Best Actress 1938
Winner: Bette Davis, Jezebel
Nominees: Fay Bainter, White Banners
Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion
Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette
Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★
A roster that probably deserves more credit than it tends to receive, famous as it mostly is for netting Bette Davis' second Oscar, and the first one that, even by her own account, she had any pretense to deserving. As you'll see, I'm not sure she did deserve it, at least for this particular performance. The Self-Styled Siren makes a thrilling case for Davis, and for the film, but I still don't think Julie is quite the full, layered creation that Davis could have made her. But it's still quite a kick to watch her poke around the character, and like Bainter and Hiller, she's indelible in her most memorable moments, even if the sum of the turns or the roles or the films don't measure up to their fullest potential. From that solid trio, things only improve with the breadth and unexpected gravity of Shearer's queen and the fragile but profound humanity of Sullavan's ailing bride. Every performance here is worth studying and revisiting, and at least two are worth cherishing.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette ★ ★ ★ ★
From my Mother's Day 2003 feature: "Historically and politically, the film could hardly be more laughable: watch as Norma reacts with horror at the news that nefarious courtiers are buying jewels for her behind her back...don't they know people are starving outside?! King Louis' greatest crimes here are that he is oafish and egg-shaped; Marie herself seems to have no faults at all, and the film itself spares no expense at conjuring her world as a glittering panorama of balls and summits and semi-passionate clenches. The picture is fun in spite of, or maybe because of, its brazen ahistoricism, but then, in the last act, Norma Shearer single-handedly changes the temperature as she and her young son and daughter are jailed and readied for the guillotine. Marie Antoinette begins as a light and improbable costume drama but ends as something genuinely sad and surprisingly heavy: the story of a mother whose children are about to die. The movie is expensive piffle. The Revolution is a cartoon, but Shearer's performance, as they say, is a real coup." One is often thrilled to have firm evidence that one has learned something as the years pass, and I would add to this report that, whatever Marie Antoinette's frequent and thorough failings as history or as drama, the film does interpolate some strong, compressed moments that give the rebelling classes and the larger sphere of political unrest more power and texture than the film might have had: for example, an Expressionist reaction shot of the astonished servants in a jailhouse as Louis and Marie's toddler of a son starts ordering them around, mere hours before his father is publicly decapitated. I also take issue with my assertion that Shearer's Marie "seems to have no faults at all." Both the movie and the actress underscore her hedonism and her hypocrisies at key, memorable moments, even if they also tend to wipe these slates clean during some of the film's more insistently sentimental moments. If a second trip through the film earned my admiration, a second visit to Shearer's performance (and to that of Gladys George, as nemesis Madame Du Barry) proved even more rewarding. This is Shearer's strongest bid at character acting, sometimes remarkably modern in its realistic and detailed communications of tact, of indecision or incomprehension, of genuine attempts to grasp the gathering storm, and of climactic despair. One sees the signs here and there of the posturing, gesticulating, slightly superficial actress that Shearer often let herself be, but she builds and deepens the character beyond anything I've ever seen her do, and those final sequences—including a silent reaction shot as she watches her children share a final moment of play with their father, and as she cuts a killing glance at the guards who arrive to seize her boy—are even more severe and earnestly affecting than I remembered. (IMDB)

From There:
Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades ★ ★ ★ ★
Even more than Norma Shearer, Margaret Sullavan is one of those actors that has obsolesced in common memory but whose reputation remains profound among film buffs: Danny Peary showed a recurring weakness for her in Alternate Oscars (anointing this performance as the best of 1938), and the University of Chicago's DocFilms repetory house recently ran a season-long retrospective of her work. In Three Comrades, Sullavan plays one of those woebegone characters, very Bohème, who knows she is dying through most of the film and refuses to let her new lover (Robert Taylor) know about it. Scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and benefiting more than once from his gift for philosophically poetic dialogue, and directed by 7th Heaven's Frank Borzage, with sublimity and sentimentality each defeating the other about half the time, Three Comrades sometimes loses itself amid its contradictory goals of pondering death from personal, political, and cosmic vantages and of offering a rapt, protracted, occasionally chintzy catharsis to its audience. But Sullavan keeps the film honest. She seems so genuinely thoughtful about death—even when the scene isn't about her, or when she's explicitly concentrating on someone or something else—that her character's slow, painful passing plays as a complex drama of consciousness, not just a spectacle of bedside bathos. Sullavan (who, it must be confessed, committed suicide later in life) often looks in many of her films like she's got the world on her shoulders and a load on her heart, and occasionally she plays the character in too depressed or distracted a register. She also struggles a bit, often to her credit, with the more prolix passages of Fitzgerald's prose. But mostly, she's a marvelous kaleidoscope of thoughts and moods: tired, reflective, ardent, embarrassed, bored, intuitive, chummy, paralyzed, ecstatic. She generates a wonderful, thinking-person's rapport with her lover's best friend (a superb Franchot Tone), and she is unsettlingly ghostly and frozen after a poignant medical crisis that comes unbidden during a seaside frolic. Even a woman who knows she is going to die is shell-shocked when death is imminent, a glacial fact, a possible matter of moments or hours: just one example of how Sullavan takes us smartly, sensitively, almost spookily into her candor and confidence as she walks her inexorable path. (IMDB)

Bette Davis, Jezebel ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my full review: "Davis, though she had just barely established herself at the head of the Hollywood class, is already playing ironic with her own steely persona, tricking us with the bashful reticence that Julie adopts after the ball-gown episode, only to doff this mask of gentility once Preston turns up with a new, Northern wife. It isn't Davis' most interesting performance; she opened her heart more surprisingly and persuasively in the following year's Dark Victory, and her knack for lethal neurosis hit its peak in 1940 with The Letter, her next collaboration with Wyler. Jezebel finds her taking a first stab at mixing up all these sides of her persona. It's like she's entertaining herself with the confidence that she has made herself a star, and is testing out the flexibility of that star persona to see how far she'll be able to ride it. Answer: far indeed, though the fact that she has an Oscar for playing Julie Marsden but none for her Leslie Crosbie or Regina Giddens or Margo Channing seems perverse. In Jezebel, she's just playing the angles of a mediocre script, just as Haller is playing the angles of her challenging face, and they both yield some treasures that won't really gleam until later, richer exhibitions." (IMDB)

Fay Bainter, White Banners ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
From my capsule review: "Fay Bainter ... [a] supporting-cast fixture enjoying a rare turn in the spotlight, was Oscar-nominated for her role as the unknown but eminently trustable housekeeper Hannah, who shows up at the Ward family's doorstep one morning and pertly makes good on the promise of their name. But this family's ward quickly reveals herself as the wind beneath their wings. Hannah is the explicit source of the movie's most unabashed philosophies of giving, inventing, adapting, extending second chances, and taking the high road, but Bainter's smart underplaying of Hannah's goodness protects both the character and the film from our resentment. She also makes room for Claude Rains, as her misfit-professor pseudo-employer, and Skippy's Jackie Cooper, as a smart but spoiled teenager, to emerge as the real centers of the movie, profiting from her wise advice without seeming like mere test cases for her homespun theses." As this last comment implies, Bainter verges on the edge of supporting her male co-stars, and on second viewing, it's a bit wearying how Goulding and his screenwriters lose track of Hannah for long periods and then invariably restore her to the movie through the device of a go-get-'em speech. I even caught Bainter overacting one of these, something about trust and spiritual satisfaction and "this ain't no Sunday School ditty!" that she trumpets out to Kay Johnson's weary mother-mistress-friend. Still, I realized that what appeals most deeply about this performance is Bainter's commitment to thoughtfulness and modulation, even during the scenes where Hannah rather abruptly endears herself to the Wards. During one long shot, with chitty Bonita Granville prattling on in the background and Bainter stirring some pot of something on the range in the foreground, I realized that Loretta Young or Norma Shearer or Olivia de Havilland would have imagined that her duty was to beam and glow and furnish an unbending ear to this young girl, thereby equating Goodness with Sweet Ebullience, which is also Self-Effacement. Bainter listens during this scene, but she also visibly thinks and reflects; she's even a little bit distracted with something on her own mind. Which means, she's a real person—and Granville can fall in love with her for who she is and what she does, not for any bland radiance that Hannah is forced to cast, permanently, in her direction. Moments like these also redeem Hannah's effusive speeches as the product not of pure-born, metaphysical, frankly impossible feeling, but of thought and feeling and experience, some of it bitter. In a story that often plays as a kind of proto-Mary Poppins, Bainter proves that a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down. (IMDB)

Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
One breathes a sigh of relief upon first glimpse of Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion because she isn't Audrey Hepburn, which is to say, she's no earthbound angel or glamour-puss biding her time until Eliza becomes a swan who speaks the Queen's English. Hiller's imposingly angular face, her crabbed physique in the flower-girl scenes, and her haughty comportment allow Pygmalion to sidestep the incongruous feel-goodery of My Fair Lady. You believe Hiller when she screams during her bath, or as she struggles under Higgins' autocratic tutelage, and her sour but strangely charismatic visage, as improbable to the screen as Eliza is to a formal ball, lends its own potency to the story and the mise-en-scène. And yet, say this for feel-goodery: even though Pygmalion is in some measure a horror story, and quite clearly a story of classism, chauvinism, narcissism, and abandonment, Eliza surely enjoys some of the fruits of her peculiar education, and the piece is a comedy as well as a multi-faceted indictment of the culture at large. Hiller has some quick fun at the outset, and again when she is received by Higgins' mother, fluting her vowels and consonants but failing utterly in her diction. It's a spry and refreshing sequence. Otherwise, she's too hard and rather inflexible: she often plays one note per scene, and while I admired her unsentimental choices, and her careful clocking of her voice, I couldn't help feeling like she was misserving the piece by being so cold and so studied. Even when she lashes back at Higgins, Hiller makes Eliza angry (impressively) without making her as intelligent as her lines imply: she doesn't taunt him enough with his slippers and his jewels, and Eliza's learned too much by now to render these acts so simply. Finally, in the surreal miscalculation of the new add-on ending, which has Eliza running back to Henry in a fit of adoration, the attraction arrives out of nowhere. Maybe no one told Hiller to plant this emotional thread earlier because no one had forced the Pygmalion team to so grossly compromise their story until very late in the game—but all we get is what's on screen, and what's on screen from Hiller is often intriguing, certainly competent, but insufficiently inspired. (IMDB)

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

My Favorites from 1938:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Holiday
Nominees: Bette Davis, Jezebel
Nominees: Katharine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby
Nominees: Norma Shearer, Marie Antoinette
Nominees: Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

Honorable Mentions (ranked): Fay Bainter, White Banners; Joan Crawford, The Shining Hour; Margaret Lockwood, The Lady Vanishes; Wendy Hiller, Pygmalion; Claudette Colbert, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife; Olivia de Havilland, The Adventures of Robin Hood; Jean Arthur, You Can't Take It with You; Margaret Sullavan, The Shining Hour

Gourmet Prospects: Constance Bennett, Merrily We Live; Frances Dee, If I Were King; Alice Faye, Alexander's Ragtime Band; Cora Green, Swing!; Priscilla Lane, Four Daughters; Myrna Loy, Test Pilot; Jeanette MacDonald, Sweethearts; Gail Patrick, Wives under Suspicion; Ginger Rogers, Vivacious Lady; Rosalind Russell, The Citadel; Barbara Stanwyck, The Mad Miss Manton; Margaret Sullavan, The Shopworn Angel

Further Research: Annabella, The Baroness and the Butler; Mary Astor, Woman against Woman; Joan Bennett, I Met My Love Again; Joan Blondell, There's Always a Woman; Bette Davis, The Sisters; Sally Eilers, Tarnished Angel; Judy Garland, Listen, Darling; Janet Gaynor, Three Loves Has Nancy; Ruth Hussey, Rich Man, Poor Girl; Myrna Loy, Too Hot to Handle; Merle Oberon, The Cowboy and the Lady; Merle Oberon, The Divorce of Lady X; Nova Pilbeam, Young and Innocent; Ginger Rogers, Carefree

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