Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (Best Actress of 1939)

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.




Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Performances

8 responses to “Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (Best Actress of 1939)

  1. Can’t go wrong with this choice, though I must say I prefer her in A Streetcar Named Desire. I may also be biased because I really loved Goddard in her screen tests and constantly wonder about the what-if.

    • I think Vivien Leigh gave two of the best performances in these two movies and, like you, I prefer A Streetcar Named Desire. It may be partly because I like that movie a lot better than Gone with the Wind.

      I was skeptical of Goddard until I saw those screen tests. She is now the only other person who I could see playing the part, but in the end I don’t think she would have nailed the part the way Leigh did. She may have been very good, but I don’t think she would have been great.

  2. Here is the list for 1939 that I come up with, preented here alphabetically. Looks like we are in large agreement including Vivien Leigh at the Best Actress of the year. Yep, her performance in GWTW is one of the most magnificent in screen history, and I personally rate it narrowly ahead of her later great turn in STREETCAR. Fabulous qualifying essay for Leigh here Jason!

    Jean Arthur Mr Smith Goes to Washington
    Ingrid Bergman Intermezzo
    Claudette Colbert Midnight
    Bette Davis Dark Victory
    Bette Davis The Old Maid
    Bette Davis The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex
    Marlene Dietrich Destry Rides Again
    Irene Dunne Love Affair
    Greta Garbo Ninotchka
    Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz
    Greer Garson Goodbye Mr Chips
    Vivien Leigh Gone With the Wind *****
    Margaret Lockwood A Girl Must Live
    Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights
    Ginger Rogers Bachelor Mother
    Rosalind Russell The Women
    Norma Shearer The Women
    Barbara Stanwyck Golden Boy
    Claire Trevor Stagecoach

    • Great list Sam — and not just because we seem to admire many of the same performances. It’s tough to rate Leigh’s performances in GWTW and STREETCAR. They are both extraordinary and among the best of all time.

      For some reason I have never connected with Bette Davis’ role in “Dark Victory.” I feel like she has some scenes of incredible overacting and others of sublime beauty. I just think she is too uneven to rate it with these great performances. I normally love Davis’ work, but this is one of the few times I can’t agree with the consensus.

  3. Must agree that Vivien Leigh is brilliant in GWTW and probably the best of the year – though I do also love Merle Oberon’s performance in ‘Wuthering Heights’, and both Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins in ‘The Old Maid’ (I suppose Hopkins is supporting, but really they both seem like leads)… and Claire Trevor in ‘Stagecoach’ too. What a year! (I do like Davis in ‘Dark Victory’, but prefer ‘The Old Maid’.)

    • Oops, and Claudette Colbert in ‘Midnight’, which I saw only recently and loved to bits.

    • I’ve never been a huge Merle Oberon fan, but I must admit her role in Wuthering Heights was probably her best. Her natural coldness fit Catherine well. And I completely agree that this was a strong year for the best actress category. I think she is fantastic in The Old Maid, one of her best though it doesn’t get the recognition it should.

  4. Pingback: Tribeca Film Festival Monday Morning Diary (April 18) « Wonders in the Dark

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