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Pretty Stiff Competition in 1942
It never ceases to amaze me that in the decades when women* had fewer rights or career options than we do today, female characters in the movies had more to do, say, and feel than they seem to do in modern pictures. This is certainly the case for the women nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1942 in parts that were assuredly "types": two ingénues, a spinster, and a couple of old ladies -- yet each of these characters was complicated, well-written, and beautifully acted.
The winner, Teresa Wright, played a young war bride in Mrs. Miniver a girl who must balance the fears for her newly-enlisted husband with hope for their future. In the same film, (Dame) May Whitty also earned a nomination as Wright’s grandmother, a local noblewomen who must come to terms with the fact that class distinctions and privilege will be forever changed by the war. Susan Peters played the impossibly young and equally impossible parallel love interest to Ronald Coleman's memory-challenged veteran in Random Harvest, and Gladys Cooper turned in a chilling performance as the the cruel, domineering mother of unhappy spinster Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.
But it was the other unhappy spinster of the year who, in my opinion, should have taken home the trophy: Agnes Moorehead as Fanny Minafer, the maiden aunt whose narrow circumstances grow ever bleaker in Orson Welles’s (and her) second picture ever, The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Magnificent Ambersons is the story of a well-to-do Midwestern family whose wealth and position afford them near-royalty status in their sleepy late-19th century town. Major Amberson, the source of that wealth, is the patriarch who has raised his son, Jack (Ray Collins) and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) in the grand manner in a grand mansion. When Isabel’s beau, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), has a bit too much to drink one night, he tries to serenade her under her window and steps clean through his bass viol. Isabel is so horrified by the spectacle that, in spite of truly loving Gene, she breaks up with him and decides to marry quiet little unromantic Wilbur Minafer instead. Isabel, Wilbur, and Wilbur’s sister Fanny (Moorehead) take up residence in Amberson mansion. Isabel and Wilbur have just one child, George Amberson Minafer, who turns out to be The Worst Little Brat Ever. There isn't a soul in town who can wait for the day little Georgie gets his “come-uppance.”
Georgie (Tim Holt) grows up to be a horrible, egotistical snob. His mother still spoils him, his grandfather indulges him, his Uncle Jack ignores him, and Aunt Fanny alternately fights with and looks after him. It's been about 20 years since the bass viol incident, and Morgan comes back to town, a non-drinking, successful inventor now in the horseless carriage business. Morgan also has a beautiful, self-sufficient daughter called Lucy (Anne Baxter), who captivates Georgie when the Morgans come to one of the grand balls at Amberson mansion.
Aunt Fanny sets her cap for Morgan, but it is soon clear that he only has eyes for Isabel. When Fanny's brother (Isabel's husband) dies, Morgan and Lucy become more of a regular fixture at the Ambersons. Fanny becomes jealous and insinuates to George that Isabel only ever really loved Morgan (not his father), and that everyone in town knows about it. This sends Georgie into an irrational tizzy over his mother's reputation and he refuses to allow Morgan in the home. Morgan begs Isabel to put her own (and his happiness) first and marry him, but she is unable to hurt her son's delicate feelings, let alone tell him to mind his own business. So Isabel and George go off to Europe leaving Morgan heartbroken and Lucy furious on her father's behalf.
Isabel grows gravely ill while they're abroad and the two come home just in time for Isabel to die without seeing Eugene one last time. Shortly thereafter, Major Amberson dies, shell-shocked at the rapid changes in his community and in his family. He leaves no inheritance. Wilbur Minafer left a small bit of insurance for his sister, but she invested it all in a business scheme that went belly up and she is broke. Georgie never worked a day in his life, so he is broke. Any money Isabel had was spent in Europe or otherwise on her child; now the richest family in town find themselves in a modern world with absolutely nothing.
Forced into sudden straits, George pulls himself together for the sake of his Aunt Fanny, for whom it turns out he cares a great deal. He is miserable over how he treated his mother...and Eugene...and takes a high-paying dangerous job to make sure his Aunt, at least, can enjoy some comfort. One day, he is struck down by a car -- the machine he once scoffed at as a ludicrous fad that is now the source of Morgan's great fortune -- which breaks both his legs. This means certain destitution for him and his Aunt.
Orson Welles would have left it at that, had he not been called away to do war work on another film before his final edits were made. The studio snipped almost an hour from The Magnificent Ambersons and reshot Welles's intended grim ending for one that was truer to Booth Tarkington's novel: Lucy and Morgan visit George in the hospital and all is forgiven. Even Fanny is reconciled to eternal spinsterhood.
Had it not been so early in the war for the United States, the role of beleaguered, fretful Aunt Fanny might have earned more popular acclaim. As it was, audiences were more inclined to favor uplifting stories of noble sacrifice, escapism, or silliness. Welles’s retelling of the Tarkington bestseller, was dark, sad, and completely antithetical to the American Dream for which so many were fighting. Moorehead's performance was intentionally (and effectively) highly strung and sometimes shrill. Indeed, moviegoers laughed at some of Aunt Fanny's breakdowns in early previews, forcing some of the famous edits the studio forced on Mr. Welles. Her sadness, her sudden, instantly regretted moments of spite and frustration are lyric. At least the New York Film Critics Circle thought so and gave Agnes Moorehead the award for Best Actress for 1942.
There is something beautiful in Agnes Moorehead's quavering voice, sharp features, and utter vulnerability in this picture. But it was, indeed, a tough year. In fact, I'm still scared of Gladys Cooper from Now, Voyager (so MEAN!). But if ever there were a performance worthy of an Academy Award among Agnes Moorehead's many, many pictures, this was it.
* I mean white women, of course. Women of color had far fewer options socially and even less opportunity to be seen as anything other than a servant or a pauper in those days, a fact that sadly, has not changed all that much.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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