I suffered through all of Mourning Becomes Electra last night, wondering how in heck anyone could have thought that Rosalind Russell was the Oscar front-runner back in 1947. Her performance contains absolutely nothing to remind us why we love Roz. Never has she been so fidgety and effortful and pinched, clearly straining to prove herself a great tragedienne. Eugene O’Neill’s pretentious claptrap, his Civil War-era version of Aeschylus, is overwrought in the extreme. This prestige project brought prestige to no one involved.
Raymond Massey plays Roz’s father in Electra and he also appeared that year with one of her Oscar competitors, Joan Crawford, in Possessed, which is certainly a lot more fun than watching Roz improbably linked romantically with a boyish Kirk Douglas. Possessed is 1947′s Fatal Attraction, with Crawford losing her mind after being rejected by Van Heflin. Things get worse after she marries widower Massey. Geraldine Brooks, as Massey’s grown daughter, becomes Heflin’s new (and much younger) girlfriend. It’s no accident that the plot, a stepmother-stepdaughter love triangle, parallels the mother-daughter triangle in Mildred Pierce (1945), Crawford’s smash hit for which she received an Oscar and career resurrection. Though Possessed is nearly undone by its 40s-style psychobabble, it has at least two great sequences: a haunting opening in which Crawford wanders L.A. streets asking people for “David”; and a later Crawford hallucination in which she imagines doing away with her stepdaughter. Crawford gives a very proficient performance that stays entirely on the surface of things, reveling in the more melodramatic flourishes in the plot while conveying nothing in the way of subtext or inner torment. When it comes to emotion, she is the great indicator. So, there’s no depth, but this surely is a great-looking Warner Brothers movie, moody and stylish and visually textured, thanks to director Curtis Bernhardt.
It was Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter who beat Joan and Roz for the Oscar that year, in what is still considered the biggest upset in Oscar history. Though hardly award-caliber, Young was certainly charming and skillful in a lightweight political comedy, and she was definitely more satisfying in her role than Joan and Roz were in theirs. If you include the two remaining nominees—Dorothy McGuire in Gentleman’s Agreement and Susan Hayward in Smash-Up—I’d declare Hayward, in her alcoholic warm-up for I’ll Cry Tomorrow, as the worthiest of the five contenders. However, I’d have gone with three un-nominated performances as the year’s best from a lead actress: Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, Joan Fontaine in Ivy, and Ida Lupino in Deep Valley.