(the 15th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)
FAY BAINTER IN WHITE BANNERS (1935)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Bette Davis in Jezebel
Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion
Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet
Margaret Sullavan in Three Comrades
Fay has a secret. I’ve often watched a film waiting for a Supporting Actor or Actress nominee to give me the Oscar scene; seldom, if ever, have I waited until the last ten minutes to learn of a Best Actress nominee’s actual relevance to the story. Fay’s character insinuates herself into the narrative by sliding out of a snowstorm and into the family’s kitchen, within minutes playing with the baby using an apple peel as a toy, and by the end of the day negotiating wages with Claude Rains to stay on as their maid. She thus becomes the nurturing caretaker of Rains’ inventor and his family (strange parallels with Marie Dressler in Emma), keeping to the background throughout the whole film except to dispense sage advice to members of the family, in particular to the teenage daughter (Bonita Granville), and to Rains and his chemistry pupil (Jackie Cooper, all growed up) as they pursue a new refrigeration technology in their basement lab. I thought her big scene had come and gone just past the hour mark, when she revealed that her character had once borne and lost a child. All this is the stuff that Supporting Actress nominations are made of, though she already had one of those in 1938 (and a win, no less) for Jezebel, becoming the first individual to net Lead and Supporting nominations in one year. Why the overflow of Academy support for this pleasant, undistinguished, and hardly leading role?
Then, in the final fifteen minutes, something amazing happens: we learn that all along, Fay’s staid caretaker has harbored a secret relationship with one of the other major characters, a relationship of the kind from which entire melodramas are spun. I was blindsided: Fay kept the whole thing locked in for nearly the entire film, only letting the truth spill out in the last minutes of the film. How could I have not seen any of this coming? I immediately went back and practically x-rayed the scene in which she first becomes aware of this character (from what I can tell, she had no advanced knowledge that their paths would cross). The film cuts to her closeup immediately, but Fay doesn’t move a muscle, nor do the filmmakers tip off in any way that this moment is of any particular significance to her; she seems to listen to what the other characters are saying, swiftly chiming in once more as the serene voice of reason, cooling down simmering tempers yet again as the scene moves along.
Of course, now that I see that the tells are there; they were just withheld from plain me. Fay increasingly draws close to this character, but always in the guise of a greater concern for the family’s wellbeing. She seldom lets her inner turmoil so much as flicker across her face or quaver in her voice; on the rare occasions when she tips her hand, clasping the character’s elbow a bit too long or letting out a quickly strangled “I…”, we’re distracted by the plot—this character has pneumonia, or that character has just suffered a devastating setback to his research. The filmmakers conspire with her; the score, usually the first tipoff of a character with a secret, whirs along without a hint of attention to her, and the cutting choices always keep her at the side of the main characters and their problems, right up until the moment of her revelation.
White Banners, ostensibly about a Claude Rains and his attempt to succeed in engineering and providing for his family, is actually revealed to be Fay Bainter’s covert melodrama, and her performance is of a certain stealthy genius, holding back until the very last moment to let the relationship suddenly emerge in crystal-clear hindsight. I was immensely satisfied by this revelation, and count this as a quality competitor to Fay’s own costar, Bette Davis in Jezebel for her second win. My vote goes with Bette for her master class in period suffering, but I have to salute Fay for a surprising and immensely satisfying portrayal.