...Ethel Barrymore in Pinky (1949)
approximately 17 minutes and 9 seconds
roughly 17% of film's total running time
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?