My vote - Best Actress 1934
I had to go as far as the official Oscars website to confirm to myself that the Academy is indeed finally acknowledging Bette Davis’ nomination as a valid one. Because I remember a time when it didn’t. Officially there were only 3 nominees and then Bette got in as a write-innominee and... well imdb says it better:
Bette Davis wanted the role of Mildred Rodgers because she thought it would be her breakout role after years of starring in films that were getting her nowhere. She begged Warner Brothers studio chief Jack L. Warner to let her out of her contract so she could make the film. He relented because he was sure she would fail; but, when her performance sparked talk of an Oscar, Warner began a spite campaign by encouraging academy members not to vote for her. At the time, the voting campaigns and the tabulation of the results were handled by the heads of the academy (of which Warner had a membership) and it worked in his favor when Davis was left out of the Best Actress competition. Supporters of Davis, shocked by her omission, petitioned the academy for a write-in vote. She was added to the nominees as a write-in but she lost to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night (1934). As a result of this incident, write-in votes were henceforth disallowed. Also, as a result of Warner's coup, the academy decided to change its voting practices and hand over the counting of the results to the independent accounting firm of PriceWaterhouse, who still does the official counting to this day.
So therefor I gladly included Bette’s nomination in the rankings.
Here’s how I would’ve voted:
The role: Claudette plays Ellie, a spoiled rich woman who discovers true love during a long journey to reunite with a man whom she married only to spite her father.
The film: I feel it’s a bit overrated because of its reputations and for winning all those Oscars, but at the end of the day it’s a good, simple comedy and I had a few laughs.
The performance: I must mention that although I’m giving the performance only 3 stars, it’s a strong 3. Because of the basic nature of the film, with a simple plot and a simple direction and rather natural acting style, the role doesn’t seem much; the difficulty level is quite low on paper, as if for the typical screwball comedy, so I can’t get carried away. But here’s to Claudette’s credit that she elevates the role herself and brings it something extra that makes me appreciate it more: her expressive face works not only for the average comedic scenes, but she also nails the sensibility of the character, the longing for real feelings. In scenes that require less, she gives us more, especially with stunning teary eyes. Is it an unmatched performance in some way? No, and we have Irene Dunne to prove it.
The role: Bette plays Mildred, a trashy waitress who takes advantage of the kindness and attention of a man who was foolish enough to fall in love with her.
The film: Nothing exciting here. Leslie Howard is the true lead and he is very forgettable. The film works only when Bette’s character storms in.
The performance: The fact that the performance stands out like it does is directly connected to the film’s low quality. Bette is all energy, sometimes too much energy, she’s like a hurricane that shakes things off every time she’s on screen. Her talent is still too raw and you can tell the lack of high-level experience, but she’s juicy and convincing and manages to create something despite the screenplay not being much. It’s quite a remarkable breakthrough performances, with some key elements that Bette would end up playing throughout her career: larger than life, loud, full of energy and willing to command the screen.
The role: Norma plays soon-to-be renowned poet Elizabeth Barrett, portrayed here during her youth, as the vulnerable daughter of a tyrannical father.
The film: A completely boring and useless experience, filled with grandiose dialogue that would bore anyone. One or two scenes at the end stand out.
The performance: Such is the mystical power of Norma for me (although I’ve seen her only in 2-3 films) that she almost convinced me to give her a better rating based on one single scene that she impressed me with at the end of the film. Through some smart but not so subtle editing, she gets a couple of close-ups with her eyes all teary where she does strike a chord and her performance is effective. But for the rest of it she barely navigates through the muddy dialogue, with all those grandiose words and noble feelings. It’s the case of a good actress that overall doesn’t rise above the crappy material.
The role: Grace plays Mary Barrett, an aspiring Opera singer who finds success and love with the help of her mentor, a stubborn operatic maestro.
The film: It’s a typical simplistic film of the early 30s, with superficial dialogue, direction, improved only by some lovely opera pieces of music.
The performance: This is a 2 and not a 1 because I enjoyed her singing. I am not an expert on opera music, but I guess they all (the voters) liked her voice, they got all soft and gave her the nomination. There isn’t much on the acting front, with no big mistakes either, it’s true. But if you take the lovely music away, there’s very little to judge beyond a pretty face and some almost-youthful energy.
Conclusion: Initially, after seeing the performances again, I thought it’d be a bit more difficult for me to choose my winner, given how different these two performances are. But the more I thought of it, it became easier. Claudette creates a more complete character, nothing ground-breaking, but without mistakes or false notes. You can tell she was a pro.
How the Oscar voting went: We actually have official data on this; it’s the last Oscar year for which we have some kind of an idea on the ranking. It seems Norma was 2nd and Bette was 3rd, despite all the buzz and controversy that you’d think would’ve given her the win or at least the runner-up status.
Actresses that almost got nominated: The most obvious omission is Myrna Loy for The Thin Man. I don’t remember the performance much, but I bet she was better than Grace Moore :D and they liked their Myrna Loy and The Thin Man was such a success both with the audiences AND the Academy.
Not sure if by 1934 they had stopped allowing multiple nominations in the same category for one person, but this was a big year for Claudette, she also had Cleopatra and Imitation of Life. There was Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee, Loretta Young had a couple of films herself, so did Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett was in The Affairs of Cellini.
For previous Best Actress years and rankings, just look over on the right, for a column with past years.