June 11, 2014

Margaret Sullavan, Three Comrades

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

I can't help but see a few similarities between Margaret Sullavan and fellow Best Actress nominee Fay Bainter. For starters, Sullavan too has become a largely forgotten actress. One can argue that fewer people would be watching White Banners and Three Comrades today if these pictures didn't boast Academy Award-nominated leading ladies. Further, both ladies' respective screentimes straddle a fine line between solid supporting and leading by virtue of importance to the narrative. Both ladies reached the pinnacles of their careers in 1938, each garnering enough respect from voting bodies to secure acting prizes. And lastly, like Bainter, Sullavan's got a pretty underwritten part, but here is also where the two ladies differ. Whereas Bainter was underwhelming, Sullavan is radiating; she really elevates the material, and in doing so she creates a vivid and tragic performance that illuminates an otherwise drab picture.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-06-03at81445PM.pngThree Comrades is the only film I've seen so far of Margaret Sullavan's, but if I had to describe her in one word based on this performance, it would be ethereal. She epitomizes the word, bringing about internal and external senses of fragility throughout her performance--at times it looks as though she could break into a million pieces. One can't help but be taken by Sullavan--it may be because she has an angelic quality about her that's sweet and tender, yet at the same time it may be because there's a nuance of vulnerability to her work and you feel as though a dark cloud is hovering over her, that such a rare sweetness can't possibly last very long. Parts of her performance have touches of rawness that are hard to watch—the moment in which she calls out Erich’s name during her last scene comes to mind—and even though that final scene of hers is almost exactly the same as a certain previous nominee, Sullavan owns it with her allure that's uniquely fatigued. What was striking to me was that I knew I've already watched this play out before in other films, yet Sullavan's approach still reads as refreshingly new. In fact, I was never bored by her, and she snags your attention from the moment she appears until her last departure. Three Comrades couldn’t be an interesting film without Pat, and sometimes you feel as though her sheer existence in the film is just so that there’d be a womanly presence amongst all these men. She’s the girlfriend who’s been given a new lease on life now that she’s found love with Robert Taylor, but in spite of these tired gender dynamics, Sullavan breathes life into a woman whose own life is transient. She does the absolute best she could with the material, though it's not without its flaws--for instance, I thought it was terribly transparent whenever the camera closed in on Sullavan for her to stare off and "think" deeply about something, and what could have been more mysterious moments just came off as predictable to me. An example in which life imitating art, Sullavan would pass away in an untimely and tragic manner, which in a way makes watching her suffer her burdens all the more real. Regardless, it's a great performance--too small for me to grade it any higher than what I give it, but this is a case of an actress really making the best of the material she's given and bringing it beyond another forgettable archetype.


  1. I really like her work, there is something so unique about her.

    1. I agree! She definitely has a distinctive air to her based off of this performance alone. Certainly has piqued my interest in seeing her in The Shop Around the Corner.