Best Actress 1944
Winner: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Nominees: Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away
Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington
Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
1943-44 were the years when Ingrid Bergman went supernova, and one suspects that a year after losing to best friend Jennifer Jones, she would have won the Oscar for any half-decent performance in any well-heeled studio vehicle. If one were forcing analogies, it wouldn't take too much strain to liken Bergman's Gaslight win to Nicole Kidman's victory for The Hours, one year after racing to the head of the Hollywood pack, commercially, glamorously, and artistically. (I'll have more to say about Bergman/Kidman connections later.) Like Kidman's Virginia Woolf, Bergman's Paula Alquist is a polished, frequently fascinating creation that nevertheless isn't quite confusable with the actress's best work; in yet another parallel, this voting outcome, a perfect storm of Oscar logic and public adulation, came at the expense of a superior performance by a frustratingly statue-less genius giving one of her most iconic performances. Colbert holds down the Zellweger/Chicago position of capably anchoring a Best Picture heavyweight (though Chicago obviously entranced the Academy more than Since You Went Away did, despite all of Selznick's special pleading). And that leaves the other two nominees. If Diane Lane is a divisive case in '02, where some people discern a peak-level performance and I see nothing special, and if Salma Hayek is generally acknowledged as reaping a nom more for her heroic acts of producing and nurturing Frida than for her actual thesping, then it bears mentioning that Garson and Davis are even more dispiriting in their homonymous prestige pictures, the silly Mrs. Parkington and the ghastly, vegetative Mr. Skeffington. They exemplify the age-old habit of AMPAS voters genuflecting to their darlings. Particularly with a quintessentially peachy but moonish Judy Garland, an exquisitely enigmatic Gene Tierney, and an ideally cast, exuberantly garish Betty Hutton waiting in the wings, it's a damn shame—and makes for a serious dilution of the '44 vintage—that the Academy couldn't wean itself of inveterate preferences: that is, Davis's sixth nomination in seven years, Garson's fourth in five, and possibly the least justifiable that either woman ever garnered. (Comment Here)

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ★ ★ ★ ★
Undoubtedly like a lot of people of my generation, I came to know who Barbara Stanwyck was through her iconic femme-fatale role as Phyllis Dietrichson. As inevitable as this feels from the standpoint of Hollywood lore, it's more surprising and, if I may admit it, a bit disappointing that this should be so, given the generic breadth of Stanwyck's body of work. Stanwyck is in no way a dated presence within Double Indemnity, but from an idiomatic standpoint, her particular brand of toughness resonates more in the fierce, compact, and erotically freer world of pre-Code Hollywood than in the heavier, more psychologically abstracted world of noir, especially as filtered through Wilder's layers of irony. There are times in Double Indemnity where Stanwyck feels a bit hemmed-in by Phyllis's pre-structured presence as an embodiment of venality, or by Wilder's fetishization of certain holistic attitudes or physical impressions (that awful hairdo, those angular postures and about-face conversations in the grocery store). But that's enough of against-the-grain qualification of my fondness for a tough, sexy, deservedly legendary performance. Phyllis's casually undomestic remark that "I never know what's in the icebox" is even more inimitably Stanwyck than her drowsy-cobra slumps in her generously stuffed chaises and armchairs, but she pretty much nails those, too. She enters hungrily and smartly into scenarios of emergency (caught behind the door) or of carnality (everything that happens once she gets inside). I appreciate that Stanwyck seems unpersuaded to the script's conviction that Phyllis is "rotten to the heart," a line she under-sells more than many actresses would have. She plays her first sequence of coaxing Walter Neff into her murderous stratagems not as the first, purposefully amateur stage of a larger plot but as an imperfectly managed ploy; she doesn't harden or elevate Phyllis into a diabolical genius, but presents her as a woman who unmistakably dislikes her husband and dislikes her step-daughter (frankly, I do too) and lets her rancors get the best of her. As the plans intensify and the prospect of the killing gets closer, Phyllis sure takes to it. But she's never completely comfortable. "But we've been through all that so many times!" she exclaims to Walter as he forces a final run-through for how they will off the doomed Mr. Dietrichson. Many a femme fatale would take cold, cruel, bored pity on Walter's incessant repetition of well-choreographed plans. Stanwyck instead summons a bit of frightened panic, along with the self-assurance. Phyllis and Double Indemnity are more interesting because, no matter how she's remembered, Phyllis is not an implacable villain but a woman who's having to work at becoming a monster. She's not a pro, though she sure is getting there fast. Or, she was. (Comment Here)

From There:
Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Remembering that today's movie stars would be nothing and nowhere without the classic ones who paved their way, I imagine Ingrid Bergman in the early 40s as the key pretext for Nicole Kidman in the early 00s: the sudden fluorescence of glamour and skill; the blend of remoteness and warmth; the aspirations toward top-level artistry with world-class directors (Rossellini, Hitchcock, Cukor) despite the evident affection for popular entertainment; the sense of being quickly at home in America but never completely of it. Most importantly in relation to her trophy-winning work in Gaslight, I often see Bergman working at her performances a bit more than she might want us to, even though the sense of total, self-critical commitment to her work is part of what's so fascinating about her, as are the undeniable facility and charge she brings to her most impassioned turns. Gaslight catches Bergman in just this mode of giving a strong performance, as a naïve and haunted singer turned terrorized wife, that nonetheless doubles as a game audition for the same performance. Bergman doesn't quite convince of her blushing youth or her fine musicianship in her lip-synching opener, but you don't have to watch her for long to feel the sincere attachment to the character, to the scenario, and to the audience. How does she do this so fast? How does she transmit the sense of a spectacular performance at almost all times, even when it's a bit stiff or stuck on its own surface? This role, as guided by Cukor, bears strong technical demands: Bergman keeps bobbing and listing uneasily at the waist and joints—literalizing, perhaps too much, the puppeteering dynamics of the conjugal suspense plot. Her Paula also has to seem smart enough to piece together what might be happening to her, but credulous enough that we aren't too hard on her for deducing the specifics a lot more slowly than we do, and she has to negotiate some awfully quick vacillations among romantic fancy (spontaneously dancing in the living room!) to the outer extremes of anguish and self-doubt. What Bergman uncorks to those ends is often quite astonishing, especially in the context of 40s studio acting. One scene, where she admits an animal howl and then hurls herself into the stairwell, distills the character's plight so powerfully that it might have saved the movie a few gratuitous scenes of Bergman emoting in more or less uniform ways. She certainly nails the finale, when she carries the script's fixation on operatic madness to a table-turning extreme. And yet, the studiedness of the performance often comes across as though Bergman is trying strenuously to please the director, rather than Paula Alquist trying to please her tyrannical, censorious husband. Bergman has a great expression for brooding thought, but it's basically one expression that gets a whole lot of working out, and she captures the degree to which Paula suffers a bit more handily than the fineness by which Paula receives, absorbs, and emits her distress. In other words, in a psychological thriller, Bergman handles the feeling more ably than the psychology, and her characteristically diligent approach to acting sits ever so slightly at odds with the poignant guilelessness of the woman she's playing. Later Bergman performances would improve in marked ways on some of these very templates, but she's still a wonder in Gaslight, entrancing on a first viewing and holding up sturdily through several more. And when she's "on," which is admirably often, you really can see the immortal career that's coming. (Comment Here)

Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I've never made a secret of my susceptibility to the gorgeously direct, saucer-faced, sexily smart Claudette Colbert. I'm pleased as punch that when Selznick decided to construct an explicit American answer to Mrs. Miniver, if a bit more self-consciously Big, he alighted on Colbert, ten years after It Happened One Night, as its polestar; from my perspective, she has all the vivacity and charm of a Greer Garson, but she was certainly less of a fresh property to the public. It's a treat, then, how both the actress and the film draw on Colbert's standing persona of gleaming, mellifluous groundedness and transparency as a credential for this role, rather than the kind of grinning, flower-sniffing, ginger-haired adorability that ballasts so much of Garson's work as Kay Miniver. After all, this is the gal who, faced with poverty and solo motherhood once before, parlayed flapjackery into a Midas scheme of familial protection and fiscal profit... so if anyone's up to the challenge of riding out food rations, domestic economies, and maternal stewardship, it's gotta be Claudette. This residue of star persona is a big help to Colbert since the script (written by Selznick) keeps presenting her a paragon to embody more than a character to fill out. Like Meryl Streep in the recent It's Complicated, she's got little but her subtly glammed-up spunk and her years' accumulation of audience good will to get her through the faux-suspense of this mostly by-the-numbers homefront melodrama. She gets more of a citrus tang into her forestalling of amorous Joseph Cotten than a Jane Wyman or, based on the evidence of I Remember Mama, an Irene Dunne would have done; when she says, "I like you best when you're not thinking," she doesn't sound like a prude or a sanctified cold fish so much as an easygoing woman who's both happy to be found attractive and a bit weary of repeated advances. Nonetheless, she has to do an awful lot of beatific gazing and wise, furrowed worrying in the movie, which is perhaps a bit overfond of the device of Colbert gamely holding herself together through some anxious goodbyes and then letting her fears pour out in quick, halting breaks or breaths, before or after closing a door. She can't do much to smooth out the abruptness of her character's transition into a zealous, sleeve-rolling shipyard laborer. And though it's a credit to her generosity to other cast members, especially the younger ones, that Colbert doesn't appear pressured to "win" all of her scenes, I wish she were slightly less content with fading to the background as the narrative and the photography start falling palpably in love with Jennifer Jones, playing her daughter. Basically, the performance has the easygoing, persuasive unaffectedness but also the concise, professional dispatch that you expect from Colbert. It's a bit stock that the movie ends with one of those scenes that's rigged out as a Big Emotional Release for a woman who has scrupulously managed her emotions and expectations for the previous three hours, but Colbert's such a practiced champ that she makes the moment ring. (Comment Here)

Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington ★ ★ ★ ★
Greer Garson is such a good-natured, vivacious presence that it's difficult to come down too hard even on her least substantial performances. And as far as bad movies go, Mrs. Parkington has the considerable virtue of being a total fruit salad of silly performances and amusingly strained plots and character arcs, which is more than you can say for stuff like Dragon Seed or, uh, Mr. Skeffington. Mrs. Parkington is erratically structured around a 1938 story where Garson is wearing so much old-age makeup she is playing the mother of Gladys Cooper (who, by the way, is an absolute stitch as a filthy-rich, alcoholic snipe perpetually describing herself as "nervous"). I appreciate that Garson doesn't neutralize all the oxygen by pretending to act in a more serious movie than this one is, but all the mugging and face-pulling and head-cocking and elbow-throwing she throws into the transparent conceit of impersonating an 84-year-old still falls well short of what you'd want to nominate for an Oscar. Of course, if it's discomfiting to see actors trying to play an age that's too old for them, we surely know it's worse when they try to play too young, which is what the second and I suppose the "main" track of Mrs. Parkington quickly requires of our Greer, her voice flying higher than the Red Baron ever flew in an attempt to play a disingenuous hotelkeeper's daughter in a silver-mining town. Her performance is repeatedly pushed to unbecoming extremes, even if you always root for someone as pretty and bubbly as Greer: her frozen-faced grief at the calamitous death of her mother is only slightly less underwhelming than her ecstatic acceptance of an outlandishly bullying marriage proposal from the inevitable Walter Pidgeon, giving a grossly distasteful turn as the prospector-tycoon whose money-mindedness has cost Garson her mother and her home. Over the rest of Mrs. Parkington's two sudsy hours, she'll look freakishly discombobulated at the very thought of champagne, then hilariously bile-suppressing at the revelation of a family misdeed, and she'll rely on the disappointingly desperate tic of blowing impetuously on a single curl of her famous ginger locks in order to express charm and resolve. Garson is always best when her natural effervescence comes through in the simplest ways and is most slowly and generously tempered for the story. Mrs. Parkington invites a few moments like that, and she obviously relishes a nasty, barely concealed catfight in polite company with a chafing husband-thief played by Tala Birell. Still, there's no way the nod for Mrs. Parkington represents anything more than Hollywood bussing her cheek by reflex, at the height of her Photoplay-poll popularity and in the fourth of five consecutive years of finding herself on Oscar's short list. Love you, Greer, but not for this. (Comment Here)

Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington ★ ★ ★ ★
Fanny Trellis was the last of Bette Davis's Oscar-nominated parts I encountered, and as astonishing as it seems that she could get short-listed for a performance that's worse than the one in The Star, she at best borders on the unendurable throughout Mr. Skeffington. At worst she actively accedes to utter intolerability. The catch with Davis is that you still see the fascinating persona and the ambitious technician underneath this garish presentation of a stupid part in a bad movie derived at exhausting length from one of the worst scripts ever furnished to a top-budget 1940s Hollywood superproduction. Davis had a well-known éclat for allowing herself to look ugly in character, but if it's lamely embarrassing to watch Greer Garson play too young and then too old in a featherweight saga like Mrs. Parkington, it's solemnly excruciating to watch Davis strain to such kabuki excess as a vain, callow, but universally lusted-after society belle at the beginning of Mr. Skeffington, and then to render her austere and impenetrably nasty take on a 1920s flapper who cheats and swills and smokes her way through a speakeasy, and then to vandalize her image, her talent, and her character more thoroughly than ever as the shrill, balding, decrepit monstrosity that Fanny ultimately becomes. Whatever interest inheres in Mr. Skeffington abides in the titular character played by Claude Rains, so as the movie reveals itself more and more as a benighted vehicle for Davis—who is either seizing a chance to feed her appetite for the grotesque or hoping against hope that the only way out of this farrago is to play it really big—the grating atonality of her performance gets braided tighter and tighter to an impression that she's prolonging her own debasement, pulling focus in a bulbous, 146-minute movie that she should be trying to work her way out of. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex proves that Davis can make odd, almost insectile physical mannerism quite interesting. Film after film of the late 30s and early 40s proves how much neurosis, gutsy emotional candor, and sinful predisposition she could evoke with a clean, quick slice of her swordlike gifts. There is no reason or benefit to her heavy, fussy, inconsistent approach to Fanny, even allowing for the misbegotten story and direction. Where her ugly-duck scenes in Now, Voyager or her lip-smacking grotesquerie in Baby Jane reveal a risky, hard-driving artist having fun and finding meaning with harsh tones and with all manner of deceptively controlled excess, Mr. Skeffington just plays like an exercise in contemptuousness of her character, of her vehicle, and maybe of herself. It's like watching Mary Pickford's terrible part in Coquette played by Edith Piaf or Maria Callas at their most stridently masochistic and unrestrained. I hope this constitutes no one's first exposure to this legendary artist. (Comment Here)

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

My Favorites from 1944:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity
Nominees: Tallulah Bankhead, Lifeboat
Nominees: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
Nominees: Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis
Nominees: Betty Hutton, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Honorable Mentions: Gene Tierney, Laura; Claudette Colbert, Since You Went Away; Joan Fontaine, Jane Eyre

Also-Rans (alpha): Ann Carter, The Curse of the Cat People; Bette Davis, Mr. Skeffington; Greer Garson, Mrs. Parkington; Susan Hayward, The Hairy Ape; Katharine Hepburn, Dragon Seed; Ruth Hussey, The Uninvited; Ella Raines, Hail the Conquering Hero; Gail Russell, The Uninvited

Gourmet Prospects: Claire Trevor, Murder, My Sweet

Further Research: Marlene Dietrich, Kismet; Irene Dunne, Together Again; Irene Dunne, The White Cliffs of Dover; Rita Hayworth, Cover Girl; Virginia Mayo, The Princess and the Pirate; Michèle Morgan, Passage to Marseille; Merle Oberon, The Lodger; Maria Palmer, Days of Glory; Eleanor Parker, Between Two Worlds; Ella Raines, Phantom Lady; Ella Raines, The Suspect; Marjorie Reynolds, Ministry of Fear

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