate that she is destined for greatness. She simply dreams of a life as an actress, just like millions of others do. The only difference is that one day she takes things into her own hands and decided to go to Hollywood to become a real actress. And that’s it. That way, A Star is Born may have been an inspiration for many and created the aura of a true modern fairytale but at the same time it made it almost impossible to root for Esther because the movie never gives any reason why we should root for her. Does Esther even have any talent to become an actress? The first part of the movie never answers this question, more than that: it never even concerns itself with this question. Instead, it presents Esther’s naivety as something noble and admirable that seems to be praiseworthy in itself. But this way, the movie simply betrays itself because somewhere in its middle section, a star is actually born but it becomes never clear why. It seems that in the end Esther, now Vicki, actually did have the talent it took, as her Oscar win later proved, but, unlike in 1954, the real audience never gets to see what the ‘fake’ audience in the movie sees. There is never a scene that shows Vicki acting or performing to explain her fame and success. In this way, the character resembles Katrin Holstrom in The Farmer’s Daughter – Loretta Young’s noble dignity in the scenes when she practices political speeches may be beautiful in itself but they simply never would be enough to fill big auditoriums or get the people on her side which is probably the reason why The Farmer’s Daughter has no scene where the audience gets to see Katrin actually deliver one of the speeches she constantly practiced. A Star is Born spends a large amount of screen time with scenes that show Esther, after having arrived in Hollywood, spending time in her hotel and becoming more and more disappointed because she doesn’t get any job. Again, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her because the movie never gave a reason why Esther should succeed where so many others failed. But finally, A Star is Born also shows the importance of luck when Esther, working as a waitress, catches the eye of Norman Maine who will later help her to get her first big role which will start her career. This concept surely adds to the fairytale aspect of the story but at the same time the movie not only keeps the talents of Vicki a secret, it even seems to suggest that in the end, only an affair with Norman Maine made it possible for her to get ahead. So, in both 1937 and 1954, Ester Blodgett depended on the kindness of strangers to become a star but in 1954, the confidence in her was justified. In 1937, it’s a mystery.
It’s not Janet Gaynor’s fault that the character of Vicki is written so surprisingly simple but she also adds a lot to the simplicity. She begins her performance with the right amount of dedication and naivety and her angry outburst at the aunt, who discourages her dreams of Hollywood, are done very nicely and surprisingly subtle without any over-acting but her performance very soon becomes just as simple as the storyline and unfortunately never fully recovers. Of course, it all depends on the point of view. Her simple, honest and good-hearted characterization is obviously the way the movie makers wanted to go and her performance works wonderfully in the context of the story but in itself, the role and the performance are too one-dimensional and limited. The main problem is that Janet Gaynor doesn’t show any development, she always keeps the character the same – even when she turns from Ester to Vicki, from nobody to national superstar. Again, it fulfills the purpose of showing that Esther didn’t let her career turn her head and change her character, but it’s all just very unsatisfying and becomes strangely uninteresting. Nothing in Janet Gaynor’s performance indicates that Vicki is or should be an actress, much less a superstar. She could have filled the gaps of the screenplay by showing a more intriguing side in Vicki, an ambitious woman behind the young girl, or at least a hint at the wave of talents inside her but when Vicki decides to leave showbusiness to take care of Norman and a friend tells her that she worked so hard, it’s simply an incomprehensible and meaningless moment because the viewers have never seen Vicki ever work hard. Unfortunately, A Star is Born and Janet Gaynor only show results but not the process. The movie spends probably 40 minutes of showing Ester complaining that she doesn’t get a job but when she finally works as an actress, she has turned into a superstar from one moment to the other. These missing scenes of process make it almost impossible to develop any connection to the characters and Janet Gaynor’s performance makes the success of Vicki very difficult to believe because her Vicki is always the same. Considering that becoming an actress was the biggest dream of her life, she seems to take her success with a surprising lack of excitement or even caring. The problem is that this is 1937 and the old-fashioned ideas of the movie makers concentrate more on Vicki – the wife than on Vicki – the actress. In the end, Vicki Lester isn’t anything more than the typical suffering wife – the aspect of her stardom and her life as an actress are an added twist that never becomes truly challenging and remains mostly underdeveloped. That way, even though the part of Vicki seems to be the center of the story, Norman Maine and the performance by Frederic March outshine Janet Gaynor without even trying as he gives a fascinating and captivating portrayal of an actor on his way down. The chemistry between the two is wonderful and very convincing but mainly because Janet Gaynor always seems to play the little housewife and never gives any hint at the fact that she is by now a bigger star than him.
All these complaints probably make her performance seem much less interesting or good than it actually is because, as mentioned before, Janet Gaynor perfectly brings her character to life in the context of the story but one can’t help but think about all the things that could have been, all the wonderful challenges that were missed because the script and the performance focused too much on the simplicity of a woman who should actually be very complex. Janet Gaynor does bring a lot of humor and irony to her part, her imitation of famous movie stars at a Hollywood party is a true moment to cherish and, even though the transition to talkies has been completed years ago, it’s still nice to see how completely she transformed her acting style. Her performance aged very well and shows no signs of overacting or melodrama but instead is very subtle and tasteful, even in Vicki’s most desperate moments. The whole concept of Esther becoming a star doesn’t really connect with the character as written and played but the other aspect of the character, the role of Esther as Norman’s wife, is done very beautifully by Janet Gaynor. She shows all the worries and her fears about the future, about her husband and about herself very convincingly and there is always a certain warmness in her performance that makes it at least believable that Vicki would become very popular – she, as the movie tells us, not only has talent but Janet Gaynor also adds charm and kindness which surely serves the movie well. In the movie’s most famous scene, the Academy Awards, she may be overshadowed by Frederic March, but Janet Gaynor finds some wonderful moments to finally add some depths to her character when she watches her husband after he made a fool of himself and slapped her by accident – she shows that Vicki is certainly worried and caring, but there is also a certain coldness at this moment, maybe a feeling of rejection for having ruined her moment and for ruining himself.
A lot of the faults in Vicki's character can be found in Janet Gaynor’s performance that, even though it works in the context of the film, is too often too simple for its purpose but the most fault can be laid on the script which simply rushes too quickly through the important moments while overemphasizing the less important ones. Ester’s rise to stardom, her relationship to Norman and the effects of his drinking find barely any way into Janet Gaynor’s performance because the script barely touches them. All this simply shows that even a character who could be very challenging needs a good script to really come to life.
Not surprisingly, Janet Gaynor’s best moments come at the end. No, not her grief over her husband which is again done too quickly but her final, famous line which she says with an interesting combination of joy, defiance, pride and strength that seems to defy anyone who has to say bad things about her husband, especially the people at the funeral who told her that she is better off without him. With her delivery, Janet Gaynor shows that Vicki will forever proudly cherish the memory of the man who gave her everything and it becomes clear to the audience that Vicki will be alright and continue her career. This way, A Star is Born leaves the viewer with a feeling of joy and relief despite the tragic circumstances.
It’s a performance that could have been a lot of things but unfortunately settled for only a little bit. Janet Gaynor does all the things she is asked to do but, despite a role that seems so juicy and challenging on paper, all this is actually rather undemanding and simple. The movie doesn’t ask much of her but she adds her own charm and grace to give a loveable performance that gets