In my initial ranking of the winners in this category, Ethel Barrymore made it up to position 53 but like Mary Astor, she, too, has gone down a few places now.
Considering that Ethel Barrymore is called one of the greatest American actresses, I find her work in movies very…limited. She basically uses the same acting style in every role she takes – a knowing smile, her head lowered to the front, a slightly sarcastic line-delivery. All this works and I have never seen a bad performance by this actress – but she doesn’t exactly blow me away either.
We first meet Ma Mott when her son comes home again and you immediately realize that there is not much love between them. Ma Mott says to her son (after slapping him): “I don’t get more respect from you than from that father of yours” and then she tells him “Stay or go!” Later, we find out that Ma Mott is seriously ill and that there may not be much more time – but she is too proud to tell her son. But he does find out anyway and decides to stay with her and help her. Now we can see how the two of them start to like each other and begin getting along.
It’s a role that allows Ethel Barrymore to show everything that actors can dream of – anger, frustration, fear, love, happiness, desperation. But in combination with Ethel Barrymore’s acting style, it all lacks life, energy and almost every interesting aspect. But she shines whenever she lets the viewer see that underneath her grim face is actually love and she is also very impressive when she tries to hide her pain from her son – Ethel Barrymore makes Ma Mott an exhausted woman, who never had an easy life and who is always worried about the things around her. And so she ended up as this bitter, no-nonsense woman who doesn’t know what the future will bring.
Ethel Barrymore is not bad, definitely not. But it’s the kind of performance that you most likely feel ‘neutral’ about – not bad but not exactly great either and not a performance you would want to watch again.