December 20, 2015

Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own

Won: Academy Award - Best Actress
Jody Norris in To Each His Own is exactly what Academy Award winning performances are made of. Jody Norris is also pretty similar (surprise!!) to that of Helen Hayes's Academy Award winning performance in  The Sin of Madelon Claudet. So why is it that we often find ourselves in situations where we have winning performances which check every single box on the figurative Oscar Bait Checklist, and yet here we are, decades and decades after the fact, and these very performances have been all but completely forgotten?

Take all of these moving parts--the doe-eyed ingenue caught in the unfortunate circumstance of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, the customary circumstance in which she must sacrifice said baby, and the years of subsequent longing leading to said ingenue's predictable transformation into an embittered older woman--you smash them all together, and it makes a cruddy film. It's cruddy because it doesn't stand to tell a genuine story; rather, it's a chemistry experiment in which a bunch of stuff is strewn together in the hopes that the product will turn out alright enough. Thus, here I am once again, having spent another two hours of my life watching yet another footnote in Academy Awards history, trying to identify the positive bits of Olivia de Havilland's performance. It's not awful. It's certainly not great. It's positively middling. We get to see many different facets of de Havilland, and it's all done just about well enough. de Havilland doesn't dig deep into the scrappily written Jody, and you never get the sense that she's hungry to really kill this part, which is rather surprising because I know her to be a better actress than this, and also disappointing given the context that she had just won a groundbreaking court case that granted her greater creative freedom from the studios in choosing her roles. Nope, she merely slides on by, with no sort of flair or personality, hitting all those checkmarks about as well as one needs to in order to get a passing grade. In reflection I can't really pinpoint a certain part of the performance that was truly extraordinary, and that's because the entire performance itself absolutely reeks of mediocrity. Enough is there for me to call it "okay, I guess," but isn't it frustrating and sad when "okay, I guess" is enough to strike gold?

1 comment:

  1. "Madame X"...."The Sin of Madelon Claudet"..."Stella Dallas"..."To Each His Own"...and every remake or near remake of this formula up until deHavilland's win managed an Oscar award or nomination for essentially the same role and/or performance. You are precise in noting that the formula and not the performance is the victory here. This was a weak year for Best Actress nominees (save one) and deHavilland gave far better performances (including that same year's 'The Dark Mirror') than she did in this soapy melodrama. Trade this for her forthright Melanie in GWTW or her transformation as Catherine in "The Heiress" and you have a different actress: assured, centered and specific as apposed to maudlin and sentimental.

    I think deHavilland is a far better actress than her performance here indicates but, as you say, she sued and won over the studio system re: the 7 year slave clause (informally known now as the 'DeHavilland Law'), which was a landmark decision. I suppose the industry believed she was owed this award at the time. Now, it's an odd footnote to an otherwise noteworthy career.