My current Top 5

My current Top 5

2/20/2018

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. Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
16. Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)
17. Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965)
18. Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958)
19. Glenda Jackson in Women in Love (1970)
20. Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

21. Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
22. Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941)
23. Julie Christie in Away from Her (2007)
24. Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun (1951)
25. Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark (1967)
26. Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
27. Anne Baxter in All about Eve (1950)
28. Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown (1997)
29. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)
30. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

31. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
32. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
33. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
34. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
35. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
36. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
37. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
38. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
39. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)
40. Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart (1949)

41. Vanessa Redgrave in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
42. Diane Keaton in Marvin's Room (1996)
43. Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949)  
44. Mary Pickford in Coquette (1928-29)
45. Sissy Spacek in The River (1984)
46. Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point (1977)
47. Irene Dunne in Cimarron (1930-1931)
48. Ruth Chatterton in Madame X (1928-29)
48. Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade (1932-1933)

Ruth Chatterton as Jacqueline Floriot in Madame X


The second Best Actress race in Oscar history is so infamous for its infamous winner that the other nominees basically seem to have disappeared. Okay, I’ll admit that movies from 1929 are in general not too much talked about anymore…what I mean is that the focus on Mary Pickford’s “bad” performance is so strong that rarely anyone questions the qualities of her co-nominees. As you can see from my ranking, I don’t consider Mary Pickford the worst nominee ever – and I don’t even consider her the worst nominee that year.

Ruth Chatterton is certainly an interesting case. Everything about her acting style in movies screamed “RESPECT THE THESPIAN!”. Hers was the kind of acting that, especially in the early years of the talkies, must have seemed like a revelation to many – she used her voice truly like an instrument, playing high and low notes often in the same sentence or slowly losing an accent over the course of a story. Yes, even without knowing too much about her, you just feel that you are supposed to admire her dedication and I think that if it had not been for the star power of Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer, Ruth Chatterton probably would have won an Oscar for one of her two nominated performances.

Okay, getting that out of the way – wow, has time not been kind to her. What I imagine must have seemed impressive in 1929 appears sometimes almost to be a parody. I get that Mary Pickford’s work is not exactly a timeless product of elegance and grace but at least she possessed the star power to overcome her acting style. Ruth Chatterton unfortunately lacks this and everything she can offer is this fake aura of “importance” that ruins her work almost from start to finish. Ruth Chatterton’s work appears to be the product of a clash of the worst tendencies of melodramatic acting choices with an early “method” that existed only for its own sake and not in relation to the story or the character. Her vocal work seems to be the best example for this – at the beginning, she talks with a high-pitched voice that is often uncomfortable to listen to and then, during her life’s journey, lowers it down to an almost James Earl Jones-level. But this does not mean that this symbolizes her aging process because at the end, she is back to that high-pitched voice, so the question is – which is her real voice and who in the world changes it so drastically all the time?

Most of all, Ruth Chatterton’s acting style suffers from an extreme tendency for theatrical posing combined with total lack of energy and life – but to be fair, not in all moments. She has some moments (of which I will talk about later) where she suddenly finds the right tone and voice and which prevented her from the overall last position in my ranking. Ruther Chatterton has lower lows than Diana Wynyard but she has some heights and at least manages to be the driving force of the story while Diana Wynyard also has an outdated acting style but never manages to become at least interesting or engaging.

Ruth Chatterton’s first big scene in Madame X might display some of the worst acting ever by a Best Actress nominee – after Jacqueline has left her husband for another man, she is an outcast in his life and that of her little son whom she only watches occasionally when he is out for a walk with his nanny. When she hears that he is seriously ill, she visits her former husband’s home and begs him to let her see her son – a plea which he denies. In this scene, Ruth Chatterton is not able to display a single genuine emotion. She moves in front of the camera for the right angle, she delivers lines as if she is reading them for a script and acts her worries and desperation in such a theatrical manner that would not even have been allowed on the stage. When she learns that her husband told their son that she is dead, she gasps noticeable, turns her head to him, whispers dramatically “You told him…”, shakes her head and then whispers “that?” I’m not sure if it so bad it’s funny or just plain bad but I don’t think that any other categories are possible. She also speaks with a too affected voice, pronouncing words such as “cruel” as “cuelle” and when she is finally turned away, she dramatically walks to a wall, puts her arm dramatically against it, puts her head dramatically against her arm and cries dramatically. Of course, Madame X is a horrible movie with a horrible script but this single scene is almost an insult to professional movie acting.

Strangely enough, what might be her best scene in the movie follows right after. After she is denied to see her son, Jacqueline becomes a world-travelling prostitute (because what else can one do?). In her next scene, she apparently enjoys a high position in some exotic country and is courted by a young sailor. In this moment, she lowered her voice to what might even be Ruth Chatterton’s real voice and appears strangely relaxed, even a bit modern in her amused way of rejecting the advances of this young man (even though she’s doing too much winking with her eyes) and this is one of those moments where I get the feeling that Ruth Chatterton might have been an intriguing screen presence if she had just stuck to a more natural acting style which she apparently was capable of. Alas…

She then becomes more theatrical again as she displays how Jacqueline sinks lower and lower, turning into a miserable drunk where she again has some moments that manage to captivate even if she fails to create any excitement about her acting. Her most famous scene is probably when she shoots a man who knows about her past to save the reputation of her husband and her son (of course she does) – she displays the anger at him and her despair for once in a rather believable manner and the way her body shakes after she committed the murder again feels surprisingly modern. Another highlight (in a positive meaning) is her scene in court when the lawyer who defends her turns out to be her son (of course he does) and she tells her story to the court but always insisting that she will not say any names. Her voice is again rather high-pitched but she finally manages to be moving without overwhelming you with her acting style.

So, this is a performance that really reaches lows that most likely few others in this category have seen but there were enough interesting moments to prevent her from being dead-last in this ranking. But only by a hair…
And as previously voted on, the next winning performance to be discussed will be:


4 comments:

Giuseppe Fadda said...

Yes I have only heard bad things about her here. But apparently she is quite good in Dodsworth.

Can’t wait for Helen Hayes’ review!

Allen said...

LOL, thank you for reminding me about her iconic delivery of "*GASPS* You told him...............that?"

If you disliked Madame X that much....then you're in for a horrible treat with Sarah and Son. That one is Chatterton taking all the lows you pointed out and putting it on autopilot. I for one am open to giving her work in Madame X the benefit of the doubt - it was antiquated yes, but her lows didn't quite stand out as sorely as Mary Pickford's did, and Chatterton does better in her highs than most of her fellow nominees.

Fritz said...

I actually liked her more in Sarah and Son the first time I saw it but who knows that I think now :)

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