My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/13/2017

Best Actress Ranking - Update

Here is a new update. The newly added performance is highlighted in bold. 

My winning performances are higlighted in red.

1. Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939)
2. Jessica Lange in Frances (1982)
3. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
4. Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949)
5. Anne Bancroft in The Graduate (1967)
6. Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven (1927-1928)   
7. Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
8. Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
9. Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise (1991)
10. Edith Evans in The Whisperers (1967)

11. Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938)
12. Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
13. Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
14. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
15. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
16. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
17. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
18. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
19. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)
20. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

21. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
22. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
23. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
24. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
25. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
26. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
27. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
28. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
29. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
30. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)

31. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
32. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
33. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
34. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
35. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
36. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
37. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
38. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)
39. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
40. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)

41. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
42. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
43. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
44. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
45. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
46. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Jane Wyman as Orry Baxter in The Yearling


My ranking of Jane Wyman’s first Oscar-nominated performance probably suggests that I like her less than I actually do. Her position my seem pretty low at the moment but this does not mean that I do not appreciate her work overall. In fact, her performance is one of the most confusing that is included in this ranking so far – because I think that Jane Wyman is actually the best thing about her movie. Well, this can easily be explained by saying that The Yearling is then clearly not a very good movie. After all, I often praise performances for being the best aspect of their picture because it happens quite often that you can find a tour de force in a movie that doesn’t seem worth it – from Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice to Charlize Theron in Monster, many pictures don’t have much to offer besides the performance at its center. But in the case of The Yearling, this is actually not true – even though a movie about a little boy and its fawn sounds like cinematic poison to me, the finished product is actually a rather harmless and sometimes even engaging movie with beautiful images and a central child performance that is as confusing to me as the work of Jane Wyman. One the one hand, the dramatic scenes of the boy at the end are truly laughable but on the other hand he shows such dedication and earnestness in his work that I end up actually liking him and caring about him. So, it seems that Jane Wyman is the best part of a rather good movie and yet I still don’t seem to truly admire her work. Let me try to explain… 

The first thing that always catches my attention about Jane Wyman’s work is how it completely defies everything you would expect in a movie such as this. The first image you see of her is standing in front of her house, calling out for her son who is spending time in the woods, playing with some animals. It’s the kind of instruction that makes you think about the story of two loving parents and their little boy but we soon learn that this is only half the truth. Because Jane Wyman’s Orry is the complete opposite of the usual movie mothers of these days – she is neither kind nor loving nor understanding and instead keeps a stern, unloving face for almost the entire movie, always talking to her son in a bitter tone and showing no signs of maternal affection. This alone, in my opinion, is already the major reason why she is the best aspect of the movie simply because everything about her is so unexpected and there is something strangely engaging about her characterization that makes me want to find out more about her. 

But: at the same time I feel that the reason why Jane Wyman is for me the best part of her movie is what her character represents instead of her actual performance. This also leads me to my major criticism: while I think that her character is the most interesting part of her movie, I don’t think that her work really fits into the movie. Even when a certain performance exceeds the quality of its movie (like the most recent example of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve), the performance still serves the movie and exists inside it – the movie might be not worth it, but it still creates the surroundings for the performance to come to life. In the case of Jane Wyman, I think that this does not happen. 

Director Clarence Brown is mainly remembered today for two movies that put children and animals at their center – The Yearling and National Velvet. And both movies also feature a mother and a father who shape the character of the child with their own personalities. And both movies also feature a mother who is rather stern and not very emotional. In the case of National Velvet, the mother was played by Anne Revere who was an expert for playing understanding and supportive mothers and won an Oscar for her efforts. But while both mothers were not the overly emotional type, Anne Revere’s mother was still different from Jane Wyman’s creation because there was no doubt that Anne Revere’s Mrs. Brown was very loving and very fond of her daughter and simply expressed these emotions in a different way. In that way, she still served the purpose of the movie and added to its overall sentiment. 

Of course, it doesn’t make really sense to compare the performances of Anne Revere and Jane Wyman because even though there might be some similarities, they are still completely different people. Mrs. Brown is supposed to be loving and understanding while Orry Baxter is neither of these things – or rather, chose to be neither of these things. The Yearling explains early on that Orry used to be the kind of typical movie mother, loving and full of joy, but after the death of her three previous children, she couldn’t suffer anymore and chose to block all emotions and to not build any further close connections to anyone. In this aspect, Jane Wyman’s work is very intriguing and she does many things right. But there are two ways to look at this performance – how Jane Wyman acts her character and how Jane Wyman acts her character within the movie. 

The first aspect is the interesting one. Mostly because there is nothing about Jane Wyman’s work that asks either the audience or anyone else to like or to appreciate her. I fully appreciate the way she uses her voice and her body language to craft her part and how she is able, despite her limited screentime, to create a lasting impression. Mostly, she keeps her disapproving façade for most of the running time of the movie, ordering silence with a single look, berating her son for wanting a pet, showing her disappointment in her husband with a calm quietness or lashing out at him during a thunderstorm that ruins most of their crops with an angry “That’s right, find the good in it” when he tries to cheer them up. Only occasionally, she shows another side, mostly in regards to her hope that she will have her own well one day. And the script also offers her some scenes that show that she actually does care about her family but she keeps pushing these feelings away. 

Yes, all these contradictions make Orry Baxter a very intriguing creation – but I think that this creation was wrong for the movie. Of course, Jane Wyman did not herself choose to play Orry Baxter this way as the character is supposed to be this stern and strict but I just wish that Jane Wyman had found more variations in her work. As it is, I could easily see Orry Baxter as a wonderful character in a movie about a young widow who is not interested in any more romance and finds herself unexpectedly courted by Gregory Peck, a widower with a young son – this kind of movie, you know. But I don’t think that her characterization works within The Yearling. And this brings me back to the beginning – as a standalone performance, Jane Wyman does provide the best moments of the story and hers is the character I want to know more about the most. But taken within the movie, I feel that her work feels too out-of-place and often even harms the story. 

Most of all, I wish that Jane Wyman had found more layers in her character. She obviously offers the typical “see, she is actually not that bad” scenes and the end of the movie makes sure that we see another kind of Orry, one who can finally love her son, but Jane Wyman never finds these layers outside of specially written scenes. Most of the time, her anger and disapproval almost interrupt the movie. I don’t mean that Jane Wyman has to fit everything about her work to the sentiment of the story – but the problem is that everyone else does. I think therefore that the blame lies not entirely with her but also the other actors and the moviemakers around her. Nothing suggests that Orry fits in any way into her own family – Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman Jr. create a loving father-son relationship while Orry doesn’t create a relationship with anyone. This seems to be the point of the character but after 11 years of living with her son, I would expect some kind of growth and some kind of depth. As it is, Jane Wyman plays her role in a way that not only suggests that she doesn’t love her son but that she doesn’t really give a s**t about him, neither talking to him or anything else, opening a conversation already in a tone of voice that expresses the most dislike and disinterest. Therefore, I just don’t believe in the family shown on the screen. Most of all, Jane Wyman has zero chemistry with Gregory Peck and both seem to act in different movies – mostly because Jane Wyman possesses the same kind of disinterest she shows to her son in her relation to her husband as well. Scenes that show them alone together don’t feature any kind of believable marriage and I just can’t imagine a person like Ezra Baxter putting up with this kind of behavior for eleven years. Jane Wyman’s performance therefore works well within the guidelines of the script but she fails to establish a relationship to anything around her and I believe that many moments of her performance could have been played with more depth and understanding. The comic tone of a scene when Jody and Ezra return from the city with bruises on their faces totally escapes her work and she is rather confusing when she refuses to greet people in the city by insisting that they won’t remember her – it’s another scene that is played far too sullen and could have used a little self-doubt and hesitation instead. And the aforementioned scene when Orry shouts at her husband “That’s right, find the good in it” is another example where I find the character both interesting and irritating – and again it seems too out-of-pace for Jane Wyman to set Orry up against everyone and everything, making her and outsider in her own family. 

Of course, I don’t want to judge Jane Wyman negatively for playing a part as written but I think that all of her scenes would have allowed for a more varied character. Orry Baxter could have been a much more interesting and colorful person, possessing many shades and sides – as it is, she is still an intriguing presence but I don’t think that The Yearling is really the movie to highlight this enough. Anne Revere was certainly too old to play the mother in this case but I still think that her personality and ability to portray a whole life with single glances and to find a three-dimensional personality behind a stern mask would have resulted in the kind of performance that combined the strict nature of Orry with the sentiment of the story and the acting of her co-stars. Jane Wyman unfortunately only solved one aspect of this task. 

And a hint to the next performance that will be ranked:


1 comment:

Giuseppe Fadda said...

Mh I guess I liked her a little more than you. I don't think she is great but I think she's by far the best thing of the movie, which I found pretty terrible. I agree she has zero chemistry with the other cast members but I found her to be occasionally quite impressive in her portrayal of her character's grief.

Oh, and the next is Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind :)