Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Arletty (Le jour se lève), Ingrid Bergman (Intermezzo), Claudette Colbert (Midnight), Bette Davis (The Old Maid), Bette Davis (The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex), Irene Dunne (Love Affair), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz), Greer Garson (Goodbye Mr. Chips), Nora Gregor (La régle du jeu), Kakuko Mori (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Ginger Rogers (Bachelor Mother), Barbara Stanwyck (Golden Boy)
Is this choice anything close to a surprise? Of any category of any year, this one is practically a given, not because Vivien Leigh’s performance in Gone with the Wind has become cultishly unassailable, but because, quite simply, a great actress gave a great performance – possibly the best ever committed to film. It says something that Leigh is almost universally acknowledged as the best actress of 1939. There were several other magnificent turns by leading women that year, any one of whom could have taken the top spot any other year without Leigh in the running. Bette Davis gave two award worthy performances, first as a frustrated woman pining for the love of her daughter in The Old Maid, then as the Virgin Queen torn between duty and desire in The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex. Ginger Rogers is equally deserving as a woman who, through completely innocent circumstances, finds herself saddled with a baby in the great comedy Bachelor Mother. Greer Garson is utterly charming in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Greta Garbo shows she could play comedy in Ninotchka, and, of course, Judy Garland lit up the screen in The Wizard of Oz.
No matter how much I admire any of these performances Vivien Leigh still overshadows them, a bit like a Mikhail Baryshnikov competing against a class of beginners. Leigh’s interpretation of Scarlett O’Hara is perfect – she never hits a false note. We never see acting, we only see the character, as close to a real, living person to any actor could ever create for the screen.
Leigh mixes Scarlett’s selfishness with her flirty charm creating a character accustomed to getting what she wants based on her looks, her coquettishness, her family name. She’s never been challenged in any way, but the Civil War changes that, forcing her to dig deep and discover the resiliency and resourcefulness she never knew she had in her. But her arc isn’t particularly revelatory; through all her trials she still emerges on the other side as essentially the same woman, just a heck of a lot stronger. Despite this, we still find ourselves connecting to and caring for the designing woman.
That is the genius of Leigh’s performance. She plays Scarlett unsympathetically, but the charm she uses to butter up Ashley and Rhett spills over into the audience. We know she is manipulating these men but, in spite of this knowledge, she manipulates us as well. And she never learns to do without manipulation. Often writers and directors believe that a character arc means that their subject needs some kind of grand revelation, some major shift in her consciousness or perspective, some major lesson learned. Scarlett doesn’t learn any lessons, she just learns new ways to get others to give her what she wants.
With the possible exception of Paulette Goddard, the other leading contenders for the part would have had difficulty articulating Scarlett’s subtle shift from frivolous and vain to resilient and vain. With Joan Bennett or Tallulah Bankhead I have a feeling Scarlett would have gotten more and more unpleasant, her flirting grating and desperate and her toughness overshadowing her vulnerability, as we follow her through a large chunk of her life over four hours. Vivien Leigh found a way to retain a connection with the audience and make us care about her while recognizing her flaws.
I have never been a fan of Gone with the Wind as a movie. The second half is especially unfocused, both visually and narratively. But no one can fault Vivien Leigh for the shortcomings of the film. She understood Scarlett completely and, through every line reading and subtle gesture, translated her onto the screen flawlessly. This isn’t just the best performance of 1939 (of any category), but one of, if not the, best of all time for which she richly deserved the Oscar.