Other Noteworthy Performances:
Fay Bainter (Jezebel)
Billie Burke (Merrily We Live)
May Whitty (The Lady Vanishes)
May Robson (Bringing Up Baby)
Billie Burke (The Young in Heart)
Una O’Connor (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Jean Dixon (Holiday)
Ruth Donnelly (A Slight Case of Murder)
Varvara Massalitinova is not a name many of us would claim to recognize but, despite her obscurity, she turned in the best supporting performance of 1938. Massalitinova perfectly captured the idealized portrait of Maxim Gorky’s grandmother. She’s a physically imposing presence – a thick and strong woman who looks as though she has spent a lifetime at work and only death could slow her down – but Massalitinova balances her physical strength with a tender, grandmotherly love. Her face – which at first appears hard and unfeeling – blossoms into warmth, compassion, and affection with a single genuine smile.
We read her hard life in the lines of her face, but her good nature always shines through. After years of beatings from her diminutive (and rather stupid) husband, she still proclaims affection for the man. After years of watching her sons perpetuate one horrible deed after another (eventually leading to the death of her beloved Ivan), she still supports them as only a mother could. To little Aleksei (later to become the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky) her deference to physically and emotionally weaker men is dumbfounding. Stand up and fight, he will eventually urge her, but she can’t do it. It isn’t in her nature.
To fight back would mean shirking her duty – to her husband and her sons no matter how flawed they may be. Aleksei – not to mention most modern audiences – can’t understand her slavery to duty when she has not only the right, but also the strength to stand up for herself and possibly redirect her family’s energies in more positive directions. She is a woman, however, of a different time and place, well before Communism proclaimed equal status for women or, in this country, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem spearheaded feminism, both of which have helped shape our perceptions of Massalitinova’s character.
Her emotionally rich characterization makes her relatable and sympathetic even as we shake our heads at her unnecessary subservience. She folds her strength and acquiescence into a fully realized supporting character, embracing the contradictions to give us a clear sense of how a woman like her would have lived and felt in Tsarist Russia. And, not incidentally, she committed to film a character most of us would have loved to have had for a grandmother.