Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda)
The Nominees: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit), Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama), Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number)
Moira Shearer (The Red Shoes)
My Nominees: Rita Hayworth (The Lady from Shanghai), Barbara Stanwyck (Sorry, Wrong Number)
It is said that the best way to win an Oscar is to play either the victim or the handicapped. Jane Wyman played it safe . . . she did both. In Jean Negulesco's adaptation of Elmer Harris' play Johnny Belinda, she plays Belinda McDonald, a small town deaf-mute who comes under the tutelage of a kindly doctor (Lew Ayers) who teaches her lip reading and sign language. That seems like it would be compelling enough but then she is raped by the town bully and becomes pregnant, has the child and eventually kills the man responsible.
To say that Wyman's performance is one-note might seem a little unfair, given the nature of her role, yet it is hard to give her credit when the movie is so willing to bash us over the head with episodic melodrama at the expense of credibility. Wyman spends the entire film wearing the same clueless expression even while the screenplay works to push her from pitiful victim to fierce mother bear fighting for the sake of her child, but it is all so contrived and manipulative. I am all for sympathetic characters but, honestly, this is asking too much.
I love strong women in the movies but only when I feel that the character is allowing me to follow their passion without being manipulated. Such is the case with my Best Actress choice for 1948, a rare screen appearance by the ballet legend Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes, as a woman fighting to embrace her art and her passion under the direction of a cruel taskmaster.
Directed by Emeric Pressberger, the film tells two stories, one on the stage based on the Han Christian Anderson fable about a ballerina who acquires a pair of magical dancing slippers, and then a similar parallel story behind the scenes about a woman who cannot give up dancing. This is, of course, the most famous film ever made about ballet, and it is brought to life from the team of Emeric Pressberger and Michael Powell (known as The Archers) whose films were always exquisite Technicolor productions. To see The Red Shoes is to see these two at their best.
In the middle of one of the most glorious looking productions ever put on film is gorgeous, red-headed Moira Shearer. She plays Victoria Page, a socialite with such a talent for ballet that she joins the company of the rigid taskmaster Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She falls, almost immediately, in love with the company's new composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) despite the fact that Boris forbids those under his study from having romantic relationships. He feels that it steals the performer’s concentration.
Victoria becomes a sensation with her colleagues and the public. Boris promises to make her career under the condition that while she is in his service that he, essentially, owns her. He is a powerful man who has a way of making and breaking careers. "You shall dance," he promises her "and the world will follow.” He offers her the lead in an adaptation of Han Christian Anderson's "The Red Shoes," the story of a girl who comes into the possession of a pair of red ballet slippers that cause her to dance continuously until she dies.
Victoria is caught between her love of dance and her love of Julian and despite Boris's disapproval; she carries on her relationship with Julian and eventually marries him, leaving the company behind. Boris is deeply hurt but is convinced that she will change her mind. She does, when he offers her a chance to once again perform in “The Red Shoes,” which he has forbidden to be performed in her absence.
What happens in Victoria's mind and in her heart pulls her in two different directions, torn between her devotion to Boris and her love for Julian, she makes a decision that shocks us, her mind falls between two great loves and she cannot bear to choose. The tragic ending is built, not on contrivance, but on what has happened before. These three characters and their world are so specifically drawn that we understand fully why Vicky loves to dance and her deep love for Julian. We understand fully what drives her creative impulse and the passions that possess her heart.
Shearer is brilliant in one of the great crossover performances in the history of the screen. She isn't tied down to a great deal of dialogue, but is a very physical actor, conveying more with her eyes and her body and her face than she does with her voice. She is allowed to dance in this film and dance she does. We understand fully what drives her creative impulse and it is displayed most beautifully in a 20-minute, dreamlike performance of "The Red Shoes" as she dances in and out of sequences that could not possibly exist on a real stage. The dancing is real but the surroundings are not and there are moments that are especially dazzling as when she encounters a newspaper that becomes a dancer, dances with Victoria, then becomes inanimate again. The joy and passion in this sequence give you an appreciation for her art and illustrate what it is that she sees when she is performing.
In the real world, the relationship between Boris and Victoria is established at the beginning. He looks at her with suspicious eyes and asks, "Why do you want to dance?” There is a breath between them and she asks, "Why do you want to live?” He is shocked by her answer and stammers for a response: "Well I don't know exactly why, but I must." She smiles, and says, "That's my answer too".
From that moment, I think Boris has her number. He understands the kind of full-blooded passion that drives her heart. She will dance and he will command and he won't lose her to any distractions. He commands his company by reminding them that "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never." The film moves back and forth through the parallel stories of Victoria's struggle with her own heart and the ballet that is being constructed.
The two performances are at opposite ends from one another. Boris is closed, imperious and cold. Victoria is open, passionate and full of the joy of life. She isn't allowed a great deal of dramatic scenes, which makes the final confrontation all the more powerful. We see in her face, joyfulness, a lust for life, this porcelain beauty with fiery red hair whose dancing is pure magic.
Despite her brilliant performance, Shearer didn't think much of filmmaking. She never considered herself an actress, never liked the film industry, stating "If I am dubious about films and film people, the film industry has only itself to blame." After making The Red Shoes, she went back to her ballet company, only occasionally returning to films. Her performance here would leave an impression behind - a performance that would draw many young girls to want to become a ballerina. I don't know if she would have given any notice to an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Red Shoes, but that doesn't mean she didn't deserve it.