Best Actress 1932-33
Winner: Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory
Nominees: May Robson, Lady for a Day
Diana Wynyard, Cavalcade

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★
Hepburn and Robson are both proficient enough, even in their highly limited ways, that a second star for this overall roster shouldn't be out of the question here. Maybe Wynyard, who by all rights should make her competitors look better, somehow infects them and makes them look worse. More problematically, Oscar had immensely superior alternatives close at hand, which did not ever require him to budge much from his demonstrated proclivities, but for some reason best known to himself, he didn't take them. Surely Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen shows Capra's direction to more advantage than Robson does in Lady for a Day. Just as surely, Hepburn is varied, rich, and inspired in Little Women, a nominee for Best Picture and Best Director but, who knows why, not the chosen vehicle for her "Star Is Born" prize. Most gallingly of all, with Oscar changing his timetable from the August-to-July qualifying heats of the previous ceremonies and preparing for the simpler calendar-year rubric of later ones, voters had 17 months of movies at their disposal, and they didn't even have a five-wide roster to fill. So where are the glorious holdovers from '32, like the Trouble in Paradise dames or Dietrich pushing her masquerade act into strangely maternal directions in Blonde Venus, or Harlow smoldering away in Red Dust? Or, from 1933, why not Garbo in Queen Christina, one of her defining roles? Or the Dinner at Eight crowd, or any of Busby Berkeley's engaging hoofers, or the pre-Code titillators like Chatterton, Hopkins, Stanwyck, or Mae West, who headlined another Best Picture nominee? As usual, when faced with an unusually rich banquet of tastes, voters kept to the bland and the obvious. Everyone responsible has been dead for many years, but we can still be annoyed with them. Or I can do it for you.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I think people tend to be either too hard on this performance or too forgiving of it. Granted, all critics think this about everything, just like all drivers think everyone else on the road is too fast or too slow. Yes, Hepburn miscalculates by enlisting that monotone, rat-a-tat voice as her single, relentless vehicle for communicating all of Eva's single-mindedness and her determined evasions of reality. Her pauses are occasionally funny, and more occasionally poignant, but the voice itself is never either of these things. She hasn't yet the facility for dizzy acceleration that she has in the best parts of Bringing Up Baby, and besides, her director, Lowell Sherman, isn't trying to make a case for the character or the film so much as he's dutifully advertising the new, curious commodity on RKO Radio's lot. It's surprising, in fact, that there's as much humor and looseness in Hepburn's self-consciously debutante-ish performance as there is, and it's wonderful that she has fun with her drunken recitals of "To be or not to be..." and "What's in a name?..." without selling out the language or the character sense entirely to silliness. One of the few times Sherman places the camera expressively—as Eva finishes one of many vague and dewy speeches to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and commences her walk of shame out of Adolphe Menjou's two-story apartment in extreme low-angle—Hepburn finds just the right moment and cadence for a gently humiliated "Thanks" to Fairbanks, and for a sad, undisguised evocation of disappointment with herself. With more opportunities like this, she might have constructed a more flexible, rangier Eva, but she also might have needed more time or more strenuous convincing to make sense of that climactic embrace of love at the expense of career. You don't have to know that Hepburn would never have endorsed this turn of events, even if she was hardly the unmitigated feminist trailblazer we sometimes pretend, in order to recognize that as an actress, she's at sea with this precipitous reversal. Overall, a thin but not an unpromising performance, gilded with humor and flashes of sharpness, but a much lesser turn than a warmer, less self-serious actress would have achieved. Three stars is a bit generous...

From There:
May Robson, Lady for a Day ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ it is for Robson, possibly best known for supporting Hepburn five years later as the exasperated aunt in Bringing Up Baby. She won her Oscar-nominated role only after MGM refused to loan out Marie Dressler. Few actors earn their breakout role at 75 years of age, but Lady for a Day and Robson's performance were enormous hits. If Hepburn hadn't had novelty and a four-film body of work on her side, Robson probably would have claimed the prize—capping the film's own narrative trajectory where Robson's "Apple" Annie sees her star rise unexpectedly and benefits from the copious kindness of an entire city's worth of rogues, operators, charmers, and charlatans (not a terrible analogy for Hollywood). Robson does strong work in her pre-makeover scenes. She constructs a sufficiently boozy, hardscrabble character that her eventual Swan routine pays off, and she is demonstrative but not obnoxious in her expressions of drunkenness, poverty, and mother-love, all of them pitfalls to many an able performer. Best, Robson is smart enough to anchor our sympathies in the extremity of Annie's emotions, rather than take the easier route of making Annie suspiciously sweet beneath her tough, eroded exterior. It's her vehement terror at the prospect of ruining her daughter's happiness that gets us, and her full-blown anger that the hotel staff won't help her, rather than any sentimental suggestion that Annie will melt into someone snuggly. This conception of the character indeed makes the extended generosity of her friends even more admirable, and more interesting. Indeed, the set-up of the film and of the performance are so satisfying that it's a surprise when Lady for a Day has so little to do with Robson during its second half. Her transformation into a semi-plausible society dame transpires in the space of a single cut; the film underlines the convoluted labors of Warren William and his criminal cadre as they keep the deception going, rather than spending much time at all with Annie as she learns her new routine. Furthermore, Robson doesn't let a lot of the original Annie shine through her newly adopted, abruptly polished comportment, even when some unfolding crises toward the end of the story would suggest some cracks in the façade. She even cloys a little in the later innings, and she's much, much too cautious about finding any humor in the overall role or in Annie's growing predicament. One of Lady for a Day's admirable qualities is its refusal to go for outright farce at the expense of credible feeling, and I'm glad Robson doesn't opt for facetiousness at any point, but she stands out as maybe the film's least ambitious performer in mining the absurdity and the fairytale-ness from this material. The easiest way to overdo pathos is to go squishy or bathetic, which Robson never does, but you can also overdo pathos by refusing to see or play anything else in the script.

Diana Wynyard, Cavalcade ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A doldrum, at every increment of faux-aging and for nearly every minute of Noel Coward's strangely strangled script. The nicest things to be said are that Wynyard moves well amidst the meticulous art direction, and she poses expressively, at least a few times, on the theatrical furniture. A proficient stage performance is not impossible to imagine here, albeit in a very outmoded style, though if Wynyard is in fact giving such a performance, Cavalcade's inexplicable editing and Frank Lloyd's commitment to close-ups make it impossible to discern. He premises the film on close-ups, at least when he isn't hammering away at another lifeless and slipshod montage of History, and though I hear that Wynyard is compelling in the original, British Gaslight of 1940, where acting well in close-up is surely a baseline requirement of the tale, she's gauzy and incoherent with them here. She has no instinctive sense for the camera or its orientations, giving off strange expressions at odd and unflattering angles, but more than that, she treats the entire filmmaking apparatus as though it is a time-capsule for her wistful solemnities. She credits the script with much more wisdom than it actually possesses, and she subscribes completely to its abstractly reverential, garishly monumental sense of time. There is nothing quotidian and very little of the spontaneous in her performance—too little sense that her Jane Marryot is alive, much less what she's like, on days where war doesn't happen to erupt or the Titanic doesn't sink or none of her children dies. The minute Wynyard does fix on something like a subtext, as in the early scenes where she perhaps takes her servants a bit much for granted, and perhaps isn't as adored by them or by her unruliest child as she assumes she is, Lloyd makes sure to steer her away from it and consign her back to one-dimensional posterboarding of time-tested Dignity. Anyone short of Dolores Del Rio would be more creditable on this list.

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

My Favorites from 1932-33:

My Pick: Kay Francis, Trouble in Paradise
Nominees: Katharine Hepburn, Little Women
Nominees: Barbara Stanwyck, The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Honorable Mentions: Marlene Dietrich, Blonde Venus; Miriam Hopkins, Trouble in Paradise; Jean Harlow, Red Dust; Mary Astor, Red Dust; Billie Burke, Dinner at Eight; Mae West, She Done Him Wrong; Bebe Daniels, 42nd Street; Helen Hayes, A Farewell to Arms; Barbara Stanwyck, Ladies They Talk About; Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory; May Robson, Lady for a Day; Fay Wray, King Kong; Ruby Keeler, 42nd Street; Marie Dressler, Dinner at Eight

Gourmet Prospects: Ethel Barrymore, Rasputin and the Empress; Constance Bennett, Two Against the World; Joan Blondell, Footlight Parade; Joan Blondell, Three on a Match; Nancy Carroll, Hot Saturday; Ruth Chatterton, Female; Ruth Chatterton, Lilly Turner; Claudette Colbert, I Cover the Waterfront; Joan Crawford, Rain; Bette Davis, Three on a Match; Irene Dunne, Back Street; Ann Dvorak, Three on a Match; Kay Francis, One Way Passage; Greta Garbo, Queen Christina; Ann Harding, The Animal Kingdom; Jean Harlow, Bombshell; Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living; Miriam Hopkins, The Story of Temple Drake; Jeanette MacDonald, Love Me Tonight; Norma Shearer, Strange Interlude; Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face; Loretta Young, A Man's Castle

Further Research: Joan Bennett, Me and My Gal; Clara Bow, Call Her Savage; Nancy Carroll, The Woman Accused; Mae Clarke, Fast Workers; Claudette Colbert, The Sign of the Cross; Joan Crawford, Dancing Lady; Joan Crawford, Today We Live; Constance Cummings, Movie Crazy; Marion Davies, Peg o' My Heart; Bette Davis, Bureau of Missing Persons; Bette Davis, The Cabin in the Cotton; Bette Davis, Ex-Lady; Bette Davis, Parachute Jumper; Bette Davis, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; Bette Davis, The Working Man; Irene Dunne, No Other Woman; Irene Dunne, The Secret of Madame Blanche; Kay Francis, Cynara; Kay Francis, The House on 56th Street; Janet Gaynor, Tess of the Storm Country; Ann Harding, The Right to Romance; Ann Harding, When Ladies Meet; Helen Hayes, The White Sister; Leila Hyams, The Constant Woman; Carole Lombard, No Man of Her Own; Carole Lombard, White Woman; Myrna Loy, The Prizefighter and the Lady; Lyda Roberti, The Kid from Spain; Gloria Stuart, The Invisible Man; Gloria Stuart, The Old Dark House; Lupe Velez, The Half Naked Truth; Mae West, I'm No Angel; Anna May Wong, A Study in Scarlet; Loretta Young, Heroes for Sale

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