Best Actress 1931-32
Winner: Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet
Nominees: Marie Dressler, Emma
Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In narrowing the field to three nominated performances (compared to five the year before, and seven the year before that), Oscar also thumbed its nose at star performances by past nominees Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Norma Shearer, instead embracing two Broadway luminaries, Lynn Fontanne and Helen Hayes. Too bad the wrong performance won, and too bad that the magnificent Marie Dressler, the reigning victor from 1931, earned her second and final nod for one of her sillier performances. And too bad that Oscar's strangely lopsided love for Grand Hotel, which copped Best Picture without earning a single other nomination, came at the expense of Joan Crawford's ambitious but imperiled amenuensis.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman ★ ★ ★ ★
In the first scene, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne reprise the final scene of their Broadway smash in Maxwell Andersons's Elizabeth the Queen (which later formed the groundwork for Bette Davis' Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). It's a tribute to Fontanne's talent, and consonant with her legendary status in the theater, and crucial to the plot to boot, that she is so succinctly fascinating in this one scene: look at how strangely but expressively she slumps on her throne at the close. But from there, as the curtain comes down on Elizabeth the Queen, The Guardsman really takes off, as Fontanne and Lunt, married superstars of the 20th-century stage, play married superstars of the 20th-century stage who love to trade barbs about who's the better performer. She's stunned by his chauvinistic assumption of his own superiority; he's horrified to be thought of as anything less than genius, and also nervous about his wife's wandering eye. From there follows a series of farcical impersonations, uncertain realizations, and some remarkably tart pre-Code innuendo. The plot, however light, is too much fun to spoil, but to whatever extent The Guardsman draws us into a comparative evaluation of these performers, Fontanne trumps her clever but hammy hubby. Her remarkable spectrum of acerbic laughs and wry interjections, complemented by inspired gestures and smart, sexy line deliveries, keep this dated material remarkably fresh. She still acts like a doyenne of the stage, with little sense of interacting specifically with a camera, but she's not "stagy," exactly, and though she never played another film role, one surmises that she could have done great things with Kay Francis' part in the same year's majestically saucy Trouble in Paradise, or with lots of Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur-type roles in future years. A foreigner to the screen, not 100% at home, but delightful nonetheless.

From There:
Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Like Fontanne, Hayes was a preeminent stage actress who finally made her first talkie in late 1931, and unlike Fontanne, she even lined up a few more choice projects that implied she would be sticking around, bagging the leads in Arrowsmith and A Farewell to Arms, two prestige literary adaptations that both earned Best Picture nominations. Was The Sin of Madelon Claudet just a warm-up to teach Helen the basics of screen-acting before she got her hands on better material? Hard to say, and in fairness, you can see where Claudet's sudsy plot about babies born and abandoned, fortunes won and lost, would appeal to an ambitious performer. Hayes, though, has been less successful than Fontanne at scaling back the size of a theatrical performance for the purposes of the screen, and she's compounded the problem of an alien medium by getting herself palpably miscast in her very first vehicle. The Academy voters went for all the crying and hand-wringing and blowzy dissolution; maybe they were assuaged by Hayes' moving expressions of age, illness, and rueful delight in the admittedly shameless final scene. Still, you can see why Goatdog calls this film The Sin of Maudlin Claudet, and Hayes doesn't do nearly enough to forestall the joke.

Marie Dressler, Emma ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Even great Marie Dressler performances come with a side of ham, but where her gruff and almost insolent mannerisms only add mystery and unpredictable energy to her characters in Min and Bill or Dinner at Eight, her turn here as the square-jawed but saintly maid of Jean Hersholt's upwardly mobile brood is mostly a series of tics and audience-friendly routines. Actors often get credit for keeping leaky vehicles afloat, and it's true that Emma's various and meaningless slides among slapstick, romance, courtroom drama, and maternal sanctification would be an even more saccharine pill to swallow without Dressler's good humor and committed exertions. Still, she's exhausting much more often than she is exhilarating; the centerpiece sequence where she gets stuck in a short-circuited flight simulator is a sadly serviceable emblem for the lunacy of the script and the hectic entrapment of the performer.

Who gets your vote in this field, and on my dream ballot below? VOTE HERE!

My Favorites from 1932:
As determined by years of Oscar eligibility
(Favorites in Major Categories)

My Pick: Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel
Nominees: Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express
Nominees: Barbara Stanwyck, Night Nurse

Honorable Mentions (ranked): Lynn Fontanne, The Guardsman; Barbara Stanwyck, The Miracle Woman; Helen Hayes, Arrowsmith; Sylvia Sidney, Merrily We Go to Hell; Joan Crawford, Possessed; Marian Marsh, Five Star Final; Sylvia Sidney, Street Scene; Olga Baclanova, Freaks; Greta Garbo, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise

Also-Rans (alpha): Claudette Colbert, The Smiling Lieutenant; Marie Dressler, Emma; Sally Eilers, Bad Girl; Greta Garbo, Grand Hotel; Greta Garbo, Mata Hari; Dorothy Hall, Working Girls; Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet; Miriam Hopkins, The Smiling Lieutenant; Jeanette MacDonald, One Hour with You; Judith Wood, Working Girls

Gourmet Prospects: Constance Bennett, What Price Hollywood?; Joan Blondell, Blonde Crazy; Ruth Chatterton, The Rich Are Always with Us; Mae Clarke, Waterloo Bridge; Joan Crawford, Letty Lynton; Bette Davis, The Man Who Played God; Ann Dvorak, Scarface, the Shame of a Nation; Greta Garbo, As You Desire Me; Jean Harlow, Platinum Blonde; Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman; Miriam Hopkins, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Norma Shearer, Private Lives; Sylvia Sidney, An American Tragedy

Further Research: Mary Astor, Men of Chance; Constance Bennett, Lady with a Past; Joan Blondell, The Greeks Had a Word for Them; Nancy Carroll, Broken Lullaby (aka The Man I Killed); Mae Clarke, Impatient Maiden; Bette Davis, The Dark Horse; Frances Dee, An American Tragedy; Kay Francis, Girls About Town; Kay Francis, Guilty Hands; Doris Kenyon, Young America; Myrna Loy, Vanity Fair; Lois Moran, Transatlantic; Marian Nixon, After Tomorrow; Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan, the Ape Man; Effie L. Palmer, Way Back Home; Lyda Roberti, Million Dollar Legs; Lupe Velez, The Cuban Love Song; Loretta Young, Platinum Blonde; Loretta Young, Taxi!

Stay Tuned: Because of the eligibility period of August 1, 1931–July 31, 1932, such famous 1932 releases as Blonde Venus, Rain, Red Dust, The Sign of the Cross, Strange Interlude, and Trouble in Paradise were not eligible until the 1932-33 Oscar cycle.

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