Best Actress 1949
Winner: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
Nominees: Jeanne Crain, Pinky
Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart
Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son
Loretta Young, Come to the Stable

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★
Right up there with 2005 in the category of "How Are We Supposed to Cope with These Choices?" Probably each of these performances has ardent fans, and de Havilland's is widely regarded as a considerable achievement, but I'd be surprised if anyone who wasn't already partial to the performers or sympathetic to the goals and timbres of the films (faux "issue" pictures, prestige literary and stage adaptations, low-key melodramas, quasi-inspirational "nice" films) would make a strong case for these nominees, especially the four also-rans. It's one thing to serve a film and underplay a performance, even to the point of effacing oneself in the service of the material, but quite another to be as modest as these performances, and as insubstantial above or beyond the baseline requirements of the script. De Havilland does get the most right, but given the astronomical superiority of The Heiress' script compared to the other four, she also squanders the most opportunities (unless that "honor" goes to Crain, who makes suspicious material seem even coarser and, quite frankly, dumber). I was hoping that the low-profile Edward, My Son or My Foolish Heart would emerge as under-appreciated gems, but they read more like unimaginative filler noms. The lack of any whit of suspense as to who would ultimately claim the prize only further confirms this vintage as one of the least auspicious in Oscar's past.

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
De Havilland's heiress has two faces, one of them awkward and painfully subservient to the father who rebukes and laments her (Ralph Richardson, terrific), and one of them imperious and glaciated by absorbing her father's full contempt and her suitor's abrupt rejection all within the same 24 hours, then stewing over them for an unspecified number of years before that suitor comes knocking again at the door of her Washington Square brownstone. Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who adapted James' novella into The Heiress, have done the lead actress no favors by imposing this drastic arc of immaturity into vengeful haughtiness, and de Havilland disappoints by finding so few gradations between these poles. Occasionally, a harbinger of the cold, scorned Catherine of the future peeks through her painful unease in the first hour; just as often, that last-act scowl of wounded righteousnessness gives way to that yearning and guileless face of desire familiar from the preceding acts. Both expressions serve the material just fine, even if they inevitably simplify it, and it's refreshing that the sometimes-dewy de Havilland is actually more compelling as the avenging angel, snipping the yarn of her own fate and climbing the stairs of her own tomb, than she is as the stuttering simp. And in a few scenes she excels—not coincidentally the ones where she achieves and/or is allowed some middle-ground to explore. Her secret, rainy rendezvous with Montgomery Clift's Morris, in which she swears her love and commits herself to elopement while also subtly testing his allegiance to money, is a beautifully played interlude. I wish the script or the actress possessed more of the novella's infinite shadings and its patience with Catherine's recessive qualities; James' tone and his read on character shift all over the place, without losing their sharp edges and without forcing her too far out of her muted palette of affects, even in extremes of disappointment and comeuppance. Still, even if de Havilland gives the least commanding of the four lead performances (Miriam Hopkins is quite good, and oddly unnominated, as the officious aunt), she shows herself to sufficient advantage to be a tolerable winner, particularly within this laggard field.

From There:
Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I briefly had Kerr trumping de Havilland as my favorite contender here, partly because it's by far the newest performance to me and its virtues are thus the freshest; partly out of a contrarian impulse to see someone besides de Havilland win; and partly because Kerr, not an actress I particularly admire, does have some vivid moments in a role that is, as written, both wildly indulgent to the actress playing it and highly constricting as to how much we can care about this woman. Edward, My Son is really about the Spencer Tracy character, a shady businessman obsessed with his own rise to wealth and prominence, and determined to spoil his son Edward, whom we never see, though we certainly see plenty of evidence of how hard he makes everyone else's life. As Tracy, in an annoyingly opaque performance, plots his crimes and sells out his friends and strong-arms Edward's teachers, and generally makes himself as repellent as possible, it's Kerr's job to be his Dorian Gray painting, evincing all the costs and wounds inflicted by Edward's selfishness and her husband's venal misguidedness. Kerr gives the kind of stagy, strong-gazed performance here, in one of her first Hollywood films, that would become increasingly familiar through her unfolding career, but she's a good judge of what to do with her most limited scenes. For instance, she adds extra degrees of panic in the earliest scenes of Tracy's Faustian behavior—clearly wanting to question his judgment, particularly about parenting, and just as clearly suppressing the impulse. She's strongest in the middle stretch, largely because the script affords her the most playable layers in her part: she can't deny enjoying the family's wealth, and probably takes it more for granted than she realizes, but her dislike of her husband and her attempts to rationalize her own self-contempt are palpable and upsetting. By the end, Kerr completes an arc into grand-scaled, slurry, fright-wig drunknenness when her husband and son have led them all to ruin, and though there's certainly potency in this scene—and the showy transformations from quiet wife to complicit empress to walking shipwreck clearly earned the nomination—she takes Evelyn Boult's dissolution to pretty garish extremes. She sometimes comes across as an exceptionally gifted high-school or college student with most of her training and her sense of scaling her gestures still awaiting her. Still, she humanizes the film more than anyone else does, and there's something to be said for managing a dubious part as well as she does, compared to being erratic and cautious in a glorious part, the way de Havilland is.

Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Hayward, predictably, is at her best as the taunting alcoholic we meet in the suburban frame story, slurring out some delicious dialogue without too much focus-pulling or fussy mannerism. Some of the choicest bits include, "Who said, 'To forgive is divine'? Probably not somebody I'd care to meet, anyway." And, on the subject of jealous husbands, "They want to think you've spent your whole life vomiting every time a boy came near you." Still, the very ordinariness that grounds Hayward's work whenever she plays an addict or a rager (which was often) works against her when she's cast as a co-ed, a romantic dreamer, or the kind of average gal she very much looks to be. She's trapped by unimaginative casting in a thin role throughout much of My Foolish Heart's extended flashback narrative, made worse by Mark Robson's stolid direction, which shares none of Hayward's enthusiasm for the character's darker shadings. Thus, we're only interested when she's nursing a cocktail or cozying up to a witty father (a terrific Robert Keith) who shows, as they say, a little too much friendly interest in his daughter.

Loretta Young, Come to the Stable ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I reacted very badly to Loretta Young the first time I saw Come to the Stable, partially because the film seemed so outlandishly unprepossessing in light of its seven Oscar nominations; in fact, it's the sort of film that even further humbles one's already humble sense of what the adjective "Oscar-nominated" actually deserves to mean. Young's Sister Margaret is less a role than a placeholder for the film's crèche-ready homilies about decency and simplicity, a step down in depth and in degree of difficulty from even the none-too-lofty heights of the role for which Young won her 1947 Oscar (in The Farmer's Daughter) and in the same year's Christian-friendly The Bishop's Wife. In Come to the Stable, even Young's best qualities as an actress—her warm and rich voice, her wide-open face—become complicit with the meagerest aspects of the script and the performance. Margaret is so radiantly oblivious, her eye so perpetually on the sparrow and her head so seemingly in the clouds, that Young, the actress, seems to be presenting naïveté, a kind of blushing self-absorption, as her best approximation of goodness. Surely not a fair trade. A second visit years later to this Stable proved surprisingly fruitful, which is wonderful, because even by my own obsessive standards, I had a hard time knowing why I was watching Come to the Stable a second time instead of cleaning my apartment, writing a friend, or calling my mother. Young seemed much more "on" to the wheedling, passive-aggressive side of Sister Margaret, not editorializing against her character, but proving (especially in scenes with Thomas Gomez and Hugh Marlowe) that all that sweetness and gentility is a very effective mode for getting what the wants, and she knows it. I'll be more careful about under-estimating Young and her sagacity in future performances, though even this goes only so far; it's still a capably executed stock performance, nothing like what I contend an Oscar is meant to reward.

Jeanne Crain, Pinky ★ ★ ★ ★
Pinky, née Patricia Johnson, has got plenty of reasons to be mad. She is a "colored" woman in a white man's world. Her complexion is so light that darker-skinned African Americans bristle around her, and white people do spit takes when they realize she is not one of their own. She has left a medical career up north (where she was passing as white) to return to the swampy, dirt-roaded South. Her grandmother (Ethel Waters) is as disappointed in her for concealing her heritage as she is in herself. Her Granny still works for old, ill-tempered Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore) who mouths off about having no money left when she still inhabits a huge Southern plantation house, supported through most of its life by slaves. She misses her northern boyfriend. She's about to walk into a puddle of seamy manipulation around some money that Jake Walters (Frederick O'Neal) was supposed to mail to her but didn't, and then into a giant morass of postmortem controversy when someone leaves her a lot of money and property that almost no one else thinks she deserves. She can't walk home without almost being molested. She's stuck nursing sick Miss Em and laundering her clothes with an old washboard when her Granny loses her spirit. And she's trapped in an early Elia Kazan picture that is just as ham-handed and dramaturgically dumb in its attempt to Say Something about a social issue as was his previous film, the laughable Best Picture winner Gentleman's Agreement. That's a lot of reasons to be pissed, and to convey them all, white star Jeanne Crain, passing as someone who has any need for passing, adopts a one-scowl-fits-all expression, accented by more and less sullen expressions of ire, pity, and self-pity. A performance of almost no emotional range or dramatic allure, in a film that needs more of the unexpected wry humor of a Barrymore or the cleverly couched anger and weariness of a Waters. Lena Horne might have excelled here, but of course no one would have let her try. (And if Crain weren't already at one star, I'd consider docking an extra point for being just awful in the same year's Oscar magnet A Letter to Three Wives. Mankiewicz trimmed Anne Baxter but kept her??)

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

My Favorites from 1949:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Ginger Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway
Nominees: Barbara Bel Geddes, Caught
Nominees: Joan Bennett, The Reckless Moment
Nominees: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
Nominees: Patricia Neal, The Fountainhead

Honorable Mentions (ranked): Ann Sothern, A Letter to Three Wives; Deborah Kerr, Edward, My Son; Linda Darnell, A Letter to Three Wives; Yvonne De Carlo, Criss Cross; Michèle Morgan, The Fallen Idol

Also-Rans (alpha): Jeanne Crain, A Letter to Three Wives; Jeanne Crain, Pinky; Betty Garrett, On the Town; Susan Hayward, My Foolish Heart; Loretta Young, Come to the Stable

Gourmet Prospects: Ingrid Bergman, Under Capricorn; Valentina Cortese, Thieves' Highway; Bette Davis, Beyond the Forest; Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime; Jennifer Jones, Madame Bovary; Virginia Mayo, White Heat; Patricia Neal, The Hasty Heart; Maureen O'Hara, A Woman's Secret; Gene Tierney, Whirlpool

Further Research: June Allyson, Little Women; Joan Crawford, Flamingo Road; Joanne Dru, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; Greer Garson, That Forsyte Woman; Barbara Hale, Jolson Sings Again; Barbara Hale, The Window; Hedy Lamarr, Samson and Delilah; Marilyn Maxwell, Champion; Patricia Neal, John Loves Mary; Beatrice Pearson, Lost Boundaries; Lizabeth Scott, Too Late for Tears; Ann Sheridan, I Was a Male War Bride; Audrey Totter, The Set-Up

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