My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1928: Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise"

Louis B. Mayer said ‘Let there be gold’ – and there was gold. But little golden, naked statues were actually not an initial part of this new organization called Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which was mostly created to arbitrate with unions and serve as an elite club that would assemble the most important names of the most important branches in the industry. But Louis B. Mayer apparently also saw the weakness of the human spirit and its craving for attention and recognition, sensing that an award that would honor the greatest artistic achievements of the year could also keep a tighter control over filmmakers and studio employees since they would all aim to fulfill the needed tasks and obligations to become a part of the studio system that raises its children by both praising and punishing them whenever necessary and ultimately receive this new but also highest tribute, too. It was an ambitious goal but also one with an open ending – even Janet Gaynor apparently did not know what to think of this new recognition and later openly admitted that meeting matinee idol and the original ‘King of Hollywood’ Douglas Fairbanks during the first awards ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was far more exciting than being announced as the Best Actress of the year for her performances in the three silent movies Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. After all, the initial event of a newly planned tradition is always a little bit confusing and nobody can be sure just how this tradition will evolve in the future – or if it even will evolve at all. And furthermore, the excitement of the awards ceremonies as it became known in the later years had also not been established yet – there were no closed envelopes, no speculations and no frontrunners since the Academy had already announced the winners three months before the actual ceremony, giving other contenders an honorary mention for their artistic achievements, and the media also reacted with only little interest in this event that took place one evening in 1929. Therefore it is not surprising that the glamour and the sheer power that was involved in the founding of the Academy created a much stronger impression for many attendees and even winners than the awards themselves – an organization that was founded by names like Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner was certainly not to be underestimated among member of the Hollywood community even if the awards that were given out still lacked the prestige, importance and worldwide recognition they would win later and mostly possessed a certain aura of exploring reactions and examining possibilities to guide the further development of these new accolades. But the reputation of the Academy and their awards would grow even faster than expected when the ceremony itself became an annual highlight in the entertainment world that brought together stars and fans and recognized respected actors and pioneers like Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Claudette Colbert, Wallace Berry, Frederic March, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable for their work on the screen, giving the expression ‘Academy Award winning actor’ an unexpected level of popularity as the award began to outgrow a mere acknowledgment of excellence and became the definite symbol of achievement that was not only recognized anymore by a small group of experts but audiences worldwide. And Janet Gaynor herself would later also emphasize the importance of the Academy Awards when she became the first actress to be nominated for playing an Oscar winner in 1937’s A Star is Born which maybe showed a crowd of fictitious movie stars but still awarded them a real honor without the need to explain its significance in the life of either Vicki Lester or Norman Maine. And so Janet Gaynor might not have realized the meaning of her victory at the Academy Awards in 1929 but it was a triumph that would forever immortalize her name in movie history because even if artistic achievements stand for themselves, the connection with an award that would later be called Oscar almost immediately creates a certain distinction that is able to raise the profile of an actor or an actress to an undeniable level that seems to stand above the need to justify itself even if the careers of many Oscar winners did not live up to the expectations that are associated with their Oscar wins – and the first two acting winners in 1929 illustrate how different careers could be after the arrival of talking pictures revolutionized movie acting in just a short period of time. The first Best Actor winner Emil Jannings had already left Hollywood for good before the actual award ceremony because his thick German accent prevented him from continuing his career in America and he therefore re-directed his focus on work in German-language movies such as Der blaue Engel with Marlene Dietrich and later appeared in various movies of propagandistic nature during the time of the Third Reich. Janet Gaynor on the other hand understood how to benefit from her critical and commercial accomplishments in 1928 and successfully made the transition to talking pictures, continuing to play leading roles in various romantic comedies during the first half of the decade, even if her status as one of the first ladies of the screen slowly diminished before she finally retired from the screen in 1938, acting only occasionally from then on but still having left a permanent impression in movie history – an impression that was created not only because of her status as the first recipient of the Best Actress award but also because her win is associated with her involvement in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise which stands as one of the undeniable classics from the silent era, an influential and groundbreaking masterpiece that is often referred to as one of the greatest movies of all time and received the kind of iconic reputation that creates a lasting effect for everyone involved. Furthermore, Sunrise also holds the distinction of having won the first and only Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Production, an honor often referred to as an alternative choice for the best movie of the year even if the World War I drama Wings is by now considered the only official Best Picture winner from the first year of the Academy’s existence.

Looking back the history of the Academy Awards, the choice of Wings as the Outstanding Production of the year 1928 is neither surprising nor unusual since it demonstrated that Oscar voters tended to circle around certain topics and themes right from the start – the first decade of the Academy was dominated by war, history, music, humor or sheer grandness and all these styles and subjects would continue to be of importance in the following years and Oscar seasons to come. Wings, which focused on the aerial combats during World War I and offered groundbreaking battle sequences in the air and on the ground, immediately appealed the Academy’s preference for stories focused on war and surrounded by grand productions. One year later, talking pictures had already completely conquered the Academy and its members eagerly embraced this new trend, awarding not just any talking pictures but the lavish The Broadway Melody, Hollywood’s first all-talking musical. After this, All Quiet on the Western Front was the next movie that focused on the terror of war and was ultimately named the Best Picture of the year while Cimarron and Cavalcade were two large epics that taught lessons in American and English history, combining their large spectrums of time and place with the personal story of various families that would stand as a reflection for the changes that were happening around them. Between these two movies, the Academy honored a movie that was considerable smaller in scale but Grand Hotel was still an attraction that impressed with the sheer grandness of its cast that included names like Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore or Joan Crawford and was therefore a movie that maybe told small and private stories that offered a look behind the closed doors of an unknown world but realized it with actors that served as almost epic vessels for their characters, giving it therefore a grandness that could easily be compared to the larger spectacles that were honored before and after it, replacing lavish sets or imposing plotlines with personalities and star power. Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld and Gone with the Wind were other winners that combined a grand attainment with different popular themes from history to music to war or maybe all at once, while The Life of Emile Zola was another lesson that told of past times but focused on a smaller scale than Cimarron and Cavalcade, also telling about the life of a specific person, showing that real-life characters and events were another theme that was very popular with Oscar voters right away, ranging from Emile Zola to Florence Ziegfeld or the events on the Bounty. And finally, while Oscar voters might often be hesitant to award comedic performances or movies, they like to laugh from time to time and so the early years of the Academy Awards also saw wins for You can’t take it with You as well as It happened one Night which also turned Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert into prominent Oscar winners. So even if the Academy constantly honors very different stories and styles, the overall themes of their choices often tend to be rather similar and they would remain like this in the future, emphasizing a tendency for specific preferences in the different Oscar categories. And so during its first year of existence, the Academy also selected a field of female performances that would stand for a wide area of womanhood and that also consisted of achievements that would become precursors for many nominated performances to follow. Louise Dresser in A Ship comes in stands for the faithful wife and suffering mother, the woman whose life circles around her family and who quietly hurts whenever she cannot influence a situation according to her own wisdom and judgment. But the Academy has always reacted just as favorable to the other side of that spectrum, to women who not only life by their own rules and independent from men but who also sell their body and refuse any prejudice even if deep down they are just longing for love and marriage and a conventional life like almost everybody else – in this first line-up, this role was fulfilled by Gloria Swanson who had to work hard and risked a lot to bring the story of Sadie Thompson, a ‘fallen woman’ who has to face a fanatical missionary on the island of Tutuila, to the screen. And then there was the woman who received the honor of being named the Best Actress of the year for three different movies which all gave her the opportunity to explore the middle ground between these extremes – in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, Janet Gaynor played a woman who was forced to become a prostitute but who never displayed the same devil-may-care-attitude as Gloria Swanson, focusing more strongly on the personal pain and misery that the circumstances of her life had brought upon her, and for whom prostitution was merely a catalyst to start a tragic romance which highlighted her need for companionship, love and an ordinary life full of quiet happiness. And even if her characters and Sadie Thompson were aiming for the same goals and possessed the same dreams, Janet Gaynor’s performances still displayed a stark contrast to that of Gloria Swanson which was based in the fundamental difference of these specific characters, showing again that the specific stories vary very strongly while the themes tend to display a certain similarity, but also in their screen personalities as fierce recklessness and dominance came just as easily to Gloria Swanson as innocence and reluctance to Janet Gaynor. So the theme of Janet Gaynor’s work might be close to Gloria Swanson but her actual performance sets them strictly apart – something that was also true for her third winning role in Sunrise which maybe resembles the theme of the suffering wife that Louise Dresser also displayed in A Ship comes in since she played a woman who discovers that her husband wants to kill her and learns to love him again but Sunrise added a more active angle to the part as Janet Gaynor’s character does not only quietly accept but later actually influences and changes, too, becoming the person who decides the fate of her marriage, turning into a symbol of loving forgiveness, honest decency and kind womanhood in a picture that celebrates love by praising the strength that is needed to keep it intact and a story that maybe tells ‘A Song of Two Humans’ but goes beyond these two characters to find a broader and more extended meaning for its particular idea of human relationships – and Janet Gaynor’s work, too, turns into a distinct characterization but also stands for a specific idea behind this characterization, unique and universal at the same time and it also exists in ideal harmony with the style and theme of Sunrise, emphasizing both the endless devotion and symbolism as well as the overall strength and individuality of a role that demanded a tangible but also dream-like presence which would substantiate the vague and yet definite notions of the overall story.

When the Academy gave out its new awards for the first time, silent movies were already a dying art form – The Jazz Singer gave audiences a look into the new possibilities of motion pictures and very soon movie character would not only speak but sing, too, the artillery of the battlefields would become frighteningly real and movie monsters would be able to scare audiences with gruesome noises and sounds. But in 1928, the most prestigious movie makers and actors were still involved in silent but still very expressional projects that told stories without words and explained characters without dialogue. For Janet Gaynor, 1928 would turn out to be the highpoint of her career in silent pictures before the new technologies would again end this phase of her work and demand an equally new style and approach – her movies Sunrise and Seventh Heaven were not only popular with audiences but also with critics and industry insiders who awarded both productions with various honors and Street Angel further established her screen partnership with co-star Charles Ferrell which would last for another ten pictures. And considering that in 1929, the Academy did not specifically honor the best performance by an actress but instead gave the award for the best actress of the year overall, the selection of Janet Gaynor does not appear surprising since her work in three popular and acclaimed movies gave her a strong edge over other female stars of the year and her focus on delicate and kind-hearted women who had to overcome drastic obstacles that stood in the way of her happiness in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel gave an immediate sense of familiarity that appealed to audiences and critics alike. Like many actors and actresses of the silent age she was easy to cast in roles that would benefit from her personality – in worlds that knew no sound and gave no chance to extensively explain motives, motivations and thoughts, characters often had to be recognized by their exteriors rather than their interiors and the personality and looks of the stars established their role on the screen, giving it life without the need of interpretation but also never contradicting the audience’s expectations or defying the predefined course of the character. And Janet Gaynor, too, used her delicate features and natural innocence to shape her celebrated roles according to her image on the screen, actively crafting women that were often defined by their need for support and guidance but possessed an inner strength and will of their own, often outgrowing their doubts and fears, determined to find the happiness they aimed for all their lives and even at the age of 21, she already possessed a powerful understanding of love and experience, of looking back on a lifetime of pain and sorrow, giving meaning to her grief and contentment and her face held a beautifully transcendent quality, turning into a window to her soul and expressing her simple emotions and dreams with complex clarity. Her long, sustained close-up after her husband asked her to go with him on a boat trip across the lake, is maybe the most overwhelming visual moment in a movie that lives from its poetic imagery, and her slow change from fear and doubt to hope and finally to newfound joy while breathing with growing excitement is a display of unforgettable emotional sincerity. The three Oscar-winning characters of Janet Gaynor were never defined by any complexity but their straight-forward simplicity gave her the opportunity to find an undeniable inner core that would allow her to benefit from the techniques of the pictures around her and create women who lived a believable honesty and sobriety which never turned into naivety or plainness, delectably fulfilling the tasks of the scripts and adding the needed emotional but also intellectual dimension to her movies. As a movie, Sunrise seems to exist on a different level than mere story-telling and it crafts a tangible atmosphere of love and betrayal with overwhelming technical perfection but as a story, it represents the experiences of two characters and even if this story might only serve the vision around it and therefore appears of secondary importance, it still carries this style and brings it to live – the tale of this man and this woman who learn to love each other again maybe never gives the needed depth to a topic of this breadth but nonetheless doesn’t stay on the surface of these characters, using a combination of complex imagery and simple feeling to give this story an intricacy beyond its visuals, based on the human foundation at its center.

In Sunrise, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien play characters that are shaped by their individual experiences but that also stand for a greater meaning beyond their personal fates, establishing them almost as unwritten pages on which the viewers can reflect their own observations and like inkblot tests constantly represent a specific pattern and an unknown dimension behind any merely visible layer and the movie also never tries to give them a specific personality beyond their position in the story and their relationship to each other, only telling of one day of their lives, leaving all possible further aspects unanswered and unmentioned, using them to tell the story of their marriage and their love and that way commenting on a whole array of human emotions and relationships. But beyond this observation of the different stages of togetherness and alienation, Sunrise also examines a time that was shaped by the arrival of a new era and a clash of a modern, unknown future with a conventional, familiar past and both characters unknowingly fight for the preservation of traditions and the protection of their definition of values against a harmful outsider and the threat of new ideas and perceptions. It’s a generalization that finds its basis in its two central characters and, just as mentioned before, the looks and charisma of Janet Gaynor help to immediately establish her position as the supportive and loyal wife, as a symbol of traditional womanhood, even further emphasized with her tight and bright hair, and even beyond that natural innocence and honesty that is visible in every moment of her performance – her work exists as a complete opposite from that of Margaret Livingstone as her husband’s mistress who embodies sex appeal and deviousness in every scene while Janet Gaynor brings a sincere love and trust that not only carries the theme of the story but also gives its all the needed credibility since the story of Sunrise completely depends on the ability of Janet Gaynor to give reason and understanding to her character and her actions. Because even if her character exists as a vessel to for the observation of a greater truth, it also stands as a specific example that embraces a broader context and therefore tells both a dreamlike parable but also a particular story of two people – and Janet Gaynor, too, gives a performance that serves these themes, letting her role float with the story and refusing to let it become too detailed beyond its focus on love and marriage but she also plays this general idea with a distinct characterization that rested on her ability to express forgiveness and support without any vanity and therefore tell this fairytale with riveting realism. In the world of Sunrise, Janet Gaynor’s role actually never asks to become a true character and both characters of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor possess almost nameless names that are used to emphasize their impersonality within the story – George O’Brien is The Man, a name that introduces the universality of his intentions and actions as well as his unlimited standing in an Adam-and-Eve-like scenario, while Janet Gaynor is The Wife who loyally stands by her husband’s side and the fact that she is not called The Woman immediately sets the structure of the central relationship and the role allocation of its male and the female presence, highlighting that this woman only exists in connection to her husband and not as a pure individual. It is certainly an old-fashioned look at marriage and gender relations in which Margaret Livingstone’s Woman from the City embodies a dangerous kind of womanhood, one that freed itself from the dominance of men but it also helps to set the triangle of the presented human relationships and the movie does not need the name of Janet Gaynor’s character to imply specifically that she symbolizes not only the traditional and commendable kind of woman but also one who is pure and loyal, whose love knows no conditions since the sanctity of marriage created a bond that sealed their friendship forever and puts her above The Woman from the City almost by nature. But even if the classification as The Wife mostly underlined her position as a concrete symbol in the predefined structure of the story and her marriage, giving her a limited scope that sees her purpose in fulfilling a specific function, Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to give an inner life to this woman and always support Sunrise’s wider theme without losing the core of her character – The Wife exists as an allegory, shaped and guided by the screenplay and always remaining a construction within the world of Sunrise but Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to preserve these intentions while also giving her role an unexpected individuality, inhabiting the nature of support and forgiveness to the extent that her actions never appear to be a part of the movie’s structure but rather made of her own free will without turning either into a role model or a cautionary tale. And by crafting The Wife as a character independent from the world around her, Janet Gaynor was able to achieve an absorbing display of strength and decisiveness that showed her character as the ultimately stronger part in this relationship even if she at first only exists as a reflection of her husband’s deeds – The Man might appear to take a more active position, turning into a master over life and death but Sunrise shows him to be constantly reacting to the acts of the female characters, may it be by manipulation, begging or forgiving and loving and ultimately Janet Gaynor’s Wife turns into the more decisive power in the story and her willingness to forgive her husband for his sins becomes the turning point of the movie, the marriage and the character and Sunrise could not have succeed without the plausibility and realism, this simple display of utter sincerity that Janet Gaynor brought to a part that often escapes rational logic. Her performance speaks a very precise language, explaining the story at every step and leaving no doubt about the forthrightness of her actions – her quiet and defeated body language as she sits down at the table at the beginning, realizing that her husband has gone off to see his mistress, is able to be both stylized and piteous, setting the situation and the plot while also establishing her role and personality within the context of Sunrise, just as her later scene with her child which she comforts while silently crying over the apparent dissolution of her marriage. Another character states that the man and his wife used to be like children, laughing and enjoying their happiness, and George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor both absorb this statement into their performances – The Man possesses an impatient temper, often reacting with anger and violence or tears and helplessness, begging for his wife’s forgiveness with the same earnest a child would ask an adult to make something bad go away while The Wife lets herself be overwhelmed with emotions very easily, spinning with expressions of joy after her husband asked her to go on a trip with him and both characters together are not afraid to become almost child-like in their interactions, even appear a little bit silly in their humor but Janet Gaynor’s performance never forgets to include a certain wisdom, a simple knowledge that might be based on a purely emotional level but still guides both characters. But beyond this, Janet Gaynor’s work is always the point of reference for the audience and Sunrise itself, emphasizing the sorrow and pain in the beginning, the growing tension and sudden change of tone in the middle as well as the humor and love in the end – while George O’Brien becomes an almost emotionless menace during the boat ride, Janet Gaynor’s slightly confused face as she waits alone for him to came back and her subsequent growing fear that suddenly turns into open panic helps to craft the overall atmosphere during this pivotal scene and even if Sunrise began its story with a marriage on the verge of destruction, Janet Gaynor’s display of her character never leaves any doubt about her loyalty and love, creating the basis for the plausibility of the scenes to come, keeping the plot constantly going and preventing Sunrise from collapsing under its own premise – the tale of a woman learning that her husband wants to kill her and forgiving and loving him again in a couple of a few hours could have easily missed the necessary credibility but Sunrise’s style and the work by Janet Gaynor lets this fantasy not only be strangely intriguing but also plausible. When The Wife forgets her fears and finds the strength to not only forgive her husband for what he wanted to do and what he did but also gives their marriage a new meaning and a new start, Sunrise reaches its decisive point, the one moment all other aspects circles around and to which everything points and everything comes from and all this is due to Janet Gaynor’s simple but understanding display of Sunrise’s message which states that love is always worth fighting for, kissing and comforting him, smiling again and for the first time expressing a truly deep feeling of love and companionship and again avoiding any missteps in such a contrived story by taking a definite lead in this moment without letting it become about her but always keeping the focus on the relationship between both characters. On a first look, The Wife might appear to be the weaker character, accepting all of her husband’s behaviors without questioning his love and their marriage but Sunrise and Janet Gaynor show a woman that actually decides to be forgiving and who reveals more strength and wisdom than her husband ever did and also is the one who saves this relationship, mending what he almost destroyed and therefore turning into the stronger part of this marriage. After this scene, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien again find the inner children within their characters, letting them enjoy a day in a world that they don’t understand and the scenes at a barber shop, a photographer and later a dance hall let Janet Gaynor be amusingly relaxed and unconcerned and her child-like behavior helps to reveal the love between these two characters for the first time in the story after their relationship had only been defined by sorrow and lies and both actors share the right chemistry to make these moments both believable and exaggerated, letting it be strangely reasonable that this love should be restored in just a few hours. But Janet Gaynor’s innocence always moves the story along, creating a beautiful moment of youthful wishing when she longingly watches other couples dancing, and finds its highpoint in the final Madonna-like image that brings the character to a full circle even if only a small part of her personality had been discovered during this day.

Overall, the love in Sunrise does never feel perfect – the husband not only almost kills his wife but also tries to murder his mistress and in between threatens a man who gets too close to his wife with a knife and neither the screenplay nor George O’Brien’s performance ever disperse the feeling that he would act the same way again if another woman would ask him to but Sunrise succeeds because Janet Gaynor succeeds and her ability to believe the purity of this love makes it easy for the audience to believe it, too. Of course, the limitations of the part itself that only exists to support the vision of the story are perceptible during many moments of Sunrise – as mentioned before, director Murnau did not attempt to flesh out full characters within this tale but created symbols that needed a certain emptiness to fully internalize the ideas behind them and while the simplicity works beautifully in Janet Gaynor’s creation of the character in the context of Sunrise, it also keeps her performance within a narrow, predefined area that does not allow her to craft a personality beyond the borders of her movie but like a character in a fairy tale, she still exists in her own world and even if she might not feel truly authentic, she still possesses a captivating realism that makes her actions and thoughts constantly believable. Overall, her performance is a strange case of a role that is constantly overshadowed by the movie around it but still carries this movie, too – Sunrise depends on her ability to bring its message to live but simultaneously it also exists without the specific details of her performance, using its technical aspects of storytelling to narrate about two people without really focusing on their personalities. But Janet Gaynor was able to balance the different tasks of the role without forgetting the human being beneath it, adding dignity and warmth to a character that could easily have been portrayed as a wholly passive creation without the strengths that Janet Gaynor found inside of her – more than anything, Sunrise and Janet Gaynor’s performance symbolize the power of silent movies that are able to tell a lot with a just a little and even if the movie might overshadow the performances within it, they are still its basis and fundament without which it would have collapsed immediately.


Best Actress 1928

The next year will be 1928 and the nominees were

Louise Dresser in A Ship Comes in

Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven

Janet Gaynor in Street Angel

Janet Gaynor in Sunrise

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

Ranking of the judged performances so far...

This is the ranking of the updated performances so far.

You can read the full reviews by clicking on the name. 

Best of the Best

1. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
2. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
3. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)


4. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)


5. Gene Tierney in Leave her to Heaven (1945)
6. Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)


7. Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Very Good

8. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945)
9. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
10. Deborah Kerr in Edward, my Son (1949)
11. Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942)


12. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who's coming to dinner (1967)
13. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
14. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)


15Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
16. Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949)
17Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942)
18. Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision (1945)
19. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
20. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)


Best Actress 1949 - The resolution

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

What’s on the screen is a strangely peculiar performance that offers occasional moments of grace and love but mostly lacks all of the qualities that would usually be expected from an Oscar-nominated piece of work. Still, Loretta Young’s distinctive screen presence and her ability to radiate warmth and kindness leave a maybe not lasting but often satisfying impression.

Jeanne Crain's performance might be able to carry the movie and give Pinky a distinct personality but her boundaries as an actress are too visible during many scenes even if her own approach to the part managed to overcome any negative consequences. But overall, she lacked too many nuances and too much depth to be truly outstanding.

3. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart

Susan Hayward played Eloise with her usual confidence but lacked the youthful fervor and also the opportunities to give more dimension to her role. It’s a mixed performance that is saved in parts by the bookend scenes and her later quiet displays of overwhelming grief and anguish.

2. Deborah Kerr in Edward, my Son

There are various problems in this characterisation and the script it is based on but Deborah Kerr still made the transformation of Evelyn completely believable and gave a moving, occasionally heartbreaking and intriguing performance that maybe could have achieved more but still came to life with haunting reality.

Towering above her competition, Olivia de Havilland not only avoided any failure in this part but actively exceeded her accomplishments by exploring the different aspects and motivations of Catherine Sloper and filling them with logic and reason, delivering an outstanding portrayal of desperation, hope, regret, hate and fear that stands among the finest this category has ever seen.

Best Actress 1949: Susan Hayward in "My Foolish Heart"

A very distinct hope was shared by millions of women, professional actresses, amateurs and dreamers in America and all around the world between the middle of 1936 and the beginning of 1939 – that of one day becoming the face and the body of the most idealized, coveted and influential fictitious female character in the history of modern storytelling. After the release of Margaret Mitchell’s classic bestseller Gone with the Wind, the name and fate of the headstrong, beautiful, selfish but also captivating Southern Belle called Scarlett O’Hara turned into an unparalleled phenomenon around the world – and when David O. Selznick acquired the movie rights to this saga of the Old South, an equally unprecedented search for the ideal actress who would combine the fire, the appeal, the charm and the beauty to satisfy the countless different ideas and perceptions that existed of the central character already, began. Over 1,400 candidates were interviewed, ranging from hopeful wanna-be stars to more established actresses but David O. Selznick seemed determined to cast a performer who was still unfamiliar to movie audiences, avoiding a Scarlett that was shaped by the personality of a star and the perception of the viewers – and so contenders like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck were out of the running before the race even began. It was a highly unusual casting process in which fame and star power were only of secondary importance and which allowed the room and the time to find the perfect actress for a role that was already strongly shaped in the minds of millions of movie goers by now – talent scouts were sent to the Southern States to look at possible contenders and various experienced but not necessarily undeniable actresses were given closely observed screen tests that very often not actually gave them a real chance for the part but rather helped David O. Selznick to develop a feeling for the qualities that were needed from an actress to play the character of Scarlett O’Hara and fulfill all the demands that this role and the overall production were asking for. It was a mostly unsatisfying search during which Selznick constantly tried to convince himself of certain candidates but remained skeptical – until the most unlikely contender, a largely unknown British actress, crossed the Atlantic and won the part of this most American character, turning her from phenomenon into Hollywood legend when Gone with the Wind became the most successful and most viewed movie of all time. But even if the casting of Vivien Leigh destroyed the dreams of many other actresses, the casting process itself helped to create new careers nonetheless – David O. Selznick might have considered Lana Turner’s screen tests ‘completely inadequate’ but they still helped her to pass to another level on her road to stardom. And another beneficiary was Edythe Marrenner who, like Vivien Leigh, came to Hollywood specifically to win the role of Scarlett O’Hara – it was a hope that was short-lived but Edythe would leave her position as a photographer model behind, change her name to Susan Hayward and work her way up the career ladder, becoming one of Hollywood’s most popular female stars during the following two decades. It was a discovery that did not lead to any overnight success – at the beginning of her career, Susan Hayward was primarily cast in secondary parts, uncredited or even cut out of the picture completely but in 1939, the same year Gone with the Wind enjoyed its triumphant release, director William Wellman finally helped her to achieve a higher level of visibility when he cast her opposite Gary Cooper and Ray Milland in the popular hit Beau Geste. After this, she began to establish herself as a beloved leading lady on the screen, occasionally working opposite the most popular male stars of her time like Gregory Peck or John Wayne – but even if Susan Hayward was a fitting opponent to these actors, she nonetheless built her reputation as an actress who was willing to show the despair, faults and misery of her characters mostly by being the clear central point of her ‘women pictures’ around which all other aspects and characters would revolve. Like other popular contemporary actresses such as Rosalind Russell or Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward typically utilized her distinct personality in stories that not only completely depended on these personalities but also focused all their attention on it, living and dying with the performance of its leading lady. In these central roles, she displayed the necessary confidence to work from the outside first and later added the demanded emotions but more than that she always aimed to emphasize the pain and the suffering of her tragic creations, going overboard with expressions and feelings, letting every gesture be broader than the one before – few other actresses of her area were able to use such a distinctive and exaggerated style to their own advantage in the same way, finding critical acclaim in movies that fitted their complete structure entirely to the talents of its leading star. And so it does not seem surprising that the Academy always reacted the most generous when Susan Hayward found such a vehicle and such a chance to overwhelm her environment with both her acting style and her dominant personality – she received her first nomination for playing drunk and hopeless in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, was even more drunk and even more helpless in I’ll cry tomorrow and later unpredictable and hopeless in I want to live! Her work in With a Song in my Heart might not fit into this pattern but the lack of alcohol in this performance was more than compensated by her various musical numbers that allowed her to use her usual domineering screen presence for different reasons but with the same effect. Most of all, the Academy seemed to prefer the unusual side of Susan Hayward, the woman who was almost destroyed by her own faults or had to overcome personal misery – and while men did play a certain part in these developments, they never met her character on an equal level. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, With a Song in my Heart and I’ll cry tomorrow all featured a certain level of romantic storylines but they were never given first priority and her co-stars were similarly never on the same level of star power and screen personality and I want to live! was a star-vehicle from start to finish in which Susan Hayward never had to share the spotlight for a single second, not even for a romantic storyline. It is therefore not surprising that Susan-Hayward-pictures never received much recognition outside of Susan Hayward’s central and emphasized performance – she never appeared in a movie that was nominated for Best Picture and Thelma Ritter was the only actress who was ever able to receive an Oscar nomination for appearing in one of Susan Hayward’s showcases. It seems that the Academy preferred Susan Hayward on her own, starring in unconventional surroundings and playing characters that defied common appearances in the Best Actress category. But what about the movie and the performance that brought her the second Oscar nomination of her career? My Foolish Heart gives the impression of following this pattern since it is also a movie that was undoubtedly designed as a showcase for its leading lady, having only been nominated for one additional Oscar for its original song and it is also a story that features a woman under the influence of alcohol, standing in front of the ruins of her own life. But My Foolish Heart also has another side – it was the one time when the Academy felt enamored by a Susan Hayward whose life was circling around love and relationships as her character is constantly defined by her longing for romance and her grief over its loss and furthermore her movie did not offer a complete and natural one-woman-show but instead gave Susan Hayward and her male co-star a similiar chance for success and depended equally on the effects of their performances, providing not only her but also her leading man with the needed room and opportunities to develop their characters and their intentions, a circumstance that was emphasized even stronger by the casting of Dana Andrews who was not the same kind of pale co-star that so often appeared opposite Susan Hayward during her career but rather a charismatic and popular screen presence himself. But what did all this mean for Susan Hayward's actual performance? Did she succeed in showing her personality in a more conventional surrounding, in a world that was not able to catch up with her willingness to portray the flaws and faults of her characters and instead asked her to underline the common character of her role, or did the overall story offer her too little chances to craft a woman who is defined by more aspects than her search for love and affection?

As a short story, Uncle Wiggily goes to Connecticut was a popular commentary on the lies and false dreams in America’s suburb that told of Eloise Wengler who spends the afternoon drinking and reminiscing about her past and the love she lost while mistreating those around her, including her husband and her little daughter. Rewritten into My Foolish Heart, the story of the movie mostly focused on the flashbacks between Eloise and her lover Walt, dropping all social observations for the sake of a conventional love story that features happiness, misery, death and a child received out of wedlock and was rated negatively by most critics at the time of its release and also J. D. Salinger, the author of Uncle Wiggiliy goes to Connecticut but turned into a financial hit nonetheless, most likely due to the casting of two popular stars in the central parts. And the critics were right that My Foolish Heart lacks imagination and complexity, concentrating its attention too strongly on the trivial sections of its script – and giving Susan Hayward a part that too seldom benefitted from her willingness to let herself be completely accustomed to unusual circumstances and to unleash a combination of anger and frustration with distinct intensity. My Foolish Heart did not see her as an accused murderess, an invalid singer, a drunk singer or just a drunk but mainly wanted her to be an average girl next door with a head full of romance and a lack of ambition for any other aspects of life. It’s a task she was able to fulfill with a surprising lack of vanity but her screen personality never advanced the thin layers of the script and she was often not able to hide her own maturity behind the masque of girlish naivety. So it is not surprising that she is most effective in those scenes that stick the closest to its source material and that give her the chance to craft a character that rises with her willingness to be completely unlikeable whenever a role demands it – the bookend moments of the story during which Eloise gets a visits from her former best friend Mary Jane and drunkenly laments her current life and mourns the loss of what could have been. Few actresses were able to realize lines like ‘I’m insured’ after having almost been hit with a car or ‘Who said to forgive is divine? Probably nobody I’d care to meet anyhow’ in the same straight-forward way that never drew any attention to them but still exposed many facets and attitudes of the character at the same time. In her first scenes, Susan Hayward is able to shine with all the characteristics that came to her rather easily – she is spiteful but never mean, drunk but never a caricature and obviously suffers from a yet untold past while avoiding any obvious attempts to gain sympathy for either her performance or her character. It’s an intriguing entrance of a personality that may never become as interesting as those early scenes suggest but Susan Hayward’s strength in those moments is still able to create just enough curiosity about Eloise and what happened to her that the comparatively pale flashback scenes benefit from them even more than from the actual love story itself. When Eloise spits out her dislike for her husband or rejects him on the phone, Susan Hayward portrays her without any broader context, focusing on her aversion without trying to give any explanation, simply showing a marriage that clearly came to its end and existed without love or affection for a long time already. But she also finds more tender moments during her talk with Mary Jane – suddenly, her former lover Walt becomes a genuine presence and Susan Hayward plays her regret and inner pain over his loss with a touching quietness but also with the routine of a woman who has been having these thoughts constantly for the last years but is still unable and unwilling to let them go. Susan Hayward shows that Eloise is drowning not only in sorrow but also in self-pity, blaming her husband for her own reluctance to find a new phase in her life and refusing to be the kind of mother she could be – she is as honest in those moments as the script allows her, certainly resting on various clichés but also succeeding in presenting a woman who has given up any illusions and dreams, almost proud of her own bitterness and resistance to those around her. In those moments, despite the almost apathetic nature of Eloise, Susan Hayward’s acting style finds a fresh spontaneity and feels much more alive than in many scenes to come – her way of reacting to the news that her husband wants to leave her or learns that Mary Jane knows about his plan to take their child with him is done without any exaggerated histrionics and constantly stays true to the character that Susan Hayward has been creating so far, finding her somewhere between hate and confusion, letting her get accustomed to the new circumstances of her life while clearly unable to organize her thoughts in such a short time. But from this moment on, My Foolish Heart leaves this captivating structure behind and lets Eloise look back on her life, insisting that she used to be a ‘nice girl’ and recalling her relationship with Walt and its tragic ending – a step that maybe added a new aspect of Eloise's personality to the story and could have created an intriguing background to this character but unfortunately stayed too focused on the surface of a thin and underdeveloped romance, denying Susan Hayward many chances to strengthen her portrayal even if she was able to add occasional moments of haunting intensity. 

During her career, Susan Hayward has often emphasized the commonness of extraordinary characters, making their flaws a natural part of their personality instead of trying to find deeper reasons. But during the flashbacks of My Foolish Heart, she is asked to only highlight the commonness of a purely common character – a task that was not unsolvable for her but the script of My Foolish Heart too often guides Eloise through a variety of inexpressive scenes that neither let Susan Hayward go beyond the limits of the character nor answers any principal questions on its development. The introduction of Eloise as a ‘nice girl’ at a party where she is humiliated by a classmate who ridiculed her dress does not really help Susan Hayward to present Eloise as the plain and ordinary woman from Ohio she is supposed to be – most of all, Susan Hayward's personality never fits this description and premise and her strength on the screen is also too dominant for a woman who is mainly a vague presence but while this strength weakens Susan Hayward's work in some aspects it also helped her achieve the important task of carrying and shaping My Foolish Heart without surrendering too strongly to the sentimentality of the story. In the same way, the introduction of Dana Andrews’s Walt also works for and against Susan Hayward – the two actors share a chemistry that might not truly resemble a grand attraction, a great love at first sight that would change these two characters forever, but still possesses a natural innocence and suaveness and right from the start Dana Andrews displays the needed appealing charm that explains why Eloise is so immediately smitten with this stranger. But the love that is presented on the screen still follows too many clichéd formulas and Susan Hayward constantly stays within the boundaries of these formulas – even though the character of Eloise would have allowed a display of many darker and unconventional nuances. Susan Hayward’s quick and positive response to Walt’s suggestion that they could dance outside already indicates that Eloise is a woman who is not afraid to actively pursue a relationship, defying the thoughts and perceptions that would accompany a woman like this. But mostly, Susan Hayward often faces challenges that might appear rather simple but still cause difficulties for an actress of her decisive screen presence – she lacks the needed humor and naturalness to be convincing as a young college girl who is reading poetry with her roommate and impatiently awaits the phone call from Walt, eagerly running to the phone when he finally does call and bursting with joy when he asks her for a date. Such a single-mindedness combined with youthful spirit does not come naturally to Susan Hayward and her efforts are too obvious in these moments – but she again improves when she is alone with Dana Andrews, leaving age and mannerism behind and completely focusing on the intimacy between these two characters. The scenes between Walt and Eloise in his apartment offer an effective combination of humor and sexual tension but the movie again works against Susan Hayward when the date suddenly makes an unlikely turn and Eloise ends up washing Walt’s dishes, again underlining the flaws of the script but also Susan Hayward’s inability to make the conventional aspects of her role entirely plausible. She struggles with the same kind of problems during an awkward crying scene when she has to face her disappointed mother who cannot believe that her daughter would be thrown out of school for meeting a man at night but as the movie goes on, Susan Hayward finally begins to feel more comfortable in her part as the drama of the script slowly replaces the purely romantic aspects – she feels entirely believable in her mindset to keep her pregnancy a secret from Walt because she wants him to marry her because he wants to and not because he has to. She also finds little moments of surprising clarity in a scene on the steps outside the house when Eloise pretends that her ankle hurts to distract from the pains of her pregnancy – the way she looks at Walt, earnest, fearful but also loving shows the basic feelings of this woman as she faces an uncertain future. And Susan Hayward is just as effective in a later scene when she meets Walt in a bar for the last time before he goes to war and Eloise has to fight the urge to tell him the truth while remaining doubtful just how true his intentions really are and if she really can count on his love and support in the future, letting her give a darker angle to this romance and enabling her to add more maturity but also intriguing intensity to her part. And her later dramatic moments only further evince the impressions that Susan Hayward had been displaying for the entire running time before – that of an almost unknown subtlety. Susan Hayward never appeared as an actress who wanted to make a secret out of her emotions, shouting her anger or pain from the top of her lungs more than once – but in My Foolish Heart, she remained surprisingly calm and introverted, from her feelings of love to Walt to her inner doubts and fear right to her grief when he is suddenly torn out of her life. She reads his final letters with a touching display of disbelief and sorrow while her quiet tears as she sits down at a party are much more effective than any loud depiction of grief could ever be. But even if Susan Hayward finds an absorbing containment in her performance, she still cannot overcome the fact that very often Eloise is rather pale instead of quiet – her character only exists for the sake of finding and mourning a man and is never guided by any darker aspects that the script might be offering and that Susan Hayward would most likely have been very eager to embrace. After their first date, Walt comes to the conclusion that Eloise is not the kind of girl for one night and insults her with the intention of making her leave and forget him – but Eloise comes back to him, just as she walked with him into his apartment in the first place, always willing to take the relationship further and not asking for a wedding ring in return. She also slips out of school at night and brings him back inside and in a later scene when Walt tells her that she could remain with him and return the next day, Eloise is also willing to stay, fully aware of what he is asking – Eloise’s active persuasion of this love affair and her decision to go to bed with him despite not being married is never condemned by the movie but simultaneously does not offer Susan Hayward the opportunity to explore these parts of the character further. It was a wasted opportunity to give more layers to an unfortunately rather flat character and Susan Hayward, too, did not explore these grounds of her role any further. But most of all she suffers from the lack of explanation that the script gives her in the final parts of the movie – My Foolish Heart never answers the question why Eloise is not a nice girl anymore or why she turned into the drunk that can be seen in the bookend-scenes. The loss of Walt clearly affects her personality but the gap between the Eloise of the past and the Eloise of the present is still too wide and misses a clear connection. Most of all, the movie again missed the chance to give Eloise more depth when it rushed through her decision to renew her relationship with her old boyfriend with whom she broke up after she met Walt and who would become her estranged husband – does she still love him in some way? Is she only looking for any form of human contact? Or only for a father for her unborn child? Susan Hayward plays the scene with him in the car with a constant change of rhythm that is unfortunately unable to solve this mystery or create the aura that could support an enigma like this and while she might again be beautifully restrained when she tells Mary Jane that she has no idea what she should do next since she cannot tell her father of her pregnancy and she has also no other person to turn to, it is unfortunately another wasted opportunity that leaves too many questions unanswered, making it often difficult for her to find the right tone for her performance and the different moments within it.

Overall, the conventional tone of My Foolish Heart which also presented a mostly conventional character that never took advantage of its unconventional core, made it hard for Susan Hayward to use her usual strengths on the screen and she remained surprisingly colorless for most parts of the story, both unwilling and unable to go beyond the limits of an uninspired love story, always crafting Eloise in parts but not as a whole. Her chemistry with Dana Andrews is effective and satisfying but her best moments on the screen are those that see her without him, dealing with the loss of his character and the consequences of her own actions. Most of all, the single-mindedness of the part was both under- and overwhelming for Susan Hayward – she played Eloise with her usual confidence but missed the youthful fervor and light personality for the role and she also suffered from the lack of opportunities the script was willing to grant her. It’s an overall mixed performance, harmed by different factors and circumstances but also saved in parts by Susan Hayward's moments of drunk repulsion and her displays of overwhelming grief and quiet anguish.


Best Actress 1949: Jeanne Crain in "Pinky"

Two years after director Elia Kazan won an Oscar for himself and producer Daryl Zanuck for disclosing anti-Semitism and prejudices in America’s post-war society in 1947’s Best Picture winner Gentlemen’s Agreement, both men again joined forces to tell another story of hate, discrimination and twisted morals in the deep American South – only this time the focus of the proceedings was not put on religion but rather on race and the male-centered structure was replaced by a female point-of-view. Apparently both Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were eager to play this female perspective and central character in Pinky – a light-skinned black woman who left her home to become a nurse while pretending to be white and experiences open racism and rejection when she visits her grandmother in her old hometown. It certainly cannot be surprising that these two actresses and most likely many more desired to win this part – it’s a role that covers a vast variety of emotions as Pinky is emotionally and intellectually torn between her personal heritage and the life she leads and therefore gives an actress many opportunities to construct both a highly difficult character and a commentary on social interactions in present times. But even more than that, it must have been an especially appealing part because how many times did it happen that a big studio would dare to tackle a social issue in the middle of American society and hire a prestigious director to bring this story to life and on top of that actually focus on a central character that belongs to the social group whose difficulties it wants to portray and who experiences prejudice and its consequences? Gentleman’s Agreement needed a Christian writer to pretend to be Jewish to make its message more accessible to the audiences of its time and so the idea to place a black woman into the middle of Pinky and let her carry this kind of ‘social problems’ picture was certainly an ambitious project – or rather would have been. It stands as one of the great ironies of Hollywood’s history that the ‘bravery’ that Daryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan were most likely very proud to express in their picture was overshadowed by their willingness to conform to the racism behind the camera: Pinky told the story of a black woman pretending to be white and also touched her relationship to a white doctor whom she met up North while training to become a nurse – but the idea of a black actress exchanging romantic feelings with a white actor was apparently too much for audiences and censors in 1949. So what could be done? Eliminate the love story and focus exclusively on the racism that Pinky has to endure while she is visiting her grandmother and the feelings of both fear and guilt that are constantly haunting her? Or drop the idea to present the story of a light-skinned black woman and simply tell of the every-day racism that millions of black people have to face all their life? Both ways could have been possible but since Pinky had to appeal to white audiences primarily and was also supposed to make money and entertain, neither Daryl Zanuck nor Elia Kazan opted to follow this way – but they could also not come up with a solution similar to Gentleman’s Agreement because that would have resulted in a movie about a white woman pretending to be black pretending to be white. A concept like this could certainly not work as part of the movie – but for the creators behind the camera, it was an idea that worked in the process of the movie making itself. And so it was decided to exclude deluding from the story itself and make it a part of the movie simultaneously by casting a white actress in the part of Pinky instead – a part that is defined by the constant feeling of betraying one’s own heritage and accompanying dialogue like ‘I’m a negro’ or ‘Yes, it’s true, I’m colored’. Considering that Pinky is supposed to be able to pass of as white and therefore needs to create a believable aura of crossing the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the casting of the role must have seemed like an easy and maybe even helpful solution but it was a concept that already received criticism in 1949 even though it was successful nonetheless – Pinky was the hoped-for financial hit and also received three Academy Awards nominations for its female cast (interestingly enough in the same categories as co-nominee Come to the Stable), further establishing Eliza Kazan’s reputation as an ‘actor’s director’ and putting another controversial topic before American audiences. But it did not become the same phenomenon that Gentleman’s Agreement turned out to be two years earlier, failing to turn its message into a similiar kind of dominating accusation or present itself as an important contribution to a difficult subject. But Pinky was nonetheless a phenomenon in the career of leading star Jeanne Crain – that an actress who was primarily known as one of Hollywood’s most popular party girls was able to finally establish herself as a serious dramatic actress in a most unlikely role had all the ingredients of a ‘a star is born’ moment but her Oscar nomination would turn out be the only artistic recognition for her acting abilities and her role in Pinky did not gain her the kind of newfound respect and admiration that usually accompanies this honor. Pinky was undoubtedly the artistic highlight of her career but this highlight came and went without influencing the course of this career, touching it only on the edges and not within. Maybe the fact that Olivia de Havilland was such an undeniable force in this year’s Best Actress race made her nomination less noteworthy than it might have been otherwise or maybe Jeanne Crain’s reputation was still too strongly dominated by her image as a competent but not necessarily accomplished actress who was more than once cast primarily for her looks (her Technicolor beauty in Leave her to Heaven does indeed rival that of co-star Gene Tierney) – or maybe the fact that the unlikelihood of the role stood out too differently from other dramatic parts and possibilities of its times only emphasized the unlikelihood of Jeanne Crain’s casting, too, preventing her from truly taking advantage of the Academy’s blessings for other prestigious but more traditional roles. And finally, it’s just as likely that Academy members were convinced by the gimmicks behind the casting decision, considering her willingness to accept the part an achievement in itself that was able to overshadow any reluctance that they might have shown towards her so far but Hollywood itself was not convinced as easily, not sensing that her nomination for Pinky did truly suggest an unexplored talent for further dramatic and prestigious parts. But still – all the premises of Jeanne Crain’s work as Pinky, the unlikeliness of her casting based on her ill-suited background and her uncharted limits as an actress, and yet her apparent success in the role, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, surely turn both her performance and her nomination into one of the most intriguing cases in the history of this category as it defies conventions both behind and in front of the camera. The only predecessor to these specific circumstances would be the casting of German actress Luise Rainer as a Chinese wife in The Good Earth, even though Luise Rainer did not have to overcome any doubts about her credibility as an actress in general since she had already won an Oscar for her work in The Great Ziegfeld and was considered an important European import to rival other established stars like Greta Garbo or Norma Shearer. But in the casting of both actresses, talent only played a secondary role since the primary idea in this process was the necessity to cast a white actress in the central part to avoid any controversy or censorship problems. But even despite the dubious reasons that led to Luise Rainer’s portrayal of O-lan, her performance not only overcame any obstacles but captured the essence of a tortured soul and became one of the most remarkable displays of quiet grief ever presented on the screen, proving that outstanding artistry can create illusions that surmount any questions of authenticity. Was Jeanne Crain able to follow these footsteps and also accept the understanding of the part with serious dedication, letting herself disappear in this role despite the obvious impediments? Was she able to be convincing in a role that needed every bit of credibility to tell its message and prevent the movie from collapsing under its own construction? And even if the illusion was successful – what about the realization of the actual character? Luise Rainer’s performance did not succeed because of pretending and simulating or creating an exterior that would overcome any doubts and objections but rather because she understood her character’s inner intentions and feelings and played a role that conquered any restrictions of a certain place and time, addressing more common and universal questions in this process. And so the attainment of Pinky’s emotions, thoughts, worries and hopes is undoubtedly the most important aspect that Jeanne Crain needed to convey, regardless of her skin color, and needs the most careful consideration when judging this particular performance.

It’s not clear if Daryl Zanuck and Elia Kazan wanted to tell an important story with Pinky or if they were merely hoping to copy the awards success of Gentleman’s Agreement but there are certain similarities that cannot be denied – while the Best Picture winner told of a man pretending to be Jewish to experience the prejudice of the people around him, Pinky tells of a colored woman whose skin is so light that most people assume that she is actually white. And so both movies feature central characters that hide their true natures, one to experience prejudice, the other one to escape from it. But unfortunately, neither Gentlemen’s Agreement nor Pinky are truly daring in their executions and Pinky often creates the impression that many opportunities of a story about a woman changing her own identity, possible statements about the nature of racism and its victims, had been wasted or ignored – mainly because the story of hiding and revealing, of the subtle but still dangerous nature of prejudices in modern society did not focus on the experiences of Pinky while she was away from home and pretended to be white, feeling both relieve and shame, but instead tells of Pinky’s return home to the South where everyone knows that she is actually black, crafting characters and scenes that are too cliché and one-dimensional, creating a place that exists of constant racism and rejection and often makes the movie’s accusations too simple and blatant. Pinky would certainly have needed a stronger variation in its subject matter and also more subtlety in its execution – in the end it’s clear that Pinky was written as a light-skinned black woman to make her more accessible to white audiences, making them see Pinky as one of their own and therefore experience racism more directly. The whole concept of Pinky could have easily served as a mirror, revealing the ridiculous and senseless ideas behind racism but Pinky unfortunately never goes this far and too fearfully stays on the surface of its own topic and never adds any insightful arguments or points-of-view to an already alive discussion even if critics at the time apparently saw Pinky as some kind of ‘eye-opener’ that reminded viewers that racism actually still existed...Overall, Pinky does condemn racism by putting a character in the middle who is unable to become a part of either environment and group but it never asks the question why this separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ even has to exist in the first place and leaves viewers wondering if the ‘rules of racism’ don’t apply once a character comes along who may be black but doesn’t look like it – but what does all this mean for her grandmother and all those black people that don’t have the same skin color as Jeanne Crain? Pinky unfortunately never concerns itself with this question and so it remains difficult to understand what exactly the story wants to say – after all, deep down it offers interesting ideas about the absurdities of racism and prejudices in general. Why do people who think that Pinky is white suddenly start acting differently when they learn she is black? It’s the same kind of irrationality that causes people to act different around men or women once they learned that they are gay – the person is still the same but the appearance changed for those who want it to change, for those who see difference as danger and like to put themselves in superior positions by degrading those around them. All this does provide a good opportunity to show the complete illogic of prejudice but the movie itself unfortunately never makes use of those opportunities and even contradicts its own intentions – more than anything, Pinky seems to say that racism does exist but that it doesn’t make sense in the case of Pinky since she looks just like every white person walking around on the street and therefore never addresses racism in general. Of course, the quality of Jeanne Crain’s performance is not connected to the quality of her movie but this already indicates that the opportunities of the part are not as extensive as it might have appeared – looking at the Best Actress nominees of 1949, the role of Pinky might on paper sound like the most challenging and demanding part of this line-up since there is such a vast variety of pretending, accepting, denying and suffering but reality shows that the part and the performance of Jeanne Crain are very often shaped by the limitations and false intentions around them.

Looking at the performance of Jeanne Crain, the maybe most surprising fact is that she is able to establish Pinky as the character she is supposed to be. She is obviously never a ‘light-skinned’ black woman but the concept of the story still succeeds within its own limits – Jeanne Crain manages to become the granddaughter of Ethel Waters and she also presents herself as the ‘colored’ woman she is supposed to be. But this is actually less the doing of Jeanne Crain but rather the movie itself – after all, movies can change history, put aliens on earth or show ancient monsters destroying New York City. If a movie presents its themes with straight-forward pressure, audiences can accept all of them and the script and especially the direction of Pinky follow this concept with such earnest and dedication and Jeanne Crain and every other cast-member join them with the same severity, never leaving any doubt about the seriousness of the plot and their parts in it. Various scenes of Pinky being thought of as white until the truth is discovered and the people around her change their behavior immediately make it easy for the viewer to accept the premise of Pinky and Jeanne Crain’s appearance does help to underline that Pinky is right when she accuses Miss Em, an elderly woman she takes care of, that the whites make the rules of racism – Pinky might be, as another character puts it, ‘whiter than I am’ but the fact that there are colored people among her ancestors makes her ‘black’ for those who feel that she is consequently inferior, only further underlining the ridiculousness of their thinking. And so, the difficulty that Jeanne Crain faced in her role was not creating the illusion of being a colored woman since the screenplay and the direction did the work for her in this aspect but rather to bring the believable emotions and feelings to a woman who is constantly torn between the life she is leading and one she could live if she denied her own heritage and ancestors. So it basically came down to the performance itself, regardless of any surroundings and circumstances, and the realization of Pinky’s inner character – a task that turned out to be both solvable and insoluble for Jeanne Crain as she crafted her role with a certain ambition and clearly developed ideas but lacked the overall energy and aptitude to add different layers to a character that constantly asks for deep complexity and even a tone of slight mystery. Jeanne Crain was able to create this mystery at the beginning of Pinky with an absorbing entrance and her voice when she talks to her grandmother the first time has the right combination of happiness and reluctance as if Pinky herself is unable to grasp that she is back in the place that she was so happy to escape from long ago. Also right from the start Jeanne Crain displayed a distinct tone in her role that she would keep for her entire performance – one of distance. She enters the poverty-stricken area of her childhood with the right amount of ambiguity and aloofness, showing how far Pinky has removed herself from her old life during the years she had spent passing as a woman she isn’t – or at least doesn’t feel to be. It is an emotion that works in the context of the story – after all, Pinky is not a part of this environment anymore, she later tells her grandmother that she had forgotten how it was like and she clearly has no emotional connection to her childhood memories apart from the feelings of love towards her grandmother. But while this tone does help to create the right atmosphere around this character, Jeanne Crain’s performance missed many other characteristics on the way, failing to display a true development in the character, often just reciting the lines she is given and taking Pinky where the screenplay is guiding her without filling her with ideas of her own. It’s an approach that misses a deeper psychological understanding of all the different influences in Pinky’s life and how it affects her – overall, Jeanne Crain does succeed in creating a Pinky that manages to convey the movie’s theme and conviction but her performance very often stayed on the surface of its own possibilities. Pinky could have been a complex creation but Jeanne Crain mostly only followed the moments that the script is offering her, going scene by scene instead of creating a whole and focused too strongly on the single-mindedness of her intentions, finding only one major emotion or feeling and forgetting countless others in the process. Her Pinky has distanced herself from her past but her experiences while she is visiting her grandmother are clearly affecting her but Jeanne Crain never explores these conditions any further, showing no signs that Pinky’s personality was still shaped by her home, much more than it has by her years up North – her acting style creates this distance in Pinky maybe even more than her acting instincts since Jeanne Crain often feels rather helpless with the demanded tasks and tends to think that an angry facial expression is a dramatic answer to all problems in her characterization. Of course, Pinky certainly has every right to be angry about her life and about being pushed around between different groups that are separated even when they have no reason to be but very often a stronger closeness would have been necessary for the part. Who is Pinky, what are her feelings, what were here experiences, how does she want to be, what does she want to achieve, how does she feel about herself? Jeanne Crain never answers any of these questions, keeping the viewer very often as much apart from herself as the other movie characters and her acting displays the same distance between Pinky and her grandmother as it does between Pinky and Miss Em – Jeanne Crain’s tendency to oversimplify her role by crafting her with spiteful rejection causes Pinky to miss any possible shades in the different relationships in her life, treating every character around her with the same distance and detachment. And more than that, Jeanne Crain also misses all opportunities to give Pinky a deeper understanding of her own life – she never suggests that Pinky goes to a man to get the money of her grandmother back because she has been there before and knows how to deal with situations like these, she tells her fiancée of her true family without any shades of nervousness, relief, testing or confessing and instead always keep up an almost hurtful behavior which, to Jeanne Crain’s defense, does work in the contexts of the scenes. Jeanne Crain’s Pinky knows about the prejudice of the people around her and very often she acts out of anger before she lets others give a chance, apparently wanting to be hurtful before being hurt herself – it’s an approach to the role that is able to captivate and give Pinky the necessary personality for the story to succeed but it also denies Pinky of many possibilities and feels like such an unnecessary reduction of her character that the resulting performance manages to be both satisfying and disappointing at the same time.

As already mentioned, the limits of Jeanne Crain’s acting talents seem to be more responsible for her performance than her acting intentions but she still found the opportunity for various striking moments within these boundaries. Again, her face during a close-up that serves as an opportunity for a voice-over to hear the thoughts of Pinky expresses almost no true emotion but it works as a display of a woman who has spent years telling herself that she is no real part of all this around her, a woman who is used to just pass along without getting truly involved. The best moments in Jeanne Crain’s acting therefore come when her own tendency for theatrical restraint serve the purpose of the scene without feeling like a reduction – when she tells her grandmother about what happened during her train ride up North, how she was mistaken for white and took the chance to become somebody else, Jeanne Crain suddenly finds a very provoking and yet understandable balance, pleading for forgiveness while never truly regretting her steps. And considering that Jeanne Crain chose to show the anger in Pinky at all moments of the movie, it is not surprising that she shines in those scenes that actually actively ask for these outbursts – her sudden rant opposite Miss Em in which she accuses the people in the town to hate her because she escapes their standards feels like a long-awaited moment of truth while her best moment comes opposite Ethel Waters when Pinky, after having been attacked by two men, decides to leave again and tells her grandmother that she quite honestly does not care if Miss Em lives or dies, letting all the hate from her childhood erupt in a single moment, showing a combination of spite and fear that dictates her own actions until the words of a grandmother cause her to re-think her actions, showing that Pinky is still shaped by the woman who raised her as a child. Scenes like this also make it clear that Jeanne Crain’s own performance always improved when she is acting opposite either Ethel Waters or Ethel Barrymore, two supporting players who bring intelligence, dignity and professionalism to their roles and the movie and help to constantly raise the production to a higher level. Jeanne Crain often feels much more relaxed and honest opposite those two actresses but again only after she dropped her masque of ongoing spite and resentment – her scenes with Ethel Barrymore at the beginning, during which Jeanne Crain lets Pinky take care of her with open dislike again feel too one-dimensional and unsatisfying and Jeanne Crain tends to repeat the same note on the piano too many times while her acting style feels too melodramatic, often using blank stares during her line delivery as if she found no other way to express Pinky’s thoughts and emotions in these moments. But Jeanne Crain displays a much warmer tone that suits both her own personality and that of Pinky better when she begins to develop a feeling of respect and friendship towards Miss Em, finding exactly the right way to express her admiration for this woman who likes to be stubborn and strict but underneath hides the expected heart of gold. Unfortunately, Jeanne Crain doesn’t work as well opposite her other co-stars – she has no chemistry with William Lundigan who plays her fiancée and she often feels too out-of-place among the people around whom Pinky had grown up, again letting the opportunities to make Pinky’s experiences in the past visible for the audience slip by without even beginning to explore them. She is able to make her characterization appear logical in the context of the scene but Jeanne Crain lacks both the connection to her role and between the character and the scenes in these moments, often appearing almost lost in moments like getting into a fight with a local woman and then being arrested by the police or later accusing a judge to have doubts about her honesty because she is colored. It’s a tendency that also haunts various other scenes of her work and again displays Jeanne Crain’s inability to grasp a wider picture in her own performance, sacrificing too many expressions for the sake of one, and often feeling too passive in letting Pinky take her fate into her own hands – Jeanne Crain’s Pinky too often feels like a character that is only pushed around without ever acting out of her own wants and needs but a woman who spend years pretending to be somebody else is certainly a stronger judge of her own abilities. Especially during the latter half of the story, Jeanne Crain’s acting often feels too passive – Pinky makes various life-changing decisions without letting them influence her personality at all, she reacts to the news of Miss Em’s will without any noticeable or visible thought and she follows the court proceeding with the same spiteful, sometimes almost bored expression that she displayed for the entire running time of the movie before (of course, the script does not do her any favors during these moments, letting Pinky take no part at all in her fight for justice). This single-mindedness in her acting makes many ideas of Pinky less understandable than they should have been, especially her final moments when she comes to the conclusion to stay at home and not return to her life of pretending, expressing Pinky’s reasons without the necessary determination or conviction. But strangely enough, even despite so many missteps in her performance, Jeanne Crain is still able to make the transition of Pinky believable because her own focus and approach on her actions might be limited but it is still consistent and so she succeeded in crafting Pinky as a plausible character even if many chances about the part had been wasted or ignored. Overall, Jeanne Crain gives a performance that is visibly narrow but still manages to serve its purpose nonetheless.

So, Jeanne Crain faced a strangely-written part that would not have allowed her to overcome all its contradictions but she herself, too, added to a portrayal that feels too passive and unaccessible to realize a fully fleshed-out characterization that would have been a better vessel for the message that Pinky so desperately wanted to bring across. Maybe the part itself was written too thinly but it could have actually been turned into a complex character in the hands of the right actress who understood the different aspects of Pinky’s personality and behavior and the reasons for them. Jeanne Crain clearly did not understand Pinky as a whole but she still managed to bring her to life in parts – her performance carries the picture and she is able to make this personal journey captivating enough to prevent the movie from losing its target completely. And even though Pinky never turned into the same kind of universal accusation that Gentleman’s Agreement wanted to be, it still tells its story with true conviction because Jeanne Crain understood that Pinky cannot be a universal theme and showed that she is a woman who is not standing as a larger symbol but only experiences her own circumstances. Her Pinky defies all expectations from both white and colored people around her and therefore does not fit it any group, making her fate rather tragic – it seems that no ‘side’ wants to trust her and sees her as a member of the other group. And so in the end, it’s more a personal than a general story about identities and a personal experience to show a general environment. Jeanne Crain is able to mix her usual spite with a touching self-realization when she encounters a vicious salesclerk but also shows it as a moment when Pinky begins to truly feel above the rejection of narrow-minded people. But again, those are effective moments that are mostly driven by the screenplay and give Jeanne Crain a clear guidance which she unfortunately never explores any further. Pinky could have been a woman who switches her identities according to the circumstances, who feels both pride and shame, who is actively deciding about her future but in the work of Jeanne Crain, she became a drifter who is shaped by things that just happen to her. Pinky cannot leave the house without either being arrested, assaulted or insulted and it’s easy to understand that she chose to build a strong shell for herself but Jeanne Crain does not display that Pinky is every truly affected by what happens to her as her overall anger and rejection never finds any variation or different levels. And so, an Oscar nomination for Jeanne Crain might seem like a slight exaggeration considering all the missteps in her work but still feels somewhat deserved for the way she moved herself within these missteps – as mentioned before, the part of Pinky did neither benefit nor harm the paths of Jeanne Crain in Hollywood as she was not able to turn it into a new-found foundation of an unexpected change of direction but it also did not cause a disruption in her overall career as audiences, too, reacted mostly positive to her casting in Pinky and accepted the premise of her character’s background. Hollywood had often not known what to do with new talent but in the case of Jeanne Crain, it seemed rather lost about what to do with an ostensibly familiar actress who suddenly surprised them with such an unlikely change of direction. But looking at Jeanne Crain’s performance, it is also rather easy to understand why the role did not lead to a new dramatic career – her performance might be able to carry the movie and give Pinky a distinct personality but her boundaries as an actress are too visible during many scenes even if her own approach to the part managed to overcome any negative consequences. So, to come back to the initially asked questions: Jeanne Crain manages to be convincing in the role and serves it well by letting herself be turned into the vessel for the visions of her director and screenwriter but once the controversy over her casting has been put aside, it becomes clear that underneath all the gimmicks hides a rather ordinary performance that can easily be judged by the realization of the character’s inner core. And this realization, even though often satisfying and captivating, lacks too many nuances and too much depth to be truly outstanding.