Best Actress: Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise)
Other Noteworthy Performances: Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel), Kay Francis (Trouble in Paradise), Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus)
If someone had told me before I began this project that I would give Miriam Hopkins two best actress nods in back-to-back years I would have been skeptical. As I wrote when I chose her for 1931 I think she is underrated but I didn’t realize she put in the best performances of 1931 and 1932. She never became a big star, like Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich, so later generations tend to overlook her, but in Trouble in Paradise she showed why she was one of the best actresses of the 1930s. In 1931, she succeeded in bringing to life a flirtatious prostitute terrorized by Mr. Hyde. But in 1932 she showed that she was just as comfortable working in comedy. There is a wonderful scene early in the picture when she is having dinner with Gaston in his Venice hotel, both having assumed fake identities so they could rob each other. They banter back and forth, slowly revealing their true intentions, coyly handing back items that they have already lifted off the other, successively one upping the other. When Gaston finally reveals a theft that she cannot outdo, she screams, “Darling!” leaps into his lap and throws her arms around him. They immediately fall in love, kindred spirits in both their professions and their souls. Hopkins brings a charm to Lily that other actresses might have missed. She is a thief and exhibits little compunction about their rich victims, but she’s incredibly moral and professional, never allowing personal feeling to interfere with her target. Her personality is attractive and she flashes her beautiful smile whenever it can win her an advantage. The genius of her performance is she is likeable despite what she does (though it doesn’t hurt that she only steal from the wealthy, not exactly unpopular at a time with a roughly 25% unemployment rate). I recognize that she is a supporting lead in this movie (and might have less screen time than Kay Francis), but most of the best female performances are supporting leads. The only one that isn’t is Marlene Dietrich’s in Blonde Venus. Despite her limited screen time she shines and steals scenes from the equally fantastic Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis.
Best Actor: Paul Muni (Scarface: Shame of a Nation)
Other Noteworthy Performances: Raimu (Fanny), Herbert Marshall (Trouble in Paradise), Paul Muni (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), Michel Simon (Boudu Saved from Drowning)
Paul Muni was famous for immersing himself in a role and, if that was true, it must have been unnerving to be on the set with him during the filming of Scarface. More so than any other the other big gangster movies of the early 1930s, Muni oozes menace and violence. I love what James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson did in Public Enemy and Little Caesar respectively, but neither were naturally intimidating like Muni. But Muni’s Tom Camonte wasn’t two-dimensional thug; he has a natural sweetness and appeal, but he isn’t terribly bright. His naiveté and intellectual limitation would have restrained his upward mobility had he been one to play by the rules. Rules, however, are not valued as much as making money and Tom excels at bullying and terrorizing making a life of crime a natural career path. Tom’s swaggers through life, swinging between charm and threat, but as you will see it takes a lot more than that to succeed (and survive) in this country. He is most threatening when his jealousy is aroused by his sister’s escapades with other men. Tom and his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) dance around the edges of an incestuous relationship; his jealousy is irrationally sharp over her. One might assume that he is a well-meaning but overprotective brother, but even their mother (Inez Palange) tries to warn Cesca away from Tom – her concern is deeper than the situation warrants unless she suspected incest. None of this would be believable without the anchor of Muni’s performance. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences failed to even nominate Muni probably as a reaction against the explicit violence of the picture. They were much more comfortable nominating safe prestige performances, like Alfred Lunt’s only screen appearance in The Guardsman (with his wife Lynn Fontanne, also nominated). Fredric March and Wallace Beery won that year (1931-32) in a tie, but neither performance reached the same level of reality or depth as Muni’s Tom Camonte.