Supporting Actress Smackdown - 1940

The Year is...

And the Smackdowners for the 13th Annual Academy Awards are...

BRAD of Criticlasm/FagYerIt
KEN of Canadian Ken
KEITH of In Which Our Hero
Birthday Boy
NICK of Nick's Pick Flicks
yours truly, STINKYLULU.

1940's Supporting Actresses are...
(Each Smackdowner's comments are arranged according to ascending levels of love. Click on the nominee's name/film to see StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Sunday review.)

Judith Anderson in Rebecca
KEN Hitchcock did unearth Joan Fontaine’s inner star, gently luminous here. But this plush Harlequinade’s short on subtlety. Especially in Anderson’s celebrated but preposterous take on Mrs. Danvers, equal parts ice-house and madhouse from the get-go. And VERY heavy lifting. I prefer to remember her marvelous work in Laura – shrewd, sad , vivid. Art looking effortless.
KEITH She's as creepy and menacing as you'd want your horror-movie monster to be, and her utter lack of vanity is admirable, but all of her hard work can't overcome the fact that Mrs. Danvers is a cardboard cutout, a two-dimensional Evil Lesbian. Her obsession is scary, but it's never quite human.
STINKYLULU Anderson’s mannered mystery delivers piles of ominous creepiness, and her glowering intimacy remains peculiarly terrifying. But for every moment that Anderson pitches perfectly, there’s another she lobs discordantly. Ultimately, a presence more than a person.
BRAD So over the top it almost manages to topple the film. I loved it, and I think it may be the most interesting thing in the movie. I say “thing,” because she's almost beyond humanity, moving into pure urge. Not sure it's right, but it sure is fascinating.
NICK Possibly the most vivid supporting performance in any Hitchcock film, and a delicious mix of lip-smacking villainy and fascinating impenetrability. She's had countless imitators but no one has ever come close to matching her.
MATT A gothic archetype – the quintessential sinister housekeeper – brought to zombified life through piercingly effective underplaying. My favorite scene: the bedchamber sequence, in which Anderson shifts ever-so-delicately from imperiousness to intimacy, from oddness to obsession, culminating in calm dementia. Bonus points for the wart!
MATT Various production elements – lugubrious music, self-righteous dialogue – threaten to mire Darwell into sentimentality, but she deftly swerves from most of Wrath’s miasmic traps by infusing Ma Joad with lightness and charm, and handles her final speech with offhand conviction. A respectable performance.
Darwell doesn't always survive the dripping sentiment of Steinbeck's most overwrought speeches – what actress could? – but her performance is the heart of the movie. Ma Joad's boundless optimism and dignity could become wearying, as saints often do, but Darwell humanizes her with perfectly timed glimpses of the imp within.
NICK Darwell's bassett-hound face sometimes screams for easy sympathy even when her performance doesn't, but her solidity and integrity spring from much more than her face and her frame. Her best moment is the offhand way in which she tells Henry Fonda about a relative's death inside the wagon.
BRAD The way she looks at Henry Fonda when they are dancing tells you everything you need to know. She gives him the reason to return and something to leave when he does. Her best work is in all she doesn't say; it's brilliant and heartbreaking.
STINKYLULU Darwell quietly, assuredly nails everything the script asks her to do (including that awful final speech) even as she adds surprising bits and bobs (humor, detail, subtext) that deepen and complicate – but never distract from – the role. A master class of actressing at the edges.
KEN Attempting to assess this magnificent performance seems presumptuous. Like reviewing the sun or the moon. There’s extraordinary emotion in Darwell’s eyes, heartbreaking and comforting all at once. She communicates a lifetime of joys and regrets just sifting through bric-a-brac. And Darwell’s voice matches the eloquence of her face. A compassionate, elemental achievement.
STINKYLULU A glib wiseacre where a crackling firecracker might have been. Hussey’s swift, sardonic grin of a performance conceals the character a little too well. Mostly merely good, never actually great.
Seems like a little sister sent to do a big sister's job. I kept wanting Eve Arden or Rosalind Russell to stand up to the other three tigers. The role just didn't feel as perfectly pitched as the rest of the players. It could perhaps be read as vulnerability, but it felt like a lack of presence.
KEITH The sharp-tongued wisecracker can be a terrific showcase for an actress, but it's hard to stand out when everyone in the movie is a sharp-tongued wisecracker. Hussey's up against three Hollywood legends who flood the screen with charm and charisma, and she simply doesn't hold attention.
KEN Navigates smoothly through the massive movie star gargoyles parading around her (Hepburn – insolent and haughty, Grant – clipped and condescending, Stewart, accusatory and irritable); Hussey’s a beacon of likeability. The character’s all laid-back asides – Eve Arden without the exclamation marks. But real – and infinitely better company than the show-offs in the center ring.
MATT As the smart-aleck photographer with an unrequited yen for her co-worker, the likable Hussey evokes Rosalind Russell’s sang-froid and adds an unexpected dollop of melancholia, but suffers two handicaps: a dearth of adequate snappers from the meant-to-be-scintillating script, and playing opposite a squawkingly obnoxious James Stewart.
NICK The character's wisecracks are so funny and shrewd that Hussey occasionally just tosses them out instead of shaping them as fully she might. Still, her crystal-clear fusion of intelligence, humor, and warmth is preciously rare even in Hollywood classics, and her understated confession on the stairs to Cary Grant only underlines what a tight, patient grip she's got on her own feelings.
MATT As the jealous, vindictive Duchesse, O’Neil opts for eye-popping, mouth-twitching nefariousness, instead of a fully-dimensioned character study with remnants of passion and tenderness in the early scenes. Her performance, a catalogue of old-movie melodramatics, is so villainous that I’m surprised she didn’t twiddle a mustache.
STINKYLULU The Duchesse is an early cinematic iteration of the “I will not be ignored” brand of hysteric horror and O’Neil’s keening, eye-bugging performance offers a couple true hoots – but little that feels actually “true.”
BRAD Melodrama Fun with Accents. The part doesn't call for much but slight pitches in insanity, which she does well. Capable, operatic performance, but nothing that makes me empathize with her self-involved pain.
KEN The character’s basically a massive inconvenience. Selfish, needy, embarrassing – a messy puddle of who-knows-what that won’t go away. Maybe charisma would’ve been inappropriate. After all, Davis (incising each line with a filigreed cookie-cutter) can supply that. O’Neil’s overstuffed, over-ripe tomato of a performance works well enough. Can’t fault it. Can’t love it.
NICK I just love watching O'Neil swoop through this movie in her huge costumes and raven hair, giving Bette Davis not a creaky narrative foil to play against but the Maleficent-scale adversary she's always deserved. True, she hews a little too often to the same pitch and volume, but her neurosis and vituperation and even her guilt and loneliness are fascinating.
KEITH The temptation in melodrama is to be too big and broad, but O'Neil knows exactly where the boundaries are; this is a gleefully over-the-top performance, giddy in its flamboyance without ever losing touch with the emotional reality of the movie. Sharp comic timing, a magnificently expressive face, and beautiful physical choices – it's wildly entertaining.
NICK How many babies did Rambeau kiss to score two nominations for such adequate but unexceptional performances in such throwaway films? She's not nearly as forceful here as she is as a spiteful waterfront hussy in Min and Bell (before the supporting category existed), but she has the smarts to underline the warmth and good intentions of her blowzy, misguided character.
BRAD The only focused performance in this mess of a movie. She creates a woman who does what she has to, and also figures out a way to enjoy it. It's the most interesting role, and I wish there was more to it. (It'd been better if the grandmother had been shot.)
KEITH By far the most interesting performance in an otherwise forgettable movie. Rambeau's high spirits make the bleakness of the Adams home almost tolerable; she's particularly fine in the pre-date porch scene with Rogers. Her deathbed scene is a touch hammy, to be sure, but it is nevertheless quite moving.
STINKYLULU Through sheer force of willful charisma, Rambeau adeptly transcends being miscast in this obtuse script and invests the flighty and superficial role with a palpable warmth. Though she cannot redeem the film, Rambeau does provide its only emotional mooring.
MATT Rambeau conveys complex emotions, creates specific relationships with her fellow actors, and scrapes the sentimentality off the role most other actresses would’ve larded on. The result: a startlingly modern, smartly conceived performance that still feels honest, fresh, and real—even when she’s victimized by an implausible plot turn. Superb.
A warm, generous performance. Combines aging floozydom and mother-love far more subtly than, say, Stanwyck’s over-rated Stella Dallas. Rogers is top-billed but the real gold comes from the other females in her ramshackle household – Grandma Queenie Vassar (authentically hard-boiled), gifted tot Joan Carroll and – presiding benignly – Rambeau’s blowsy nurturer.
TOTAL: 20s

Oscar chose...
Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath!
And, whaddayaknow, the SMACKDOWN has to agree:
So, lovely reader, what do YOU think?


JS said...

Not as exciting as it turned out to be. Was it last year or just a few months ago when you called 1940, "The Year that the Academy Got It Right" for the supporting category nominations?

Is this a revelatory surprise or disappointment?

StinkyLulu said...

I don't think that was me; perhaps you're thinking of something said by Nick or Ken? (I had only seen the Anderson performance prior to this month; further, I had no particular opinions about this field beyond noting the iconicity of Darwell & Anderson w/in the category.)

CanadianKen said...

No, I wasn't the one who called 1940 "The Year the Academy Got It Right" - although I do think they picked the right winner. Beulah Bondi griped all her life about how wrong Jane Darwell was in "Grapes of Wrath" The grumbler felt that, as a presumably underfed Dust Bowler, Ma Joad simply had to be played by an actress who was all skin and bones (like guess who). BB never acknowledged all the wonderful, unique qualities Darwell brought to the role. And, wherever she is, Bondi will NOT be happy about this particular smackdown victory...Loved Brad's phrase "a little sister sent to do a big sister's job". And though it might possibly sorta kinda fit Hussey in "The Philadelphia Story", I'd say she did assuredly attain "big sister" status in later but less famous pix like "Bedside Manner" "Tender Comrade" and "The Lady Wants Mink"...Although I have no particular fondness for "All This and Heaven Too", seeing it did remind me that Warner Brothers' women's pictures had balls. Harlequin pap maybe but thick and rich with marble and chiarascuro lighting. Not the sugar-spun MGM universe Greer Garson was usually trapped in ... The supporting performance to die for in "Rebecca" comes from (debuting) Florence Bates (Mrs. Van Hopper)-hilariously hateful, but in her final moments with Fontaine, genuinely creepy and scarier than anything frozen-puss Danvers ever summons up.

Keith said...

I hadn't seen any of these movies before, and the biggest surprise for me was how dull The Philadelphia Story was. Quip quip quip banter banter banter blah blah blah -- enough already! I found it the hardest of the five to sit through.

I'm with Ken on Florence Bates in Rebecca -- marvelously funny work. But then, I have a weakness for oversized comic performances, which is probably why I was fonder of O'Neil than most of y'all.

John T said...

See, I have to say that this is one of my favorite Academy years, though I say that as someone who has only seen Anderson, Hussey, & Darwell. Each of them puts their own unique imprint on the films they are in, and all do this with some of the finest actors of all time as the leads (Fonda, Stewart, Olivier, Grant, & Hepburn-1940 surely did not suffer from 1939 being so magical). I personally think I'd have to disagree with the Smackdown here, and give the award to Anderson over Darwell, but it'd be a tough call. Really, my current all-time Top 10 fave supporting actress nominees includes every perf from this year I've seen.


though i haven't seen most of these I really enjoyed a step back into old hollywood this month. I wish i could chime in more on the performances. NEXT MONTH!

goatdog said...

Had I finished the entire assignment and participated in the smackdown, I'd have said something like: The biggest pleasure for me was to revisit The Philadelphia Story, which I had remembered as pretty good but overrated; in fact, it's so good it's nearly miraculous. Hussey was definitely the weak link, though I'd still probably have given her three hearts. I'd have nominated Mary Nash as Ma Lord over Hussey. Darwell would have been my winner too: she's so great that she managed to save that cloying last speech. I thought Rambeau was great at the "with a heart of gold" part but forgot to play the "hooker" part, and a better performance could have restored some of the spark that I'm assuming fell victim to the censors' scissors. All This and Heaven Too and Rebecca are still sitting on my TV.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Y Kant Goran Rite said...

[scuse the double post]

As iconic and stunning as Judith Anderson and Jane Darwell were in Rebecca and GOW, I felt that, with her warmth, intelligence and subtlety, Ruth Hussey pretty much matched them (and in a better film, too!). I loved that she put thought into the character and rather than play it as the stereotype, she held back on the bitchery and the posturing, and instead focused on the human-being part. I adore every performance in Philadelphia Story, but last time I watched it, Hussey (and Stewart, who I'd previously found irritating for some misguided reason) really stood out for me.

And honestly, Eve Arden? Why not John Travolta?

augie said...

Dear Stinkylulu, When are you doing Judith Anderson's eval ?????