Best Actress 1941
Winner: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
Nominees: Bette Davis, The Little Foxes
Olivia de Havilland, Hold Back the Dawn
Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust
Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Barbara Stanwyck had the kind of year in 1941 that usually garners an Oscar based on cumulative impact, even when, as here, the individual performances more than merited a prize. How do you show the kind of power, dexterity, and versatility that she does in the screwball sublimity of The Lady Eve, the saucy patois and punchline-slinging of Ball of Fire, and the arc from spitfire ingenuity to ethical-romantic dismay of Meet John Doe and not wind up with an Oscar, especially when your competitors are a recent double-winner who gave her industry-royalty director a very hard time, a headliner in a bright but standard-issue biopic, and two rivalrous sisters giving thin and semi-thin performances, respectively, in a well below-par Hitchcock thriller and a Tijuana melodrama so perilously earnest that Preston Sturges cracks a great joke about it in the same year's Sullivan's Travels? I still can't figure out what went wrong here; you can try to pin the problem on genre, but is Suspicion really more Academy-friendly than Ball of Fire? I can repeat these questions forever, but even if the most deserving contender got trumped by one of the category's all-time weakest choices, it's not an altogether bad field.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire ★ ★ ★ ★
Stanwyck keeps emerging in performance after performance as the most consistently electrifying of classical Hollywood actresses, and though Ball of Fire has a few trajectory problems and she's even more brilliant in Lady Eve, she once again nails her trademark trick of landing a key role for which she seems miscast—tough, elongated, low-butted Barbara Stanwyck as a nightclub trixie named Sugarpuss O'Shea?—and she comes out shining, for reasons well beyond her boldly sequined wardrobe. Dispatching her opening song-and-dance number (the dubious "Drum Boogie"), Stanwyck slides right into the gangster-comedy rhythms and archetypes of Ball of Fire. She's aces with the repartee, especially since the sextet of nebbishy encyclopediasts who are hiding her from the mob have to play the comedy semi-subtly, and she has to hit it back semi-broadly. But does Stanwyck even break a sweat? Nope. She just moves like a minx chanteuse (albeit one who isn't quite to the lavaliere born) and lets fly: "Who was that guy who learned so much just from watching an apple drop?" and "Ooh, Greek philosophy! I've got a set just like this with a radio inside" and "You see, this is the first time anybody moved in on my brain." Just because she's stranded incongruously, Stanwyck never takes the bait to play Sugarpuss remotely dumb, and her sincerity and good humor, however mixed with bafflement at her bespectacled company, makes palatable the script's compulsory turn into romance. Another highlight: her quickly muttered patter of protest throughout her own wedding to Dana Andrews' unsavory, kidnapping hood.

From There:
Bette Davis, The Little Foxes ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I rewatched The Little Foxes recently, expecting Davis to give Stanwyck a run for her money as my pick among this '41 litter, and lo and behold, in one of her most acclaimed performances, Bette largely rubbed me the wrong way. I have admired the performance tremendously in the past and probably will again, particularly insofar as she shows us the calculating intelligence by which Regina Giddens strives to stay a few moves ahead of her equally conniving and entrepreneurial brothers, and the sour vindictiveness with which she's willing to take everyone's fortunes and happiness down with her when her own has been wrecked, or when she's made a rare false step in her strategies. The best moments in Davis' performance are those when she demonstrates the frustrated impatience of a woman who might be tired of all this venal manipulation, but outraged all the same by her lack of alternatives as a woman seeking to exercise ingenuity and power, and to reap the profits of the family business as more than a hostess-bystander-doyenne. All of those shadings speak highly of Davis's performance, but perhaps equally highly of Hellman's writing; the actress's most conspicuous contribution is the almost Kabuki imperiousness she brings to so many scenes, arching her brows, clamping her jaw, and rolling her pupils like dice inside her eyes. It's a fearsome, steely mask, but it's dangerously over-mannered, both because there's no reason for anyone to expect any less than the worst from her and because she doesn't make Regina's contempt, including her self-contempt, or her internal battle of moral allegiances nearly as interesting as she might have with more judicious, variegated playing—perhaps by allowing a few moments of evident sympathy, maybe, or of Regina's vulnerability, or of some emotional friction she resists as she lets her husband die just out of her eyeline. She barely connects with Teresa Wright as her daughter, which a top-drawer Regina in a fully-loaded production of The Little Foxes would require, and though it's still essential Davis, with some fierce and inimitable moments, I'm tempted to take Wyler's side in their notorious, partnership-ending debates about how best to serve and enrich the role.

Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In her first of several teamings with director Mervyn LeRoy, and at the outset of a remarkable string of five consecutive Best Actress nods, Garson plays Edna Gladney, a Midwestern debutante who becomes a champion of orphans (though she hates the word!) and "illegitimate" children (though she hates the word!) in Fort Worth, Texas. As so often, there is something so precious and safe about Garson's radiant refinement—her gleaming smiles, her flaming red hair, her accent incongruously posh by way of Wisconsin—that one feels a bit duped in praising or enjoying her work, as though one has fallen for a crashingly obvious marketing ploy. But radiant she is, and particularly once the story catches up with her age, her emotional generosity, ease of movement, and expressive face and voice go an incredibly long way toward selling the treacly script. She also interacts beautifully with Felix Bressart, a gem as a loyal and wisecracking pediatrician, and on the few occasions when Blossoms allows Edna a moment of unsavory affect (envy, annoyance, self-pity), Garson's smart enough to underline it for the sake of complexity and then spry enough to win herself right back into our affections. This last skill is hardly an inherent hallmark of great acting, but it's indispensable to Blossoms in the Dust as its creators have styled it, and even she seems ready to give more depth than the movie finally wants, Garson succeeds in putting the movie over.

Olivia de Havilland, Hold Back the Dawn ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A tough to performance to judge. On the one hand, de Havilland leans a bit too heavily on the naïveté of her Emmy Brown, a California schoolteacher who blindsides herself into marrying Charles Boyer's obvious green-card hunter during an errant trip to Mexico. De Havilland's Emmy is a smiling, decent, vaguely dim woman who emerges as rather distressingly prone to Boyer's only half-sincere seductions, rather than attempting the more interesting alter ego of, say, a woman who knows she's making a foolish choice but is hungry enough for marriage to make do. Or she simply might have made Emmy a bit more credulous and dramatized some of the tension between believing and not believing her new lover. Many of her reaction shots look too simple, once or twice even a bit amateurish, and she hasn't the gift for endowing her goodness or softness with unexpected depth and integrity, as she did in Gone with the Wind. Still, she's a more than capable actress, and when she really invests in a scene, as in some of her skepticism and annoyance in her first acquaintance with Boyer or her hints at introspection and doubt when Boyer puts her to bed in the back of his car, she's thoughtful and entirely watchable. She's even more compelling toward the end of her character arc, tautly underplaying in a juicy standoff with Boyer's vixen accomplice (a tart, terrific Paulette Goddard) and then putting the immigration authorities off of Boyer's tale before taking drastic action into her own hands. The script almost guarantees that we'll be most interested in Emmy during these chapters, but de Havilland really does well in them, even if she hasn't laid the full groundwork that would have deepened them even further.

Joan Fontaine, Suspicion ★ ★ ★ ★
So, admittedly Fontaine gets no help from Cary Grant's bluntly caddish performance or the distended and repetitive script or the erratic tone and direction, nor from having to duplicate the same basic arc from romantic credulity to roiling doubts to marital despair that she'd just navigated in Hitchcock's Rebecca the year before, though at least that film took her dilemma mostly seriously. Part of the problem with Fontaine's work in Suspicion is that she keeps taking the project more seriously than anyone else seems to; none of the percolating notes of comedy or absurdism in the movie, inconsistent and even irritating though they are, make their way into Fontaine's interpretation. But then, outside of her constant, wimpy demonstrations of discomfort and doubt, raising one brow and trembling one lip like a five-year-old whose goldfish just died, Fontaine doesn't find almost anything to do with this character. The mannerism itself is a milky and off-putting pantomime, like she's preparing for a hideous whinge-off with Teresa Wright, but she at least seems (misguidedly) confident in it, or else she's radiating the discomfort of an actress trapped in a film by an inhospitable director who obviously hasn't decided upon or convinced himself of his ending. When Fontaine steps out of this prevailing mode of mousiness, the results look even shakier: her "serious" reading of Dr. Henrietta Wright's Child Psychology in her first scene; her low-toned and chesty vocal approximations of posh Englishness; her feint at well-bred lustiness as she accepts Grant's invitation to church; her indechiperable archness as she writes a letter stating her long-deferred decision to leave her husband, and then deciding once again not to. In brief flits, I saw something in Fontaine's performance. Disconnected from the larger plot, her moment of rhapsody at inheriting two old, ugly, antique chairs from her parents and trying to goad her husband into thanking them over the phone, even as she's embarrassed by herself and he's profoundly irritated by the whole thing, is a true and wonderful moment. And her struggle to understand Grant's incorrigible recklessness with money is palpable and persuasive. But any half-competent actress could have fulfilled these moments and probably many more like them over the course of Suspicion. Much more often than not, Fontaine just makes us feel the inadequacies, vagaries, and protractions of the script, instead of helping to compensate for them.

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

My Favorites from 1941:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve
Nominees: Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon
Nominees: Joan Crawford, A Woman's Face
Nominees: Marlene Dietrich, The Flame of New Orleans
Nominees: Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire

Honorable Mentions (ranked): Bette Davis, The Little Foxes; Barbara Stanwyck, Meet John Doe; Ona Munson, The Shanghai Gesture; Greer Garson, Blossoms in the Dust; Vivien Leigh, That Hamilton Woman; Irene Dunne, Penny Serenade; Carole Lombard, Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Gourmet Prospects: Bette Davis, The Great Lie; Olivia de Havilland, The Strawberry Blonde; Wendy Hiller, Major Barbara

Further Research: Joan Bennett, Man Hunt; Joan Crawford, When Ladies Meet; Bette Davis, The Bride Came C.O.D.; Linda Darnell, Blood and Sand; Olivia de Havilland, They Died with Their Boots On; Geraldine Fitzgerald, Shining Victory; Betty Grable, Moon over Miami; Rita Hayworth, You'll Never Get Rich; Brenda Marshall, Footsteps in the Dark; Merle Oberon, That Uncertain Feeling; Claire Trevor, Texas; Kaaren Verne, All Through the Night

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