In 1938, Fay Bainter became the first person ever to be nominated for a supporting and a leading Oscar in the same year – in the leading category she was nominated for White Banners while her turn as Bette Davis’s aunt in Jezebel secured her a supporting nod. While Bette Davis herself won the leading statuette, Fay Bainter took home the supporting Oscar.
One has to view Jezebel very carefully to catch the performance by Fay Bainter. Not because her role is so small, it’s actually very big, but just because Bette Davis totally commands the screen and the whole movie is made as a vehicle for her. Unlike Gone with the Wind where all the characters are allowed to shine, Jezebel totally concentrates on the leading lady and barely lets the other actors have a chance to stept into the foreground. Because of that it makes me very happy that the Academy was able to see the second outstanding female performance of the movie: Fay Bainter as Julie’s worried and suffering, but loving aunt.
Basically, either being worried about Julie or happy about Julie or advising Julie is all that Aunt Belle aka Fay Bainter has to do in Jezebel (She says herself ‘I guess I love her most when she’s her meanest’) but she does it so hauntingly that it’s easy to see why the Academy honored her. Fay Bainter is a wonderful natural actress with a face made for close-ups (unfortunately, Bette Davis gets all those). She is also born for dramatic roles because her sad, worried face is simply unforgettable. When Julie disgraces herself at the Olympus Ball wearing a red dress, she watches her with that sad face and it’s clear how much she would like to help Julie but is not able to. And when Press leaves Julie, Aunt Belle tells her: ‘Julie, call him back! Don’t let him go! Julie, you’re a fool!’
It’s an essential supporting role as Fay Bainter never steps out of the shadows of Bette Davis but still finds enough opportunities to shine herself. Another wonderful moment is when she sees Press again and he brings his wife. While Bette Davis shows her shock more often, Fay Bainter has to hide her character’s feelings and says to Press’s wife with a shacking voice ‘My dear, Press’s wife would naturally be welcome here. But you are for your own sake.’
Bay Bainter never steals the movie but creates a very strong presence in Jezebel without ever really stepping out of the background which is truly a grand achievement.