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.