When I was but a wee little stinky, no matter how much I adored my actual mother, I nonetheless trawled the popular culture horizon for the ideal candidate to take over maternal duty should I ever be swept away into some more fabulously cinematic version of my life. Sometimes I liked Carol Brady or Samantha Stevens for the job. Other times I preferred Julie Andrews or Cicely Tyson. Most of the time, I knew Karen Grassle ("Ma" from Little House on the Prairie) was the perfect choice. But now I realize that my childhood game of "fantasy parent" might have looked entirely different had I ever seen...
...Anne Revere in National Velvet (1945)
approximately 28 minutes and 33 seconds
roughly 23% of film's total running time
Mrs. Brown is formidable...strong, kind, generous, and wise, with just enough sophistication (not to mention a hint of rebelliousness) to keep her from entering sainthood right now.
In short, Mrs. Brown is the sort of idealized mother character that's very nearly impossible to play, at least without lapsing into the realm of saccharine cliche or adding a compelling hint of malevolence.
Several central choices within Revere's characterization serve her well in essaying this stealthily difficult role.
First, Revere's Mrs. Brown is not especially effusive. She's an exacting, stern parent who seems unflummoxed by the difficult demands of parenting three teen girls and a boy child barely out of diapers. At the same time, Revere's Mrs. Brown does not withhold her affections from her brood. Her children, husband and even houseguest all know that she loves and cares for them.
Second, Revere's Mrs. Brown is not humorless. Now, don't get me wrong -- Revere is no laugh riot in this role. That said, Revere maintains an easy, occasionally amusing banter with her husband throughout the film. As Mrs. Brown teases Mr. Brown, Revere scores each exchange with what Tyra Banks might call "smiling eyes," the character's underlying amusment communicated legibly through the merest twinkle in the actress's eye.
Finally, Revere makes the perfect vocal choice for the role. Nearly every line the script provides Mrs. Brown is declamatory, nearly every utterance either a pronouncement or a Socratic query addressing the true state of affairs. Revere, in what is I think a master stroke, delivers each line in basically the same register: as a loving but stern challenge. It takes a confident actress to give every line essentially the same reading, but Revere does, and in so doing, amplifies the quietest nuances in each exchange.
These three moves -- to neither express nor withhold; to maintain a subtle humor throughout; and to deliver each line in basically the same register -- provide a foundation for Revere's characterization of Mrs. Brown, permitting Revere's Mrs. Brown to be both a distinct person and an archetypal presence.
And the amazing thing? Anne Revere is startlingly believable as Mrs. Brown. I don't believe for one second that Mickey Rooney is a British scamp, or that Donald Crisp is a smalltown butcher, or that Angela Lansbury is Elizabeth Taylor's slightly older sister. Nor do I really believe that Taylor's Velvet was a plausible enough drag king to win the climactic race. When I tally it all up, I don't buy much of anything this movie is trying to sell me.
Yet, for some reason, I completely believe Anne Revere's Mrs. Brown. I believe her love for her family and for her husband. I believe the wisdom of her scene-ending aphorisms. I even believe that she's (one of) the first women to swim the English Channel and saved her prize money for this rainy day. (Indeed, the only time I think she's full of s*** is when she says girls have only one opportunity to live "the folly" of their greatest dream.)
But, truly, the only thing I still have trouble believing about Anne Revere's performance as Mrs. Brown is how good it is.
Revere took what should be an impossible cliche and, through precise understatement, turned it into a marvel of quiet transcendence. It's what actressing at the edges is all about...