By Alan Hurst

A great era for performances by some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, the forties were the dream decade with dozens of films headlined by women, many of which found their way into the annual competition for the Best Actress Oscar. I think the Oscars got it right on more than a few occasions and, even in the years when I think they missed the mark, the Academy’s selection would still have made my top five.

And, as with my look at some alternate choices for the 1950-59 Oscars, hindsight is always a fun tool to leverage.

1940: BETTE DAVIS IN THE LETTER

An incredibly competitive year with some performances that could be considered career bests. How do you pick between Katharine Hepburn’s sparkling work in The Philadelphia Story, Bette Davis duplicitous murderer in The Letter, or the non-nominated Rosalind Russell’s riotous reporter in His Girl Friday? Each of those performances are among their finest. Other nominees included Martha Scott in Our Town, Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, all solid performances. Rogers was the eventual winner, but I would have handed the Oscar to Davis. I find Kitty Foyle almost unwatchable today and I think Rogers won more for the respect she received for doing decent work after moving away from more lightweight musical and comedy fare. Conversely, The Letter is near the top of any discussion of Bette Davis’ best performances and she’s riveting to watch as the lying upper class wife who has murdered her lover and keeps lying to support an argument of self defense. The more she lies, the more we learn, and the more interesting she and the film become. A great achievement. In addition, to Russell in His Girl Friday, other performances that year that could just as easily have made the list include Vivien Leigh for Waterloo Bridge and Margaret Sullavan for The Shop Around the Corner.

1941: BARBARA STANWYCK IN THE LADY EVE

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck.

Joan Fontaine won in 1941 for her work in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. It’s a good performance in one of Hitchcock’s lesser films, but even at the time it was considered a consolation prize after having lost the previous year for her work in Rebecca, a much better role and film. Other nominees included Bette Davis for The Little Foxes, Barbara Stanwyck for Ball of Fire, Greer Garson for Blossoms in the Dust, and Olivia de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn. I think both Joan Crawford for A Woman’s Face and Vivien Leigh for That Hamilton Woman should have been on the list as well, probably in place of Garson and de Havilland. But my choice for winner would have been Barbara Stanwyck – but for The Lady Eve, not Ball of Fire (although it’s a terrific film). Stanwyck is at her sexiest and funniest in The Lady Eve, a screwball comedy from Preston Sturges where she plays a con artist who’s out to get Henry Fonda for his money, but the situation is complicated when she falls for him. Stanwyck takes Sturges’ witty script and just flies with it. It’s one of the great comedy performances of all time and she’s dazzling to watch.

1942: GREER GARSON IN MRS. MINIVER

Yet another competitive year when the slate of nominees could have easily expanded to eight or nine nominated performances. Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver was Oscar’s choice and she’s mine as well, although it’s tough to ignore Bette Davis (again) for the wonderful Now, Voyager and the non-nominated Carole Lombard for To Be or Not to Be. Other nominees that year included Rosalind Russell for My Sister Eileen, Katharine Hepburn for Woman of the Year, and Teresa Wright for The Pride of the Yankees. In addition to Lombard, other possible nominees could have included Ginger Rogers for the very funny The Major and the Minor, Claudette Colbert for The Palm Beach Story and even Veronica Lake for Sullivan’s Travels – clearly a great year for comedy. There was also Lucille Ball for The Big Street, her best dramatic performance. But it’s the dramatic Garson for Mrs. Miniver that justifiably triumphed. The film is one of the great WWII morale boosters and Garson is flawless as the compassionate, strong and seemingly perfect Kay Miniver. It’s a performance that defines the word “lovely” and although that can sometimes be a bland adjective, this time it isn’t meant to be a negative.

1943: JEAN ARTHUR IN THE MORE THE MERRIER

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur.

Newcomer Jennifer Jones won in 1943 for the well-produced but heavy-handed The Song of Bernadette, one of the annual prestige pictures that 20th Century Fox and Daryl F. Zanuck were known for. Jones is fine as the young French woman who sees visions of the Virgin Mary, but for me the film is a bit of a challenge to get through. Other nominees that year were Ingrid Bergman for For Whom the Bell Tolls, Greer Garson for Madame Curie, Jean Arthur for The More the Merrier, and Joan Fontaine for The Constant Nymph. Jones definitely would have had a place in my top five and I probably would have included Ida Lupino in The Hard Way instead of Fontaine. I also would have nominated Bergman but for her work in Casablanca, not For Whom the Bell Tolls. But my ultimate choice for the Oscar would have been Jean Arthur. Arthur was a very curious screen actress – she had a distinctive light, trilling voice that automatically made you listen and, despite chronic insecurity as a performer, she was a delicious comedienne. The More the Merrier is her best role and performance. She’s very funny as the working woman who shares her apartment with two men (Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn) in Washington D.C. during the WWII housing crisis. Arthur was always a delight when playing a character thrown off her game and she’s perfect as the woman trying to resist her growing attraction for McCrea.

1944: BARBARA STANWYCK IN DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Fred MacMurray and Barbra Stanwyck.

Another big year with a roster of top female performances. I have a tough time deciding between Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. Both are superb performances, but I think Stanwyck takes the edge with her manipulative, tough-as-nails Phyllis Dietrichson, a woman who gets an insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) to kill her husband so she can live off the insurance money. This Billy Wilder film is one of the best film noirs of the period and Stanwyck’s cool, sexy performance is a major reason. George Cukor’s Gaslight is also a great film and he guides Bergman to one of her best performances as the abused wife of Charles Boyer, but Stanwyck’s work is just a bit more indelible. Other nominees that year were Bette Davis for Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson for Mrs. Parkington and Claudette Colbert for Since You Went Away. Among those who also could have easily made the list include Judy Garland for Meet Me in St. Louis, Betty Hutton for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Lauren Bacall for To Have and Have Not, and Gene Tierney for Laura.

1945: JOAN CRAWFORD IN MILDRED PIERCE

Joan Crawford’s comeback was complete with her Oscar win for Mildred Pierce in 1945. Outside of a small role as herself in Hollywood Canteen (1944), it had been three long years between films after leaving MGM for Warner Brothers. But Crawford held out for the right part and film, and she got it with Mildred Pierce. It’s one of my favourite films of the forties and it’s the quintessential Crawford role. She gets to play the victim, the martyr, a mother, wife, mistress, entrepreneur, and even murder suspect. Crawford deserved her Oscar for what was ultimately a subtle, very convincing, and moving performance. Close behind Crawford was Gene Tierney for Leave Her to Heaven, one of the great melodramas of the decade. Tierney is fascinating as the film’s beautiful psychopath who will stop at nothing to get she wants. A scene where she watches the handicapped brother of her husband drown without even an attempt to save him is chilling. Other nominees that year included Ingrid Bergman for The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson for The Valley of Decision and Jennifer Jones for Love Letters. There should have been room on the list for Judy Garland’s low key dramatic work in The Clock.

1946: INGRID BERGMAN IN NOTORIOUS

Again, a year when the slate of nominees could have easily been expanded. Olivia de Havilland won her first Oscar in 1946 for To Each His Own, a creaky drama about a woman who has a child out of wedlock, but the boy ends up with her best friend despite her efforts to get him back. de Havilland was a fine actress, but I think this is one of her lesser films. I much prefer her work that year as twin sisters in The Dark Mirror. My choice for this year’s Oscar would have been the non-nominated Ingrid Bergman for her smashing performance in the classic Hitchcock film Notorious. This is one of Bergman’s sexiest and smartest performances, forever smashing the perfect woman image that she had been building up with her work in Casablanca and The Bells of St Mary’s, among others. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s best films. Other nominees were Jennifer Jones for Duel in the Sun, Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, Rosalind Russell for Sister Kenny, and Jane Wyman for The Yearling. But look at the list of actresses not nominated – in addition to Bergman, there was Lana Turner for The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rita Hayworth for Gilda, Joan Crawford for Humoresque, Dorothy McGuire for The Spiral Staircase, Myrna Loy for The Best Years of Our Lives, and Irene Dunne for Anna and the King of Siam. Quite a year.

1947: GENE TIERNEY IN THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.

Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter won the Oscar for her performance as a Swedish maid working for a Congressman (Joseph Cotton) who eventually makes a run for Congress herself. It was one of the year’s top comedies and one of Young’s better performances, but she wasn’t expected to win over the dramatic work of her competition: Rosalind Russell for Mourning Becomes Electra, Susan Hayward for Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, Dorothy McGuire for Gentlemen’s Agreement, and a superb Joan Crawford for Possessed. But my choice again would have been a non-nominee – this time Gene Tierney for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This is one of the best romances of the later part of the decade. It told the story of a widow who rents a seaside cottage in England with her daughter (Natalie Wood), only to discover it’s haunted by the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison). It a beautiful and hypnotic film, with Tierney doing outstanding work as a woman who’s ahead of her time in terms of independence and flouting expectations. Although he is a ghost, when the captain and Tierney’s character eventually fall in love – you believe it and that’s no small feat. Among those not nominated who deserved recognition include Deborah Kerr for Black Narcissus and Jane Greer for Out of the Past, probably instead of Russell and McGuire.

1948: JANE WYMAN FOR JOHNNY BELINDA

Jane Wyman played a young woman who is a deaf-mute in the drama Johnny Belinda in 1948 and won that year’s Best Actress Oscar. In her famous acceptance speech, she said “I accept this, very gratefully, for keeping my mouth shut once. I think I’ll do it again.” A great speech for an award acknowledging her strong – and silent – work in the film as well as her swift progression from amusing sidekick to one of the most respected actresses of the late forties. Wyman is very good in the heart wrenching role where she endures all manner of abuse – a sparse and strict home life, a drunken rape, childbirth, vicious gossip, and prejudice from the town. I’m going agree with the Academy’s selection of Wyman, but it’s a tough choice between her and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit. de Havilland is extraordinary as a woman who finds herself in mental hospital, with no understanding as to why she’s there. If she wasn’t going to be my choice the following year for The Heiress, I’d probably have to acknowledge de Havilland here. This is one of those times when you realize that competition between performances really is unfair. Also nominated that year were Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Arc, Barbara Stanwyck for Sorry Wrong Number and Irene Dunne for I Remember Mama, all solid and deserving nominees.

1949: OLIVIA de HAVILLAND IN THE HEIRESS

Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for her brilliant work in The Heiress, the film version of the play based on Henry James novel “Washington Square”. She plays Catherine, a plain, awkward woman who falls for a young man (Montgomery Clift) who shows her the love she doesn’t get from her domineering father. Her father believes her suitor is only after her for inheritance and threatens to disinherit her if she goes ahead with the marriage. This is an excellent film (directed by the great William Wyler) and the very pretty de Havilland makes you believe she’s the shy, plain Catherine. Of all of 1949’s lead female performances, no one comes close to the work that de Havilland does here. Her final ascent up the stairs as she ignores her suitor banging at the front door is perfect in its coldness. Other nominees included Susan Hayward for her strong work in My Foolish Heart, Deborah Kerr in the little seen Edward My Son, Jeanne Crain for Pinky, and Loretta Young for Come to the Stable. I would have included Peggy Cummins for Gun Crazy, Ann Sothern for A Letter to Three Wives, and Joan Crawford for Flamingo Road in place of Kerr, Crain and Young.

Related articles:

Best Actress: 1950-59

Best Actor: 1950-59

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