My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1933: Diana Wynyard in "Cavalcade"

Oscar host Will Rogers, who also gave out the awards in 1933, seemed to have a lot of fun with torturing the nominees that year. After having humiliated Frank Capra during the presentation of the Best Director Award, he called Best Actress nominees May Robson and Diana Wynyard on the stage and extensively praised their performances – only to announce afterwards that the winner was the absent Katharine Hepburn. Even though Diana Wynyard, who was mostly working on the British stage during her career, didn’t receive the award, her nomination still showed that, right from the start, the Academy had an enormous love for everything British. And with Cavalcade, they surely couldn’t ask for more – over 30 years of British history told in 100 minutes with a cast of British actors who portrayed both the British upper and lower class.

In her Oscar-nominated role as Jane Marryot Diana Wynyard belonged to the upper class of the story – her character symbolizes the wife and mother of the time, supportive and strong, but also very feminine and constantly worried about the changes in the world and her own life and family. Cavalcade is a largely forgotten winner of the Best Picture Oscar and looking back on it, the movie suffers from a lot of serious problems that range from the static direction to the unimaginative presentation of the various historical events that touch the two families to the mostly wooden and heavily dated acting, which also includes Diana Wynyard’s central performance. Even though she was primarily a stage actress, her work doesn’t suffer from any over-the-top theatrics or exaggerated facial work that was meant for the last row of the second balcony – in this aspect, her work can even be called subtle but she unfortunately still lacks any feeling for the camera or movie acting as a whole. She may not be over-the-top but she is incredibly mannered and affected with a propensity to that melodramatic and artificial acting style from the 30s and 40s. Most of her body movements feel very forced, not calculated, but still very unnatural and without any true feeling behind them. But her most distracting acting choice is done with her eyes – whenever a scene calls for any sort of emotional reaction, may it be sorrow, shock, thoughtfulness, determination, anger or anxiety, she turns her head away from her scene partner and performs a long, wide-eyed stare into either the open space above the camera or the floor beneath the camera. It remains unclear if Diana Wynyard was actually one of the X-Men and tried to use her laser-eyes, if she was keeping her eyes on a midge or if this was simple her panacea for every emotion of Jane Marryot, but she keeps doing it at every possible situation. It’s a very enigmatic face that she keeps in these scenes and it provides endless possibilities of interpretation what her character might feel in these moments but it all simply seems as if neither Jane nor Diana Wynyard were feeling anything at all and that this was the only way for the actress to express her character’s feelings and thoughts. While this might have worked well on a stage, the camera is less forgiving in these cases, especially when they run through the entire performance. At the end, it is simply a very dated acting choice which Diana Wynyard apparently picked to express her inner emotions but at the same time it completely distracts from every single expression in her performance.

To be fair, Diana Wynyard probably knew that she needed some kind of gimmick to not completely get lost in Frank Lloyd’s vision of British history and sequence of war, shipwreck and more war – maybe she told Mama Rose before the shooting ‘Me, I stare and I stare and I stare, stare, stare…but I do it with finesse!’…Who knows. Anyway, the problem that Diana Wynyard faces is that Cavalcade isn’t a movie that tells the story of a family – it only wants to tell the story of various historic events and needs some leitmotif for this purpose. So, all the characters in this story are used mostly as plot devices who have to jump from one event to the other without ever really having a chance to become true, three-dimensional characters since apart from their relation to these historic events, they never are allowed to develop in any way. In the case of Diana Wynyard this means that all she gets to do is either worry about her husband who is at war or about her son who is at war while aging during the process…not really the most exciting or thankful part imaginable. Frank Lloyd also keeps such a distance from the characters to place them in the wide image of his history lessons that no actor has the chance to really create anything lasting or touching. The characters always stay far away from the viewer especially because they are thrown in and out of the story always depending on who is needed at this time in Britain’s history. The death of characters is always completely without every moving effect because they never either became true characters at all or made any emotional connection to the audience. The marriages of Jane and Robert Marryot and of their servants Ellen and Alfred never really make their way into the story – yes, they are married but does it matter if one of them would die? Not really…especially in the case of Jane Marryot, Frank Lloyd’s direction and the screenplay take a rather shocking attitude because this mother of two sons has to endure a lifetime of suffering but it becomes clear that the deaths of her children are only put into the story for some dramatic effect. Somebody probably thought it was a great idea to have a scene on the Titanic, so, why not put one in and let somebody die? And hey, there should also be a scene that tells the viewers that war is tough, so why not let somebody else die, too? The effect these events have on the central character is never shown and Diana Wynyard never gets the chance to display any, apart from a little breakdown in her apartment (after having reacted with a stare into open space first).

So, Diana Wynyard has to fight against a movie that may put her as the central character but is never interested in her as a person but only as a projection of historic events and she also has to fight against a screenplay that never gives her the chance to craft a real character out of Jane Marryot. Unfortunately for her, she lacks the screen presence and the ability to win that fight. Maybe her constant stares were actually looks of accusation and anger at the director behind the camera for having put her in such a hopeless situation…
All this may have sounded very negative and there is surely no reason to deny that Diana Wynyard a) performs very wooden and dated and b) is lost in an underwritten part but what about her actual presence in the movie as it is? She was not able to improve her material or the presentation of her character but she at least succeeded in going along with it. Diana Wynyard doesn’t stand out of the story and impresses with any acting choices but there are still enough moments where her presence and her performance are sufficient. Even though she is surprisingly bland and lifeless most of the time, for some strange reason she is still the only breath of fresh air and when Cavalcade drops her character in the second half of the story to focus on her son, the whole movies becomes even slower and more uninteresting. She accepts her tasks as the suffering wife and mother and, even though unable to build a true emotional foundation, sometimes projects some moving and touching scenes. Especially her anger and desperation, when her husband is at war and a man outside her house keeps playing cheerful music, is done very well and she suddenly becomes very alive and forgets about the open space. She also interacts very well with the child actors of Cavalcade – Diana Wynyard may not have been able to really connect with Clive Brook as the husband but she embraced her role as a symbol of maternal love quite effectively. But overall it seems that the effectiveness of her acting also depends a lot on the structure of her scenes – whenever her character is low and suffers, her stares become much more effective which is probably rather because of the overall impact of the story instead of her acting style. What should also be mentioned in her favor is her ability to age very graceful and, more important, believably. The make-up may do most of the job in this case but Diana Wynyard still fits her line delivery and body movements very subtly to the age of her character. Overall, she slides through the pictures with a definite sense of grace and style and she certainly fits well into the Victorian environment – if only she had slid with a little more life and less melodrama…

So, while some positive aspects can be found in her work, Diana Wynyard’s performance combines a dated style of acting, an underwritten character that is more a plot device than anything else and an inability to make any true emotional impact. Just like her co-nominee Katharine Hepburn, she ended up delivering one of the most bland and lifeless performances in the history of this category and so she can’t get more than

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