My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Who will be reviewed next?

I decided to give new hints this time. Do you know who will be next in my ranking?

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. Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1932)
30. Jane Fonda in Coming Home (1978)

31. Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
32. Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)
33. Meryl Streep in One True Thing (1998)
34. Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953)
35. Katharine Hepburn in Guess who’s coming to dinner (1967)
36. Marsha Mason in Chapter Two (1979)
37. Jane Wyman in The Yearling (1946)
38. Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) 
39. Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945)
40. Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year (1978)

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

Helen Hayes as Madelon Claudet in The Sin of Madelon Claudet

When I look at my ongoing experiment to rank all Best Actress nominees and look back at my first trial many years ago, I suddenly realize that Helen Hayes’s performance is probably the one that I have downgraded the most. This actually hurts me as hers is a performance I actually like very much but trying to be as objective as possible, I now think that there are various aspects that I don’t admire as much anymore as I used to and the kind of role in this kind of movie is also not so highly on my list anymore.

But even though, one thing is perfectly clear – coming right after Ruth Chatterton in a very similar role (the suffering secret mother), Helen Hayes seems at first almost like a revelation, simply because her work feels much more relaxed and modern in many moments and most of the time never feels as dated and over-melodramatic as Ruther Chatterton in Madame X. Even if there are exceptions. It’s clear that Helen Hayes, even though a stage actress just like Ruth Chatterton, understood the medium of film much better. But it has to be said that she also benefitted from better material. While both Madame X and The Sin of Madelon Claudet are no masterpieces, Madelon Claudet at least feels a bit more lively and entertaining and moves at a much better pace. It was a clear sign that movies had developed a lot during those few years.

But again, The Sin of Madelon Claudet is no masterpiece – far from it. It succeeds in telling an entertaining and touching story and it is, without a doubt, perfectly designed as a showcase for its leading lady. Already hailed as a true sensation on the stage and one of the most admired performers in the American theatre, Helen Hayes’s movie debut was certainly anticipated by critics at the time – and they weren’t disappointed. While the flaws of the movie were recognized right away (and according to Helen Hayes, even led to fear during the making of the movie that the whole thing would be cancelled at some point), Helen Hayes was able to survive all this and win the Best Actress Oscar, apparently earning more votes than her two co-nominees combined. The win did however not lead to an exciting movie career, even if she would win a second Oscar almost 40 years later. She mostly starred in forgettable movies (of course with some exceptions, mainly A Farewell to Arms) and later returned to the stage, acting only occasionally in movies. Her was a career that more defined by “respect” than by “stardom” – she was always valued very highly by critics and her peers (she was apparently Spencer Tracy’s favorite screen actress), of course later winning the elusive “EGOT” but she never turned into a true star. Audiences wept when they saw her suffering mother in The Sin of Madelon Claudet but Helen Hayes never had that certain star appeal. Apparently, she went on a promotion tour for the movie with producer Irving Thalberg with his wife and movie fans couldn’t push Helen Hayes out off the way fast enough to get a look at the glamourous Norma Shearer. Obviously, all this doesn’t matter when evaluating performances but it makes it easier to understand why she reached the top so quickly on the big screen but never achieved the same effect in movies as she did on the stage.

So, what about her performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet? What’s the reason for me to downgrade her work despite liking it? I think the main factor why I still appreciate her work is that Helen Hayes was a lovely and relaxed screen presence and she handled many of the script’s faults very well and overall carried the whole movie on her small shoulders, making a story that should make me roll my eyes all the time bearable. My main reason for letting her slip down in my ranking is the fact that there are still many scenes that make her stage roots too visible and the script often also prevents her from going deeper and sometimes simply doesn’t allow her to go beyond the obvious plea for tears…

Helen Hayes’s work right away unfortunately starts on the wrong foot. Her first scene with her lover in her bedroom feels like a filmed scene on the stage and I would like to know if this was also the first scene that had been shot…Helen Hayes clearly feels much too limited here and the way she moves her body and her hands suggests a performance for the last row of the balcony – not overdone but too obvious. She becomes much more alive and natural in her next scene when she shares a little apartment with the man she loves. The way she puts his cold feet in warm water, tries to hide her tears or angrily talks to a man who insults his paintings are done very well and feel surprisingly modern – but again, with just a hint of “too obviously unforced” meaning that it’s so obvious that she tries to appear relaxed and spontaneous that the effect is sometimes destroyed. After this, life begins to go downwards for Madelon Claudet very quickly – her lover goes back to America and even though he promises to come back, he never does. But the “sin” of living with this man soon forces Madelon to pay a price when she gets a child. Helen Hayes does some of her best work in the scene right after giving birth – Madelon doesn’t want the child and doesn’t even want to see it but when it is put next to her, you can see her feelings change to a sudden and unconditional love. It’s a clumsy scene in itself but all credit goes to Helen Hayes for making it work and thus laying the base for the story that follows.

I also enjoy a later scene when she plans to wed a man from her village – but he will only accept her as a wife without her child. Madelon refuses and her father plainly ask her “Have you no shame” to which she replies “Not about this”. She delivers these lines very matter-of-fact, even a bit amused and that way prevents them from becoming melodramatic. I can just imagine Ruth Chatterton, widening her eyes, shrieking “Not about”, changing her voice to a dramatic whisper “thissss”. After this, Madelon becomes the mistress of a rich man and while these parts of the movie offer the least interesting opportunities for Helen Hayes, I still appreciate that she never makes Madelon appear like a gold-digger – she evokes the feeling that Madelon appreciates the chances she gets but that she also truly cares for this man and wouldn’t be his mistress if she didn’t. Her weakest moments appear when it is revealed that he is actually a criminal and they get taken away by the police and he commits suicide in a full restaurant. The way Helen Hayes reacts to she shot is too over-the-top, wrinkling up her face in pain and screaming “Carlos!”

If you thought by now “Wow, there is a lot happening to Madelon but isn’t the movie about a prostitute?” Yes, that comes later. If you’re thinking now “Wow, there is really a lot happening to her in general”, again yes. This is also what is working against Helen Hayes. The movie rushes through the life of Madelon in little episodes, throwing her from one extreme to the other as if it never really knew what to do with her. In this way, it resembles another movie with an Oscar-winning lead performance, The three Faces of Eve, another movie that sometimes appeared like a test scene for an actress, not knowing what to do with her and therefore just letting her do everything. The same happened her more than 20 years earlier. Helen Hayes gets to play poor, she gets to play rich, she gets to play proper, she gets to play immoral – it’s thanks to her talent and screen presence that she was able to still tell this story convincingly but she cannot overcome many of the screenplay’s faults.

Helen Hayes's overall strongest scenes come when Madelon gets out of prison after 10 years. She feels more spontaneous and authentic in this moment than many other actresses of that era, famously touching the leaves of a tree, reacting amused to the new fashion style or being determined to walk the stairs of the prison down alone. When she later meets her son again, it’s another highlight for her – she truly shines when she doesn’t let him know her real identity and tells him his mother was dead; it’s obviously again meant to create tears but never feels manipulative.

Interestingly, the most famous part of the story – Madelon Claudet becomes a prostitute to support her son – only takes up about 5 minutes of the whole movie. After those 5 minutes, Madelon is an old woman who visits her son, now a successful doctor, one more time. Again, it’s a manipulative moment and Helen Hayes sometimes takes it a bit too far in her “old cute lady” act but you have a feeling that after all she endured, Madelone deserves that moment.

So, it’s a touching portrayal of a character and a plot that has been done countless times and when it comes to performances in talking movies, Helen Hayes was the first Best Actress winner who really felt “natural” in her acting and there are many moments where she truly shines but she is also obviously too new to the medium in some moments and the script never allows her to create a truly deep character – after following Madelon her entire life, you don’t see any noticeable change in her, even after all her hardships and tragedies and you never really learned anything about her as a character. Still, it’s a strong piece of work that elevates an otherwise forgettable film.