Friday, April 10, 2015

1927/1928: Janet Gaynor for Street Angel, 7th Heaven, and Sunrise

Anyone who's at all familiar with the Oscars generally knows how Best Actress works: five different women are nominated, each for one performance. However, in the early years, this wasn't necessarily the case. In the first Academy Awards, there were five films nominated, but only three unique actresses. Thus Janet Gaynor is not only the first Best Actress winner, but also the only one to win for multiple performances at once. She was also the youngest winner until Marlee Matlin won for Children of a Lesser God of 1986. In addition, no other actress has won this award for a silent picture. So Janet Gaynor is kind of a big deal.

In Street Angel, she plays Angela, a poor woman whose mother is dying of disease. She tries to sell herself on the street to raise money for medicine, and when that doesn't work she gets desperate and grabs someone's money. Obviously, she gets caught, and sentenced to a year in prison, but she runs away, finds out that her mother is dead, and joins a circus troupe. During her travels, Angela meets Gino, a painter, and they fall in love. Keeping her past a secret becomes increasingly difficult when Gino insists on moving back to her hometown, where there's a policeman who vaguely recognizes her.

In 7th Heaven, she plays Diane, who at the beginning of the movie is living with her abusive sister and, though they never actually say it, they're both working as prostitutes to survive. A sewer worker who follows his dreams to become a street washer (because apparently that's way better) stops her sister from killing her, and later keeps Diane from going to jail by claiming that she's his wife. The police threaten to check up on this, so she goes to live in his house, just until the police come. But of course, they fall in love and decide to actually get married...but then a war comes.

Those two performances are pretty similar; in both, Gaynor's character basically hits rock bottom at the beginning, is "rescued" by a man (in both cases played by Charles Farrell, with whom she made a total of 12 movies), and then realizes that she needs her own inner strength to both hold on to the man and ultimately save herself. The third is completely different. In Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, instead of a prostitute, she plays a devoted wife and mother. In the beginning, her husband is having an affair with a floozy who convinces him to drown his wife and make it look like an accident so that they can run away together. So he takes her out in a boat and starts to attack her when he changes his mind. After she runs away and freaks out for a little while, she realizes how truly sorry he is, and they spend the day renewing their relationship.

From a movie perspective, Sunrise is hands-down the best of the three. It's certainly the most visually interesting and least cheesy. It won an Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production, which was discontinued the following year, so many people consider it to have tied with Wings for Best Picture. I agree that it was unique and wonderfully artistic, so I'm glad I got an opportunity to watch it, since I only watched Wings when I was watching Best Pictures. That being said, I don't think it was necessarily Janet Gaynor's best performance of the three. It was nice to see her in a completely different role, but a lot of the film is from the husband's perspective, so she doesn't get to do as much, whereas in the other two, she's definitely the main character.

I had originally intended to pick the best performance and discuss what I thought she should have won for if she could only win for one, but I don't think I can choose. I found myself feeling deeply for her character in all three. She somehow manages to seem both innocent and world-weary at the same time, which works particularly well for her prostitute characters, but also comes through in Sunrise. I thought she did an amazing job of showing character growth in 7th Heaven, going from meek, afraid, and suicidal to strong, confident and optimistic, all the while portraying a consistent character. On the other hand, 7th Heaven is kind of hokey in parts, and a couple of times Gaynor crosses the border into melodramatic. Street Angel is somewhat less cheesy, and she does an amazing job in the middle of the film of portraying a woman who's happy on the surface, but just beneath is terrified that her boyfriend will learn about her past. However, I don't understand why her character thinks disappearing for a year is better than just telling him she has to go to jail because of what she did to try to save her mother. In Sunrise, her pleading, innocent face is enough to convince her wayward husband both to spare her life and to fall back in love with her, but I still find it a bit disturbing that she's so willing to spend an entire day with him right after he tries to kill her. Yes, he's very penitent, but that's a common abusive tactic, and no, it wasn't in this case, but still.

So I can't blame the Academy for giving her this award for all three films because I can't pick a standout winner either. Though they have their flaws, they all demonstrate Janet Gaynor's incredible acting abilities. Granted, I haven't seen an overabundance of silent movies, but she's certainly one of the best silent actresses I've ever seen. Though this would prove to be her only Academy Award, she was nominated again for A Star is Born of 1937, which illustrates that she was one of the few performers to successfully transition from silent pictures to talkies. If you're not familiar with her work, I'd strongly recommend checking out some of her films. All three of these are on youtube, which may not be the best versions out there, but poor picture quality in no way undermines her incredible talent.

While I'm glad I got to watch all these movies, I'm looking forward to only blogging about one film at a time from now on (except for the year when it was a tie, but that's not for a while) because this was exhausting. The next year's winner is Mary Pickford, which was apparently very controversial, but I'll talk more about that when I've seen the movie. Sorry this was such a long post; the rest will be shorter, I promise.

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