Monday, April 20, 2015

1931/1932: Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet

In her first sound film, Helen Hayes, also known as The First Lady of the American Theater, plays a single mother who does everything she can to provide for the son who doesn't even know who she is, which becomes even more complicated when she is wrongfully imprisoned.

This is one of the saddest movies I've ever seen. There are lots of movies about motherly love, and even about single mothers making sacrifices for their children, but they usually involve the mothers trying to stay with their children at all costs. When you're used to that, watching Madelon realize that as an unmarried ex-con she would only hold her son back, to the point that she actually tells him his mother is dead, is startling and heart-breaking. But in order to be powerful, it has to be believable, and that's where Helen Hayes comes in.

Her performance is utterly incredible, especially considering the complexity of both the character and the story. It's broken into many different segments, and in each one, her situation is completely different, yet she manages to maintain a consistency so that we never doubt it's the same person. Whether she's a naive, lovestruck young girl; or an abandoned single mother; or a rich count's mistress; or an unjustly accused prisoner; or a desperate prostitute; or a withering, elderly woman, she's always Madelon Claudet, and she's always thinking of her son (except, of course, before he's born). No disrespect to the previous performances I've blogged about, since, apart from Mary Pickford's they've all been quite good, but I think this is the best so far, and it's certainly the most challenging role. I was particularly impressed toward the end, as Madelon is rapidly approaching old age. Yes, the costumes and makeup help a lot, but the way Hayes changes her voice and mannerisms really brings it all together. Overall, an astonishing performance, and definitely worth checking out, if you're up for a depressing movie.

 Helen Hayes wasn't particularly known for her work in film; she was more of a stage actress, and she also worked in television later. Consequently, she was never nominated for this award again, although she did win Best Supporting Actress for Airport of 1970. She also won two Tony Awards, an Emmy, and a Grammy, making her one of only 12 people so far to have won an EGOT (that is, a competitive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). She was the second person, and first woman, to achieve this feat. After seeing what she was capable of in this film, I'm not at all surprised.

Next up: Katharine Hepburn, who was notorious for not showing up to the Academy Awards, so I guess I won't be able to use a picture of her posing with her statue.

Side note: I think it's my duty, since I spent so much of my Best Picture blog complaining about how movies had to be really long to win, to point out here that this does not seem to hold true for Best Actress winning films. Last year's winner was only 65 minutes long (though it felt much longer), and this one is only 75 minutes. If this keeps up, it will make it easier to watch Gone with the Wind again. I don't mind a few long movies; it's just that they were all so long.

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