Ethel Waters received her only Oscar nomination for her performance as Dicey Johnson in Elia Kazan's Pinky. With this nomination, Waters became the second African American nominated for an Academy Award after Hattie McDaniel's landmark win in this category in 1939 for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Regrettably, this role isn't anything vastly different from McDaniel's, as Waters plays a poor laundress who spends her time taking care of her elderly neighbor, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). It's a role with a lot of emotional similarities to McDaniel's--Dicey is a simple woman who serves as the heart of her film and doesn't have any aspirations but to live a good life and give one to her daughter, the eponymous Pinky. What this leaves Water to work with is a very stable character that experiences very little change in the film, but also one with huge pathos.
Perhaps the biggest problem Waters has to overcome in the film is being stuck with the absolutely atrocious Jeanne Crain as her main acting partner. Crain doesn't do anything but look sullen in EVERY scene she's in, and it's tiresome and kills the flow of the film. However, Waters does succeed in making Dicey an incredibly powerful presence in the film, using her interesting looks and hugely expressive face to leave her mark on the film. She transcends the stereotypes (overtly religious, unflinchingly caring, sass) by not pushing them to hard and instead using her voice in a quiet way. She never strains beyond what is necessary, and only goes as far as to make her point. By not highlighting these elements and instead relying on her natural gifts she allows the audience to connect with her deeper, fleshing out a real person underneath all the stereotypes. She is masterful in wielding guilt, pity, and sentiment on both Pinky and the viewer. The best way to describe her performance is soulful and lacking in mannerism and actorly moments.
Despite the incredibly ease in Waters's performance, there are very few moments where she truly gets to shine because ultimately Dicey Johnson is a role lacking in big moments. She has a few minor moments, such as the devastated look on her face as she realizes her good friend, Miss Em, is about to die. Another is her masterful use of restraint in a tense courtroom scene where she is ashamed to reveal that she cannot read. These moments don't hold as much weight as they could, but that is all Waters's doing. She keeps her performance at one level purposely, always subservient and minding her own business. It's a performance filled with subsistence.
Ethel Waters does an admirable job with her instinctive and soulful performance in Pinky. She delivers and easy to love performance that uses her natural gifts as an actress and a woman to develop Dicey Johnson into a well-rounded and relatable character. She never presses to hard on her acting talents, calibrating her performance to the appropriate level. Even with some less than satisfactory co-stars, she shines and achieves what she needs to in the performance. It's not a blockbuster or earth-shattering performance by any means, but a solid and reliable supporting turn. Nice work. 4/5 Fancy Funerals.