My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1938: Fay Bainter in "White Banners"

It’s certainly very interesting that so many actors and actresses who made Oscar-history have basically become completely forgotten by now. Luise Rainer was the first actress ever to win two acting awards – but apart from people actually interested in the Oscars, who does actually remember her? And the name Fay Bainter isn’t exactly common knowledge, either. But she, too, was the first one to achieve a very remarkable feat that has been copied only a few times since 1938 – being nominated in the leading and the supporting category in the same year. And in the case of Fay Bainter, this is even more special because she is foremost one of those typical supporting actresses who almost never got a chance to truly shine in a leading role – other wonderful actresses like Gale Sondergaard, Mercedes McCambridge, Alice Brady, Jane Darwell, Ethel Barrymore, Anne Revere, Gladys Cooper and many more know about this, too. And so it’s refreshing to see Fay Bainter not only being given a leading part but also receiving an Oscar nomination for it – she was neither an overnight sensation in 1938 nor a veteran finally getting her share of the spotlight but instead simply an actress who managed to impress enough Academy members with her two performances to earn two nominations. Nothing more and nothing less. In the supporting category, she won the Oscar for playing Bette Davis’s worrying and suffering aunt in Jezebel while her performance as a mysterious woman who becomes a cook and housekeeper for an overworked science teacher and his family earned her a leading nod (which she lost against Jezebel herself, Bette Davis). All this makes her nominated work in 1938 surely a little bit more interesting than it otherwise might be – but at the end, it’s all about judging her work independently. So, what about her performance in White Banners?

Anybody who has seen Jezebel (and I suppose that’s more than those who have seen White Banners) knows that Fay Bainter is a very warm and earthy, but also elegant and dignified actress who is able to express a lot of inner pain and troubles with heartbreaking facial work that never is too obvious nor too subtle – and that way extremely effective. Jezebel is mostly a one-woman-show for Bette Davis but Fay Bainter’s sad face as she either watches Julie disgrace herself in various situations or worries about her well-being is among the most memorable aspects of the entire production. But Fay Bainter is also an actress whose effects seem to be stronger when her appearances don’t dominate her movie – she is able to create very memorable moments but she also suffers from a certain limitation that very often reduces her performances to two different expressions in which she either looks sad or gives an encouraging smile. In a supporting role, these limitations are not too noticeable because they are enough to fill her performance with enough depth and energy to bring her character to life but in a larger part, a feeling of repetition starts to grow after a while. In the case of White Banners, this feeling is strengthened by the fact that the part of Hannah Parmalee adds to this impression since it’s a role that benefits from Fay Bainter’s acting style but also even more underlines the limitations of both the performance and the character. This means that Fay Bainter fills the small range of the role with her beautiful acting style and screen presence – but does not widen her in any way. Because of all this, this performance might easily have turned into a two-dimensional and narrow portrayal, resting on the sentiment of the movie – but Fay Bainter thankfully knew how to use her own limitation to her advantage. So yes, her acting style may feel underdeveloped at times but at the same time she excelled within these limitations – combined with her warmth, charm and loveliness, she was able to give a very mature, loving and touching performance that works in great harmony with the movie’s sentimental nature without feeling like a manipulating attempt to win the audience’s sympathy.

In some ways, the character of Hannah Parmalee resembles the most beloved nanny of all times, the magical Mary Poppins who appears out of nowhere to take care of a chaotic family. Hannah Parmalee, too, appears out of nowhere as she suddenly stands in front of the house of Mr. and Mrs. Ward – she actually only wants to sell apple peelers but just a few moments later she is already cooking the dinner and washing the dishes. In these early moments, Fay Bainter is surprisingly honest in her portrayal – the woman who is walking into the Ward’s home isn’t some kind of saintly angel but a worn-out, cold and exhausted person who has obviously been living a hard life so far. Unfortunately, this interpretation soon gets lost when the movie starts to treat Hannah exactly as this saintly angel, a woman who not only helps Mrs. Ward to run her home but also becomes a guidance for their daughter and a constant voice of encouragement for Mr. Ward who is inventing an ‘iceless icebox’. Fay Bainter does all this with an expected performance that misses every bit of complexity but what she misses in depth, she makes up for with warmth and charm. The character of Hannah Parmalee only exists to improve the lives of the Wardens but Fay Bainter truly understands to fill all these little moments of her performance with her own loveable screen presence. She is like a combination of a wise and warm grandmother and a supportive best friend and even though her facial work may often seem like a never-ending repetition, she still avoids to lose her grip on the character simply by displaying this support and this worrying with honesty and seriousness. Fay Bainter may to a certain extent miss a needed spark that would enable her to portray more different emotions at the same time and that way find a little bit more complexity in Hannah, but she still knows how to portray these single emotions and thoughts that are the driving force behind her character. When Hannah convinces Mr. Ward to go on with his work, with a fierce determination in her voice, Fay Bainter shows how much strength is actually hidden behind her dignified face and her calm voice and in her work, it is always believable that Hannah may have such strong and yet so subtle influence over the other characters of the story. Hannah may be very selfless and noble but never to a point where she appears to be lacking her own personality. And she is also completely believable in all her worries about the Warden’s daughter and she always knows how to create her character accordingly to the seriousness of the situation. She can be standing outside the house in the cold, worrying about the health of a close person, or sell the old furniture of the Warden’s to get them some extra money – all simple moments but somehow enlightened by Fay Bainter’s beautiful simplicity. She may never surprise in these moments or create a truly three-dimensional character but to watch her worry and suffer is somehow incredibly heartbreaking because her face was simply made for these kind of close-ups. She perfectly knows how portray her character with the utmost dignity without making her preachy or arrogant.

But step by step, White Banners reveals that there is actually something hiding underneath Hannah’s constant friendliness and support – years ago she gave birth to a child out of wedlock and is now trying to find some closeness to the boy who has turned into a young man and the boyfriend of the Ward’s daughter. This storyline allows Fay Bainter to actually widen Hannah a bit and give her some extra looks of sorrow and grief that she doesn’t play in the usual way but this time tries to hide, soften and cover. When Hannah meets the father of the boy again, Fay Bainter, just like in the earlier scene with Mr. Ward, shows that she can act with much more fire and energy if she wants to – her plea to him to keep quiet about the boy’s real extraction, her determination to remain unknown is striking to watch and provides the movie’s best moments.

When Hannah leaves the household of the Ward’s again in the end, it becomes clear that she is, after all, not truly Mary Poppins – meaning that Hannah is the kind of character that seems to be forgotten the moment she leaves the scene because Fay Bainter always shines whenever she is on the screen but does not have a lasting, truly unforgettable appeal. Yes, singular moments are hard to forget (just like with her work in Jezebel) but these are always individual scenes that are highlightened by the context of the story – but the character herself feels strangely separated from these moments, remaining rather pale and slowly becoming forgotten. Fay Bainter does have the power to be truly memorable – but somehow the character of Hannah does not.

Overall, Fay Bainter sprinkles with charm and warmth and it is not hard to believe that her smile, her support and her understanding can brighten the live of anybody she ever meets. It’s neither a complex performance nor a complex role but Fay Bainter does find the right tone, the right face and the right approach to this character, creating some beautiful moments, making her actions and intentions believable and not overdoing the sentiment of the story – she’s strong, believable and loving. For this, she receives



dinasztie said...

Haven't seen her but I have the movie. :D

I still hope Bette wins. I love her.

Fritz said...

Good to know that you could get it! :-)

Anonymous said...

Seems that in almost every review you must mention Luise Rainer.You really love her.:)Unfortunately,i think that almost every reader of your blog already knows who miss Rainer is and has an opinion about her career(almost equal her two oscar winning performances).In reality her career does not deserve to be remembered more than it is remembered now.She is basically Oscar trivia question.Nothing against miss Rainer and against your love for her,but her royalty treatment on this blog is a bit much.Still other bloggers are much more annoying with their promoting of some other actresses as they are payed for that...

Fritz said...

Well, I did mention her a couple of times but never because I want to mention her but because it's always very easy to compare her to somebody else (if that makes sense). She does get some royalty treatment, mostly because, after all, all performances are graded with 'Luises' but this was simply an idea I had right at the beginning and I like it because she is, after all, the mother of all multiple winners.