Other Noteworthy Performances:
Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)
Beaulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow)
Jean Arthur (Easy Living)
Greta Garbo (Camille)
Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred)
Bette Davis (Marked Woman)
Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)
Ginger Rogers (Stage Door)
Sylvia Sidney (You Only Live Once)
Yang Bai (Crossroads)
Greta Garbo (Conquest)
It should be clear by now that I love The Awful Truth. It’s my choice for the second best picture of 1937 and Cary Grant got the nod as best actor. And now Irene Dunne edges out Barbara Stanwyck for her fantastic performance in the classic tear-jerker Stella Dallas. The race between Dunne and Stanwyck was close in my mind and, if I didn’t shy away from shortcuts, I would declare a tie, but the best of the year is just that – the best. Not the group or a pair of the best, but the best. So I had to make the tough call and Irene Dunne comes out as my favorite, however slightly, of the two.
Maybe my preference for Dunne has something to do with the bias the Academy has always had against comedy, an issue I discussed in the Cary Grant essay. Like Grant, some of Dunne’s best work has been in comedy – sometimes alongside him as in The Awful Truth. As Lucy Warriner she is both airily sophisticated and madcap, the perfect foil for Cary Grant’s Jerry.
Irene Dunne had a talent for humor which she discovered in her first comedy role – Theodora Goes Wild – the year before. Apparently she had been nervous about playing for laughs, but she did so well that Columbia Pictures immediately cast her in another comedy, The Awful Truth. Her success came from her willingness to poke fun at her own well-mannered persona. She was also a master at using non-verbal cues that subverted the meaning of her written line to great effect. A slight giggle or a crinkle of the nose alerted the audience that she was dipping her toes in ironic waters. At one point Lucy’s suitor Dan Leeson describes his ranch in Oklahoma and suggests Lucy come out and visit it. Trying to gracefully decline, Lucy says, “Oh I don’t get out that way very …” She trails off, as if deciding there’s really no use being polite, crinkles up her nose and quickly shakes her head. It’s a remarkably funny and subtle moment.
One of her most glorious moments in The Awful Truth is also one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. She is singing at a recital and Jerry makes an utter fool of himself as he falls and gets his legs tangled in a small table. Through all the noise, Lucy continues to sing, watching her soon-to-be ex-husband dig himself into a deeper hole of humiliation with every move he makes. Once he gives up, we cut back to Lucy. She is ending the operatic aria and she tries to hold it together, to finish with dignity, but can’t suppress a devilish laugh between two notes. Only someone with the talent and instincts of Irene Dunne could have pulled off such a moment of fiendish glee.
The movie soars when Ms. Dunne is on-screen. Though it also soars when she is off-screen, suggesting she not only held her own with some great supporting actors like Cary Grant, but was also able to keep up with a demanding screenplay, something only actresses like Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Katherine Hepburn were able to do at the time. If the situation called for it, she could spit out her dialogue at machine gun pace without ever losing her sophisticated, easy-going charm.
Ms. Dunne handles Lucy’s flightiness, jealousy, and stubbornness with aplomb. She isn’t thrown by Lucy’s contradictions; she feeds off of them. Ms. Dunne was able to make sense out of Lucy and translate that interpretation to us. So when we watch, Lucy makes sense in a screwy way. We accept her in furs and diamonds, but we also accept her when she dresses up like a woman of questionable values and pretends to be Jerry’s loud, uncouth sister to break up his engagement. She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants.
Ms. Dunne did not just turn in the best female performance of 1937, but one of the best comedic performances of all time and, alongside Cary Grant, helped put together one of the great classic movie comedies. It’s an exceptional movie loaded with great performances.