Ethel Barrymore received her fourth and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Miss Em in Elia Kazan's Pinky. This is such a strange movie in a lot of ways, but it also becomes very mundane and uninspiring by the time the credits roll. The film stars Jeanne Crain as Pinky, a light-skinned African-American woman who returns home after pretending to be a white woman in the big city and finds herself mixed up in some legal matters when Miss Em (Barrymore), a wealthy neighbor leaves her home to Pinky upon her death. The film almost collapses under the awfulness of Crain's performance (and the fact that she's white!), but manages to be a least mildly entertaining in an baity sort of way. Ethel Barrymore's performance is in many ways the centerpiece to the film as it is Miss Em's actions that dictate the plot, and she has a huge significance to Pinky and her mother, Ethel Water's Dicey Johnson.
I'm not at all familiar with Ethel Barrymore but just as with May Whitty in 1937 I imagine Miss Em is the type of character she plays frequently, so much so that by 1949 she could give a performance like this one without breaking a sweat. Miss Em is an affluent Southern woman living in huge mansion where Pinky's mother, Dicey has been taking care of her for very little pay for months. The two have developed a strong friendship through mutual hard times, though Pinky still resents Miss Em for being cruel to her when she was a young girl. Pinky is forced by her mother to become Miss Em's nurse in her final days and has to deal with an excess of complaints, orders, and general rudeness until Miss Em passes away. Barrymore handles the unpleasantness of her character with resolve and whip smart flippancy. Her frog-like voice bestows a crustiness that is perfect for the part, and in all actuality she isn't particularly likeable. Physically she never seems to be on the brink of death, but a majority of her scenes are her laying in bed so that is never quite on display.
So what's the problem? I guess the problem is that Barrymore needed to take this performance just a step farther in that at the end of the film we are expected to look back and say "Wasn't Miss Em just swell all along?", and I never felt she was all that swell. We never get anything more than a fleeting look at the heart that Miss Em supposedly has, and in fact Ethel Waters shows us more about her than Barrymore does through her discussions about their friendship. Barrymore doesn't fully show us any of the sides that apparently exist, and I suppose an argument could be made that the purpose of the performance was to show a woman who never let her emotions show but if that is the case then this is just a horribly one note performance. Barrymore's one shining moment was her scene with Evelyn Varden, her gold digging cousin where we see a sly sauciness that never peeks its head out again.
The pieces just don't come together to make Ethel Barrymore's performance special in any way, instead leaving us with a solid turn from an old pro. She's got the meanness of the role down pat, and that's obviously all that she worked towards evoking. She's just altogether a bitter bitch, but plays that part to the best of her ability. Whether the script or Elia Kazan or Barrymore herself is to blame is unknown but it's unimpressive all the same. A physically and emotionally stolid performance that is the definition of a solid supporting turn. I just have very little to say about it other than, what the role sounds like Barrymore is and nothing more. 2.5/5 Thelmas.