Other Noteworthy Performances: Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Mary Astor (Brigham Young), Fay Bainter (Our Town), Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), Mary Boland (Pride and Prejudice), Beulah Bondi (Our Town), Mildred Natwick (The Long Voyage Home), Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path), Flora Robson (The Sea Hawk)
The list above highlights the best supporting actresses of 1940 but, as good as they all are, the choice really came down to Jane Darwell as the resilient matriarch of the Joad clan in The Grapes of Wrath and Judith Anderson as the exacting but deranged housekeeper in Rebecca. Both own their roles, confidently executing their characters’ crucial but very different tasks in the their respective films: Darwell’s Ma Joad is the glue of the troubled family, trying her best to hold her loved ones together through all the vicissitudes of the Great Depression’s anemic agricultural economy. But if Ma Joad is the glue of her film’s story, Mrs. Danvers serves as her story’s acetone as she fiendishly devises new ways to demean her new mistress and keep her beloved former mistress’ memory alive.
Anderson certainly tallies up several points for effectively conveying the lesbian subtext without also implying her sexuality is the reason she has bats in the belfry. (Though the movie doesn’t suggest otherwise either. For all of my admiration for Hitchcock, he did love to make his villains homosexuals, a tactless ploy to make them creepier and, at the same time, understandable to average audiences who probably had little to no experience with sinister homosexuals.) Anderson didn’t let the Sapphic element dominate her interpretation of the role.
Still I settled on Jane Darwell, that sturdy supporting actress of the 1930s and 1940s who brought Ma Joad to life. One reason I chose her over Judith Anderson is because her part he meatier and requires more range. Ma Joad is a woman who feels quietly; she doesn’t bemoan her pain, nor does she trumpet her joy. She does not exhibit love with hugs and kisses. Darwell, then, has to almost exclusively use her eyes. Only by watching her eyes can we truly know what she is feeling.
Another tribute to Darwell’s effectiveness is a simple test for those who’ve read the book: can we imagine anyone else playing this part? For me the answer is a resounding no. Who else in Hollywood had both Darwell’s strong physique and weather-beaten face, suggesting a lifetime of hard work, while still successfully expressing the depth of pathos Darwell squeezes out of every one of Ford’s loving close ups? Darwell skillfully subverts the initial impression of her sturdy physique and the sparsity of her dialogue by rendering her the most empathetic and subtly emotional of the whole family (with the exception of Rose of Sharon).
Considering the Academy’s tendency to hand Oscars to the most popular but least deserving (I’m thinking, of course, of Sandra Bullock), it’s something of a miracle that they managed to honor Ms. Darwell for a rich and moving performance that also happens to be the best of 1940. I guess she lucked out, being both popular and deserving.