Tuesday, June 30, 2015

1948: Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda

Jane Wyman plays Belinda, who is isolated from everyone else in her small Nova Scotia town due to her inability to hear or speak. She works at her father's mill but has no way of communicating with anyone until a new doctor arrives in town and teaches her to sign, read, and write. Unfortunately, even when she is finally able to connect with the doctor and her father, the other townspeople still think of her as "the Dummy" and treat her as such.

This is the first performance since Janet Gaynor's to win Best Actress without a single line of spoken dialogue. With it, Jane Wyman proves that she was born a generation too late. She would have made an amazing silent film star. Her expressions are perfect in every scene. Even before her character learns to communicate through sign language, the audience always knows exactly how she's feeling. She doesn't need to talk; she says everything with her eyes. While many silent performances use overly dramatic gestures and exaggerated faces, everything she does seems perfectly natural. She engages with people as best she can, but you never doubt that she can't hear, even though as far as I know Jane Wyman actually had perfectly good hearing. I wish they had gotten an actual Deaf actress to play the role, but I'm sure that would have been asking way too much in 1948. As it is, I think this movie was actually quite progressive for its time, dealing with major issues that were rarely touched by Hollywood in that era, such as bigotry and rape. And Wyman makes Belinda seem so real and relatable that the townspeople who think that she's mentally and emotionally deficient simply because she can't speak or hear end up looking like idiots. While this message probably would have been conveyed even better if they'd cast a Deaf actress, I'm impressed that it was addressed at all in an era when most people felt that anything different was necessarily bad.

This movie was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, but only won Best Actress. Personally, I think it deserved to beat Hamlet for Best Picture. I can't believe I'd never even heard of this movie before I started this project; it's so well done. The story is fascinating, and the performances are all incredible. I don't like to call things "jaw-droppingly good" very often, but my jaw literally dropped several times when I was watching this. It should have definitely won more awards, and should certainly be more widely recognized, but if it had to win only one Oscar, at least it won the right one. Because without a sympathetic, believable portrayal of Belinda, the movie could not have worked. Wyman pulls it off spectacularly. I was surprised that Olivia de Havilland didn't win for The Snake Pit, but I understand why now. Giving a silent performance in a talking picture must have been incredibly challenging, yet Wyman makes it look like the easiest thing in the world.

This was Jane Wyman's second of four Best Actress nominations, and her only win. She was also nominated for 1946's The Yearling, 1951's The Blue Veil, and 1954's The Magnificent Obsession. When she won this Oscar, she made the shortest Best Actress acceptance speech on record, saying simply, "I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut once. I think I'll do it again."

Side note: Jane Wyman was married to Ronald Reagan from 1940 to 1948, which means she is so far the only ex-wife of a U.S. President who has won an Academy Award. Just in case you were wondering.

Next: Olivia de Havilland, who is turning 99 tomorrow, gets her second Oscar

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