7.20.2008

Ethel Barrymore in Pinky (1949) - Supporting Actress Sundays

When you're a movie freak of a certain age, those inevitable gaps in your screening experience start to feel like character flaws. What do you mean you've never seen Gone with the Wind? Or The Magnificent Ambersons? Or All the King's Men? Or Singing in the Rain? (Oops. I meant to keep that last one a secret for a while longer...) But, thanks to Supporting Actress Sundays, I am -- slowly but surely -- chipping away at my personal list of "Appalling Gaps in StinkyLulu's Screening History." And this week is no exception, bringing me to a somewhat lesser-known (but no less notable/notorious) film that's been on my "To Do List" for some time. So once again -- thanks to y'all -- I commence my journey with just such a film and offer my first close look at...

...Ethel Barrymore in Pinky (1949)
approximately 17 minutes and 9 seconds
7 scenes
roughly 17% of film's total running time
Ethel Barrymore plays Miss Em, a nearly penniless elderly white woman who lives alone on an estate loaded with history and priceless heirlooms. Stubborn and proud, Miss Em refuses to sell any of her treasures and instead depends upon kindness and courtesy of old friends to get through her days.
Barrymore's Miss Em has cast a shadow over Pinky her whole life. (Pinky, a young light-skinned black woman who has passed for white while pursuing her nursing education in the North, is portrayed here by Irish-American Jeanne Crain, who is sincere but clueless in the role.) And so it's only fitting when, at the insistence of Pinky's devoted grandmother Aunt Dicey (Ethel Waters in a curiously unmoored performance), Pinky finds herself grudgingly caring for the imperious old woman.
Before long, Pinky and Miss Em develop a mutual respect that edges perilously close to affection and Miss Em makes the fateful decision to redraft her will to include her formidable, young caregiver.
Barrymore's role is constructed as a showcase. Barrymore's character haunts the entire film (nearly every scene has something or other to do with Miss Em). Barrymore's character also instigates the crucial change for the film's protagonist (Crain's Pinky becomes a different person because of her encounter with Barrymore's Miss Em.) Yet, Barrymore herself is only seen in a concentrated series of scenes at the movie's midpoint. In short, it's the kind of "minimum screentime with maximum impact" role the category of Supporting Actress seems designed for.
And Barrymore seems to have fun with the role, investing her Miss Em with an alacrity and intelligence just slightly beyond what's required by the script. Each of Barrymore's glances and glares carry just enough meaning to amplify the tensions and uncertainties of the situation while also maintaining an easy humor. (Indeed, the wit of Barrymore's performance -- with an able assist by Evelyn Varden as the deliciously awful Cousin Melba -- provides the film's only real touch of genuine humor.)
Prior to this screening of the film (my first), I was under the impression that Pinky was essentially about the relationship between the young "passing" daughter and her devoted darker (grand)mother, Ethel Waters. As such, I was suprised to find that the Pinky-Aunt Dicey relationship is subservient (natch) to the film's central relationship: Pinky & Miss Em. In ways that are more interesting than I expected, Pinky's not about "passing" or blackness in the same way that, say, 1949's Lost Boundaries is. No, Pinky is a critical account of the unearned privileges that accrue to whiteness, in which Barrymore's Miss Em functions as Pinky's self-appointed mentor in understanding the potencies of privilege.
(All of which explains why the film concludes the way it does, with the two black women in service uniforms and with the white woman's name on the building.)
While not especially surprising or deep, Barrymore's performance is solid, witty and astute -- an entirely adept performance of a very good role.
On a personal side note, it's somehow appropriate that I profile this film and this performance today, on the day of my grandmother's 82nd birthday. This grandmother is roughly the same age, disposition and physical condition as Miss Em. This grandmother is also a woman who lived the life that Pinky almost did -- a woman who fled her humble, racially humiliating origins on the Gulf Coast to live life as a white woman in the Rocky Mountain west. My grandmother was not black, but Mexican, and her efforts to "pass" continue to this day even as she's barking orders about her fireplace screen (just like Miss Em.) It's an ironic poignancy I was not aware of until this moment, as I'm doing final edits on this post before I get ready to head out to this same grandmother's birthday celebration... So happy birthday, GrammaStinky.
Or should we call you Miss Pinky?

3 comments:

criticlasm said...

Great job, and interesting connection. Really interesting.

You've never seen Singing in the Rain?!?!?!?!? How did I not know this? Theo's favorite, that's all I'm saying....

Anna said...

Nice post. Very interesting perspective. I confess, I always think of this film in terms of E. Waters & race - but then that is perhaps because the great E. Waters made so relatively few films that they tend to receive great emphasis as token examples of "blackness" being "addressed" on film in that era.

I do like Barrymore.

ozzieparker said...

Did anyone other than me detect hints of a back story? IE- Why is 'Pinky' pink? Her granny (Ethel W) is very dark, little is said about Pinky's parents. The 2 Ethels have a lifelong bond. Ethel B cares for Pinky who she supposedly doesn't know. I've always wondered- which Ethel really is Pinky's granny?