Supporting Actress Smackdown - 1939

The Year is...

And the Smackdowners for the 12th Annual Academy Awards are...
AARON of Sarcasm with a Light Cream Sauce
of The Oscar Completist
BRAD of Criticlasm
Rants of a Diva
In Which Our Hero
of Canadian Ken
yours truly, STINKYLULU.

1939'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.)

Olivia de Havilland in Gone With the Wind
KEITH So relentlessly good and decent is St. Melanie of Twelve Oaks that even de Havilland can't do much to make her interesting. There's no way for an actual personality to escape from beneath those countless layers of willful naivete and denial.
AARON It may be the character's fault, but neither Melanie nor de Havilland ever do anything more than embody Scarlett's description of her as a goody-two-shoes. I was looking for more depth with this performance and didn't find any.
DAME JAMES HENRY Played by any other actress, Melanie Wilkes would have gotten swallowed whole by Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and her fierce determination. But de Havilland’s trademark quiet strength is used to full effect; if it wasn’t for her, we might never understand what keeps these two bound to each other (whether they admit it or not).
KEN Elsewhere, a de Havilland experience is sometimes like being force-fed on graciousness. But here, she’s perfect. Faced with the daunting challenge of making Melanie something beyond Goody Two-Shoes, she creates a rich, resolute, compassionate character – the wind beneath the picture’s wings.
STINKYLULU In a role that would be hard to get wrong, de Havilland gets things right with impressive depths of complexity and humanity. Hers is admirable actressing made all the more interesting for how good de Havilland is at playing "good."
BRAD de Havilland makes Melanie's goodness inviting and not cloying, which is no small feat. In a part that could've easily been a self-righteous goody goody, deHavilland shows us a woman who is trying to be the best self she can possibly be, and give everyone else that same credit, and somehow succeeds in having us never question why Scarlett would keep Melanie around.
ADAM Early on, we're told Melanie's "too good to be true," but de Havilland knows better. She's a "cool liar," makes every sacrifice for the Cause, while remaining a "good Christian." Melanie is many things to many people, and only a brilliant actress could bring everything they have to such a complex role. Here is perhaps the best entry ever in the category.
TOTAL: 27s

Geraldine Fitzgerald in Wuthering Heights
KEN The picture never recovers from the comically grim tone of its opening. A Mel Brooks parody minus the punchlines. Fitzgerald’s undoubtedly accomplished – but has few opportunities here. Effectively fraught and desperate in her big scene with Olivier. Otherwise, just flotsam.
Fitzgerald is solid here and that scene where she’s getting slapped around by Merle Oberon is electric, but the nomination was more for her stage pedigree and the inexplicable popularity of Wuthering Heights than for this lifeless performance.
Fitzgerald is serviceable in a role that is there mostly to show the cruelty of Heathcliff and Cathy's love. She's great in the one scene where she has to tell off Cathy, but it's an unsurprising boomerang of a role. I wasn't really interested in her trajectory, probably because everything was telegraphed long before it happened.
As everyone else in this ponderous epic of romantic destiny is hammering out stock performances, Fitzgerald’s intelligent work energizes the character’s naïve (and doomed) optimism in ways that prove refreshing. Yet, in the character’s devastating coda, Fitzgerald’s acuity lapses and her Isabella ends up more obtuse than tragic.
As the neglected, strong-willed Isabella, Fitzgerald shines. Once she marries Heathcliff, she only has one scene to clue us into her miserable marriage. Unfortunately, her selfishness, bitterness, and desire to see Cathy dead feel false, and it's tragic to see Fitzgerald fail.
The liveliest performance in the film. Fitzgerald finds depth, humanity, and passion in an underwritten, rather pathetic character. It's a performance that adds fire and life to a sad movie with a foregone conclusion.
A confident performance, and Isabella's transformation from naïve child to lively flirt to devastated wife is always convincing. Director William Wyler's choices shape our perception of Isabella to an unusual degree, but Fitzgerald's choices are always on target.
TOTAL: 21s

Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind
STINKYLULU McDaniel offers an elemental, unguarded performance of this utterly stock character, using the character of Mammy to affirm the personhood of the enslaved domestic. Her nuanced integrity in the role remains fairly astonishing to behold.
This is a stock role McDaniel had played before and one she would play again. But her performance is always intriguing, and early on in the film, with no Rhett Butler to spar with Scarlett, this movie needs her authority, wit, and screen presence.
The moral center of the movie. McDaniel never gives in to the weaker impulses of the script, which often wants Mammy to be a romanticized version of the Happy Slave; instead, she gives us a fully rounded woman, whose warmth and wisdom are undeniable.
Every action she does is done out of care, and it's that grounding that keeps any humor honest, and adds extra depths of feeling. She's often a proxy for our thoughts, cutting through Scarlett's BS to what is good (and bad) about what she's doing. A deft performance in a role that could've been completely ridiculous.
A brilliant comedienne (I love those stream-of-consciousness rants). But with a vast emotional reservoir she could tap into at will. Whatever scope GWTW gives her to express both elements, she uses to maximum and memorable advantage. I rank her with the goddesses.
As Rhett notes, Mammy commands respect. McDaniel reinvents the servant role, bringing added understanding to all her scenes ("He's her husband, ain't he?") and unparalleled emotional weight. The scene after Bonnie's accident is devastating and it's McDaniel who sells it. Gone with the Wind would be a different, lesser movie without her.
Mammy could have been just another “black servant” stereotype, but McDaniel seizes the opportunity and crafts a full characterization from the few tidbits she’s given. She may work for the white folks, but everyone knows who runs the show.
TOTAL: 32s

Edna May Oliver in Drums Along the Mohawk
AARON Oliver is fun, a welcome breath of no-nonsense fresh air in an otherwise earnest, racist, silly cinematic exercise. But the performance mostly consists of delivering the films best lines with an acid tone. And her death scene is truly nonsensical.
KEITH Taken in isolation, I rather like Oliver's take on the Cranky Old Widder Lady stock figure. But her performance is so bleak and emotionally withdrawn that it seems to come from some other movie entirely; it certainly doesn't fit in this Ford/Fonda festival of patriotic thrills.
DAME JAMES HENRY Edna May Oliver is the no nonsense, tough and impossibly hilarious type I want to be when I’m 60. Drums Along the Mohawk, however, is hardly the best showcase for her talents: she’s appropriately feisty and scandalous, but there’s not much “acting” going on.
ADAM This sassy old broad role requires a physical presence and animation Oliver lacks. She's in on the jokes through her inflection, but anyone can read lines sardonically. It's a voice (and a face) made for radio, not screen acting.
STINKYLULU As the film’s embodiment of the commonsense wisdom, wit and fortitude of the American frontier spirit, Oliver strikes an instrumental balance between goofiness and gravitas, contributing the best bits to a movie frequently teetering on the edge of silly.
BRAD The movie is a mess of tone but, if anyone in the movie manages to find one, it's Oliver. She's brash. She's bold. She's frontiersy. She's certainly the only interesting thing in the movie but, in this case, that's not saying a lot.
KEN One of many variations on Oliver’s specialty - the feisty and formidable old Mohican with a heart of gold. The bed-under-siege scene is certainly strange – more John Waters than John Ford. But the performance as a whole is a moderately rousing success.
TOTAL: 10s

Maria Ouspenskaya in Love Affair
ADAM It's simply not noteworthy, or at least nowhere near the point of earning a nomination. Ouspenskaya has a sweet role, but one that could be equally satisfied by anyone carted in from the local nursing home. She must hold the record for most nominations for doing nothing.
DAME JAMES HENRY Another two scene nomination for Ouspenskaya that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. Grand-mére Janou isn’t much of a character to begin with so Ouspenskaya’s attempts to bring something to the role are wasted. She’s warm and inviting but, in reality, her performance really could have been left on the editing floor and the film would have still functioned fine.
KEN The boat-whistle moment works - but all the Stanislavsky technique in the world can’t convince me this little clenched fist of a woman is anything but a crabby old tyrant who’d slam you with her stick if you didn’t kow-tow (and probably if you did ).
KEITH The role feels incomplete, somehow, and I kept expecting Grandmother Janou to return for one more scene. But in what little we do get of her, Ouspenskaya's warmth and charm are invaluable assets to the movie, which sags a bit after she leaves it.
AARON Ouspenskaya is in a single sequence in this film, but the movie hinges on this sequence, and it is under Ouspenskaya's knowing eye that the titular love affair actually begins. Still, though the performance is sweet it's hardly groundbreaking.
STINKYLULU Ouspenskaya's grand-mére Janou delivers a concentrated jolt of emotional honesty in a film constructed upon polite deceptions and demurrals. Her characterization, loaded with tiny details suggestive of rich subtext and a deep backstory, provides a clarifying counterpoint to the more emotionally untethered work of the two charismatic leads.
BRAD A very capable, memorable performance in a role the entire plot hinges upon. I still remember her face falling as she says, "I hate ships’ whistles." Warm, inviting performance in an old school charmer of a film.
TOTAL: 17s
Oscar chose...
Hattie McDaniel
in Gone With the Wind
Click image to be routed to video of McDaniel's acceptance speech.

And the SMACKDOWN agrees...
Best Supporting Actress of 1939!

BUT, lovely reader, what do YOU think?
Please share your thoughts in comments.


Dame James Henry said...

Yay! I'm so glad McDaniel won! Quite possibly, hers is the best Supporting Actress win ever.

While going through these nominees again, I was quite shocked to realize that even in a banner year like 1939- often considered the greatest year for American films ever- the Academy still picked some of the most worthless nominees. McDaniel and de Havilland were fantastic, but it's nearly impossible to stomach the rest of the nominees. Ftizgerald couldn't capitalize on her one fantastic scene (although, the script could be to blame for that). Oliver's shtick has worked much better in places other than Drums Along the Mohawk but, of course, this was the only time the Academy nominated her. And don't even get me started about Ouspenskaya and the barely there performance. What is it about her that held Oscar voters in such a trance in the 30's?

Here are my nominees for Best Supporting Actress in 1939:

Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Paulette Goddard, The Women
Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Rosalind Russell, The Women
(Honorable mention: Margaret Hamilton, The Wizard of Oz)

Garson was nominated for Leading Actress, but after seeing the film I was convinced she really belonged in the Supporting category. She's only there for a short while, but whatever she brings jolts this turd of a movie. Goddard (aka Mrs. Charlie Chaplin) would be nominated here in 1943, but her greatest performance was as Miriam, the wisecracking sidekick to Norma Shearer, in The Women. If I was a woman, could act and was in a production of this show, hers is the character I would try out for. And I can never get that line reading "Come-a-tie-yi-yay, Crystal, come-a-tie-yi-ya" out of my head. Rosalind Russell, a year before her His Girl Friday breakthrough was simply comic perfection in The Women. No one could do as much, or milk as many laughs, from that howler monkey intonation when she got really upset or flummoxed.

Adam said...

How wacky that people think de Havilland is saintly! She lies about a Yankee getting shot and aids Scarlett in hiding the body! She helps protect her husband after he and his friends burned down a shantytown! de Havilland portrays a Southern lady who does what it takes to survive the war and protect her family. If that's not depth in character, I don't know what is.

Other than that it seems most opinions were consensus. I'm particularly pleased everyone else was baffled by Edna May Oliver. What was that?

Adam said...

"The bed-under-siege scene is certainly strange – more John Waters than John Ford."

Ken, I love this.

whip-smart said...

Hmmm... why am I listed on the Smackdowner credits? I feel like Ellen Burstyn at the Emmys.

StinkyLulu said...

I've amended that, Slayton, but I do enjoy thinking of you as Ellen Burstyn...

Halloween, perhaps?

CanadianKen said...

No surprise to see deHavilland and McDaniel siezing the lion's share of the hearts this time out. The other ladies wound up fighting for the leftovers. McDaniel and deHavilland each grabbed plenty of 4 and 5 heart ratings. Perhaps the nay-sayers simply didn't like Melanie and Mammy as characters. And - for them - no actress could've done much with either part. In the end, though, it appears Melanie's goodness stuck in more craws than Mammy's social status. 'Cause almost seven decades later, Olivia still couldn't pry that Oscar away from Hattie.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I may have to revisit Gone with the Wind to see what I missed in McDaniel's performance.

Keith said...

It's true that I didn't much like Melanie, but my lack of enthusiasm for de Havilland's performance isn't just about that. It's possible (albeit difficult) to play a very good person in a way that makes her interesting, but de Havilland's performance is a nonstop parade of simpering smiles and implausible politeness.

Just once, I wanted to see a hint of the effort it must take to maintain so pleasant a facade in such difficult times. When Scarlett shows up at her home after being caught in Ashley's embrace, for instance, and Melanie greets her with open arms, wouldn't it have been lovely to see just a flash of anger in her eyes, or a momentary hesitation, or an acknowledgement that this was a painful moment? But no, we just get the same bland decency that de Havilland has given us for the whole movie.

Adam is correct to note that there are a couple of lies along the way; it's significant, though, that they're both in the service of someone else (or of something else -- the cause of the Glorious South). And when she does lie, there's nothing in de Havilland's performance to suggest that this is difficult for her, as surely it must be for a woman who does it so rarely.

Even on those rare occasions when Melanie's behavior might be considered less than perfectly moral, it's always selfless. De Havilland never gives her a hint of selfishness; as a result, she never felt -- to me, at least -- quite human.

CanadianKen said...

Frequently enough we surprise ourselves (and others) when it comes to who we fall in love with. I guess one of the reasons I'm so impressed with Olivia deHavilland's Melanie is that - generally - I'm not much of a fan. Often when she's playing characters we're meant to admire, her work seems suffused with a studiously focussed but rather patronizing solicitude. Sometimes I get the same feeling watching ET's Mary Hart widening her eyes to register sudden hyperbolic concern over some genuinely serious issue (then a split-second later,chirping and chortling about the latest Red Carpet flapdoodle with Cojo). I'd have expected deHavilland to bring some of this sanctimonious edge to her Melanie. But I saw none of it. I'm with Brad when he says. "deHavilland makes Melanie's goodness inviting". When this actress gets it right - and she did it spectacularly for me in GWTW and THE HEIRESS - I'm always astonished. She had a nice chemistry with Errol Flynn (no news there). And who doesn't get a kick out of watching her slap Bette silly in SWEET CHARLOTTE? But I never bought into her highly regarded work in TO EACH HIS OWN or HOLD BACK THE DAWN. And as a comedienne, she always had two left feet. She's solid in LADY IN A CAGE, and it's certainly one of her best films. But - for me - GWTW and THE HEIRESS remain her twin peaks of accomplishment. At the end of the 40's, with two recent Oscar wins, deHavilland was at the summit of her prestige. If I'm not mistaken,Warner Brothers purchased STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with her in mind. But she decided not to do it. My instinct tells me she wouldn't have carried it off. But who knows? Maybe lightning would've struck again - and she'd have sprung another startling surprise, creating a Blanche as memorable as her Melanie.

StinkyLulu said...

I guess I was surprised by the fact that I did see some of the flashes of humanity that you were looking for, Keith. But what I saw -- and appreciated --- landed in a slightly different register, more a performance of inner consent than one of inner conflict.

As I see it, De Havilland's Melanie fully embraced her role as "paragon of Southern womanhood," the rhetorical ideal for which the entire civil war was purportedly fought. And as the events of the film unfold, I saw De Havilland's Melanie reconcile herself -- time and again -- to the quiet sacrifices of embodying such a ridiculous ideal. But she's never "the rebel" -- that's Scarlett's unique function, embodying the female version of the South's rebellious spirit. Melanie submits to the role and I found that I admired De Havilland's performance of this submission. I got that, for Melanie, being an "ideal Southern woman" was something akin to a religious calling, and she's martyr for it. In the party seen, I appreciated that we didn't see anger but a brief flash of mournful pain, befitting Melanie's suffering on the cross of southern womanhood.

I find the whole moral algebra of GWTW noxious in its simplicity and wrongheadedness. Yet, for precisely those reasons, I find that I admire De Havilland and McDaniel all the more for their humane performances. The two roles are so ideologically loaded and, somehow, these women found people inside the propagandistic stock characters.


i haven't seen any of these films in a long time but I remember loving Geraldine Fitzgerald when i first saw WUTHERING HEIGHTS so based on a very very gold uninformed opinion (hee) i think you're all off the mark here! ha ha

i think i missed something in McDaniels performance too. i'll be watching it again in a couple of months.

MovieMania said...

Adam, do you mean that you believe de Havilland's performance is the best ever nomination?

Juanita's Journal said...

It was the staircase scene that sold it for me. I'm referring to the scene in which Mammy gave a long and emotional soliquay on the state of the Butler marriage to Melanie, while both of them climbed the long staircase inside of the Butler home. It was a brilliant and emotional performance on McDaniel's part.

adertamilka said...

Both Melanie and Mammy were supposed to be two-dimensional characters and, while funny and charming, McDaniels did not deliver that third dimension, as opposed to de Havilland, who was utterly wonderful and real. I do believe that if it weren't for the groundbreaking nature of McDaniel's win, Olivia would have it in the bag.

adertamilka said...

Both Melanie and Mammy were supposed to be two-dimensional characters and, while funny and charming, McDaniels did not deliver that third dimension, as opposed to de Havilland, who was utterly wonderful and real. I do believe that if it weren't for the groundbreaking nature of McDaniel's win, Olivia would have it in the bag.