Thelma Ritter, Gladys Cooper, Edna May Oliver, Lucile Watson, Aline MacMahon, Sara Allgood, Jane Darwell, Judith Anderson, Dame May Whitty. These are just a few names more people should know, a few of the great character actresses of the Classic Film Era. With their grit and wit, their polish and pizzazz, they brightened many a film, sometimes even films for which they were far too good. This blog is dedicated to them, though they won't be the only ones mentioned here.
My first of five outstanding supporting-actress performances that failed to win an Oscar may shock you:
1. Jean Hagen, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). What -- Hagen's sublimely hilarious, pitch-perfect portrayal of silent film queen Lina Lamont, burdened with a horrific voice and a barely working brain, a performance never forgotten once seen? This performance did NOT win an Oscar? I can hardly blame anyone for being surprised at the very idea, but it's sad but true: while Hagen was nominated for her priceless portrayal of Lina, she lost the Oscar to Gloria Grahame for "The Bad and the Beautiful," even though Grahame's character had less than a third of Lina's screen time. All the performances in "Singin' in the Rain" are top-notch; the songs are infectious, the dances unforgettable, the script sharp and witty. But like Claude Rains's Louis Renault, Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont elevates this film to classic status. Without her, it would be merely good; with her, it's a must-see for anyone with an ear for music and a yen to laugh.
2. Edna May Oliver, "David Copperfield" (1935)
Here's an example of bad timing. While this wonderful dour-faced British comedienne was nominated several times (without winning), my favorite of her performances, as Aunt Betsey Trotwood in George Cukor's adaptation of Dickens' classic novel, failed to win a nomination for a simple reason: the Academy did not start awarding Best Supporting Actor and Actress until the following year. But even though Oscar was late to the party, this performance merits a look. It's no easy feat to stand out in a cast that includes Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, Roland Young, Jessie Ralph (another great character actress), and Lewis Stone, but Oliver's sharp-tongued but golden-hearted Aunt Betsey manages it. The role itself is meaty material -- perhaps Dickens' most memorable heroine, though well past her prime -- and Oliver makes the most of it. The scene in which she tells off David's wicked stepfather, Rathbone, and his equally wicked sister, Violet Kemble-Cooper, should have been enough to secure an Oscar victory, if only there'd been a victory to secure.
3. Sara Allgood, "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
Yes, I know, I know, it's a travesty that John Ford's film won Best Picture that year; it's common knowledge that "Citizen Kane" should have won; but that doesn't stop "Valley" from being a very good film, thanks largely to outstanding performances by Roddy MacDowall, Donald Crisp (who won the Oscar), and Sara Allgood. The film's narration describes Allgood's matriarch as the heart of the household, and in many ways Allgood's performance is the heart of the film. Her Beth Morgan can be infuriating, particularly when her deliberate, proud ignorance undermines her young son's efforts to better himself through education, and when her desire to see her daughter marry wealth has a hand in her marrying the wrong man; yet she is also strong, wise, and warm, a fighter (she threatens to tear apart the strikers who are slandering her husband "with my two hands!") and a nurturer. Allgood brings all the character's facets expertly to light, winning our admiration while not blinding us to her flaws. Though Allgood always did her best with any part she was given, she never managed to get her hands on such a meaty role again. Yet for this performance alone she deserves to be held in the memory.
4. Gladys Cooper, "Now, Voyager" (1942)
Evil characters are so easily memorable that actors don't have to strain very hard to make them so -- or so we might think, until we try to imagine someone other than Gladys Cooper in the role of the heartless matriarch who nearly destroys her daughter's life in this film, one of the best "women's pictures" of the 1940s. Because the daughter is played by Bette Davis in Heroic Mode, we know she'll emerge strong in the end, bruised but not broken. All the same, Cooper's performance is chilling. Her voice is ice-cold, her hands brittle and hard, her eyes merciless. Cooper was a fine actress who could show range when given the opportunity; on occasion (e.g. "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Valley of Decision") she was given sympathetic characters to play. But no one could match her depictions of Evil Aristocratic Matriarchy, and this was her best. Watch, and tremble.
5. Ethel Barrymore, "Portrait of Jennie" (1948)
If Gladys Cooper had no peer when it came to playing cold-hearted mothers, Barrymore set the gold standard when it came to gentle, wise old women. Many romantic films, particularly in recent years, tend to push supporting players into the background (with the exception of Wisecracking Best Buddies), but in this paranormal love story about a starving artist and a muse who may or may not be of this world, Barrymore claims our attention with her soft-spoken, sophisticated portrayal of the art dealer who takes the artist under her wing and becomes his confidante. She etches this performance in subtle, careful strokes, offering an example of the effectiveness of under-playing. She also delivers the film's best line: "I'm an old maid -- and nobody knows more about love than an old maid." Sounds contradictory, but when she says it, we believe it.