3.18.2007

Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940) - Supporting Actress Sundays

When voting opened to determine the roster for April's Supporting Actress Sundays, StinkyLulu thought sure 1976 would gather the most votes, with 1994 being a formidable contender. (Lu certainly did not anticipate that 1985 would rout the competition -- though you, lovely reader can still cast your vote for April's Supporting Actress Sundays in the voting panel at top right.) But even more surprising? How 1940 -- one of the most solidly deserving fields of nominees in the category's history -- would be left behind so ignominiously. Indeed, when tossing about for "overlooked" 1940 performance & consulting with the resident "overlooked" expert Canadian Ken, it came even clearer: The Academy nominated correctly in 1940. (How often can you say that?) Even so, the presence of Oscar's very first Best Supporting Actress in a couple 1940s projects was intriguing, especially...


Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940)
approximately 6 minutes and 2 seconds on-screen
4 scenes
roughly 6% percent of film's total running time

In The Letter, a chunky stew of melodrama and noir featuring an almost delicate (scenery-nibbling as opposed to chewing) performance by Bette Davis in the lead role of Leslie Crosbie, Gale Sondergaard plays Mrs. Hammond, the dragon lady "Eurasian" mistress/wife of the man Davis's character stands accused of murdering. The film's title refers to a love note, purportedly in Davis's handwriting, which threatens to reveal the truth about Leslie's relationship with the dead man and of which, of course, Sondergaard's Mrs. Hammond is in possession. The women, then, are not just romantic rivals but also enmeshed in a much more complex game of cat and mouse.


Davis's Leslie is outwardly a delicate flower of British colonialism but, from the outset, director William Wyler makes it clear that she's much more than that. Sondergaard's Mrs. Hammond, on the other hand, is pretty much just what she seems upon our first sight of her: A glamorous enigma, emerging from and receding to the shadows. (It's so not a surprise that Disney used Sondergaard as one of the models for the Wicked Queen in 1939's Snow White.) Because, really, who gives glamorous glower better than Gale?


In The Letter, Sondergaard has few lines and has none in English. She constructs Mrs. Hammond almost entirely through glares, glowers and glances. When viewing her murdered husband's body, her eyes gleam with tears. When she first meets Davis's Leslie, her eyes flare with fury and her lips snarl to a grimace. Davis, for her part, is smart to aggressively volley the eye-contact game with Sondergaard -- theirs is a shared performance of knowing looks, and it deepens each performance immeasurably. Each woman knows more about the other than either would ever say, even without the public humiliation of a translator. And one of Davis's best moments in the film relies upon this wordless eye contact: it's just after Leslie's been declared innocent and is being ushered from the courtroom. Davis's radiant smile freezes to a grim mask as Wyler's camera slides to a view of Sondergaard's Mrs. Hammond, who regards her vindicated rival with mysterious intensity. It's a great moment.


But it's a good thing that Sondergaard's performance is mostly wordless. On the one hand, this prevents her from doing some awful pidgin accent to go with the eye-taped yellowface makeup. (StinkyLulu can only imagine how bad Sondergaard's barky Chinese is.) On the other, it allows Sondergaard to develop a characterization that depends nearly entirely on her ominous and forbidding presence on (or at the edges of) the screen. And quite frankly, few work their screen magnetism as well as Gale Sondergaard. She's rarely an interesting actress but fascinating -- she is always that. Ya just can't look away...

Previously in StinkyLulu's warm-up "overlooked" series:
Mary Alice in Sparkle (1976)
Julie Harris in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

Up next:
Something from 1994 -
Crooklyn? Heavenly Creatures?
Exotica? Vanya on 42nd Street? Go Fish?
-
You tell me, lovely reader...

5 comments:

Aaron said...

Oh man do I love me some Gale Sondergaard. Hooray for this review. I haven't seen The Letter in at least five years. I need to pick it up again, it seems.

Pete said...

And Gale Sondergaard was also in the running to be the Wicked Witch of the West...but lost out when they decided to make her ugly instead of glam.

StinkyLulu said...

Her career's pretty amazing that way. (And I think she was hired for the Wicked Witch up until they did that whole batch of recasts...) I find I'm more and more curious about Miss Gale (& I don't mean Dorothy)...

criticlasm said...

Julianne Moore in Vanya, please. I would love to know how it holds up...

Omega said...

interesting.