The movies by Douglas Sirk and the performances in them mostly tend to evoke one of two reactions – they are either called among the worst or the best of all time. And even compliments are still rather malicious and often sound like ‚so bad it’s good’. His stylized, colorful, larger-than-life or over-the-top and melodramatic movies seem so unlike anything else on the screen – even other contemporary melodramas don’t seem to be able to appear so trashy and yet so fascinating at the same time. It takes a lot of love and also understanding for his style and the style of his performers to really appreciate his overall body of work – and while I don’t dislike his style, I am not too fond of it, either. Maybe that’s because the first movie I had seen of him was Written on the Wind which, even among Sirk’s work, is so incredibly over-the-top and melodramatic that it feels hard to take it seriously. The actors from his movies are a little different – Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind clearly understood Sirk’s style and gave performances that perfectly fit their movie and I respect their work tremendously (even though I am not sure if I would consider it award-worthy). Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall on the other hand tried to add some quiet dignity and subtlety but neither of them had the necessary talent to adapt themselves into Sirk’s world completely. Two years before this saga about a wealthy Oil-family, Sirk had already used the good looks of Rock Hudson in his, comparatively, quiet drama Magnificent Obsession. This movie is less-known than his classic All that Heaven Allows which would reunite Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson one year later. But it was in 1954 that Jane Wyman received her fourth and final Oscar nomination for her role as newly widow Helen Philips who not only loses her husband but shortly after that her vision – and unknowingly falls in love with the man who is indirectly responsible for both. Sounds corny? You bet!
The biggest credit Jane Wyman can receive is that she clearly understood Sirk’s style and found a way to craft the character of Helen that works in perfect harmony with Sirk’s direction – Magnificent Obsession doesn’t demand the same kind of performances as Written on the Wind since the style of the melodrama is so different. Instead of going over-the-top, Jane Wyman is allowed to be rather subtle and free of any hysterics and unlike Lauren Bacall, she’s rather effective at it. Overall, her performance is actually very natural – considering the role she’s playing and the movie she’s starring in. When she returns home from a ride in her car and asks her maid “Now, what’s the matter?” when the viewer already knows that her husband died, she pronounces the line very real and nonchalant, without any melodrama that could have accompanied this moment. Also in the later course of the story, Jane Wyman keeps her performances very grounded – she is an actress who has the ability to appear free of any attempt to win the audience’s sympathy while doing exactly that at the same time. In Johnny Belinda, she managed to appear both strong and tender and found a way to avoid too much sentiment while somehow gaining the sentiment and sympathy of the audience. In Magnificent Obsession, she again was able to play her role seemingly without any corniness but she also laid the foundation for the sentimentality of the story. That way she managed to make her later scenes with Rock Hudson, her little dance with him at night or her teary breakdown, very moving and occasionally heartbreaking – what started as often embarrassing and laughable somehow turned into a quiet and moving story of two people who shouldn’t be together even if it makes sense in the world of Douglas Sirk. With her performance, Jane Wyman became both the active and the passive force in the story. Jane Wyman herself is active in defining the style and sentiment of the story while her character is mostly reduced to reacting to the actions of other people.
Even though Helen Philips lacks too many nuances and possibilities, Jane Wyman never fails to bring honesty and, most importantly, plausibility to the role. The character can be uninteresting or moving, scared or happy but Jane Wyman is always believable. Like Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Jane Wyman is doing the best she can with what she is given and what Douglas Sirk wants her to be – so it’s not really her fault that her performance never completely takes off. instead, she feels misguided too often. The only negative aspect of her work that feels to be her own fault can be found after Helen lost her vision. Jane Wyman is believable as a blind woman but she seems to lose her character in these moments. Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue and especially Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker also hid behind dark glasses in a lot of scenes but they were still able to communicate their characters. Jane Wyman on the other hand seems to disappear behind a wall whenever she puts on her glasses.
Like most performances in melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Jane Wyman’s work is hard to grade. She is believable in an almost unbelievable part and she thankfully avoided any over-the-top moments but at the same time the script and her character don’t allow her to give a performance that ever goes beyond the surface of Sirk’s kitschy images. The relationship between Helen and Bob may not work but her chemistry with Rock Hudson is still satisfying enough to overcome this obstacle. Actually, Jane Wyman overcomes a lot of obstacles in the role of Helen Philips – but she also becomes trapped by various others. She clearly knows what she is doing and avoids to get lost in Sirk’s own vision, but her role in the story is too thin and underdeveloped. The greater truth in Helen Philips is too often sacrificed for the sake of the melodrama. What remains overall is a performance that is both able to make you roll your eyes and break your heart. For this, Jane Wyman gets