Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Supporting Actress of 1940

Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

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.

Jane Darwell (with Henry Fonda) shows off her wonderfully expressive face and eyes.

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.

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2 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Performances

2 responses to “Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Supporting Actress of 1940

  1. “Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep on coming. We’re the people that live.”
    -Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) “The Grapes of Wrath”

    You have a point when you say that Hitchcock rather liked to make some of his villains homosexuals, (ludicrous on his part of course) but Judith Anderson is clearly the best supporting actress this year. I like Darwell quite a bit (and you know what I think of THE GRAPES OF WRATH) and will defend her measured performance here to the hilt, but I feel Anderson narrowly edges her out. Pauline Kael thought Darwell was “incredibly fraudulent” as Ma Joad, but she defended her work in THE OX BOW INCIDENT so go figure. Fay Bainter pushes very close for OUR TOWN as you noted on your runners-up list. Excellent essay, especially the segment touting Darwell’s appropriate physique.

    My own choices:

    Best Supporting Actress: Judith Anderson (Rebecca)

    Runners-Up in no particular order:

    Fay Bainter (Our Town)
    Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath)
    Edna May Oliver (Pride and Prejudice)
    Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path)
    Mildred Natwick (The Long Voyage Home)
    Barbara O’Neil (All This and Heaven Too)
    Olga Nazimova (Escape)
    Lucille Ball (Dance Girl Dance)
    Ann Sheridan (Torrid Zone)
    Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story)
    Ida Lupino (They Drive by Night)

    • Interesting thoughts from Kael, though for me Darwell came off as somewhat phoney in The Ox Bow Incident. As much as I love reading Kael, sometimes her positions are incomprehensibly inconsistent and illogical. I’m glad you highlighted Fay Bainter because I think she gives a wonderful performance in Our Town. Mildred Natwick is another oversight of mine. She is very good in The Long Voyage Home.

      The only ones I differ with you on are Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino. Sheridan only because I think she was a lead rather than supporting and Lupino because she undermined a good performance with a ridiculously over the top freak out at the end in the courtroom. It is truly cringe worthy.

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