Today, Judith Anderson’s performance as the creepy Mrs. Denvers in Rebecca may be the more iconic performance but Jane Darwell’s win for her portrayal of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath does never receive any complaints because of that – the reason is simple: her performance is just magnificent and her win one of the most deserved ever, even with such strong competition.
Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda are the actors who carry this important story and stand for the different aspects of it. Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad is the center of the family, the one who keeps everyone going (as her husband puts it) and who tries to make the best out of every situation. It’s a very private but also monumental performance in which Jane Darwell crafts a simple character and turns her into a symbol for strength and courage.
From the first time Jane Darwell appears onscreen, she finds the perfect balance between moving reactions and strong dedication. Her delivery of the line ‘Oh thank God, thank God’ when she sees her son for the first time in years, it’s the first of many moving moments that Jane Darwell delivers to perfection. Her famous scene with her earrings (definitely one of the best acted scenes ever), her dignity when she leaves her home and doesn’t want to look back, her determination when Grandma is dying and Ma Joad tells her ‘We have to get across. The family’s got to get across’ – all played to perfection!
And who can forget her monologue when she asks Tom to stay with his family (‘Stay and help, Tommy. Help me…’)? This speech and the look on her face when they are dancing is everything that Tom needs to stay.
And just like Rod Steiger is an important part of Marlo Brando’s famous ‘I could have been a contender’-speech, Jane Darwell is just as essential to the Henry Fonda’s ‘I’ll be there’-speech. It’s incredibly moving when she says goodbye to her son, telling him ‘Tommy, we ain’t the kissing type, but…’ and her final heartbreaking ‘Tommy”.
And even in her final speech, Jane Darwell shines despite the fact that whole scene feels rather out of place. Still, when she finishes ‘We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause…we’re the people’, Jane Darwell again created a moment that is as monumental as it is private.
A really astonishing performance!