1947 Supporting Actress Smackdown

The Nominees

Ethel Barrymore, The Paradine Case – Yes, it’s weird Barrymore is the only nominee of this very amazing film. Hitchcock’s visual ideas are probably as much to do with her impact as her own acting choices, and I wish she had a scene with Ann Todd at some point during the trial given that Barrymore’s Lady Sophie is the worst-case scenario Gay is hurtling towards. But beyond how generously she’s foregrounded by the direction her in her two scenes, Barrymore bookends the film with a tremulous, stifled performance that unromantically distills the way a woman’s life can be smothered by the whims of a man she can’t stop herself from loving. Her modulations of anxiety and terror reveal the cruelty Sophie is used to her husband and what actions take her off-guard, while refracting more ideas about Charles Laughton than Gregory Peck ever manages.

Gloria Grahame, Crossfire – Acquits herself well to Crossfire’s noirish atmosphere and effective blend of larger conspiracies enabled by personal secrets and preconceptions. The flinty, seen-it-all attitude of Grahame’s nightclub worker registers as an outlook she’s picked up from years of hard life experiences rather than an empty affectation. You can see her wielding it against George Cooper’s wayward soldier, and later against his wife, but it never reads as false. Likewise, when she’s sincerely moved by something, you believe how surprised she is but also how much the gesture means to her. She makes a great impression in her two major sequences – the only thing one could really say against her is that other folks in Crossfire’s ensemble are even more flexible with mood and character than she is. 

Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement – A standout of Gentleman’s Agreement, dexterously blending personal and political stakes better than anyone else. Holm instantly conveys Anne’s professional competence and intelligence, and her crush on Phil is nicely underplayed opposite Peck yet unfussily  broadcast to the audience. Her camaraderie with Phil is easily the best chemistry in the film, save for the totally convincing friendship Holm develops with John Garfield. When she gives her big, final speech, it’s both a moving culmination of her arc and one of the only instances where someone’s ideological beliefs stem from their lived experiences. Wild that she doesn’t have a scene with Dorothy McGuire or Anne Revere, but Holm amply exceeds the limitations of her role, supplying connective threads not present in her script.

Marjorie Main, The Egg and I – Ma Kettle gets a lot of buildup in The Egg and I from friendly relatives and snooty townsfolk alike. Main commits to Ma’s whirlwind energy and lack of refinement, scoring jokes about her messy home and inability to keep track of which child is which without ever playing down to these aspects of her. For all the role invites hearty scene-stealing, she’s also a fully responsive scene partner with the many actors playing her family and to Claudette Colbert in particular. I also appreciate the different registers of knowingness and self-awareness Main adds, poking fun at Betty’s carefully laid plans for when she and Bob will have kids but recognizing the truth in being told her son needs to go to college.

Anne Revere, Gentlemen’s Agreement – Revere’s standard of unsentimental affection and steadfast candor are a valuable asset to her film. Her unwavering support of her son is clearly built on years of admiring his work, not just because they’re related but because he’s talented and committed to a job built on doing good for others. A shame the screenplay excludes her the whole time Celeste Holm is in the film,  but Revere gives Mrs. Green a brainy, principled point of view rather than making her just a sounding board for her son. His article never sounds better than when she reads it, and the future never sounds more hopeful than when Anne Revere imagines it. Bonus points for underplaying Mrs. Green’s Mysterious Illness so effectively.

I’m happy to cosign Celeste Holm’s win, with Main and Grahame being the closest runners-up. Even if I prefer my alternative choices over most of this roster, every one of these actresses contributes somethign substantial to their films in roles that could’ve been much less without a skilled performer at the helm. Still, here’s a handful of women who are just as great, if not better, than the folks who made Oscar’s list.

Other Possibilities

Individual Performances

Mary Astor, Desert Fury –  I admire the blend of noir and melodrama in Desert Fury. There’s secrets buried six feet under, bad women attracted to  worse men, a love triangle between a man, a woman, and his partner in crime, all tinged with menace but shot to emphasize color and sunlight. It’s not an entirely successful balance, but it’s massively intriguing, and Mary Astor’s performance is easily the most accomplished element of her film. She’s able to key into the unusual mixture of tones and styles without straining itself, providing such a stable presence that the other cast members seem more assured about their own characterizations when they share a scene with her. Astor broadcasts a long life of shady dealings and combative motherhood, though she doesn’t conflate a storied past with being overly expressive in her line readings. When Fritzi decides to really share something, you feel how much effort it’s taking her to dredge up the emotions. She also makes Fritzi equally confident in her decision-making no matter if she’s right or wrong, showing us a woman whose been thrown off her rhythm watching her daughter throw her life away, and is only able to realize it once it’s too late.

Kathleen Byron, Black Narcissus – From my review here: “Part of what makes Sister Ruth’s madness so potent is the sheer size of it. Though all the nuns are bothered by this village and its people, Byron scales her own reactions slightly beyond these contexts. She certainly arrives with her own racist hang-ups and bad faith views of the locals, sourly trying to shoot down Sister Honey’s initial plans to teach the children English because they’re too stupid to understand her. It’s almost funny to see how much she doesn’t care about the children she’s been assigned to instruct, often not even pretending to teach them as she gazes out the window at Mr Dean or remaining lost in thought. But compared to the other Sisters, her breakdown feels more rooted in her growing dissatisfaction with the faith and her newly felt horniness than becoming unmoored by this specific environment. When Sister Ruth bursts into Sister Clodagh’s office to report the status of a new patient who nearly died from her injuries, she’s breathless but also a bit excited recounting the details of the ordeal while covered in the woman’s blood. It almost doesn’t matter who this person is or what part of the world they’re in, except that she has felt this stranger’s pain and is now energized by it. When she starts biting back against Sister Clodagh, the purity of her malice is frightening in its intensity and directness.”

Coleen Gray, Kiss of Death – Yes, the young woman who embodies the hope of a real future for our likely-doomed protagonist is an inherently appealing role in noir, albeit one that often encourages their interpreters to play a vague, angelic idea more than an actual person. Gray grounds the role with an emotional intelligence and sense of self-awareness comparable to Teresa Wright. Her openness about what she’s feeling and what she wants is a refreshing contrast to Victor Mature’s roiling internal conflicts, walking into his life with no illusions of what the stakes are. This also extends to Nettie being able to reaad Nick’s mental state with no trouble at all. Gray roots her relationship in genuine trust, able to taking what he’s saying at face value without seeming like a dupe because she understands him so well. She’s as supportive a partner as you could hope for, and in a film this treacherous, that counts for a lot.

Elsa Lanchester, The Bishop’s Wife – As someone who’s only seen Lanchester as the monstrous, darting Bride of Frankenstein, and in her frankly irritating turn in Witness for the Prosecution, her understated work in The Bishop’s Wife was a lovely surprise in a movie that I liked much more than I expected. For all the film wavers between corniness and artifice, it’s a sweet, often very poignant movie. As the maid of the main couple, Lanchester is more a bystander to the film’s events than an actual participant, though she doesn’t try to pull undue focus on herself. Her dithering in Witness is a good enough example of the nonsense this sort of role often invites. But here, she registers as a piquant, thoughtful observer to the goings-on in David Niven and Loretta Young’s marriage. Matilda is perhaps the only person who realizes just how much Niven needs guidance in his life, and is therefore the most awed by the effect Cary Grant has on restoring Niven’s family. Maybe she doesn’t know he’s an angel, but she certainly sees him as one regardless.

Agnes Moorehead, Dark Passage – From my review here: “When he shows up at her doorstep claiming to be a friend of Bob’s, she immediately takes an interest in him, only becoming more flirtatious as he lists off the qualities Bob mentioned about her that brought him to her home. But Parry gives up the goose of who he is and why he’s there oddly fast, nullifying a lot of dramatic tension so he can declare What Really Happened. Moorehead’s performance is the only thing working to justify what he’s saying, but she doesn’t reveal some hidden version of Madge to do so. Instead, she builds on the atttributes we’ve already seen and suits them to this new information. She’s completely stone-faced, her body language broadcasting how utterly terrified she is even as her voice remains unexpectedly petulant in the face of his demands, fully agreeing with his version of events but refusing to corroborate what he’s saying with a written confession. Moorehead’s performance inhabits a cruel irony, spitefully relishing that the man she’s hungered for for years has finally given her his complete attention, and she’s never been more afraid of him. Moorehead’s determination to make this scene work via the sheer strength of her own acting is ultimately a more engrossing spectacle than anything happening in the plot, and if Madge Rapf exits Dark Passage as ignobly as possible, her interpreter leaves with her dignity intact.”

Agnes Moorehead, The Lost Moment – From the same review: “Moorehead is ideal casting for a brittle, 105 year old woman who simply refuses to die, playing Juliana Bodereau as a startlingly lucid cryptkeeper of her own demons. Admittedly, the fact that Juliana can barely leave her chair limits Moorehead from utilizing her expressive physicality, and Martin Gabel’s filmmaking treats her as more of a Gothic object than a real character. Still, it’s a rare treat to see her serve such a moody, cerebral vision, let alone in a Jo Van Fleet role.”

Ann Todd, The Paradine Case – As with Alida Valli, Todd benefits immensely from Hitchcock’s direction of the film’s already impressive script. The first half of The Paradine Case feels as though Valli’s Mrs. Maddalena Paradine and Todd’s Mrs. Gay Keane are taking turns with Mr. Keane’s (and the film’s) attentions, rather than him bouncing between the two women. Todd’s performance style is as complimentary to Valli’s acting as their characters are to each other. Where Valli remains so remotely troubled, Todd is almost painfully precise in her portrayal of Gay’s wifely devotions and anxieties. In no time flat she carves out a loving, friendly marriage with Gregory Peck, even throwing in a little bit of carnality. She projects an absolute confidece in her marriage as well as an uncanny ability to read her husband, which only makes it that much harder to watch her instantly clock that he’s fallen in love with Mrs. Paradine. And yet, because she knows what losing this case would do to him, she becomes even more convinced he should stay involved. It hurts like hell for her to say this to him, though she never veers into self-pity – perhaps because she never really doubts he’ll come back to her. The way she lashes herself to her husband is almost the most perverse element of the film, and yet she sells it with astonishing grace.


Boy! What a Girl! – From my review here: “Boy! What a Girl! features performances from several prominent black musical artists of the 1940s. Beryl Booker is the pianist playing with the Slam Stewart trio. Mary Lou Williams, a composer who arranged several of Duke Ellington’s songs (including “Satchel Mouth Baby, which The Brown Dots perform very early in the film), gives a solo classical piano performance during the rooftop party. Ann Correll sings a gorgeous rendition of “I Just Won’t Sing the Blues” late into the film. There’s also the Harlemaniacs (a.k.a. The International Jitterbugs), whose knockout dance moves shine in the first rent party. Only Betti Mays, as the girlfriend of Elwood Smith’s producer, is given the opportunity to knock our socks off with a solo number and play a major character. Her chemistry with Smith is electrifying, and their romance is all the more moving for refusing any big gestures to convey their love. Mays is also a casually luminous figure in her own right, never more so than during her rendition of “Crazy Riffin’”. She kicks off the rooftop garden party that lasts the second half of Boy! What a Girl! with the best musical performance of the whole film, dancing along with the band and singing exquisitely with a broad, infectious smile. The wit and charm Sybil Lewis so casually emanates is key to her success here as she swoops into these strangers’ lives and takes it upon herself to solve their problems whether she caused them or not. She’s also the most thoughtfully reactive presence in the film, actively listening to what her screen partners are saying and thinking about what she’s going to do next without pulling faces. She’s fully involved in each scene and the people she’s acting with, perhaps more so than anyone else in this gifted, calico crew.”

Great Expectations – Kudos to David Lean’s direction for being so formally and structurally assured with this towering adaptation. It’s further credit to him that, while you couldn’t call Great Expectations an actor-driven film, he nonetheless leaves enough room for his ensemble to contribute their own ideas about their characters rather than squirming under his lense. Freda Jackson certainly stands on her own with her hard, put-upon take on Mrs. Joe. She’s a shrewish, unsentimental figure, but she never veers into step-motherly cruelty or lame self-pity. After she goes, she’s replaced by Eileen Erskine’s sweet, slightly wan Biddy, one of a handful of people who are genuinely nice to Pip. As the young Estella, Jean Simmons’ skilled distillation of cold, cruel, adolescent white girlhood is both a marked accomplishment in its own right and as hard of a 180 as you could possibly get from her brownfaced nonsense in Black Narcissus. Martita Hunt makes a great, spooky impression as Ms. Havishman, chilling the whole film without demanding it stop in its tracks for her. She registers as a substantial, complex person held aloft by her own, submerged secrets, yet you worry she could crumble to dust if someone waves their fan too hard in her presence. I’d say Valerie Hobson gives my favorite performance of the whole cast, playing the unapologetically unfeeling adult Estella with warmth and gregarity. She doesn’t do a single thing in her performance to indicate how insincere Estella is, yet the way she bulldozes past questions she doesn’t want to answer is more unsettling than if she’d been actively dismissive. Even when she gets the chance to reveal some cruel interior or fold in on herself, Hobson holds onto Estella’s trained, pleasant airs, rightly recognizing that she has no idea how else to express herself than through this manipultive veneer.

This Happy Breed – The other Lean film to belatedly get a US release in 1947, This Happy Breed feels like it should be a more rewarding venue for its actors to shine. Adapted from a Noel Coward play focused on a working-class British family from 1919 to 1939, the film’s ambitious sociopolitical scope seems like exactly the kind of fertile soil a talented group of actors could blossom in. The opening sequences auguer well for the whole cast, all of whom walk into their new home with full characterizations ready to go. Amy Veness seems like she has her brittle, opinionated grandmother down pat. So does Allison Logatt as the hypochondriac aunt, made funnier and more annoying through Logatt’s savvy playing. Kay Walsh (who co-wrote Great Expectations) and Eileen Erskine (hi again!) makes their own, distinct impressions as the near-adult daughters of Celia Johnson and Robert Newton. A lot happens to these characters as the years go by. Logatt gets a boyfirned, then becomes a spiritualist, then maybe a fascist. Erskine’s daughter marries and tames a radical Communist, while Walsh rejects two marriage proposals from John Mills, asserting her desire to blow this crummy with as much conviction as Ann Blyth ever did. All of these actress show well, particularly Logatt and Walsh, but none of them feel as though their arcs are handled with as much care from Coward’s script or Lean’s direction to really land. Only Johnson is able to show how their characters have changed and matured beyond whatever big thing they’re dealing with in their own individual story.

My Lineup

Mary Astor, Desert Fury
Kathleen Byron, Black Narcissus
Sybil Lewis, Boy! What a Girl!
Betti Mays, Boy! What a Girl!
Ann Todd, The Paradine Case

Hell yeah, this lineup rules. My runner-ups are Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death, Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage, and Celeste Holm in Gentleman’s Agreement. Below that tier (but not that far below) are Elsa Lanchester in The Bishop’s Wife, Marjorie Main in The Egg and I, Gloria Grahame in Crossfire, Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations, Mary Astor in Cynthia, and Kay Walsh and Allison Logatt in This Happy Breed. But enough about me, who are some of your favorite supporting actresses from 1947? What are some of your favorite films, be they actressy or not? And since the next Smackdown will be about the women of 2002, where should I go next?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eoin says:

    Like a lot of your choices and discussion of the performances from this year. Other’s I’d add to the conversation are Helen Walker (Nightmare Alley), Serafima Birman (Ivan the Terrible, Part 1) & Esther Howard (Born to Kill). Byron should’ve been the winner because it’s such an earth shattering performance.

    In terms of 2002 women who should’ve made the lineup over category frauded Zeta-Jones, Moore & Streep were Clarkson (Far from Heaven, Hupper (8 Women), Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing), Richardson (Spider) and my personal winner Pfeiffer (White Oleander). I’d especially recommend 8 women and Lovely/Amazing for some great female ensembles.


    1. Nick Taylor says:

      Thank you!! Who would your vote be from this group? I saw Nightmare Alley a couple years ago and don’t remember much besides loving Tyrone Power. Clarkson and Huppert are super in their movies, and the rest of the women you mentioned are definitely on my watch list. Viola Davis in Solaris is also way up there for me, have you seen that?


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