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  Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart
  1944: winner

★ ★ ★ ★

Only Cary Grant's name precedes the title of None But the Lonely Heart, but the next credit fills the screen in similarly grand typeface: "With Miss Ethel Barrymore," an awfully genteel way to refer to a 65-year-old woman. The film wears the casting of this theatrical legend rather heavily, as it does Grant's against-type performance, Clifford Odets's imprimatur as screenwriter and director, and its foggy photography and grimy ambience. Lonely Heart isn't the first Odets production to seem dramatically forced and rhetorically stiff while it unspools, until an emotionally strong finale proves in retrospect that its claims on the viewer were intensifying all along, even amid blunt or highfalutin passages.

Barrymore's performance is crucial to this slow build and stunning payoff, even if she's arguably part of the preceding problem. Early and often, she indulges an affinity for creaky, cranky matriarchs that would soon become her specialty, passing like a barge through her shots or throwing phlegmatic shade from sickbeds. She's never bad but seems overqualified to deliver slow-burn glares at her prodigal child and make threadbare apologies to agitated neighbors. Barrymore's telegraphing of Ma Mott's worsening health feels too overt—especially since Ernie, even while living with her, ostensibly misses these signs. Her richest assignment involves balancing moral censure for a wayward, ruthless child with a guilty, blood-bonded susceptibility to his rakish charisma. Barrymore immerses herself in bitter adoration even more indelibly than Alice Brady did in In Old Chicago, but it still feels like a generic assignment, handily fulfilled.

None of that prepares us, though, for the final act, which reveals Barrymore's heavy burden of guilt and disappointment as self-directed. She's not just spooked by Ernie's moral compromises; she's wrestling with her own. Following quickly on this disclosure is a short, sharp riptide of humiliated grief unlike anything I've seen from Barrymore, or from other screen actresses of her vintage, or from other actresses, period. None But the Lonely Heart's too uneven and contrived to be fully recuperated by its stirring climax, but Barrymore and Grant carry it much closer to glory than I saw coming—proof that it helps to keep a pro on hand, and to save her best for last. Leave a Comment