There was a draw that took place (video at the end) and destiny chose Best Actress 1941 for me. At first, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, but then, looking again at the list of 5 nominees, I started to get excited: it’s an interesting line-up of performances from rather young actresses who had already proven their talent. More so, this is a historical year for this category: the first Best Actress line-up not to include any first-time Oscar nominees (other such years were 1944, 1994 & our recent 2013).
I enter this race having seen only 2 (The Little Foxes & Ball of Fire) of the 5 films, and I am quite curious about at least 1 of the other 3. It was also the first time (and only time?) 2 sisters competed against each other in this race: I’m talking of course about recently departed Joan Fontaine (who ended up winning for Suspicion) and Olivia de Havilland, who is still with us.
I will watch the films, then for a second time while counting the screentime. Of course I have a favourite, but I am open to any change of mind.
The 5 ladies that Oscar had chosen for 1941, in alphabetical order:
Bette Davis as Regina Giddens, in The Little Foxes
Olivia de Havilland as Emmy Brown, in Hold Back the Dawn
Joan Fontaine as Lina, in Suspicion
Greer Garson as Edna Gladney, in Blossoms in the Dust
Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, in Ball of Fire
Greer Garson is the only one playing a real life person. With the exception of Ball of Fire, the other 4 films were all included in the 10 nominees for Best Picture of 1941.
This is before even the Golden Globes existed, so it’s hard to guess / order them by the chance of getting nominated. But I’ll give it a try. Let’s put them in context: I imagine Bette Davis had the nomination locked. At that time in history she was the reigning queen of Hollywood and The Little Foxes was one of the hottest films of 1941, with a total of 9 nominations. Bette wasn’t doing so bad herself: this was her 5th Best Actress nomination (if we don’t count the write-in for Of Human Bondage; in 7 calendar years!!) and her 4th consecutive one. By 1941, she was 33 years old and had already won the Oscar twice: for Dangerous (1935) and for Jezebel (1938). I guess you can see now why this nomination was no surprise. [Not to mention she’s excellent in it].
From here on, it’s all arguable. I would say Joan Fontaine was next, because she had won for Suspicion the only American critics’ award that recognized actresses at that time in history (the New York Film Critics Circle Award). And since she ended up winning the Oscar for it, it’s fair to say actors did enjoy her performance. Only 24 years old at the time, she entered the race with some popularity among her peers: I’m sure many felt she should’ve won the previous year for Rebecca (which made for her 1st Oscar nomination).
Barbara Stanwyck had four films opening in 1941, with this one, Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve being all very popular. Not sure how much of a lock this nomination was, since she was giving herself a lot of competition. This was her 2nd Oscar nomination, she had previously competed unsuccessfully with Stella Dallas (1937). Unlike Bette Davis who was already a major star, I think Stanwyck was just gradually becoming a popular actress of that era, maybe a bit more on the comedic / seductress side.
Despite her age, Greer Garson was somewhat at the beginning of her film career; this was only her third year of acting in movies, but she had started on the right foot: her first film Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) had won her an Oscar nomination. This was her second, and would be the first in line of 5 consecutive ones. She would end up a big movie star, for playing a lot of “decent women”.
I would (almost randomly) say Olivia de Havilland was 5th by nomination chance, just because the film doesn’t seem to be focused so much on her. Contradicting me is the fact that she was already a film star by then: from plenty of adventure films and mostly because of Gone with the Wind, for which she had received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. This was her second Oscar nomination, and the first one in the Leading category (during her career she would end up winning 2 Best Actress Oscars).
Also difficult to figure out is who the runner-ups were. I managed to put together a list of names.
Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve (in case she didn’t make it for Ball of Fire)
Irene Dunne, Penny Serenade
Jean Arthur, The Devil and Miss Jones
Joan Crawford, A Woman's Face
Carole Lombard, Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Barbara Stanwyck, Meet John Doe
Vivien Leigh, That Hamilton Woman
Merle Oberon, That Uncertain Feeling
Bette Davis, The Great Lie
Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon
Marlene Dietrich, The Flame of New Orleans
Greta Garbo, Two-Faced Woman
Other eligible leading performances of 1941:
Wendy Hiller, Major Barbara
Ginger Rogers, Tom Dick and Harry
Maureen O'Hara, How Green Was My Valley
Joan Crawford, When Ladies Meet
Barbara Stanwyck, You Belong to Me
Olivia de Havilland, The Strawberry Blonde
Margaret Lockwood, Night Train to Munich
Gene Tierney, Sundown
Ida Lupino, Ladies in Retirement
Margaret Sullavan, Appointment for Love
Margaret Sullavan, So Ends Our Night
Claudette Colbert, Skylark
Ann Sothern, Lady Be Good
Priscilla Lane, Blues in the Night
Merle Oberon, Lydia
Martha Scott, One Foot in Heaven
Martha Scott, Cheers for Miss Bishop
Evelyn Keyes, Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Bette Davis, The Bride Came C.O.D.
The ranking will be posted... this spring. J
...ah, yes, and here’s the proof I didn’t cheat. Pointless video.