(the 418th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)
DIANA WYNYARD IN CAVALCADE (1933)
The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!)
Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory
May Robson in Lady for a Day
Reluctantly, in order to finish the Best Actress nominees in a timely fashion, I gave up on my goal of seeing the last Best Picture winner on my checklist on the big screen, settling instead for a VHS copy from A Video Store Named Desire in West L.A. Finally watching it, I felt an embarrassing surge of affection for the Academy Awards overtake me and my regard for the film. In so many ways, this is the epitome of a Best Picture winner: epic scope and intimate family drama, splendid historical sweep viewed through the prism of reassuring modern sensibilities. Indeed, Cavalcade is Forrest Gump sixty years earlier, and a film that in spite of its stuffiness I think I could watch many times more. Like Gump, it works historical references into its British family saga six ways from Sunday, my favorite coming when one of the boys carves out sand sculptures of the “Important People of 1909:” Theodore Roosevelt, Emmeline Pankhurst, even Estee Lauder. Of course the family is directly touched by the tense struggle of the Second Boer War, the tragedy of the Titanic, and the horrors of World War I (represented in a stunning montage that I must say captures the sheer scale of human loss in the conflict), finishing off with a note of stoic assurance in the face of the Depression. This kind of film belonged to a whole cycle in the early days of the 1930s, with fellow Best Picture winner Cimarron and a personal favorite of mine, The Conquerors, telling of strong families bravely enduring the troubles of the past, as though to minimize the world’s current economic travails. All in all, this is far from the most flawless Best Picture, but one that stands for so much of the beautifully earnest and middlebrow sensibilities of the Oscars that it somewhat transcends them.
Where, in the midst of this historical sweep, does Diana’s staunch matron of the family fit in? She has a remarkable look but an ineffectual acting style still indebted to stage; playing each emotion to the balcony and making sure to divorce her movements from her dialogue. In its sixth year of existence (and the fifth year of the talkies), the Academy was still torn between its reverence for the greats of the stage and the inconsistent quality of their performances (see Lynn Fontanne). She is directed by Frank Lloyd, whose Mutiny on the Bounty I love for its stunning ensemble, but who directs the cast of Cavalcade as unimpressively as in his other Best Director win for The Divine Lady (also featuring a lackluster Best Actress nominee, Corinne Griffith). For as often as I was distracted by her abrupt and fulsome acting throughout most of the march through the early Twentieth Century, she admirably redeemed herself in the final moments of the film, in which she seems to shed her affectations to play an elderly version of her character with a simple grace. My vote for 1933 goes to a far more tender and proficient performance from May Robson in Lady for a Day, but I still have a guilty soft spot for this film, and a love for Diana’s final scene.