Again, herein lies my personal ranking of the Best Actress nominees in year 2 of the Oscars. Now from here on out I’ll be posting individual profiles by year; I’m only jumbling the first and second years because I previously wrote individual profiles on my older blog and am uninterested/too lazy to rewrite them. In the case of the second year, I’d already written up 2 of the 5 nominees…laziness is an ugly monster folks.
Oh Mary. How do you solve a problem like Mary? Turns out…you can’t. Much has been said about La Pickford’s infamous win; she is of course the first known person to have started what is now known as an Oscar campaign by inviting all 5 Academy Award voters to her mansion for tea. You can’t really blame her for that, for with a film like Coquette and a performance like hers she knew she needed all the damn help she could get. Where do I even begin? Firstly, the film is just plain horrible. The sound is horrible. The screenplay in accordance to modern day is extremely dated and horrible. And the all around acting by just about everybody is horrible. (Is it sad that the best/most realistic performance is that of the mammy character?)There’s very few redeemable qualities about this film, and so the fact that it relies on the performance of a 37 year old woman trying to act as a teenager trying to acting as a cutesie baby to carry it kind of makes it even worse. The way Pickford acts when her character is trying to be cute (pouting her lips and widening her eyes while shoving her index finger towards her mouth) and shocked (The “Ah think ah smell uh fart and ah think mah period just stahrted” at the same time face…see picture above) is done repeatedly and dreadfully to the point where it’s more of a comedic performance than a dramatic one. It also doesn’t help that Pickford’s voice is incredibly baby-shrill–a quick comparison of different YouTube clips suggests she opted to make her voice higher for Coquette–which makes her big five minute “Oscar clip” crying scene totally jarring and cringe-worthy. Yes the film was made during that special time when sound was just being figured out, but ultimately you cannot excuse the downright stupid dialogue, the laughable overacting, and the plot that is reeks of outdatedness even for 1929. It’s all packaged up with Mary Pickford as the pretty but deficient ribbon on top. It’s a performance that unfortunately ranks as one of the worst of all-time to have won an Oscar, and it’ll be tough to find one that’ll top it in that aspect.
4. CORINNE GRIFFITH, THE DIVINE LADYCorinne Griffith’s nomination is one that is considered by some and not considered by others. I opted to give it a go, and unfortunately I cannot say that it was worth my time. Simply put, Griffith’s performance is a big bowl of meh. There’s not much to say for her and there’s not much to say against her. It’s a blah performance that likely only got attention because of how “grand” The Divine Lady was; it’s an epic historical war tale with a tragic romance thrown into the mix (classic Oscar bait). It won Best Director and got a nod for Best Cinematography, so Griffith’s was probably a case of Helena Bonham Carter a la The King’s Speech in that it wasn’t special by any means but people automatically deemed it worthy of attention as the film was just too baity to ignore. There are a few moments where Griffith shine, but they’re outweighed by the blandness of the overall performance. Griffith ranks higher than Pickford here because she is a whole lot of nothing and is thus forgotten for just that reason. Pickford goes for everything and fails and is thus never forgotten for failing so badly.
3. BESSIE LOVE, THE BROADWAY MELODY
The Broadway Melody is almost as big a mess as Coquette. Basically, Hollywood should have put a halt to making movies for a year or two and just focused on mastering sound first, because I’m getting quite tired of having to sit through all these atrocious big-budget movie experiments. This film has a horrible screenplay, and all the cheesy, dumb lines that run amok in this film added a layer of absurdity to Love that I couldn’t get quite get past. Additionally, Love’s style of acting is very old-school theater; from her gestures to her expressions to her enunciations, it all felt a bit overcooked (although I’d suppose theatrical makes sense for the Broadway melody, it’s just not a style of acting I enjoy). Her big money scenes are actually pretty touching, however just as soon as she makes an impact, she swerves into a display of hysterical sobs that took me out of moment (seriously though, her big crying scene challenges Pickford’s for the worst of the year). Ultimately, like Griffith, Love gets by just fine but her performance is not one to be remembered.
2. RUTH CHATTERTON, MADAME X
Ruth Chatterton’s performance is split up into two halves, the first half being an absolutely atrocious one. Like, really, really atrocious. I know I sound like a damn broken record by now, but if there was a theme in the female performances of the 2nd Academy Awards, it’d be that they’re all so bad it teeters into comedic territory. Chatterton is fifty shades of DRAMA. Madame X is the cinematic personification of melodrama. It all makes for a viewing experience that is stagey as all hell and you’d be remiss to not utter “what-the-fuck” while watching Chatterton in the first act. Both Wikipedia and Inside Oscar noted Chatterton for having a talent with diction and enunciation…and it seemed as if in her early scenes she skipped out on everything except the line deliveries, so much so that all her readings come out incredibly articulate and really silly. Her alleged super-enunciation is at times bizarre (she says “croo-elle” instead of cruel) not to mention she’s given lines to shake your head at (my favorite, when she asks to touch her son’s teddy bear: “It won’t hurt him if I just touch it, will it?”). I mean seriously, the DRAMA! An example that plays in my mind is when her character’s husband tells her that her son thinks she’s dead. Chatterton gives us a whiney–and forced–gasp, looks at him with a blank canvas for a face and says “You told him…” and stops before she shakes her head and whispers, “that.” Imagine it in your head. Act it out to yourself if you must. It’s entertaining for all the wrong reasons. But then her character ages, and suddenly Chatterton’s performance becomes less and less the caricature she was early on. The transformation into an older woman is surprisingly a believable one, with the aging makeup being pretty realistic. Her voice becomes older and less jarring, and she conveys the troubles and bitterness of an older Jacqueline quite well. Here, the folks in charge of the movie finally decided to focus on facial expressions instead of words, and I liked her most when she just sat there in silence, as she’s quite the vision. Then she’d start talking and I’d get agitated again. But for the most part, the latter act of her performance is a fine one, and she speaks so much more with her face than she ever could with her mouth.
1. JEANNE EAGELS, THE LETTEROne can’t help but wonder about the mystery of Jeanne Eagels while watching her in The Letter. I wondered how troubled her real life actually was. I wondered if she infused her real life problems into the character of Leslie. I wondered what she was like performing on stage. I wondered how her career would have turned out had she not passed away so abruptly. She was only in about 9 films, two of which were sound and one of which is lost. Thus, The Letter is the only surviving talkie film of Eagels’ and it’s hard not to appreciate all that the film–and she–has to offer. Eagels’ acting is technically no less catered to the theater as Ruth Chatterton, but Eagels uses a little more restraint than all her fellow nominees. Her voice is clearly less harsh than that of Pickford/Chatterton/Love, and hers is the only performance in which she never crosses the fine line between “loud” acting and over-the-top acting. It’s strong work, and Eagels is mesmerizing to look at on screen (the backstory of her life only added to the performance’s allure for me). Her big final scene, in which her character’s tightly wound mentality that’s been built up the entire film swiftly unwinds, is wonderfully done–so much so that you’re left wanting more of her, more of Leslie, just more. But alas, the film fades to black and you’re (or at least, I was) left with the slow realization that all is done and there is no more form of media with Eagels available at your whim. How ironic and “croo-elle” (as Chatterton would enunciate) it is that an actress’s only available talkie offering makes a person hungry for extra material. The Letter is essentially all there is of Eagels’ cinematic legacy, but what a gem of a performance that it is.
Until next time: unfortunately, I was not able to see Betty Compson in The Barker (and I’m assuming that I won’t be able to until I find myself near UCLA)…so until then, Eagels easily scoops up the second Best Actress Oscar for me amongst a pretty weak field of competitors. And I suppose I’ll have to catch Renee Falconetti’s legendary performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc as well…
But wait, there’s more: introducing my second category of favorite people is Ruth Chatterton’s Jacqueline:
SPOILER ALERT: She leaves her husband and infant son for another man. Other man dies and she crawls back to her husband who doesn’t take her back. She sobs and runs away and becomes a bitter old drunk. She drunkenly kills somebody. She’s put on trial and her now grown son defends her without knowing she’s his mom he thought was dead all his life. Despite knowing that he’s her son she refuses to tell him as she doesn’t want him to know his mother’s a psycho so she tearfully begs everyone (who are all there to see the son in court for some reason and all remember Jacqueline) not to tell him while on the stand. She falls down to the floor and dies, probably because she’s so overwhelmed. So yeah, in addition to being all sorts of DRAMA, Jacqueline is also a grade A (and the very first) hot mess.
SIDENOTE: Jeanne Eagels played Sadie Thompson in Rain on stage. Coincidence? I think not!! Now knowing this I will forever wonder how it’d have been if Eagels played Gloria Swanson’s film role. Le sigh. RIP Jeanne.