(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)
GLORIA SWANSON IN THE TRESPASSER (1930)
The competition (Cliff: 6 for 7):
Norma Shearer in The Divorcee
Nancy Carroll in The Devil’s Holiday
Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son
Greta Garbo in Anna Christie
Greta Garbo in Romance
Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire
Of the two hundred women nominated for Best Actress, none is more associated with a single role than Gloria Swanson. While we can still i Bette Davis and Diane Keaton as characters other than Margo Channing and Annie Hall (and as real people separate from all of them), Billy Wilder’s diabolical meta-casting in Sunset Blvd. fused Gloria with Norma Desmond for all time. To picture one is to picture the other, and it strains our imagination to conceive of the actress inhabiting other personalities; how many people even know that she had two nominations twenty years prior, one for a silent film (in the first year of the awards) and one for an early talkie?
When I first saw Gloria in Sadie Thompson, her first nomination, I was astonished and spooked to see the luminous silent goddess recalled so dimly in Sunset Blvd. summoned in full form, and despite the total difference in the two characters, it took time to banish the ghost of the future role from the woman I saw on the screen. I’ve now seen Swanson in enough silent films (and even spoofed by Marion Davies in the fantastic Show People) that I’ve managed to build an idea of Gloria Swanson, the star of the silent era, that is separate from the undead goddess in the crumbling mansion. However, watching her in a talkie is almost like watching Sadie Thompson all over again. At first, hearing her metallic whisper in The Trespasser summons echoes of Norma in scenes that don’t suggest it at all, and it took a while before I could come to behold the brief persona of the early talkie Gloria in her own right.
Gloria plays a secretary who begins the film about to elope with her boss, the son of a wealthy industrialist, an almost identical setup to The Devil’s Holiday with fellow nominee Nancy Carroll (more to come on that). In contrast to Carroll, Swanson suffers immaculately for the remainder of the film, taking the high road after being shunned by her evil father-in-law, raising a child by herself and ultimately surrendering him to the father under the most tear-jerking of circumstances. The plot becomes exponentially more absurd in the last half of the film; I won’t even try to detail how a wheelchair-bound second wife, who cheerily encourages her husband’s infidelity, plays into it. But Gloria holds steady throughout the film; she seems quite a natural at dialogue already in 1930, with her unorthodox voice (it almost anticipates Katharine Hepburn), even though of course she doesn’t need words—she has a face (forgive me). Most importantly, if her character is a bit too noble, she still plays sympathetic convincingly, perhaps her greatest feat in the face of Norma Desmond’s specter. I’m still inclined to give the award this year to Greta Garbo for Anna Christie, but this is a performance that will stick with me.