My current Top 5

My current Top 5

9/10/2012

YOUR Best Actress of 1945

Here are the results of the poll:

1. Joan Crawford - Mildred Pierce (28 votes)

2. Gene Tierney - Leave her to Heaven (13 votes)

3. Ingrid Bergman- The Bells of St. Mary's (4 votes)

4. Jennifer Jones- Love Letters (3 vote)

5. Greer Garson - The Valley of Decision (0 votes)

Thanks to everyone for voting!

9/09/2012

Ranking System

 Here is an overview of my ranking system
and what the different grades mean

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Best of the Best




Fantastic




Great




Strong


 

Very Good
 



Good




Acceptable




Unsatisfying




Disappointing




Bad

7/19/2012

Some fun stats...

Just for fun, here are some statistics:


Most wins: Meryl Streep & Vivien Leigh (2 times each)

Most losses without a win: Greer Garson (4 times)

Most losses overall: Katharine Hepburn (6 times, but 1 win)

Most reviewed: Katharine Hepburn (7 times)

Most 5-star reviews: Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh & Meryl Streep (2 times each)

Most last places: Katharine Hepburn (3 times)

Most runner-ups: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn & Renée Zellweger (2 times each)

7/18/2012

Best Actress 1945 - The resolution

After having watched and reviewed all five nominated performances, it's time to pick the winner!



Jennifer Jones is mostly hold back by the script but her shortcomings as an actress, that can be very obvious whenever a role is not truly in her comfort zone, are often visible, too. Still, whenever she is allowed to shine and a scene allows her to display her own mysteriousness with the needed subtlety, Jennifer Jones truly creates some unforgettable and beautiful moments.



                     
It seems that Greer Garson's talent was simply both too big and too small for movies like this – because on the one hand the role does not offer her anything to truly work with apart from feeling torn apart between different people and groups but at the same time she seems lost with the low quality of her material, unable to rise above it and only able to retreat to her own comfort zone which unfortunately too often contradicted the intentions of the script.



3. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's

There are many moments in Ingrid Bergman's performance that never reach above average but she created something otherworldly during her final scenes and if she had been allowed to be on this high level all the time, then her performance would definitely have been much stronger and memorable. As it is, the strength of the final scenes does not help her to overcome the limitations of the script but she still leaves a lasting, heartwarming impression.



2. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford’s work in Mildred Pierce is one of the strangest ones in this category – she so obviously lacks many important qualities that the part needed but she also feels so right in the role, so irreplaceable and so satisfying that it’s hard to deny her the respect she obviously demands. And she clearly fulfills the task of carrying the picture and turning it into a captivating and intense experience, making not only the flaws of her own work but even those of the script seem forgettable.                




Gene Tierney gave a chilling and noteworthy performance that perfectly fulfilled all the tasks of the script even if it sometimes remained too limited. Still, her ability to show Ellen’s slow descent into the darkness of her own mind, her inability to stop her actions to be completely alone with the man she loves and her way of beautifully underplaying all the madness and demons that haunt her results in various unforgettable scenes.





Best Actress 1945: Gene Tierney in "Leave her to Heaven"

What is a film noir? There seem to be a lot of answers to this questions but what a film noir basically always requires are a collection of dubious characters, some kind of mysterious, dangerous woman, stylized dialogue and actions, sexual tension around almost every corner and a combination of crime and lust. Does Leave her to Heaven fit into all this? Well, it probably fits into this template enough to quality for the title – the movie is undoubtedly extremely stylized, lust and desire drive the plot and Gene Tierney’s Ellen Harland certainly deserves to be called ‘dangerous’ even if she is not a typical femme fatale. In this way, Leave her to Heaven certainly resembles other classics from its era, most notably Double Indemnity which caused a whole series of movies telling a fatal, tragic and criminal story in flashbacks (even in the same year Mildred Pierce did just the same). Yes, Leave her to Heaven does have what it takes to be called a film noir, most notably the kind of artificial action and dialogue which very often is extremely superficial but, when done right, creates a whole world of its own in which everything makes sense, in which sexual tension believable influences a character’s decision in a few minutes and which not only exists despite all its stylized elements but actually because of it. And, of course, there are the other ingredients of film noir – a grim black and white cinematography, dark figures hiding in foggy alleys, crimes committed in the emptiness of a sullen street, a world that almost knows no sunlight. And obviously, this is the one aspect in which Leave her to Heaven couldn’t be more different – instead of darkness and gloom it gives the viewer an array of colors that would put Douglas Sirk to shame, blue skies and green trees dominate the landscape, a crime is committed in open daylight on a wide, beautiful lake, everything is covered with a bright, light and beautiful surface – but underneath, Leave her to Heaven hides the same kind of dark secrets that its brothers in black and white offer, a horrible truth behind respectful facades. This stark contrast between exterior and interior crafts a strikingly undecided atmosphere and presents a place that should be quiet and peaceful but is constantly haunted by tragedy and thus is maybe the biggest asset of Leave her to Heaven – or actually rather its second-biggest asset since the greatest aspect of Leave her to Haven is undoubtedly its leading lady who plays a role that maybe makes it very easy to leave a lasting impression since the actions and deeds of such a woman are impossible to forget but also has to be played with careful attention to remain probable enough on its own but also fits into its stylized surroundings.

Martin Scorsese apparently called Gene Tierney one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era – I cannot comment on this since my knowledge of her filmography is not extended enough for this but she was certainly much more than a pretty face and never afraid to show a dark, off-putting and arrogant side in her characters. And the words ‘more than a pretty face’ not only refer to her talents as an actress but also to the fact that the word ‘pretty’ doesn’t even begin to describe her riveting and transcendent beauty which maybe sometimes made it hard for her to get the credit as an actress she deserved but wonderfully helped her to overcome various problems in Leave her to Heaven’s script. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and there are various different kind of beauties that have lightened up the movie screens over the years – there is the unique, sometimes sharp beauty of actresses like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, the exotic and mysterious beauty of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, the sex-filled but also innocence looks of Marilyn Monroe, the elfin beauty of Audrey Hepburn or the timeless elegance and flawless looks of Grace Kelly. Most of all, Gene Tierney seems to fit into the category of Grace Kelly, a flawless and elegant beauty but she also possessed an exotic, even more obvious pulchritude that made her an almost surreal presence in her pictures. In black and white, Gene Tierney could glow and shine even in the darkest settings, in color she almost looked like a painting. Whenever she is given one of Leave her to Heaven’s long, wordless close-up, the strong, rich colors of the picture make her appear like a creature out of a fairy-tale – unreal and mystical but Gene Tierney’s face also knows a certain hardness and bitterness that helped her to always show the danger and rage hiding behind her eyes. Her beauty, despite its elegance and style, never appears innocent or soft – instead, she could explore various shades and layers in her characters, turning her face more than once into a window to her inner feelings and this way extend the women she played beyond her own beauty. As just mentioned, she could portray women who were charming and graceful but also spoiled, mean-spirited, arrogant and self-righteous. This was never displayed better than in The Razor’s Edge in which she constantly pushed the character of her alcoholic friend to the edge of her own mental and physical stability to regain her influence over the man she loved her whole life but rejected too many times. It’s a realistic portrayal in which Gene Tierney was willing to create a strongly off-putting but still intriguing character. This unlikable, ignorant quality somehow was very often visible in the women she played – and Gene Tierney’s voice, her elegant but also hard face, her representation of the feeling of constant superiority helped her immensely in her creation of Ellen Harland, a woman who slowly, step by step, reveals her obsessive nature and a feeling to have the right to sacrifice the existence of others for her own happiness.

In Leave her to Heaven, Gene Tierney’s beauty helped to cover various simplifications in the plot but her own interpretation of Ellen Harlan always goes beyond this and crafts this women with a clear, sometimes limited but still captivating determination. The truth is that the screenplay of Leave her to Haven offers Gene Tierney much less than what could be expected based on the premise of the part. Ellen Harland may be the movie’s centre and most vigorous character but she only exists on the surface and the role is almost a cliché, created only as a vessel for the movie’s plot and filled with all the expected ingredients – hidden moments of obsession, child-like innocence mixed with murderous energy, a constant change of mood and all the other aspects expected from such a character. Furthermore, the screenplay also never invests any time in the relationship between Ellen and Richard. The idea that Ellen’s obsession comes from Richard’s resemblance to her beloved, idealized father may offer some interesting thoughts but is mostly too flat and stereotypical for any deeper observations. Because of all this, Leave her to Heaven mostly rests on the fascination that it thinks Ellen Harland can evoke in its audience – but this concept only works if the actress actually possesses this fascination. In this aspect, Gene Tierney was certainly the right choice for the role as her unique, fascinating beauty and ability to be so completely engaging from the first moment on helped to make the sudden romance between Ellen and Richard believable and also created the following tone of the story in which Ellen more and more showed her true nature but still possessed enough appeal and charm to keep Richard close to her. But while Gene Tierney certainly made the most of her role, the script unfortunately did not allow her to find more subtle shades in Ellen, give more reason to her love and her obsession beyond the clichés of the script. This is why Ellen Harland, as stated before, is not the typical femme fatale – she does not seem to act out of her own decision but rather seems controlled by her own obsession. The part of Ellen Harland does not allow Gene Tierney the same playfulness and risks as Double Indemnity did Barbara Stanwyck – both had to face the difficulty of portraying characters that had to be strangely unreal in the context of her story but also believably enough to capture the audience’s attention. Both actresses succeeded in this part but Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson was still a woman who was very much the master of her own mind and could therefore show a whole amount of subtle hints at the thoughts going on inside her head. Gene Tierney’s Ellen Harland did not give her the same chances because she had to follow a certain formula and could not truly invest in any deeper layers because Ellen only exists as a woman driven by her own madness.

So, Gene Tierney was given the luxury of a scene-stealing and unforgettable part but she was not allowed to act beyond the tight guidelines of the script and had to play a psychopath with all the expected moves and actions. But miraculously, Gene Tierney still came out of this battle victorious since her embodiment of this woman, predictable as it may seem sometimes, works surprisingly well – Ellen may be a predictable character but Gene Tierney knows how to keep her surprising, making Ellen’s desperateness, her constant change of moods, the unfriendliness and hate that becomes more and more apparent with every day she cannot have Richard for herself extremely disturbing and memorable. Right from the start, Gene Tierney knows how to establish Ellen as an unforgettable presence before she even opens her mouth during the first seconds of her appearance thanks to her dark, mysterious beauty which is so immensely helped by the stark colors of the movie. And when she finally does open her mouth, the effect is staggering – instead of a deep and husky voice, Gene Tierney sounds almost like a little girl, saying the words ‘Thank you’ without any hint at a mature, experienced and self-assured beauty. Gene Tierney apparently started smoking to lower the sound of her voice, stating that she sounds like an angry Minnie Mouse but this soft and slightly child-like sound only added to her portrayal of a woman who acts with the determination of a spoiled child. In later scenes, she unfortunately sometimes overdoes the effect of her voice, reducing her lines to a dramatic whisper even when there is no need to do it. But what Gene Tierney does not overdo in those early moments of Leave her to Heaven is the slow process during which Ellen becomes more and more obsessed with Richard – only in small steps she begins to reveal Ellen's true nature. Her remarks how much Richard resembles her father might seem like the sorrow of a devoted daughter, her attempts to prevent Richard’s little brother from living with them already feel rather peculiar (even though Gene Tierney wonderfully displayed a refreshing honesty in Ellen, both in the scenes opposite Danny whom she clearly loves as long he does not come between her and Richard and opposite Danny’s doctor whom she unsuccessfully tries to convince that Danny should not come with them) and finally her open hate opposite her family which is disturbing her quiet life with Richard fully materializes the woman that Ellen truly is.

It’s intriguing that neither Leave her to Heaven nor Gene Tierney really decided on the character of Ellen – Ellen may constantly seem lost but Gene Tierney isn’t, even when she is keepng her character in the dark. Most of all, her Ellen is not a psychopathic mastermind – rather she crafts her as a women who doesn’t know when to stop, who is unable to see the world beyond her obsessive love and is therefore mostly a pitiful creation, dangerous as she may be. She never seems to be truly satisfied about her deeds but doesn’t regret them either. This way, she perfectly manages to make the viewer wonder and shiver at the same time. And when Ellen finally decides for herself to take a tragic step to have Richard all for herself, Gene Tierney creates the most unforgettable scenes of 1945 – when she sits in a little boat, just waiting for ‘her problem to solve itself’, Gene Tierney is able to communicate all of Ellen’s feelings even through a large pair of sunglasses, moving her lips and distorting her lower face without truly moving a single muscle. It’s the wonder of Gene Tierney’s beauty that she is able to look so completely off-putting in this scene, displaying her hate on her face without ever losing her classic elegance. But instead of turning Ellen into a symbol of evil, Gene Tierney more than once finds the child-like innocence in Ellen again, making it visible how desperate, lost and lonely she feels and that she cannot find an escape from her own obsessions. Gene Tierney thankfully doesn’t use these moments to try to evoke sympathy for Ellen or her actions but instead tries to give reason to unreasonable deeds. She even seems to regret her own doings before she started them, trying to convince Richard’s brother to leave them alone and almost showing a feeling of regret when she does not succeed – regret not for herself but even more for him. In the following scenes, Gene Tierney again underlines the child-like nature of Ellen as she is unable to connect to Richard again after what happened – nor can she stop her ever increasing jealously from further alienating herself from everyone around her. Gene Tierney manages to never turn Ellen into the kind of stereotypical villain that deserves the audiences’ hate but rather creates her as a victim of her own obsessions, unable to keep control over herself, acting more out of fear than anything else. But even in the child-like innocence, Gene Tierney also finds an almost shocking amount of truth when she lets Ellen speak so depreciatory about her unborn child. Gene Tierney intensifies both Ellen’s desperation for her own situation and open disdain for everything that is not Richard and constantly lets these emotions clash with each other to further and further destroy the balance in Ellen’s life and mind. The look on her face when she is standing at the top of the staircase is a perfect combination of determination, doubt, hatred, seclusion – and madness.

Overall, Gene Tierney gave a chilling and noteworthy performance that perfectly fulfilled all the tasks of the script even if it sometimes remained too limited. Still, her ability to show Ellen’s slow descent into the darkness of her own mind, her inability to stop her actions to be completely alone with the man she loves and her way of beautifully underplaying all the madness and demons that haunt her results in various unforgettable scenes for which she receives

7/09/2012

Best Actress 1945: Greer Garson in "The Valley of Decision"

By 1946, Greer Garson had turned herself into an undeniable force and constant presence in the Best Actress category as her nomination for her work as an Irish maid who falls in love with the son of her employers was her fifth consecutive recognition in this category, following her nominations for Blossoms in the Dust, Mrs. Miniver, Madame Curie and Mrs. Parkington and it was also her overall sixth nomination in only seven years – after her Oscar-nominated film debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Oscar voters clearly wanted to show that their affection for the charming and engaging wife of a shy school teacher was not a short-lived experience and eagerly embraced her work year after year. In fact, 1941 was the only time between 1940 and 1946 when the Academy did not include her among the five best actresses of the year and her later Oscar win for her career-defining performance as the title character in the World War II drama Mrs. Miniver combined her high reputation among audiences and critics with an honest acknowledgement from the industry, too, and her win became an ultimate symbol of an actress who reached the highpoint of her artistic acclaim with the peak of her popularity – the year 1942 was the year of Greer Garson, dominated not only by her work in Mrs. Miniver but also the romantic drama Random Harvest and both movies turned her into the first lady of the screen, further confirming her immediate success only three years earlier and also building the foundation for her ongoing stardom in the following years during which she was not only frequently honored by the Academy but single-handedly turned her displays of noble suffering and quiet dignity into some of the financially most successful movies of their respective years. Five consecutive nominations in a row are an indisputable tribute by the Academy to an actress who achieved high esteem with both critics and audiences and who managed to fulfill her own premise year after year, continuously delivering performances that met or exceeded all expectations – just like Bette Davis, the first actress who was able to receive five consecutive Best Actress nominations just a couple of years earlier, Greer Garson found herself in a situation where everything she did turned into gold and both actresses used their high reputation and influence to secure roles that appealed to their professional ambitions and personal preferences. But despite their equal recognition by the Academy with such a unique honor and constant acclaim, the careers and artistic expressions of Bette Davis and Greer Garson were overall more strongly defined by their differences than their similarities and therefore their nominations display the always-present affection of Oscar voters for different styles and personalities, shaped by certain habits and varied developments and both actresses stand for the diversity that characterized the most popular and successful stars and artists of the time. Bette Davis entered Hollywood without causing any kind of interest and she had to fight long and hard to not only overcome doubts about her abilities to carry a picture and turn it into a success but also to defy prevailing ideas of beauty and star qualities, finally gaining attention by playing characters that other actresses refused and winning nationwide popularity due to her unusual and unprecedented willingness to portray a wide array of human chasms with absorbing intensity and uncompromising dedication. Greer Garson, on the other hand, enjoyed a much smoother route to success – Louis B. Mayer himself discovered her in London and convinced her to sign a contract with MGM but she would decline all parts she was offered until she finally made her film debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips which was accompanied by enthusiastic reviews and her first Oscar nomination and audiences were also immediately enchanted by her warm elegance and charming personality, turning her debut into the beginning of a distinguished career that would dominate the years to come. But the careers of Bette Davis and Greer Garson did not only display strong differences in their beginnings but continued to show their distinct characteristics despite their similar success and were constantly formed by the diverse personalities behind the popular facades. After her first Oscar win, Bette Davis again found herself cast in various unsatisfying parts and it wasn’t until she started an unsuccessful trial against her employers and then won her second award for Jezebel that she truly established herself as a popular force on the screen. But critics would become disappointed by her work in the succeeding half of the decade and after a while audiences followed, too, and even if A Stolen Life became one of the biggest hits of Bette Davis’s career, she still had to experience a professional decline that saw this career almost coming to an end – but Bette Davis had always shown her strong determination to fight and survive and her artistic life would continue to be shaped by an ongoing up and down as movies like All about Eve and Whatever happened to Baby Jane? again revived her career in the future but simultaneously also stood at the beginning of further setbacks that would bring another array of undemanding roles in unsatisfying pictures. It was an overall stormy but also very unique career but it shared the similarity with Greer Garson that both actresses had to experience a slow decrease of fame and acclaim after having reached an indisputable popularity with audiences and Oscar voters – after her sixth Best Actress nomination for The Valley of Decision, Greer Garson was still in high demand, starring as Clark Gable’s love interest in his first movie after World War II and she continued to appear in various pictures that followed the formula which had made her performances initially so popular but audiences and Oscar voters finally moved on and began to look for different stars and critics, too, seemed to stop caring about her work even if they did not react in the same negative way as they did to Bette Davis during the same time. But like Bette Davis, Greer Garson was able to return to the Oscar game another time even if her nod for her performance in Sunrise at Campobello did not turn into her own All about Eve or Whatever happened to Baby Jane? and remained a final acknowledgement of her artistry without influencing the further course of her remaining career. So, a look at the professional paths of these two actresses shows that they may have both enjoyed a high popularity with Academy members and audiences for a certain time but also that there was not any true consensus in their work or their developments beyond that – Bette Davis had to struggle and fight to achieve what came to Greer Garson so easily but she in turn had to see her success and popularity drop much faster than Bette Davis who, even though her career might have seen various ups and downs, enjoyed a lasting longevity and a reputation as one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century. And in the context of Greer Garson’s overall career as well as in a comparison with Bette Davis as the only other actress who enjoyed the same kind of admiration by the Academy during the same time, her nomination for The Valley of Decision is one of the most interesting in the history of the Best Actress category: on the one hand it showed an actress at the height of her power, receiving her fifth nomination in a row for being the leading character in one of the most successful movies of the year, further emphasizing her status and reputation in Hollywood, but at the same time it also appears to be her swan song and the picture that stands at the end of her short but influential reign – she might have done more movies and received another Oscar nomination in the future but this undeniable period of her career was over and she would also never again attract the same amount of admiration and respect that came to her so easily and massively in the subsequent years after her film debut. But why did the Academy suddenly forget about Greer Garson after it had constantly nominated her year after year? Why was she not able to achieve the same kind of longevity as Bette Davis since the triumphs of both actresses appeared to be so similar during this era? It is certainly not difficult to understand Greer Garson’s quick rise to stardom since her British charm and elegance that constantly displayed a youthful charm and a noble simplicity, combining both down-to-earth and aristocratic features that she elegantly combined in her work, made her an easily accessible presence on the screen and furthermore almost turned her into a symbol of Britain itself, giving a voice to a country that was fighting for its existence and almost becoming an ambassador for her home country during its struggle against Nazi Germany, culminating with her role as a housewife who tries to keep her family intact during the time of the Blitz and it therefore appears only logical that this would also turn out to be signature role of her career, combing her personality, her background and her time and it seems that her five consecutive nominations were less a tribute to her ongoing success but rather a testament to her peak in 1942 which allowed her to continue her popularity for the next years, turning her into an integral component of the Best Actress category – until the war was over. It is an interesting fact that Greer Garson’s success exactly paralleled the time of World War II but her movies actually rarely concerned themselves with her home country and its battle for survival, finding acclaim instead with stories set in pre-War times and ranging from Britain to France and to Texas and even if Kay.Miniver seems to be the part that fit to her personality the most she still pleased viewers with stories that did not focus on war and current politics but rather on love and the overcoming of different obstacles, may it be hidden radioactive elements, the laws of Texas or another woman, and she always came out as the winner at the end, having morals and righteousness on her side. So even if her acclaim reached its highpoint during the years of World War II, her drop of popularity cannot be attributed to a sudden disinterest in topics relating to England or Great Britain after the war was won – and therefore rather needs to be explained by a disinterest in Greer Garson herself. It seems that movie goers and critics moved on after the war, looking for new stars and performers and losing interest in the kind of roles that Greer Garson had specialized in during the years before. Critics and audiences might have turned away from Bette Davis when the quality of her performances and her movies decreased – but in the case of Greer Garson it is likely that they turned away because she stayed the same. The quality of her work might not have decreased during this time in the same way as that of Bette Davis but even if her performances always met the expectations they never surpassed them – by 1946 Greer Garson had basically perfected her screen persona, the noble, dignified, elegant woman, sometimes shy but confident in the end and always a symbol of style and grace, filling all her characters with the same features, no matter if they were a British housewife, an American campaigner for children’s rights, a French scientist or an Irish maid. And so her creations were often strangely similar despite their different backgrounds or even nationalities as her roles may have varied on the surface but most of the time presented the same essence – Greer Garson created a warm familiarity among audiences with her acting style and engaging personality that gave a feeling of stability and certainty but in this process she unfortunately lacked the surprise, the eagerness to experiment, the willingness to change her image which other actresses of her time displayed, making it therefore understandable why the time came when this familiarity lost its sparkle and caused her sudden disappearance from the Best Actress category as well as the top of the box office. The sentimentality and structure of her movies and characters were precisely what audiences wanted to see during World War II– and stopped wanting to see when the war was over, making it harder for Greer Garson to find the kind of roles that had fitted her so nicely. Overall, this shows that the careers of Bette Davis and Greer Garson were shaped by their diverse personalities, acting styles and acting choices and therefore created a different effect and sustainability – while Greer Garson established her elegant but ultimately repetitive screen persona with precise accentuation, Bette Davis found a wide variety of different roles as she played suffering heroines and unforgiving tyrants with the same dedication and meticulousness, never being comfortable with any kind of overall screen personality, constantly displaying her willingness to refuse any sympathy or gentleness in her parts. And also other contemporary leading female stars ensured their permanence by widening their artistic horizon – Katharine Hepburn may be mostly remembered for her creation of strong, independent women but she still found a wide array of human conditions beyond this and never threatened to just repeat herself, very often re-inventing her screen personality during her career while Barbara Stanwyck never allowed herself to be identified with any kind of specific part or role and also other popular actresses during these years like Olivia de Havilland, Rosalind Russell or Ingrid Bergman found different women, stories and fates in their own acting and personalities. So looking back at the careers of Bette Davis and Greer Garson, it does not seem surprising that they took such different paths even if the acclaim by Academy members reached the same level during their primes. But even if Greer Garson did often not display the same kind of versatility as her contemporaries, it is a testament to her undeniable amount of charisma and charm that was so honestly youthful, charming, appealing and very often heartwarming while also preserving a grace and style that come to her so easily, that she was able to become such a force on the screen and that could turn rather simple tales and movies into crowd-pleasing hits. But the wind of change that arrived with the end of World War II and portrays the end of an era also influenced the route of her professional live as tastes and appreciation shifted and other actresses became the first choice for roles that she might have gotten a couple of years earlier. And The Valley of Decision appears to be standing right in the middle of this transition period – it represents her final nod during her prime, an infinite proof that the Academy still adored her work year after year but also unknowingly signaled the end of her true movie stardom and constant praise. But does this performance truly stand in the tradition of her familiar work, proceeding her style and personality and presenting a familiarity that made Oscar voters quickly feel comfortable, or did it offer something else, something that went beyond the usual display of elegant grace and benign depiction and that caused the Academy to recognize her a fifth time in a row?

In 1945, the whole world was affected by the end of World War II and Hollywood, too, experienced the end of a precise time and phase – European movies would soon threaten the success of American productions and audiences began to ask for stories that were defined by realism instead of sentimentality, causing a shift of styles and themes that affected actors as well as artists behind the camera. And so the personal transition period of Greer Garson happened in the context and was caused by a larger change of direction – and The Valley of Decision, too, stands within this transition period and mixes political topics and themes into the love story between the two leading characters, something that had been carefully avoided previously in Greer Garson’s Madame Curie, posing questions on class relations and social justice, trying to achieve a certain level of realism and contemporariness even if the story itself is set in the late 19th century. But even with these ambitions, The Valley of Decision has problems to combine these social issues with the sentimentality of the love story at its center, feeling unnecessary sweetened even in darker moments, clearly focusing most of its energy on Greer Garson’s central performance while also trying to balance it with a larger message and opportunities for rising leading man Gregory Peck to shine, too. Overall, the story deals with its topic in a hardened, more threatening way and the differences and hate between opposing classes are addressed with less romance and simplicity than in Greer Garson’s Mrs. Miniver where its purpose was not to present a situation as it is but rather as it should be but these issues are constantly overshadowed by the story’s focus on the central relationship and furthermore pushed aside by the simplicity of Greer Garson’s character Mary Rafferty who emphasizes the mawkishness of the story and only occasionally adds to its broader themes. In 1945, such an uneven combination was still exciting and new enough to turn The Valley of Decision into one of the most popular movies of the year but the question is if this box office success was only caused by the presence of Greer Garson or if other factors had caused the interest of American audiences – so far, Greer Garson had turned movies that only depended on her performances into financial successes and very often her pairing with frequent co-star Walter Pidgeon was enough to attract movie goers nationwide but after Madame Curie and Mrs. Parkington, The Valley of Decision put a stronger emphasis on her surrounding environment, filling small parts with recognizable supporting players but most of all switched the omnipresent Walter Pidgeon with the upcoming star Gregory Peck who appeared in only his third motion picture overall and would also win hist first Best Actor nomination the same year, dominating the upcoming Academy Awards almost with the same strength as Greer Garson used to do, even if he needed to wait longer for his own Oscar triumph. Did movie producers in 1945 maybe fear that the pairing of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon would not be sufficient any more to turn The Valley of Decision into a success or did they want to capitalize on Gregory Peck’s new-found fame and popularity which would have made the movie not only a star-vehicle for Greer Garson but for her leading men, too, something that had never happened in the past with Walter Pidgeon who, even though he received Oscar-nominations for two of his performances opposite Greer Garson, was always a follower in his parts, accepting his position behind Greer Garson and never tried to steal any attention away from his co-star. So it seems that The Valley of Decision was already a new territory for Greer Garson where her performance remained the center of attention but was no longer the sole raison d’être and the sentimental tone of her work could not alone carry the picture any more, sometimes even contradicting its intentions – mostly because the screenplay was not completely sure just how to insert Mary Rafferty into her own story or rather how to truly equate the main plotlines and develop the central character. As an actress, Greer Garson always closely followed the materials she were given, never leaving the pre-defined courses of the screenplays and only added complexity or depth to her work whenever her characters asked her to do so – in The Valley of Decision this unfortunately happens too rarely as the role is mostly defined by her sweet-natured character and her willingness to let things happen without questioning them until Greer Garson is lastly allowed to display a captivating array of determination and strength in the final parts of the story. But while her work often effectively combined a certain sentimental quality with intelligent emotions, her performances always worked best when the sentimentality of the story was not used for sentimentality itself but in the movie’s greater context – Goodbye, Mr. Chips managed to present its sentimentality as something worthwhile in itself, as necessary and as part of the overall account of this man’s life while Mrs. Miniver found the brutal honesty of war beyond the sugar-coated image of an ideal England and Blossoms in the Dust showed an important fight of a determined woman hidden underneath a colorful love story. But in The Valley of Decision, Greer Garson often seemed unsure of how to craft her part as the role actively demanded a romantic approach that showed a young woman creating her own identity but often did not benefit from her strength on the screen – overall, the part of Mary Rafferty might seem tailor-made for Greer Garson and she injected it with her usual elegant personality, giving dignity to a role that easily could have become risible in the hands of a lesser actress, but very often she added too much dignity and maturity to the character of a woman who must learn and develop, connect two different classes and worlds, and even if Greer Garson was able to position Mary somewhere between her own people and the family she is working for, she still found too little shades that showed how this standing influenced and shaped her personality, even if her work was still able to carry the picture and created a heroine that is easy to both like and admire.

During her career, Greer Garson was almost always the driving force of her story, the one whose actions brought the plot along and who set the tone – even among the larger ensemble of Mrs. Miniver, she remained the single point of reference and the one character that brought all plot lines together. In The Valley of Decision, the character of Mary Rafferty is, too, the pivotal perspective that unifies all angles and deeds but she is much stronger influenced by those around her, often reacting instead of acting and as a result, the most important aspect of this performance is less the creating of Mary Rafferty herself but rather of Mary Rafferty in relation to the other characters in the story – a task that was realized by Greer Garson with different effects and success mostly because she often feels lost during the first parts of the story until her screen presence becomes a more natural portion of the movie and the character relations in the end. At the beginning of The Valley of Decision, Greer Garson’s performance mostly suffers from her inability to portray a woman who is supposed to be shaped less by her intelligence and more by her gentleness and her goodness but also by her inability to express or fully comprehend manipulation and viciousness and who does not completely fit into the structure of an upper-class household – but during her career, Greer Garson’s performances were always marked by the exact opposite, by her maturity and visible wisdom and even if those characterizations were sometimes complemented by a natural shyness, she still portrayed an undeniable strength and dapperness that made her an exemplary presence in every situation. But The Valley of Decision needs Greer Garson’s Mary Rafferty to feel out of place more often than once and to feel inable to interact with those around her – and indeed the picture shows a Greer Garson that is not able to fully communicate with her co-stars but unfortunately not for the right reasons in the context of the screenplay but rather for the wrong reasons that came out of her incapability to hide her own personality behind the demands of the role, showing that while the part might appeal to her usual qualities in some scenes it is just as widely out of her comfort zone and standard displays of sagacity and life experience. Obviously, Greer Garson herself did her best to adjust her acting style to the situations that Mary experiences – there is plausibility in her presentation of Mary’s shyness and uncertainty in specific moments, especially around her disapproving father, but these moments win their strengths from Mary’s inability to cope with the social norms and the clash with her own family and the family she is working for while other moments that ask Greer Garson to create the shyness of Mary out of her character did not work quite so well – scenes of her being unable to get the attention of her employees when she wants to announce dinner or awkwardly looking for the entrance of the house on her first day are rather misplaced instead of a moving comment on social differences or a presentation of a young woman who has to train her own abilities and thoughts. But Greer Garson’s struggle to realize the character of Mary Rafferty is not only connected to her presence on the screen but also to another factor that she could not overcome – her age. Of course, the illusion of acting can include the change of age and many times in movie history actors and actresses have played parts that needed them to become either older or younger but in The Valley of Decision, Greer Garson suffers from the fact that the story never clearly addresses Mary’s age, making either her behavior or Greer Garson herself inappropriate in the context of the story – is Mary an old, insecure maid who tendered her father for her whole life and is now taking the chance to find a new meaning in life or is she supposed to be a young, inexperienced girl, still trying to find herself and her own views? The screenplay suggests the latter, hinting that Mary might get her new position in the Rafferty’s household after a personal recommendation from her school but 41-year old Greer Garson seems unsure how to establish this character and often switches between these different spectrums, neither doing herself nor the movie any favor as her own screen personality makes it impossible for her to embody either a young and inexperienced girl or an old, shy maid. And this insecurity in regard to her own acting choices also influences Greer Garson’s performance opposite her different co-stars – her inability to craft a layer of social awkwardness over her character cannot deny the usual intelligence and sophistication that shape her performances and her confidence in front of the camera therefore rather distracts in scenes with Gladys Cooper since both women appear equally self-assured and world-wise, much more equal than the script allows. Similarly, the scenes between Mary and the Rafferty’s daughter Constance further show the vagueness of the whole character as the feelings between Mary and Constance constantly change, sometimes treating each other as best friends who can share their secrets and sometimes becoming an almost mother-daughter-relationship where Mary looks after Constance with sudden wisdom and experience. But most of all, the central love affair between Mary and Paul Scott provides the least satisfying part of Greer Garson’s performance – she and Gregory Peck unfortunately failed to create a believable affection between these two characters that are pulled apart by various obstacles but are constantly attracted to each other since they seem strangely uncomfortable around each other as Greer Garson’s attempt to portray an almost school-girl like crush while Gregory Peck takes the part as the wiser and more deciding force does not come to live in their actual work and both stars follow the script with looks and gestures that are expected but never feel genuine, failing to give the love story between Mary and Paul the needed believability, for example in scenes that have the two lovers talk on a hill or share a first kiss on a boat. And so it seems strangely ironic that Greer Garson’s acting opposite her co-stars who played the members of the Scott family harmed her overall performance so strongly because her performance is actually supposed to create this distance between Mary and her employees but this detachment was never accomplished in correlation with the script but out of Greer Garson’s inability to portray the youthfulness, the shyness, the awkwardness and the inexperience of her character. But strangely enough the other important relation in Mary’s life was realized with much more success as Greer Garson finds a perfect balance opposite Lionel Barrymore in the role of her disapproving father – in her scenes with him she feels much surer of herself and her own personality, crafting the character much closer to her usual energy whenever she has to portray Mary’s disability to deal with her father’s hatred and dissatisfaction, trying to compensate her love with her rejection of his ideas about the Scotts and she is especially absorbing when she shouts at him for insulting Paul Scott, feeling both proud and ashamed of her anger towards him, unable to completely let him go while wanting to be rid of his hatred at the same time and she is equally moving when she silently absorbs the shock after various loathing words from her father after she told him of her future plans. In all these scenes, Greer Garson lets Mary be closer to her own personality instead of trying to display characteristics she cannot relate to – and this is also the reason why the later parts of her performance improve drastically during the process of the story as it allows her to integrate her confidence and elegance more openly into her characterization. The Valley of Decision may never give Greer Garson the chance to let Mary develop during her experiences and instead wanted her performance to simply capture different aspects of the role without exploring their origin in any way but she is still allowed to be much more confident and relaxed on the screen, able to let her usual vitality define her role at last. Therefore Greer Garson mostly shines in scenes that truly focus on her abilities to express quiet pain with noble dignity – her scene with Gregory Peck in which Mary tells Paul that she cannot be with him because her father put a curse on their relationship comes quite suddenly, both in the context of the movie but also in Greer Garson’s performance because her work, for a few scenes, is hauntingly real and engaging, displaying all the sorrow and pain that had pestered her character for so long. And later in the movie, Greer Garson gets to deliver the most captivating and poignant moment of the story when she pleads to keep the steel mines of the town going – her monologue is done without any exaggeration or pressure, rather she keeps Mary’s quietness intact and for the first time truly seems to find a use for Mary’s shyness, turning it around for the sake of a passionate speech but still staying true to the character, playing a strong yet subtle determination, letting Mary’s words speak for themselves and Greer Garson also has to be applauded for the way in which she tells Paul’s wife that she has always loved her husband as her reveal is done very quietly but completely honest and turns into a extremely memorable moment, both for the audience and Paul’s wife.

Somehow, Mary Rafferty is one of Greer Garson’s most unusual performances and she feels less like herself than in much of her other work and the part offered her the chance to display her usual standard repertoire while also allowing her to create the illusion of stretching herself artistically, playing a maid with an Irish accent in contrast to her usual more refined characters but in the end the part only benefitted from her performance when she was allowed to shine with her strongest assets. Overall, her performance is a simple but also lovely portrayal that creates some touching and memorable images and moments and carries the picture without providing a truly thought-through or fitting approach. In the end, it’s a performance that is able to explain both the lasting appeal of Greer Garson as well as her sudden drop in popularity, combining her usual charm and style that made her so easy to admire but also showing that the times were changing, giving her less opportunities to give the kind of performances that audiences had been so eager to see during the times of World War II. The movie and Greer Garson’s work as well as her position in Hollywood were influenced by the new atmosphere around them and while this performance does stand in the tradition of her previous work, it also offered something unexpected, mostly in her desire to downplay her own strengths on the screen – even if her performance succeeded most whenever she actually used those strengths. So, The Valley of Decision does not show Greer Garson at the peak of her artistry and it seems that the honor of receiving a fifth nomination in a row is more a testament to her star power than her actual performance but even with all the flaws in this piece of work, Greer Garson still provided some beautiful and occassionally haunting moments that display her talent, charm and grace and makes both her nomination and popularity as well as the ultimate end of her reign understandable.


7/01/2012

Best Actress 1945: Jennifer Jones in "Love Letters"

On the first look, the Best Actress category of 1945 seemed like the usual combination of returning nominees and first-time contenders – ever since Norma Shearer became the first actress to receive a second nomination, the Oscars liked to honor both previous winners and nominees while also adding new faces and names to their list of nominees. Obviously the first Oscar years saw some line-ups that consisted only of actresses that were nominated for the first time but the appearance of women who would quickly turn into Academy favorites like the aforementioned Norma Shearer or Marie Dressler, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn made future races without a returning nominee highly unlikely if not downright impossible – it took until 1970 to find Jane Alexander, Glenda Jackson, Sarah Miles, Ali McGraw and Carrie Snodgrass as a group of Best Actress nominees that had all never been nominated for an Oscar before. And then there were other years that came close – in 1953, Deborah Kerr was the only returning nominee in a group otherwise consisting of first-time competitors Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Maggie McNamara and Ava Gardener and in 1966 Elizabeth Taylor was a true Oscar veteran compared to Anouk Aimée, Ida Kaminska and the two sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. Considering this strong standing of previous nominees in almost every year of the Academy’s history, the circumstance that 1945 saw only two newcomers in the Best Actress category does not seem surprising – but the fact that the three other contenders were not only previous nominees but actually previous winners adds an interesting angle to this line-up. Of course, Oscar voters were always eager to embrace the return of former Oscar winners, too, and only occasionally all five contenders were hoping to receive their first award, for example in 1953 (the year that saw Audrey Hepburn triumph), 1957 (when Joanne Woodward emerged as the winner), 1958 (with the long-awaited win for Susan Hayward) or 1963 (with Patricia Neal dominating her competition) – but these years are still rather rare as one or two Oscar winners are almost always a part of every Best Actress line-up. But just as the absence of an Oscar winner is an often unlikely scenario in this category, so is the presence of too many former winners as three returning champions are an equally seldom occasion. One year prior to 1945, Greer Garson, Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert already achieved this feat and later examples would be 1951 (with Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Wyman), 1967 (with Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft and Audrey Hepburn), 1968 (with Katharine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward and Patricia Neal), 1973 (with Glenda Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Joanne Woodward) or 1978 (with Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and Ingrid Bergman). But there are still two circumstances that set 1945 apart from other examples like this and make it a truly unique case in the history of this category – for one, the three returning winners came from the three previous years as the Best Actress winners of 1942, 1943 and 1944 were all assembled together in the line-up of 1945. And furthermore, this was not the first time that Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman and Greer Garson saw themselves competing against each other for the Best Actress Oscar – all three had already been nominated together in 1943 when Jennifer Jones triumphed for The Song of Bernadette and they were all also Oscar-nominees in 1944 but Jennifer Jones’s nomination in the Supporting Category for her performance in the World War II Drama Since you Went Away prevented these three actresses from competing with each other three times in a row. This dominance of these actresses and their constant presence at the Academy Awards emphasize their high level of popularity with audiences and Oscar voters during the years of World War II, maybe giving them a sense of familiarity and stability during these uncertain times before they were replaced by other actresses during the second half of the decade after the war was over and a new era was about to start. But in a short period of time, all three women were able to accumulate a vast number of Oscar nominations as Greer Garson received five consecutive nods, Jennifer Jones four (including her supporting nomination in 1944) and Ingrid Bergman three and this constant acclaim and prominence allowed them to strengthen their positions as the primary actresses of their generations and shape their careers and artistic developments on the basis of their own decisions. Ingrid Bergman played a large variety of different roles, aiming to find the most revered co-workers in front of and behind the camera and finally went to Italy to find more artistic challenges – only to find herself banned from Hollywood, too, after her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini caused a major scandal for the actress who had played nuns and saints on the big screen during her career so far. Greer Garson on the other hand seemed to feel most comfortable within her area of expertise, co-starring with Walter Pidgeon multiple times and playing roles that suited her personality on the screen, allowing her a display of quiet dignity and inner strength that she used as the constant basis of her most beloved and acclaimed characterizations. And in the course of their careers, Jennifer Jones might appear like an intriguing combination of these two actresses – like Greer Garson, she enjoyed the presence of a precise co-star as she appeared opposite Joseph Cotton four times in five years and she also shaped her characters according to her own personality more times than the other way around but she was also willing to explore different aspects of this personality nonetheless. She followed her saint-like work in The Song of Bernadette with an equally innocent portrayal of youthful ideals and first feelings of love in Since you Went Away but was then aiming to find darker facets in her work as ultimately displayed by her controversial portrayal of the dangerous Pearl Chavez in the equally controversial Duel in the Sun. And one year before that, she already took a first step into a different direction with her performance in the romantic drama Love Letters in which she played a mysterious woman who suffers from amnesia and might or might not be a murderess who forgot all about her past and her possible crime. There seemed to be a definite unwillingness to be cast in specific roles too easily and Jennifer Jones also established herself as an actress whose major interests were the parts themselves rather than the wider stories they were presented in. But while Love Letters maybe gave Jennifer Jones a chance to show a different side of her former self, it limited its own possibilities underneath a conventional execution and the characteristic melodrama that often accompanied and influenced her work, pushing the performance closer to the vapidness of Love Letters itself even if Jennifer Jones found certain chances and possibilities to add the strength of her own distinct style and occasionally balanced the opposing spectrums of the role with captivating clarity.

Throughout her career, Jennifer Jones appeared eager to realize a variety of different characters and roles, trying to act outside of her comfort zone that she set with her star-making role of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette and that saw her strengths in the quiet aspects of her work, a gentle softness, the use of her rich and vibrant voice and her expressive face that could easily communicate a vast variety of emotions with distinct lucidity but still kept a vague depth and inexplicability, allowing Jennifer Jones to always display a strong maturity even if her characters were defined by naivety or inexperience. But even if Jennifer Jones occasionally moved to characters or movies that appeared to be outside her own comfort zone, she still adjusted these characters to her own personality and style of contrasting emotions, therefore actually taking this zone with her and simply using it in different circumstances and surroundings. This maybe limited her possibilities in different parts but it still allowed her to emphasize her main strength as an actress, namely her ability to combine a certain youthfulness and unawareness with a sensible mystery and inscrutability, letting her characters often appear both strangely ordinary and undeniably unusual – but it is a clash of opposites that only worked in Jennifer Jones’s favor when her characters were actually asking for these qualities and therefore defined by their ability to keep their feet on the ground but get their head lost in the clouds. And so it is not surprising that this display of both commonness and unusualness was beautifully realized in her work in The Song of Bernadette which presented her with a character that clearly guided her within her own comfort zone but also grew with her interpretation of quiet conviction and childlike helplessness, of maturity and simplicity. This combination of different aspects in her work enabled her to fill the characters she played with an intriguing ambiguity but at the same time she was also dependent on the script she was given to find the right balance within the realization of her roles, needing the right part and the right circumstances to benefit from her distinct talents since she could otherwise easily get lost in her characterizations and either emphasize the secrets of her characters too strongly or fail to keep the familiarity of her parts inside the necessary boundaries. This was mostly visible in Jennifer Jones’s own tendency to adopt the style of the movies around her and often surrender to the melodrama that accompanied them, consequently failing to find the ability to raise above their quality or fill her characters will an inner life independent from the script or the direction. And so she was on the one hand almost always an integral part of her stories and able to seamlessly fit into her environments, from the piety of a French home to the salacious world of an American cattle ranch, and she always allowed herself to become the vessel of the vision behind the story but on the other hand the level of success of her precise performances completely depended on the material she was given and how far the part she was playing took advantage of her on-screen personality. She was given all these necessities in The Song of Bernadette as the movie carefully crafted itself around her central portrayal while giving her the right atmosphere to focus all her features on the sincerity and mystery of her character, almost reducing her presence for the sake of her inner strength and therefore giving her the chance to carry the story with her aforementioned ability to represent youthfulness and maturity as well as familiarity and inscrutability. The next year, she focused more strongly on the qualities of a girl next door with her work in Since you went Away and was again helped by the structure of the story which allowed her to position her personality with the right amount of straight-forward honesty while preserving an inner depth beyond the written words. And so it does not seem surprising that the Academy also nominated her for her performance in 1945’s Love Letters where Jennifer Jones played Singleton, a woman who suffers from amnesia and might have killed her husband and later falls in love with Joseph Cotton’s Allen who has written various love letters to her in the past – but not for himself but for one of his friends who was also the man whom Jennifer Jones apparently killed. It’s a role that undoubtedly appears to be an ideal vessel for Jennifer Jones’s distinct talents – as a character, Singleton exists in two worlds, one defined by love and romance, the other by oblivion and enigma and it asks for the mysteriousness of a woman who might be a murderess and constantly expresses the ideas of a lost past and an unknown future and also demands a display of girlish charm and accessibility to realize the on-screen romance with the character of Joseph Cotton. But even if the role of Singleton appears like a blueprint for the personality of Jennifer Jones, the script too often pushed her undecidedly into different directions, throwing both Singleton and Jennifer Jones too often off-balance as the story lacks the needed depth and mostly rested on the effects of murder and romance without giving further explanation to its plot or its characters. It’s a thin narrative that could have been a perfect vehicle for the star and the actress Jennifer Jones but in the end it denied her the chance to craft a stronger characterization by leaving too many questions open and letting her either over- or misuse many of her strengths on the screen – even if she sometimes found room to add a much-needed spark and captivating intensity that would provide Love Letter’s most memorable moments and strongest scenes.

Right from the start, Love Letters makes it obvious that all its goals and themes from love and drama to murder and amnesia are embodied in the single character of Singleton, using her as its constant point of reference that moves the story and re-changes it focus between different genres. It’s a task that poses various challenges and traps for an actress as she needs to find the right tone and style to combine these different aspects of the character and letting them appear as a natural part of her role while also highlighting them whenever necessary. This almost fusion of identities is also the driving force that creates the mystery of Love Letters and the character of Singleton needs to inhabit less and less of these different circumstances as the stories unpeels her true identity. And so Love Letters begins its tale with Singleton at her most inaccessible as the mystery that is surrounding this woman also guides her short and vague introduction after which she again leaves the picture – in fact, Love Letters goes on for over thirty minutes before Jennifer Jones truly establishes herself as its leading lady and Singleton as its central character but even these thirty minutes are shaped and influenced by her ambiguous presence. But the first introduction of Singleton unfortunately turns into an unfulfilled promise by the time Jennifer Jones truly enters the movie because both the script and her acting are constantly undecided just how much to reveal of the character and where to position her between unknown enigma and ‘girl next door’. In her first scene, Jennifer Jones seems to tease both Joseph Cotton’s Allen and the audience as she eagerly wants to embrace the mystery that defines her character – she delivers the line ‘Just Singleton’ which tells Alan that not only her character but even her name is a secret, with the right amount of reticence and playfulness but the effect comes and goes without leaving a lasting impression because the movie behind Jennifer Jones’s efforts does not create the right atmosphere to support her intentions, almost letting the character feel like an intruder to the story, creating a disharmony and inconsistency between the actress and the story. Consequently, Jennifer Jones’s portrayal suffers from the contradicting aims of the screenplay – Love Letters often forces her to make the obvious even more obvious, letting her either overstate the pains of a lost memory or the happiness of a newfound love with the same kind of solemn dedication, hence often pushing her to act against her usual strengths on the screen, letting the mystery of her character disappear behind a palpable execution. The indetermination of the movie and Jennifer Jones becomes particularly visible in the scene that follows the first introduction of Singleton – the strangely confusing atmosphere that Love Letters was so keen to create is suddenly turned around by Jennifer Jones who plays her next encounter with Joseph Cotton with a combination of girlish giggles and playful behavior even as she opens up about her own secrets and her inability to recollect her own preceding life. Of course, such moments that constantly define previous impressions could easily create an intriguing continuity in the character of Singleton, especially since her amnesia leaves vast room for different interpretations of different emotions and could easily result in a characterization that often contradicts all expectations but both Love Letters and Jennifer Jones are too single-minded in their executions of these moments to overcome the limitations that they have imposed on themselves and never use the chances for a deeper and more equivocal portrayal that truly combines the contrasting traits of Singleton instead of presenting them singularly whenever needed, letting the name of the character influence the overall work too strongly. And so Jennifer Jones has to work very hard in this scene to let Singleton come to live again and find a logical string within her own performance – and surprisingly, she does succeed as the moment goes on as she now begins to unfold her ability to combine both commonness and mystery in her role and temporarily finds the right balance of these two extremes, showing that, behind the mystery, Singleton is a simple woman with simple dreams. It was an intriguing choice by Jennifer Jones to let Singleton appear much more down-to-earth than a movie like Love Letters would have expected even is she sometimes uses certain lines of dialogue to evoke an unknown mystery in Singleton – a mystery that is actually never there because the audience is right from the start more aware about the character than she herself and the simple structure of the script gives Singleton no live apart from her own focus on a single memory that is coming and going inside her mind, the memory of a few poetic and romantic lines that have already shaped her entire existence before she lost her memory. But in this scene, Jennifer Jones also knows how to use her charming personality and the chemistry that she develops with Joseph Cotton creates the right tension for this second, more detailed meeting – the way she teases Alan for not remembering their first encounter and her display of innocent shame for her own amnesia works very well in the context of the story. As the scene goes on, Love Letters begins its process of slowly uncovering the character of Singleton, revealing facts about her past without revealing the truth behind them, and letting Singleton slowly lose the enigma that surrounds her and turning her into a woman who tries to find the ordinary within the extraordinary – in those later moments, when Jennifer Jones is allowed to take hold of her character and uses her own presence to create these scenes of mystery and commonness, she finally truly embodies Singleton without overdoing it herself or being forced to overdo it by the movie as she finds dignity and quiet peace in her role when she expresses Singleton’s thoughts about the future, about what may have been and her newfound love for Alan. Moments of Singleton wondering about her past, eager to know what has happened, why she suddenly remembers a certain name or a certain deed and what they mean in the larger context of her own life give Jennifer Jones the chance to express her distinct intensity which shows her in perfect control of her own voice, filling it with the right amount of secret, adding an unexpected emotional level to her speculations about her lost memory.

But overall, such moments still happen too rarely within Love Letters and not all scenes truly benefit Jennifer Jones’s acting style or screen personality. She often limits her own possibilities by expressing both her love for Allen and her wondering about the past with the same kind of earnest whispers and for every moment that finds her performance captivating and surprising she adds others that show her rather lost and inconvenient. Most of all, Jennifer Jones is an actress that knows how to subtly express a storm of different emotions on her face but many times feels oddly forlorn whenever she needs to use her whole body to bring a moment to live – because of this, scenes that show her ironing a shirt, putting tea into a cup or turning around and looking for Alan often feel strangely out of place and can even distract from her overall performance. And so it is not surprising that her long monologues which she fills with both tension and tenderness provide Love Letter’s with its most distinguishable moments – when she talks about the letters from the man she loved during her murder trial she beautifully overcomes the banality of her lines with compelling pathos and sincerity and she equally realized similar moments with the same captivating intenseness, reciting lines from a letter that suddenly came back into her mind or remembering about the fateful night that changed her life forever. As the story goes on, Jennifer Jones’s performance continues to reveal the past of Singleton and her shy nervousness when she addresses her postman, telling him that she is not scared, or her sudden breakdown in the garden are moments that add to the tension of the story but also make her character quietly accessible and real, suddenly reminding the audience that Singleton is not only a mystery but also a human being – but nevertheless, Jennifer Jones unfortunately never adjusted her performance to the ongoing inner process of her character, missing many opportunities to add more layers to Singleton and her destiny. But Jennifer Jones also finds beautifully calm moments, especially when she lets Singleton reflect about herself, commenting on her own constant worries and speculations with an almost amused 'Me again', finding a short moment of relaxed unrestraint in a story that constantly intends to keep Singleton on the edge of her mental stability. Playing a victim of amnesia, Jennifer Jones might not have tried to truly challenge the audience but instead constantly kept her performance in the tone of the melodrama around her but she still crafted a strong feeling of longing for something else, something unknown and she let her light awareness of her own condition, the quietly increasing fear of her own past and her slow route to the truth always be set in the context of the love story between Singleton and Alan, maybe letting too many opportunities pass by but still turning into Love Letter’s most noteworthy aspect even if she also too often underlined the one-dimensionality of the part, denying Singleton her own identity and only letting her act out of her admiration for the romantic lines that had been written to her before she lost her memory. Sometimes, the banality of the situation defeats her – her delivery of the line ‘Who are you?’, again forcing her to make the obvious even more obvious, lacks the needed cogency and almost suffocates the story under its own overbearance. And the final scenes of Love Letters also show that Jennifer Jones too often lost the balance within her own performance and between her different strengths as an actress – she played Singleton’s realization of the truth with soothing quietness and finds the right tone and style for the scene, turning it into the payoff the audience has been waiting for, but again both Jennifer Jones and the script contradict any atmosphere and tension they created by following with a moment that destructs the delicate balance of Love Letters when Singleton, after having uncovered the truth and the lies that have been told to her for so long, runs into the waiting arms of Alan, forgetting everything that just happened, beaming with an exaggerated smile and wide-eyed happiness that she finally learnt who has written her precious letters to her in the past – it’s a moment that sums up the constant imbalance that has haunted both Love Letters and Jennifer Jones’s performance up so far.

In the end, the character of Singleton combined many features that usually suit Jennifer Jones very well and the part could have fitted her like a glove if it had not asked her to work against her usual strengths on the screen too often and instead had guided her more clearly inside her own comfort zone of equating different opposites within her characters – but Jennifer Jones too often mixed the two worlds of Singleton, finding no difference between the romance of the story and the personal journey of a lost soul, lacking the ability to rise above the script while working in the context of its tone and themes as well. And so, Singleton is a character that is more defined by the chances it missed and what it could have been instead of what it is but what remains is still an often captivating and haunting performance that provides the needed combination of mysteriousness and subtlety to amplify the effect of the character and makes her past, her present and her future the driving force of the story and lets her search for answers be the only absorbing aspect in an otherwise lifeless and unassuming tale.


6/19/2012

Best Actress 1945: Ingrid Bergman in "The Bells of St. Mary's"

Ingrid Bergman was on a roll. Casablanca, For Whom the Bell tolls, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Spellbound – everything she touched turned into gold and everything she did could not be praised high enough. But she not only had the talent to amaze the critics – instead, she also possessed a warm, kind and glowing personality that never made her farouche but turned her into the kind of star who was not only respected but also genuinely liked and admired (which is probably the reason why the reactions to her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini provoked such intense reactions). During her three consecutive Best Actress nominations she was always an important factor in the race – 1943 saw her as the rape victim in the prestigious literary adaptation For Whom the Bell tolls and as Ilsa Lund in Casablanca and if Jennifer Jones had not suddenly come out of nowhere with her work in The Song of Bernadette, Ingrid Bergman would have been an easy winner. The next year she took home the gold for her performance as the tortured wife in Gaslight – a win that combined the respect for her work and the admiration for her personality and Jennifer Jones was certainly right when she told Ingrid Bergman that ‘your artistry has won our vote and your graciousness has won our hearts’. But Ingrid Bergman did not stop after her win – she had reached the top and was destined to stay there. 1945 saw her in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and the popular Saratoga Trunk – but it was the sequel to 1944’s Best Picture Winner Going my Way which made her a serious threat to become the third winner of consecutive Oscars after Luise Rainer and Spencer Tracy. Her work as a Mother Superior in The Bells of St. Mary’s not only won her awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press and the New York Film Critics but also the kind of reviews an actress might get only once in her lifetime. According to Inside Oscar, one critic even described her work as the single greatest performance ever given by an actress in motion picture history. Such praise certainly evokes the highest expectations – by 1945, viewers had already seen Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc or the work of Lilian Gish, Vivien Leigh had appeared in Gone with the Wind and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth and even Ingrid Bergman herself had already achieved an artistic peak with her work in Gaslight the year before. So – was the high praise for her performance justified or was it rather influenced by Ingrid Bergman’s strong dominance and the uncompromising veneration of the critics and the public at the time? Well, let’s see…

As mentioned before, The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to 1944’s Going my Way which told the story of a charming young priest who brought music and new life to St. Dominic’s church in New York City. At the end of World War II, this heartwarming and simple tale was exactly what audiences wanted and Going my Way not only became a huge hit but also took home seven Oscars, including acting awards for Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as the old, stubborn and more conventional priest. Only Bing Crosby reprised his part in The Bells of St. Mary’s which features a rather similar plot and theme like Going my Way. The absence of Barry Fitzgerald already indicates that another character was needed to contradict Father O’Malley and ultimately benefit from his innocent and positive look at life. Enter Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict, a young Mother Superior who dreams of convincing a business man to donate his new office building to her school and also has to deal with the personal problems of her pupils and occasionally clashes with Father O’Malley over the right ways to teach and grade the children.

The part of Sister Mary Benedict seems destined from the start to follow the expected formula – a Mother Superior in a motion picture almost by definition has to be stern, strict, humorless, cold and decisive. Add the fact that Bing Crosby is the happy-go-lucky priest who serves as the audience’s guide through the movie and it must be even more expected that Ingrid Bergman has to play the domineering and rigid woman whose views on life are changed for the better thanks to Father O’Malley. Well – sometimes movies still can surprise us. Because Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary Benedict is the complete opposite of all this and much closer to Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley than originally expected – she is warm, loving, kind, full or humor and good spirit. Ingrid Bergman’s face is allowed to beam brighter than ever and her rich, gentle voice only adds to the immediate likability of her character. And under the nun’s habit, Ingrid Bergman only has her face, her eyes and her voice to rely on – and she uses all the advantages that her features offer her to fulfill the tasks of the screenplay and create a loveable and sensitive woman who adds to the sentimental tone and feel-good-atmosphere of The Bells of St. Mary’s.

And yet…the single greatest female performance in motion picture history? Of course, the opinion on a performance should not be influenced by what a critic wrote almost 70 years ago but even if expectations are not very high before watching Ingrid Bergman’s performance, there must be a certain sense of disappointment. Because during the first 80 percent of her performance there is hardly anything about the character of Sister Mary Benedict that presents any kind of challenge or opportunity for Ingrid Bergman. Like Bing Crosby, she rests on her charm to give a performance that, as mentioned before, perfectly suits the film and creates a very heartwarming atmosphere but there is nowhere for her to go beyond that. By focusing on the loving and kind side of Sister Mary Benedict, Ingrid Bergman avoided any complexity or depth this woman might have possessed but, of course, the screenplay does not truly offer her any chance to do anything else. Ingrid Bergman’s cheerful smile lightens up the screen every time but it is never fully satisfying to watch her create a maybe delightful but still too thin and undemanding character. But even though, she still does the most she can with what she is given – the scene in which she teaches a boy how to box so that he can defend himself against the bullies on the school yard is an absolute joy to watch and it would be a complete lie to say that Ingrid Bergman does not reach a level of charm and glee in her performance that can easily compete with that of Audrey Hepburn a couple of years later. And even better, Ingrid Bergman does not forget to create a woman behind this cheerful personality – her Mother Superior is obviously very concerned for her school and her pupils, she radiates authority and love and she is also a woman who is used to fighting for her cause, never giving up hope that God will be on her side when she needs him most. And Ingrid Bergman also works extremely well opposite Bing Crosby. Even though both actors add to the sentimental tone of the story, they still do it differently – Sister Mary Benedict does not always share Father O’Malley’s views but she shows understanding and contradicts him always with respect and admiration. A scene in which they discuss a young girl who failed her test shows this best – while Father O’Malley wants to let her pass to the next grade anyway, Sister Mary Benedict wants to keep up the purpose of the grades. In this scene, it’s very easy to side with Sister Mary Benedict – Father O’Malley might be the beatific saint but Sister Mary Benedict’s views still make much more sense, especially because Ingrid Bergman always shows how much she would like to be able to let the girl pass but still has to follow the rules of the school. But even beyond that, the chemistry between both actors just works completely right – there is no love between them (obviously) but the friendship and respect is always apparent. When Ingrid Bergman sings a song in front of the other nuns and suddenly notices that Father O’Malley is watching her, too, her transition from singing to laughter is too enchanting to ever forget it.

Yes, Ingrid Bergman is a pure delight in her role, emphasizing the loving side of Sister Mary Benedict to create the mood of The Bells of St. Mary’s and fulfilling her role opposite Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley. But still…her charm and grace lighten up the whole movie but they never result in a truly outstanding performance. Sister Mary Benedict is too limited, too one-dimensional and too reduced to a couple of little scenes without any character development to let Ingrid Bergman reach any true level of artistic excellence. Her performance, as charming as it may be, always stays on the surface of the story and this way perfectly resembles that of Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley – he, too, is charming and delightful but never challenges himself in any way and therefore remains a rather perplexing Oscar winner and nominee for his two turns as the buoyant priest. So – what was it about Ingrid Bergman’s performance that turned her into such a heavy favorite for a second Oscar in 1945? Well, the answer for this question can be found easily – in the remaining 20 percent of her performance. Suddenly, when all hope seems gone for Ingrid Bergman to not only shine personally but also artistically, the script begins to take Sister Mary Benedict through her own quiet and small tour-de-force and Ingrid Bergman takes her performance to a completely satisfying and unforgettable level. After Sister Mary Benedict has been diagnosed with tuberculosis, Father O’Malley arranges her transfer to another position without telling her the true reasons. Sister Mary Benedict assumes that she is punished for her disagreements with Father O’Malley over the grades of the little girl – she immediately accepts the decisions of her superiors but is obviously heartbroken to be forced to leave her children and her whole life behind. In the scenes that follow Ingrid Bergman becomes both completely heartbreaking and heartwarming, showing disappointment and acceptance, sorrow and joy in only a few couple of scenes and creates some of the most moving images of her career. When she receives the news about her transfer, she is able to show how Sister Mary Benedict’s heart breaks in only a few seconds and in this moment it also becomes clear how important the groundwork was that Ingrid Bergman had done in all her scenes before – Sister Mary Benedict has become such a close and familiar presence during the run of the movie that her fate touches the viewers’ hearts much stronger than it might have done otherwise. This wonderful display of subtle emotions is later topped by Ingrid Bergman when she comforts one of her pupils who decided to become a nun to run away from her all her problems. With a caring voice, Ingrid Bergman tells her that one cannot become a nun to avoid life – instead, one has to experience everything and lived a full life before such a decision can be made. It’s a beautiful and touching moment that Ingrid Bergman immediately tops again afterwards with another heartbreaking scene in which Sister Mary Benedict asks God to remove all bitterness from her heart and accept the decision of her superiors to leave the school that is so dear to her. It’s a scene that so many actresses could have used to manipulate the audience but Ingrid Bergman remains simple, straight and honest in these moments and so plays the scene as something much more fulfilling than pure sentiment. And when Father O’Malley finally decides that it would be better for Sister Mary Benedict to know the truth instead of living in constant regret, it suddenly seems to make sense that critics raved about her work so much – the bright, teary-eyed smile when Sister Mary Benedict learns that she is not transferred for any professional reasons but because of her illness is one of the highlights of Ingrid Bergman’s outstanding career and it’s not hard to believe Father O’Malley when he describes Sister Mary Benedict as perfect.

So…is is the single greatest female performance in motion picture history? Certainly not. For this title, there are too many moments that never reach above average and even with Ingrid Bergman’s charming personality never fully satisfy. But there is no denying that she created something otherworldly during those final scenes and if she had been allowed to be on this high level all the time, then her performance would definitely have been much stronger and memorable. As it is, the strength of the final scenes does not help her to overcome the limitations of the rest of her performance but it is enough to go receive