(the 12th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)
CLAUDETTE COLBERT IN PRIVATE WORLDS (1935)
The competition (Cliff: 6 for 6!)
Bette Davis in Private Worlds
Elisabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never
Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams
Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp
Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel
Claudette carries a profound warmth and generosity into nearly all of her roles, whether she’s playing the experienced lover in The Smiling Lieutenant, the impish wife in The Palm Beach Story, or the valiant home front mother in Since You Went Away. Normally, this nurturing presence is channeled into intimate relationships, but in Private Worlds it is her character’s professional strength, as a psychiatrist at a hospital for the mentally ill. Unlike so many films that proclaim a character’s exceptional ability without demonstrating it to the audience, here Claudette’s star persona plays directly into her character’s extraordinary gift, as we see Claudette’s velvet-gloved doctor enter into the “private worlds” of her patients’ minds to soothe their fevers. We then are appalled when Charles Boyer’s new superintendent relegates her to a new post more suitable for her gender. Claudette’s character bravely soldiers on, while the feminist streak in the film is undercut by a host of other women recovering from or poised for a psychotic breakdown.
The film also features a couple of oddly shot Expressionist madness scenes (directed by an out-of-his-element Gregory La Cava), though Claudette remain the real selling point, a pillar of reserved strength amid the many intrigues stalking the hospital’s corridors. She is content to let the actors around her dial it up and up, while she remains implacable and calm, only springing into urgent action to care for one of her wounded charges. The role isn’t excellent, and neither is Claudette’s acting, but it serves as a great illustration of her appeal. The year after winning for the genuinely exceptional character of Elli Andrews in It Happened One Night, Claudette relinquished the title of Best Actress for a make-up award for Bette Davis (whose write-in campaign for Of Human Bondage she’d edged out). My final vote in this category goes to the salty corset-clad Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, but I’m not sorry to see Claudette get a little more love with this nomination.