June 4, 2016

Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

as BELINDA MCDONALD
Won: Academy Award - Best Actress | Golden Globe Award - Best Actress

Behold, the first silent performance for me to review since the 2nd Academy Awards! I will preface this post with the reiteration that I've never been all that great at reading into and interpreting silent performances--they're not quite my cup of tea, and I've always found them to be more limiting than those that utilize the sound medium. To that note, I wasn't huge on Jane Wyman's performance in Johnny Belinda, and I'm thinking it's due to a mix of her own acting as well as the film's writing.


Johnny Belinda is one more film which tackles a number of subjects--is this a film about disability? A film about rape? A romance? In any case, these are three varied subjects that, in any which order you couple them, would require a lot of careful consideration in its writing to pull off. Otherwise, you get a rather jumbled and half-baked plot--as is the case with this film--with writing that stifles characterization. Such is the case with Wyman's Belinda. Wyman is, first and foremost, a beautiful actress, with a set of doe-eyes that are perfectly befitting for the naive, "dummy" kind of girl that Belinda allegedly is. Wyman plays this down pat, and I've no fault to find there. Ironically, I was so much more taken by Wyman early on, when it's just Belinda going about her day-to-day, than I was once the drama really hits. As the story carries on, and certain tragedies bestow itself unto Belinda, I found that Wyman doesn't really break out of this baby-esque silent acting -- as is with the scenes post rape, or the scene post Black's death, I found Wyman to be touching but not digging nearly as deep into what I'd consider to be very raw, very heartbreaking feelings and emotions that should follow such traumatic scenarios. The film's tagline, "She was alone with terror - and torment!" seems to promises a sort of deep character study that isn't delivered upon. Belinda is dumb but she's actually not...she's a kid but now she's a mom...she's sad at times but...she's happy not soon after? There are spaces that should have been filled in which are not. And what we have instead is a very perky, silent actress who smiles her way through the film, seemingly forgetting the terrible things that've happened from scene to scene, when really she could have constructed something much more epic if there was more respect to be had on the plot's heavier turns.

Perhaps this is what the director and studio wanted out of Wyman -- this is after all, the actress who impressed me so vividly with her silent moments in The Yearling -- and perhaps the more rawer depictions of a rape victim or a person who has lost their father would prove to be too solemn and too much of a downer, in turn screwing with the film's dreamy attempts at romanticism, to suffice. There's a slight ironic parallel here; seems like the character of Belinda, overcoming as much as she does, is in direct correlation with Wyman "overcoming" her divorce from Ronald Reagan at the time. But what is awarding the act of "overcoming" something if there's no weight in it? Unfortunately, my takeaway was that this is a very half-baked performance, and brings back to mind the female characters during the silent era (Janet Gaynor in Sunrise comes immediately to mind), wherein women sort of just overcome adversity with a sad shrug and a smile instead of really fleshing out some sort of meaningful understanding of the character. That was one of my major qualms about the silent era, and here we are, 18 years later, with not much improvement to be had.

Perhaps a three, I'm not positive. 

7 comments:

  1. Many people seem to like her. Very interesting and well-written as usual.

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    1. Thank you Giuseppe! Yeah, I've seen a lot of people for Wyman...was expecting to really like it myself, but alas...

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  2. I think Jane Wyman was vastly over-praised for a performance that I think is simplistic and superficial. I also think she was a fine actress, but the accolades this performance received seem undeserving. Her wan smile, which permeates the film, is repetitive and somewhat annoying. Deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlie Matlin commented on TCM that Belinda not screaming during her rape is wrong and that deaf people still makes sounds when enduring abuse. In addition, Belinda's rebound after her rape is Hollywood-recipe stuff. I don't think Wyman's fully to blame - the script and direction let her down - but she definitely could have dug deeper and didn't.

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  3. Despite all of this, I still want to give this movie a chance. Perhaps I will end up liking it.

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    1. I don't think this is a bad film. Agnes Moorehead is quite good and Charles Bickford is excellent. I just don't think it deserved all those nominations and Wyman certainly didn't deserve an Oscar ... but the Academy loves to award performances where someone plays a character with a disability.

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    2. Welcome Ruthie! Nice to see a new face here :) Don't let my opinions keep you from watching a movie - Johnny Belinda isn't a bad movie per se, just not excellent...

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