My current Top 5

My current Top 5

12/14/2011

Best Actress 1951: Jane Wyman in "The Blue Veil"

There can be a lot of reasons why one wants to watch a certain performance. A legendary reputation, a horrible reputation, a general affection for the actor or the actress and many, many more. My personal interest for Jane Wyman’s performance in The Blue Veil was based on the fact that she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama over Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar named Desire. Of course, I do not see this as a puzzling decision – I always say that voters in 1951 surely didn’t know which performance will gain a reputation for being one of the greatest of all time and which one will be forgotten in a couple of years. And let’s not forget that the Hollywood Foreign Press did obviously not care very much for A Streetcar named Desire – Kim Hunter may have won the award as Best Supporting Actress but Marlon Brando and Karl Malden were not even nominated. So, I was very interested to see Jane Wyman’s work which not only resulted in her win at the Golden Globes but also her third Oscar nomination, having won the award three years earlier for her performance as a mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda. Of course, Jane Wyman also won a Golden Globe in 1948 so the Hollywood Foreign Press clearly enjoyed her work.

The Blue Veil is a rather typical tear-jerker that resembles countless other movies that feature a self-sacrificing female character in its center – movies like Stella Dallas, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, White Banners, Mildred Pierce or To Each his Own come to my mind. All these movies have various things in common – they feature either an Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated performance and characters that are either the self-sacrificing mother or the self-sacrificing secret mother (of course, in different shades – Mildred Pierce also wants to do everything for her child, too, but there are limits to her selflessness). The first fact shows that these kinds of roles are true award-magnets – how could Academy members resist such a teary display of motherly love and selfless suffering? The second fact is a bit tricky – it is both a difference and a similarity to The Blue Veil. Because Jane Wyman does not play a selfless mother in this movie – instead, she is a selfless nursemaid, a nanny who takes care of various children during the course of her life after she lost her own child when it was a baby. But even though Jane Wyman’s LouLou is not the real mother of all these children, the role actually gives her even more sentimental value because it offers her the opportunity to be the ‘secret mother’ and a ‘stranger’ at once: she is the one taking care of the children, she is the one who watches them grow up, helps them, shares their worries and their happiness – until one day she suddenly has to leave them again. Like Mary Poppins, she comes and goes but she does not go because she is not needed anymore – her reasons for not staying are always rather personal and more sentimental. Because of all this, The Blue Veil gave Jane Wyman a part that is guaranteed to win the audience’s affection, offers her plenty of touching (of would a better word be manipulative?) moments and even allows her to age gracefully from a young maid to an old woman. Sound like a juicy part – and it is. In some parts. But at the same time, the sentimentality and simplicity of the story also prevent Jane Wyman from making her character truly interesting. Everything about LouLou is played safe – she is lovely and nice, never complaints, suffers quietly and nobly. But a lack of life in both the movie and Jane Wyman’s performance leaves an undeniable impression that everything could have been more intriguing than it really is.

There are different approaches that can be used to play such a sentimental character. The actress can either completely surrender to the sappiness of the story and give a performance that only rests on the material she is given, hoping that the tears from the audience will come anyway and this way help her to appear more moving than she really is. The complete opposite of this approach would be to avoid any sentimentality in the performance and contradict the script by trying to find more shades and unexpected depth in these usually underwritten characters. This second attempt is always much more exciting than any schmaltzy emphasizing of the character’s misery. But, of course, there are many more approaches that can work – Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet emphasized the pain of her character to the maximum but she did it with so much life and energy while always keeping her character believable that the final result was a heartbreaking and surprisingly satisfying performance. Jane Wyman’s work in The Blue Veil can be found somewhere in the middle of all this. She neither wallows in LouLous’s constant desperation to leave yet another child behind but she also does not add anything to the character that isn’t written in the screenplay – considering that The Blue Veil basically follows LouLous’s whole life, it is a bit disappointing that everything the viewers know about her in the end is the same as they knew in the beginning: she likes children. So, Jane Wyman can be accused of going a too easy route in her performance but simultaneously she can also be applauded for adding real human emotions to her part instead of disappearing completely under the sugar-coated story. Within her work, she knew how to use the sentimental tone of the story to her advantage and make the material watchable while also suffering from the overall too weak material.

The tone of The Blue Veil is obvious right from the start – when LouLou lies in a hospital bed in a big room with many other women and a nurse brings in a cart full of babies (this may sound strange but this is actually what is happening) only to tell LouLou that her baby is not here and a doctor will talk to her in a few moments, it’s already clear that Jane Wyman’s major task in this part is to grief with as much dignity as possible. The plot of The Blue Veil overall certainly doesn’t do Jane Wyman any favors – the movie is basically a succession of the same scenes over and over again: LouLou finds work, she is happy and takes care of a child (or children) with gentle love and grand understanding until she has to leave again and her heart is broken. LouLou either must leave because a new woman has arrived in the house who wants to take care of the child herself or because she realizes that the child became too attached to her and she must leave for the sake of the real mother – all this gives Jane Wyman the chance to display the expected amount of different emotions. But even though Jane Wyman’s performance constantly follows this expected formula, she still does it on a high level – her performance does not surprise but it does impress. She perfectly understands her material and is able to combine the sweetness of the story with the actual suffering of her character with touching effect. In some ways, Jane Wyman is a rather limited actress despite the range of characters she played – her face mostly knew two different expressions, happiness or sorrow but she knew how to use these limitations. LouLou may not be a very interesting character overall (everything about her fate is so trivial; it never really seems to matter what happens to her or what will become or her simply because the structure of The Blue Veil is so uninterested in all of this. LouLou’s short affair with a man whom she almost marries is another example for this – the love between them comes and goes and never touches the core of LouLou’s personality.) but Jane Wyman is still able to give her substance. A movie like The Blue Veil certainly evokes a lot of different reactions – cynics will probably roll their eyes while others may reach for a handkerchief more than once. But Jane Wyman cannot be blamed for the weakness of the story – she can be blamed for not fighting harder against it but it was her decision to play LouLou with the sentimentality that was expected of her. I may not appreciate this decision but I can appreciate the performance that resulted from it.

Jane Wyman’s wisest decision in her role was to underplay LouLou as much as possible. Like Fay Bainter in White Banners, Jane Wyman crafts her character with quiet dignity and subtle emotions but unlike Fay Bainter, she is given a truly central part that completely carries the picture. The way LouLou was written could easily have turned The Blue Veil into an uninteresting and exaggerated experience – but Jane Wyman’s calmness and beautiful facial expressions kept everything going smoothly. This also helped her to achieve the most important task of her performance – plausibility. When LouLou worries about one her children or her heart quietly breaks when she has to leave, Jane Wyman always stays believable – it would be easy to dismiss her character because of the overly schmaltzy sentiment behind it but in the hands of Jane Wyman, LouLou always wins the respect of the audience. Especially in the scene when LouLou wants to fight for one of her children in front of a judge after she ran away with the boy because his mother had spent her whole life away from him anyway, shows Jane Wyman’s ability to find a true inner life in LouLou – in this scene, Jane Wyman lets LouLou truly fight for the first time as she openly rejects the boy’s real mother and insists on the fact that she is now the boy’s mother after having taken care of him for so many years. It’s a strong scene in which Jane Wyman again balances between cheap sentimentality and honest feelings – and she again does it by underlining this sentimentality while adding a shade of touching realism.

Jane Wyman also handles the aging of her character with grace and beauty. Neither exaggerating her scenes as an old woman nor completely keeping the same acting style, she shows a woman with a lively spirit – even though her age has taken a lot of her strength by now. Mostly, Jane Wyman succeeds in her final scenes – when she meets all ‘her’ children again and is overwhelmed by their love and support. It’s a scene that really shouldn’t work as well as it does because it’s so impossibly sugar-coated but Jane Wyman’s quiet joy makes the viewer feel to actually know LouLou for the first time in this movie. It’s a very satisfying final moment to a performance that offers a lot of touching scenes but also lacked these overall satisfying moments too many times before. As mentioned in the beginning, Jane Wyman suffered from her weak material and very often limits her performance to two different facial expressions but within these limitations she crafted a touching piece of work that is saved by her decision to remain realistic while highlighting the sentimentality of the story and her strong final moments. Overall, the unsatisfying moments that dominate a lot of her work are too strong for a higher grade, but her ability to be moving without annoying and strangely captivating without alienating is still enough for a strong




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3 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

Great review and I agree, she was simply too unspectacular here.

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot!

dinasztie said...

The Globes just suck... That's nothing new.

That's my comment on this performance.

Great review BTW! :)