Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Oscar Bitch Fight: 1939

Welcome to my first installment of Oscar Bitch Fight! For this fight, I will be discussing the Best Actress nominees for what is considered the best year in filmmaking- 1939. I would like to thank StinkyLulu for his support and for allowing me to do this series since it is kind of a knock-off of his wonderful "Supporting Actress Smackdown" series. Please visit his blog here and read his wonderful thoughts about "actressing at the edges." And without further ado, here are the nominees…

Bette Davis, Dark Victory

Easily Bette’s greatest performance of the 1930’s and one of her best overall (there are still a couple I would rank higher). Her early scenes as socialite bitch Judith Traherne are classic Bette- she chews up scenery with as much velocity as in her underrated performance in Dangerous- and she plays them with all the energy and zest she has. But, Bette’s true test as an actress comes when Judith is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She believably transforms into a softer woman, falling in love with her doctor and basically living life before she dies- which makes the beautifully done ending that much more effective and tear-jerking.

Irene Dunne, Love Affair

Normally, I love my Irene Dunne in screwball comedies (especially The Awful Truth- my favorite performance of hers), but there is something endearing about her work in Love Affair. Her natural chemistry with an also swell Charles Boyer is hardly expected but proves essential to the film (well, it is called Love Affair for God’s sake- you hope there would be something between them). Not exactly a rave-worthy performance, but Dunne more than holds her own and that final scene with her and Boyer is underplayed to perfection.

Greta Garbo, Ninotchka

Arguably, the finest performance the divine Greta Garbo ever gave. With so many fantastic chances to poke fun at her stiff Scandinavian self, a great director (Ernst Lubitsch) who believed in her untapped comedic talents and that iconic tagline (“Garbo Laughs!”), Ninotchka was the one time Garbo didn’t have to play the tragic heroine and actually got to have fun with a role. Her comedic timing is unbeatable- case in point, the scene where she asks Melvyn Douglas “Must you flirt?” to which he replies, “Well, I don’t have to, but I find it natural” and she responds with “Suppress it”- and up there with the great screwball comediennes of the era. It’s a shame that her next film (and comedy) Two-Faced Woman bombed so horribly and that Garbo never worked again in any film.

Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A fine performance by one of the best actresses of the era who has, unfortunately, been quietly forgotten. Garson is a nice breath of fresh air in this stodgy film as the woman who finally lightens Mr. Chips up and her scenes prepare us for her fantastic work in the 40’s. With that said, her role really is too small to be seriously considered against these other giants (I’m not sure on an exact time, but she seems to come and go pretty quickly) and should have been downgraded to Best Supporting Actress.

Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind

Leigh is so perfect in this role that it’s almost frightening how fantastic she is. In the hands of Leigh, Scarlett becomes, at once, both a realistic and gritty Southern belle turned hard by the war and a grandiose, larger than life figure. It almost makes me shudder when I think about who David O. Selznick might have cast instead of her: Bette Davis (a goddess but would have dominated every scene she was in and would have torn her cast mates into shreds) or Paulette Goddard (a great comedienne but I can’t imagine her carrying this whole film) or Jean Arthur (another great comedienne but I can’t imagine her doing any sort of the physical labor that Scarlett and not slipping in a wisecrack or two). Even if you are not a fan of the film, you have to recognize the brilliance of Leigh’s performance.

Along with my own opinion, I asked my best friend and fellow Gone With the Wind fanatic Christi Brinker to weigh in on Ms. Leigh’s performance:

After watching Gone With the Wind for the first time, I was surprised to learn that Vivien Leigh was from England. Her Southern accent is so realistic as well as sweet and endearing. My favorite part of her performance is her facial expressions. I love the scene where she is getting ready for the barbeque at Twelve Oaks and she is arguing with Mammy. Mammy puts her in her place by saying, “I don’t see Ashley Wilkes asking to marry you!” Vivien responds by giving her an evil glare and throwing her umbrella across the room. Yet, a few minutes later she is smiling ear to ear and trying to catch the attention of all of the men at the barbeque. Like Clark Gable, Vivien was extremely good at hiding her issues with him and making Gone With the Wind a great love story.

My Rants: Overall, 1939 was a fantastic year for actresses and Oscar, surprisingly, picked five great ones. With that being said, here is what my line up for 1939 looks like:

Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Greta Garbo, Ninotchka
Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz
Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind

(Honorable mentions go the fabulous Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford as the biggest bitches in an ensemble jam-packed full of them in The Women and Irene Dunne in Love Affair who, in a weaker year, would have made it on the list.)

I’ve already talked about Davis, Garbo and Leigh, so let’s start with Jean Arthur. Playing almost the exact role as her Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (another fabulous performance), Arthur could have just coasted through Mr. Smith and been swallowed whole by James Stewart and Claude Rains’ intense performances. Instead, she miraculously holds her own, trading wisecracks with jaded reporter Thomas Mitchell and making fun of, before eventually falling in love with, James Stewart’s idealist senator. It’s the type of performance that Oscar then and now loves to avoid (i.e. Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger) but really should start embracing. Judy Garland also made an enormous Technicolor splash into the hearts of Americans all over with her transcendent performance in The Wizard of Oz. The role is so iconic that it easy to take Garland for granted. Her Dorothy is one of the most identifiable characters in movie history and it is all due to Garland (Can you imagine MGM’s first choice Shirley Temple in the role?). Thanks to the success of this film, Garland became the leading musical comedy star of the 40’s and was able to give phenomenal performances in Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate and A Star is Born.

Who won: Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind

Best of Oscar's Nominees:
Leigh. Whoever played Scarlett would have won the Oscar, but Leigh's Scarlett is the performance of a lifetime and one of the best ever recorded on film.

Best of My Nominees:
Leigh again. Utterly perfect.

I hope you enjoyed this and stay tuned for my first edition of Oscar Cock Fights in the upcoming future.


J.D. Judge said...

I'd go so far as to say that Vivian Leigh gave the greatest screen performance ever. Or at least if she's not in your Top 10, you suck.

James Henry said...

Oh I would definitely have to agree with you about the greatest performance ever. A few come close, but Leigh stands above the rest.

mistyh92104 said...

Thanks to Stinky Lulu, I was directed to your site. I'm so glad! What a wonderful commentary on that fantabulous movie year, 1939. My thoughts:

I'm most likely stating the obvious, but a new Bette Davis movie in the late 30s/early 40s must have been as exciting as a new Meryl Streep performance is nowadays. It's unfortunate that Davis didn't sustain (at least as substantially) as long as Streep has for the past three decades.

I love Irene Dunne (and, like you, find her perf in "The Awful Truth" to be her crowning achievement, though "Theodora Goes Wild" is a very close second). What was amazing about her, beyond the fact that most people under the age of 40(?) don't even know who the hell she is, was her versatility. She was great in so many different genres. Perhaps that versatility is why she is so forgotten today?

Garbo? Nothing to add, except this link: http://www.notstarring.com/actors/garbo-greta

Agreed on Garson...a supporting role. Unfortunately, for those who have NOT forgotten her, there seems to be a lingering backlash re: "Mrs. Miniver" (due to those horrible bedfellows of politics and sentimentality, it seems). Too bad, because however one feels about that movie, Garson does not deserve the blame.

On Leigh, I'd argue that she not only gave the best performance ever (though I sort of hate those types of proclamations...no offense), but along with "Streetcar"...well, you get my point. When she was good, she was BEYOND. (And compare the differing Southern accents in those two films for the fun of it).

You are so right-on regarding Garland. How sad that she was denied that 1954 Oscar. For shame!

As for Oscar, it also saddens me that Ms. Arthur (and Ms. Dunne) never won an Oscar. I'm glad to see her on your 1939 list (she is also on mine). For what it is worth, if they couldn't have given the award to her for "The More the Merrier" in 1943 (look at the competing performances!), her supporting role in "Shane" at least deserved a nomination.

Sorry for the long post, but I have a feeling that you understand my need to rant (and rave). You are a welcome new addition to my movie blog check-ins!

criticlasm said...

I just saw Dark Victory for the first time last week, and I was impressed, but mostly that the film holds together at all. It's a testament to the sheer force of will that is Bette Davis that this film doesn't veer over the top, which it could very easily have done.

And I had no idea Ninotchka was 1939, as well as Love Affair, The Women, WIzard of Oz, GWTW....amazing year--no wonder some call it the best year in history for film.

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