Saturday, June 29, 2013

May Whitty in Mrs. Miniver

May Whitty received her second and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Lady Beldon in William Wyler's Best Picture winning Mrs. Miniver. Five years after receiving her first nomination for her delightful performance in Night Must Fall (my review), Dame May Whitty was back with her second nomination, again for playing a crusty, sassy older woman. However, Mrs. Bramson and Lady Beldon are very different characters both filtered through Whitty's very entertaining persona, and I think in many ways Lady Beldon is a greater character. Lady Beldon is a high minded, slightly cantankerous woman who lives for two things--her niece Carol (Oscar-winning co-star Teresa Wright) and her beloved flower competition. Admittedly, having a flower competition as a major plot point in the midst of a war movie is slightly ridiculous, but it's exactly that ridiculousness that allows May Whitty's performance to sneak in and hit you with pure emotion.

At the start of the film, we get to see May Whitty doing what she was best known for--bitching beautifully. Her first few scenes simply consist of her meeting with various other characters and expressing her opinion freely. Whitty is a master at these type of scenes, whether she's slyly making rude comments about the Miniver family or fretting over the growing relationship between Carol and Vin Miniver (Richard Ney). She has a way of unloading one of her carefully timed barbs in such a direct manner while but at the same time remaining her endearing and lovably grouchy self. She's just simply a master at the old Hollywood standby--the person who is outwardly rude and judgmental, but actually a big softie on the inside. It's her unveiling of her character's gooey inner core that makes this performance such a delight, and an unexpectedly moving one at that.

Whitty has done such a good job at portraying the apprehensive side of her character that when you first see the layers peeling back it's almost shocking. The first example of this is in a scene with Greer Garson (who, may I just say again is AMAZING) where Lady Beldon meets with Mrs. Miniver to express her displeasure at the engagement of Vin and Carol. As the conversation goes on, we see the real reason for Lady Beldon's curmudgeonly persona and just why her objections to Vin and Carol's relationship are so strong--they too directly mirror her own life. Through her dialogue with Mrs. Miniver we learn that she too married a young soldier out of love, and was devastated for the rest of her life after he was killed in action. Watching Lady Beldon reminiscing about her past life we see on Whitty's face as she fights against the romantic inside of her, and can feel the sting of loss that still exists in her life due to her lost long ago. Whitty is subtle but still packs an emotional wallop with a simple look on her face.  By the end of the meeting, her complete reversal of opinion towards the marriage is utterly believable and almost necessary.

That scene alone is enough to justify a Oscar nomination, but it's not even her most emotional or impactful scene in the film. That comes during, of all things, that silly flower competition. It's been made clear throughout the film that Lady Beldon values the competition for the best rose above most everything in her life, and as the caretaker of the competition she feels she deserves to have won it for all these years unchallenged. But the rest of the town knows that the actual best rose is the Miniver rose bred by kindly stationmaster Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers, doing  absolutely nothing to deserve his Oscar nomination). As the fateful decision comes closer and closer, we watch as Lady Beldon realizes that everyone thinks she deserves to lose--and think's it's not a big deal. As she goes to the stand to present the awards herself, we get a blockbuster scene in which she is named the winner but knows that she won simply because the judges were biased in her favor. Standing at the podium ready to present the award for best rose to herself, we get a brief moment in which Whitty looks at the two roses and goes through a staggering set of emotional turmoil over the decision. You can see the guilt, pride, regret, sadness, and just plain hurt on her face, plus another good 20 emotions or so. It's a touching moment that packs a lot of emotion and growth into only a few minutes or so. She, of course, decides that the rose deserves to go to Mr. Ballard but in those few brief moments before announcing the decision we see the final layer of crustiness peel away and a more pleasant yet still sardonic Lady Beldon appear.

It's a testament to May Whitty as an actress that she can so capably take her familiar acting style and make a few modifications to her performance and pull together a fantastic and moving performance in Mrs. Miniver. This performance is what this category is about--taking a stock supporting character and imbuing them with a memorable energy and emotion that adds to the film in a beautiful and unexpected way. That Dame May Whitty manages to take a damn flower contest and turn it into an emotional juggernaut is grounds enough to give her an Academy Award. Her elegant and witty handling of the character (not to mention tragic, especially in her final scene in the church which, me being me, elicited tears) makes this a performance well worth awarding 4.5/5 Thelmas. I just love it when a performance I didn't particularly like or remember on my first go-round reveals unseen elements on a second watch and blossoms into something great.

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