Anne Shirley received her only Oscar nomination for her performance as Laurel Dallas in King Vidor's Stella Dallas. I have to say, 1937 is turning out to be a difficult year to judge, and after each performance I've seen so far this year, I find myself going through three to four ratings before finally settling on one. I guess I was just spoiled with the more cut and dry love 'em or hate 'em performances from 1993. The trouble with Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas is that I can't seem to separate my affection for the film itself and Barbara Stanwyck's performance specifically from what I think of Shirley herself. The film is about a woman, Stella (Stanwyck) who marries a man for his money and to get a better life for herself. She has a child with him, and their marriage is on the rocks almost immediately. As her child, Laurel (Shirley) gets older, Stella begins to realize that having such a common, flamboyant mother is hurting Laurel's chances at getting 'somewhere' in life, so she must deal with the dilemma of giving up her daughter or holding her back. It's a heartbreaking film, and Stanwyck gives an amazing performance.
Anne Shirley's performance is one that probably looks easier than it actually is. Laurel is that 'golden child' role that we've seen a million times before in film. She is loved by everyone that is around her, she's smart and intelligent beyond her years, and clearly loves her mother in spite of her flaws. Thus, Shirley has to maintain this charismatic and adorable type persona through the entire film, and she succeeds in that you can always tell why everyone loves Laurel so much. At the same time, Shirley always makes you feel like Laurel is still a child. There a flashes of immaturity and naivety that pop up from time to time in the film, and they remind you that Laurel is not an adult, but rather a young teenager. This is how Shirley is for a majority of the film, and it takes some skill to keep the persona going with such effortlessness.
Where Shirley missteps hugely is in the midsection of her performance, as Laurel becomes older and more embarrassed by her mother Shirley makes the transition somewhat jarring. One second her mother is the apple of her eye, and the next she is completely ashamed of her. You don't feel it happen organically and smoothly, instead it's an overnight transformation and doesn't feel natural. It's like Laurel goes from the kindest person in the world to the most superficial, and everything that she has built up so far in the film is just thrown out the window and you feel the realism of the character evaporate in front of you're eyes. This development is the most damaging thing to her performance and you feel cheated afterward.
She does her best to return you back to the Laurel before that point, but the performance is already tainted. It's a shame, really, because the scenes at the end of the film are easily her best, where she realizes the harm she has done to her mother and the chemistry between her and Stanwyck is so palpable and electric. However, the damage is done and Shirley can't recover from her earlier mistakes. It's a wholly uneven and inconsistent performance that has flashes of brilliance at the beginning and the end, but the middle squanders her chances at being truly amazing. I decided to give her some credit for trying, but 3.5/5 Thelmas is as high as she'll go. Perhaps she'd improve on a rewatch.