October 31, 2016

The Oscargasms Honor/Dishonor Roll: 1940s Edition

Here we are - another decade complete, another bundle of 100 performances to cross off the list of 870+ nominated lead performances. Before formally saying farewell to the 1940s, I had to give it an official wrap-up report. So herein lies a semi-comprehensive breakdown of the performances, the favorites, the least favorites, and a short list of the great performances of the era ignored by Oscar altogether.

Let's first take a look at the overall quality of our nominees. It's a weird, multi-pronged set of stats. Things that stand out: 

  • The men were better at being bad (more ones)
  • The women, while rarely flat-out bad (ones), were pretty good at being a little better than bad (more twos) than the men.
  • What's more, in terms of threes, which I consider as being the threshold of whether or not I think a certain performance warrants being nominated, more men made the cut, meaning that there were more men putting in middle-of-the-road performances that were just good enough but not necessarily outstanding. 
  • The women got more fours (meaning they were more often above average), but they were evenly matched with the men in terms of fives (outstanding)
  • Men averaged: 2.98. Broadly that means that a great many of them didn't deserve to be nominated. 
  • Women averaged: 3.12. Broadly that means that a great many of them were good enough though nothing to get extremely excited about. 
So it's weird. The women weren't necessarily bad, but they were a little better than bad. They were often better than average, but they didn't outdo the men in terms of overall outstanding work. The women seemed to be more often either not good enough to be nominated or pretty good but not amazing. On the other hand, the men were often not good enough to be nominated or just good enough to be nominated. Another quick breakdown:

  • Only four of my personal Best Actress winners got fives (Joan, Barbara, Celia, Joan) while five of my personal Best Actor winners got fives (Charlie, Ray, James, Michael, Richard). 
  • There were many Best Actress performances that I ranked highly even if I wasn't flat-out, balls-to-the-wall impressed by them. I respected Bette in The Little Foxes, The Letter, and Now, Voyager, but neither floored me as I'd hope them to. Same with Olivia in The Snake Pit and The Heiress. Same with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. There were many fours that I just wasn't passionate about, even if I acknowledge them as really solid. Basically - there weren't enough Jennifer Joneses in Duel in the Sun. 
  • On the same note, there were more fours on the men's side that I really, really adored. I'm thinking Gene Kelly, Montgomery Clift, Robert Montgomery. I'd watch those again in a heartbeat. In terms of fives, I may even go as far as saying I was much more passionate about Michael Redgrave, Richard Todd, Kirk Douglas, and Charlie Chaplin than I was Joan Crawford, Celia Johnson, and Barbara Stanwyck. 
So what does this mean? I think that a lot of the times I didn't care for the Best Actors - and yet when I did care, I really, really liked them. There were some really inspired nominations peppered into that otherwise dull bunch. While I was ranking the ladies more highly, I was rarely enthusiastic by any of them. I was passively handing out fours, but they didn't invoke excitement. That's in line with the decade's bunch of nominations - there were too many ladies raking in multiple nominations. As previously mentioned: there are SIX YEARS worth of nominations split between 8 ladies (Bette Davis, Greer Garson Olivia de Havilland, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Jennifer Jones). Oscar had his favorites this decade and he nominated them frequently as if on auto-pilot - there were few inspired nominations...he played safe and the results show that. 

So with that said: even if the ladies technically "win" the forties, I pretty much see it as a tie across both genders. 


She didn't hit Hollywood Star status until 1942, but once she did she was a force to be reckoned with. Even as Oscar's favoritism in the form of repetitive nominations played very much in her favor throughout the decade as well, I found myself much more [consistently] impressed by her work than that of her actress peers - Davis, Jones, Garson, de Havilland, et al. She has a refreshing ethereal demeanor to her and a naturalism that draws you in, even when she's playing roles/in movies that aren't especially my cup of tea (Joan of Arc, The Bells of. St. Mary's).

Years ago, I watched Casablanca and was prompted to write about my feelings on Bergman's work. After viewing a number of her performances, it still holds true to a more holistic level: "...after watching Ingrid...I ended up appreciating talented actresses and great actressing all the more deeply. They don't make 'em like they used to, and that's just too damn bad."

  • Joseph Cotten, who, like Fredric March before him, found his way into my heart with a mix of excellent work (Shadow of a Doubt), excellent films (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man), and by being a reliable supporting force to a great many of actress-powered films (Gaslight, Since You've Been Away, Duel in the Sun, Love Letters, Under Capricorn).
  • Cary Grant, who, while not necessarily the most phenomenal dramatist the decade had to offer (Penny Serenade, None But The Lonely Heart), continued where he left off in the late Thirties by remaining a superb comedic force (Arsenic and Old Lace, The Philadelphia Story) in addition to being the quintessential leading man (Notorious)
  • Montgomery Clift, who, while having arrived onto the scene a little too late in the decade to have had a solid chance at taking the top spot here, stays top of mind solely due to his fully realized, refreshing, and game changing performances (The Search, Red River, The Heiress)


Because the guy is stiff as a board in just about all the films I've watched of his. To be completely fair, it's not that he's a "bad" actor per se. It's his style of acting that has never resonated with me. He's a detached, often basic / blank canvas emulating the man's man (a WWI soldier, a baseball player, a brooding expatriate) in movies that appeal to men (war movies, sports movies, action movies). Cooper's niche, a category that I happen to not be apart of, so I can't fault him entirely. I just don't care about his movies nor his performances.

  • Greer Garson, the epitome of "too much of a good thing" in the 1940s. Obviously, it's not her fault she got nominated so many times - but with so many nominations in such a condensed timeframe, by the time The Valley of Decision came rolling it was hard to find any enthusiasm in her work. It felt like we all seen it play out before, quite some time ago. 
  • Walter Pidgeon, who received his sole two nominations in tandem with Greer Garson, primarily as the subordinate husband-esque fold to her central character, both of which are pretty unforgettable by sheer virtue of their plainness. 


To be clear, I don't think there was a "bad" performance per se.  Now that we've purged ourselves of the 1930s, we're not confronted with performances plagued by awkward actors unable to wrap their heads around sound technology. And while there continues to be questionable ethnic decisions made by Hollywood during this decade in the very same vein as Paul Muni and Ruth Chatterton, they didn't find their way into the leading races. So I'll leave you with my two least favorite nominated performances of the 40's - Loretta Young in Come to the Stable and Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver. These are performances which, while not necessarily awful, were just too simple or one-dimensional to warrant consideration as among the best of their respective years.


MICHAEL REDGRAVE // MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA: I loved Mourning Becomes Electra. I think it should be remade into an HBO film. It is weird, twisted, and stagey as all hell, but it all worked for me. Michael Redgrave's Orin is the immature, vulnerable, and tragic heart of this film. Co-star Rosalind Russell would later write in her autobiography that Redgrave was "a hell of a good actor, but nervous, taking pills to calm himself..." I couldn't really find further context around this statement, but whatever the reason was, it clearly amplified Redgrave's passionate performance.

  • Montgomery Clift, The Search
  • Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator
  • James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life
  • Richard Todd, The Hasty Heart


JENNIFER JONES // DUEL IN THE SUN: Okay, so hear me out. I understand I gave Celia Johnson the win over Jennifer Jones - so this may come as a bit of sacrilege. But the fact of the matter is, I adore this performance,.I think about it often when I think about the 1940s. Even if I don't think it's necessarily superior to Johnson's work, it provokes a passionate albeit unpopular opinion out of me. Duel in the Sun is one insane film, and Jones' work is a whole lot of campy, turbulent fun. It's a messy performance in theory, but it complements its over-the-top picture so well. Just read the review again, to get an idea of where I'm coming from. I literally sat there bewildered as I typed it up, and it's probably one of the longer ones I've written for this blog. I think that says something.

  • Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter
  • Joan Fontaine, Rebecca
  • Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story


Herein lie performances that I think should have been included among Oscar's shortlists, arranged by score and year. There're actually a handful of films left that I really want to watch, so this list is not yet complete and may be expanded upon. 

Vivien Leigh, Waterloo Bridge (1940)

Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday (1940)

Greer Garson, Random Harvest (1942)

Fred MacMurray, Double Indemnity (1944)

Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Dana Andrews, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Jane Greer, Out of the Past (1947)

Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)

Joan Fontaine, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Linda Darnell, A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Barbara Stanwyck, The Lady Eve (1941)

Joseph Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca (1943)

Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Ingrid Bergman, Notorious (1946)

UP NEXT: A preview of the Fifties, they're among us!


  1. Allen, your take on Best/Worst of the decade is a bit all over the place, which is as good an example as I can think of for the '40s Oscars. There were several good performances and almost none of them won, while the winners list includes more than its share of lackluster head scratchers.

    Your Favorite Actor/Actress rundown: I like all four on your list but none come directly to mind when I think of the '1940s greats'. Don't get me wrong, they're fine actors. They just don't quite do it for me as representing the decade. Bergman's fine in three of her films, but 'FWTBT' and 'Joan of Arc' are quite bad, I think. As for your choice of Jennifer Jones as Favorite Actress in 'Duel in the Sun', well, we'll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

    I'm glad to see Garson in your snubbed list for 'Random Harvest', which is one of her best. I actually find her work often understated and sensitive. It's the formulaic tedium of the films developed for her by MGM that becomes insufferable.

    What supports my point is that your list of snubbed performances is full of memorable, award-worthy work by actors deserving of recognition. Garland, Garfield, Andrews, Bogart, Cotton, Grant .... and there are many more. The 1940s did have a lot of really terrific performances in its midst. You wouldn't always know it by looking at the winders circles, but they're there.

  2. You did not care for Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt? I thought she was amazing.

    1. I did too. That's a terrific film all around.

    2. Yes it's indeed a terrific movie, one of the most underrated out of Hitchcock's. Both Wright and Cotten are excellent.

    3. Nah, unfortunately I didn't care too much for Wright to nominate her. I'm not sure why. My guess is that Wright is just not for me, and her regular showing as an old-timey naive-ish young lass bewildered by all that's going on around her didn't resonate well...

  3. I'd probably go with Chaplin for everything; no way you could top that speech. But I guess I'm rather subjective. :)
    You definitely liked Redgrave more than I did. It's strange how often I forget he was Vanessa's and Lynn's dad.

    1. *sigh* funny that you'd bring up Chaplin's speech - it bears so much more meaning now.

  4. Wonderful post with great insights on this decade! The 40s are certainly toughs in many parts but 1950 is the greatest kind of reward you can wish for! :) (and 1951 offers some equally great rewards)

    1. I took a look back at your initial predictions on who'd I choose (9/29/2014) and it looks like you accurately predicted 7/10 of the actresses :D! Though I guess I was a bit more unpredictable with the actors (4/10)

  5. Glad to see your posts! Also must be refreshing to leave the 40s behind, even though you will see a few of these actors again. Though this did bring one of the most amusing openings to a review yet. I don't think anything could top the Greer Garson "Blossoms in the Dust" review.

    Anyways, I hope the 50s treat you significantly better!

    1. lol, that's amusing that you remember the Blossoms in the Dust upfront...I totally forgot what I said (I don't remember a great many from this decade - definitely a real blur). Thank you!

  6. I'm very glad that immediately after Wind Leigh got the full star treatment routinely bestowed by MGM on Garbo, Shearer and Crawford before the system started breaking down. While the pre-Code 1931 Mae Clarke version with its greater freedom is a worthy film too, Leigh as a ballerina in love with a pre-WWII Robert Taylor at his most handsome, is irresistible.

    After the astonishing test-flight at comedy that was Russell as Sylvia Fowler in The Women, Hildy Johnson sealed the deal, and no one would ever question her ability at funny again.

    With a reputation only at comedy, MacMurray was quite nervous going into Indemnity as a deliberate murderer, but boy did he come through.

    In fact, there are none on this list I'd give you disagreement about.

  7. Also, very happy to see Vivien Leigh and Lana Turner on here! Love those performances so much!

    1. glad we're aligned - I really loved The Postman Always Rings Twice!

  8. Why aren't Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers on the "least" favorite list? Two of the weakest Oscar wins ever.