Greer Garson…Greer Garson…Greer Garson…Greer Garson…Greer Garson…She just couldn’t do wrong, could she? In 1946, she received her 6th Best Actress nomination in 7 years which was also her 5th in a row and even more remarkable is the fact that she only made 10 movies in this period. And after that? Where did Greer Garson go? Nowhere, she stayed right where she was and she even became the leading lady of Clark Gable’s first post-war movie but she would not get another Oscar nomination until 1960. It’s actually always interesting to think about why some performer suddenly drops from the Academy’s radar. There are actresses like Susan Hayward or Susan Sarandon who accumulated an impressive number of nominations in a relatively short period of time – and then, after they finally won, disappeared from the nomination lists. It could be a case of ‘She’s taken care of, let’s move on’ but Greer Garson more resembles later actresses like Sissy Spacek or Ellen Burstyn who also received nominations quite regularly and then suddenly dropped from the nomination list for a long time until they received one more nod for a performance that put them back in the spotlight. But for a performer who was not only nominated a lot of times in a short period of time but literally every year, the case of Greer Garson seems to be much more interesting – could it have been a simple case of fatigue, a feeling of a Greer-Garson-overkill? After all, not even her reprise of her Oscar-winning turn as Kay Miniver in The Miniver Story could secure her another nod (but, of course, this sequel received in no way the same amount of attention as its predecessor did). But maybe it was also time for a change. Not only Greer Garson, but also other Oscar-favorites of the early 40s like Bette Davis, Teresa Wright, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones or Joan Fontaine fell out of the Academy’s sight in the second half of the decade (of course, the extend differed – Ingrid Bergman got one more nod in 1948 but her affair with Roberto Rossellini had already turned her into an outcast by then). The time apparently seemed right for some new blood – Olivia de Havilland dominated this period with her two wins and high quality of roles and performances, Jane Wyman, Loretta Young and Susan Hayward received multiple nods and more new faces appeared when the new decade began. Basically, the taste and appreciation shifted after the war – not only of the Academy but also of the public since Greer Garson’s popularity not only dropped with Academy members but also with the audience. Her kind of ‘women’s picture’ came out of vogue, the appeal of her combination with Walter Pidgeon was over and other actresses became the first choice for roles that she might have gotten a couple of years earlier. So, in some ways, her nod for Valley of Decision is her swan song – yes, she made more movies and got another nomination but it basically was the end of her peak, the end of her prime, the end of her ability to turn everything she did into gold.
Interestingly, by the time that Valley of Decision came around, Greer Garson had basically perfected her own screen persona – the noble, dignified, elegant woman, sometimes shy but confident in the end and always a symbol of style and grace, no matter if she is a British housewife, the American campaigner for children’s rights, a French scientist or an Irish maid. Her movies usually demonstrated how she struggled against various obstacles, may it be a war against Nazi Germany, hidden radioactive elements, the laws of Texas or another woman, only to come out as the winner at the end, always having morals and righteousness on her side. In some ways, all of this could easily have threatened her screen personality and appeal – after all, who wants to see an actress as the same good girl all the time? Actually, Greer Garson’s screen credits during the years 1939-1946 lacked all the appeal and diversity that such a popular actress usually should offer – her roles may have varied on the surface but most of the time presented the same essence. At the same time, Bette Davis found a wide variety of different roles as she played suffering heroines and unforgiving tyrants with the same dedication and precision, never being comfortable with any kind of overall screen personality. 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. Barbara Stanwyck never allowed herself to be identified with any kind of specific part or role and also other contemporaries of Greer Garson like Olivia de Havilland, Rosalind Russell or Ingrid Bergman found different women, stories and fates in their own acting. Greer Garson, on the other hand, specified herself in a certain niche with a certain style and a certain realization – successfully, obviously. The audience clearly adored Greer Garson and the critics were also on her side. But despite this, Greer Garson’s inability to develop herself or her characters beyond this pure and noble image must have been the main reason for the slow decrease of her popularity after Valley of Decision. But what was it about Greer Garson that made her able to stay at the top for so long despite playing a certain type of character over and over again and often starring in less-than-average pictures? Well, most of all, there was that undeniable amount of charisma and charm – it seems impossible to dislike Greer Garson in any way and few British actresses have been able to be so honestly youthful, charming, appealing and very often heartwarming while also preserving that kind of grace and style that come to them so easily. And all these characteristics obviously helped her to excel in her own comfort zone, filling rather uninteresting parts in often average movies with an undeniable pep and a huge amount of personality. Any actress who turns movies like Madame Curie or Valley of Decision into some of the most popular movies of their respective years cannot be underestimated in terms of star quality. But it seems that the sentimentality of these stories was just what audiences during World War II wanted to see – 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.
Anyway, let’s not forget that Valley of Decision was one of the most popular movies of 1945 – but was this only because of Greer Garson? The movie somehow appears to be a product of a transition period, filled with steel mill workers on strike and class differences – the kind of realism that must have appeared strong and shocking at its time but has lost its effectiveness over the years. What now remains is a mostly disappointing and banal presentation of a certain time and place, wrapped in a sentimental love story, devoid of any true meaning or significance. Still, in 1945 a story likes this surely attracted audiences and Greer Garson only added to the overall appeal – but in some ways, the success of Valley of Decision is probably less a testament to Greer Garson’s popularity but rather to that of rising star Gregory Peck who appeared as Walter Pidgeon alias Paul Scott alias the obligatory man Greer Garson wants to have. Mostly, Greer Garson’s Oscar nominations always came for movies that were either the Greer-Garson-show or also featured some kind of noticeable supporting cast (with the obvious exception being Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Blossoms in the Dust or Madame Curie were basically one-woman shows since Walter Pidgeon’s lifeless and uninspiring performances never had enough strength to make any kind of impact. Mrs. Parkington at least offered a nice turn by Agnes Moorehead and, of course, Mrs. Miniver, had a large and memorable supporting cast. Valley of Decision offers less interesting supporting performances but more interesting supporting actors even if they are not really giving a lot to do. Gladys Cooper, Donald Crisp and Lionel Barrymore are dependable as always and it’s a treat to see Jessica Tandy when she is not…old. So, even if Valley of Decision does not feature a truly gripping story it still manages to be some kind of time capsule that shows some of Hollywood’s most treasured supporting stars and the rise of a future movie star. But what about the leading lady? How can she be remembered in the context of Valley of Decision? This is actually hard to say – the movie is neither the kind of example that would explain her loss of appeal since she plays her part with the same charm and talent as always nor does it present Greer Garson at the peak of her artistry. If anything, Valley of Decision showed that even Greer Garson could not always handle all aspects of roles that seemed to be tailor-made for her – and that apparently even she herself grew tired of playing these kind of characters over and over again.
Greer Garson’s performances worked always more when the sentimentality of the story was not used for sentimentality itself but in the movie’s greater context – Goodbye, Mr. Chips succeeded perfectly in presenting the sentimentality of the story as something worthwhile in itself, as necessary and as part of the overall account of this man’s life. Mrs. Miniver managed to find 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. Valley of Decision is not so successful as neither the love story nor the fight of the steel mill workers achieve any kind of impact and the whole story of Mary Rafferty, may it be her relationship to Paul, his family, her father or the people of the town, feels unnecessarily sweetened, even in darker moments and never goes beyond the standard ‘Greer-Garson-movie’ in which she can display poise and elegance, mixed with slight concern. In some ways, Valley of Decision’s Mary Rafferty is a role that offers Greer Garson her usual standard repertoire and also allows her to create the illusion of stretching herself artistically (she plays a maid with an accent!) but the movie puts too many obstacles in her way and while she usually is able to leave a lasting impression thanks to her wonderful on-screen personality, it all unfortunately does not go over so smoothly this time.
The main problem that Greer Garson faces in Valley of Decision is the fact that the character of Mary Rafferty, as tailor-made as she may seem, actually does not feel right for Greer Garson’s repertoire. There is a lot that she does with her material but more than once she feels defeated not only by the script and the direction but also her own inability to craft a real human being out of the writing. Most of all, she faces a problem she is unable to overcome in any way – her age. Many times in movie history, the age of an actor does not harm the performance in any way – Julie Harris certainly never looks like a 12 year old girl in The Member of the Wedding but it somehow never affects her performance. Do Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer look like two teenagers in love in Romeo and Juliet? Certainly not but the problem never becomes too apparent since the love story itself somehow goes beyond the pure matter of age. But in Valley of Decision it is hard to overlook the fact that Greer Garson just seems completely wrong for the part right from the start. Is she 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 seems to switch between these different spectrums, neither doing herself nor the movie any favor. Especially the scenes between Mary and the Rafferty’s daughter Constance show how vaguely the whole character of Mary is presented as Constance constantly changes the way she is talking to her, sometimes treating her as her best friend with whom she can share her secrets and sometimes as a rather motherly figure who looks after her with wisdom and experience. Greer Garson herself does her best to adjust her acting style to the situations needed – 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 of her own family and the family she is working for. Other scenes that demand of Greer Garson to create the shyness of Mary out of her character don’t work quite so well – Greer Garson’s own screen personality makes it impossible for her to embody either a young and inexperienced girl or an old, shy maid and so scenes of her being unable to get the attention of her employees when she wants to announce dinner or awkwardly looks for the entrance of the house on her first day are rather comical and misplaced instead of moving or a comment on social differences. Sadly, Greer Garson not only has problems to craft a layer of social awkwardness over her character but also cannot deny the usual intelligence and sophistication that shape her performances. Her confidence in front of the camera always also affects her performances and therefore distracts in scenes with Gladys Cooper since both women appear so self-assured and world wise, much more equal than the script allows, even if Greer Garson tries to achieve exactly the opposite. If the character of Mary had been better constructed and presented by the screenplay, Greer Garson could easily have been much more satisfying but the uncertainty regarding her whole personality made it hard for Greer Garson to fully grasp and construct her.
Obviously, her work with co-star Gregory Peck also suffered from all this – both actors unfortunately failed to create a believable affection between these two characters that are pulled apart by various obstacles. It’s less the age difference but rather the sheer fact both actors seem completely uncomfortable around each other, following the script with looks and gestures that are expected but never feel genuine. Valley of Decision shows a Greer Garson that is not able to fully communicate with her co-stars – except for Lionel Barrymore. Greer Garson feels much more sure of herself whenever she has to portray Mary’s inability to deal with her father’s hatred and disapproval and her understandably shocked reaction after his hateful words when she told him of her future plans is one of her most moving moments. In these scenes, Greer Garson manages to make Mary’s fears and doubts about the future truly captivating, mostly because her acting is much more relaxed in those scenes. But opposite Gladys Cooper, Marsha Hunt or Gregory Peck, Greer Garson does not succeed in the same way since she apparently cannot decide on how to portray Mary in these surroundings, either as a good-natured girl, a self-doubting woman or a helpless child. So, she impresses mostly in scenes that truly focus on her and that don’t depend on any interaction – her scenes with Gregory Peck in which she tells him that she cannot be with him comes quite suddenly, both in the context of the movie but also Greer Garson’s performance because her work, for a few scenes, is perfectly real and engaging, displaying all the sorrow and pain her character is experiencing. And later in the movie, Greer Garson gets to deliver the most captivating and poignant moments 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, displaying 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 him – again it’s done very quietly but completely determined and therefore extremely memorable, both for the audience and Paul’s wife. Like Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson truly saved her performance with her final scenes.
As just mentioned, Greer Garson may not be able to truly connect with her character but she still manages to be sincere in her execution. Taken in the context of the story, she struggles to make Mary Rafferty fully believable but Greer Garson is still able to come across as somehow real and honest. She believable shows Mary’s struggles between her responsibility for her father and her love for Paul without feeling lost or insincere. Somehow, Mary Rafferty is one of her most ‘unlike’ performances and she feels less like Greer Garson than in much of her other work but while such a statement would usually mean high praise since it can only mean that the actress in question moved herself out of her comfort zone, it is rather the opposite in this case since Greer Garson does not fully know how to move outside her comfort zone. Her strong Irish accent somehow helped her to become this insecure and unsure woman, as if the accent was the tool she needed to acquire such characteristics, and she remains consistent during her entire performance – as always, she stays on a certain level in her acting and even if this level had been higher in the past, it still helped her to carry the movie on her shoulders. At the end, Greer Garson was able to show a certain development in Mary and she displayed the strength and assurance that she tried to cover during her entire performance now with full conviction, making these scenes the highlight of her work. Overall, her performance is, no doubt about that, lovely to look at and in the simple context of Valley of Decision, she certainly created some touching and memorable images and moments. But it seems that her 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. On the surface, the role looks like typical Greer Garson and there is still much to admire and at the end of the day her screen presence is still the most noteworthy aspect of the whole movie, no matter if it fits the story or not. But at a closer look, there is little beyond the surface and the strength of a Greer-Garson-performance depends very strongly on the strength of the writing – Kay Miniver or Katherine Chipping were characters that not only benefited from Greer Garson’s talents but also offered her the chance to use the talents in the best way possible for her. But if the writing does not help her, then Greer Garson has little to add herself. Sometimes in Valley of Decision, the writing actually does help her but most of the time it does not.