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 needs 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 only succeed because she created the impression of a Chinese wife but 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.
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 is 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 thought at all 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 this moment, 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 is 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.