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.
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