Welcome to the second in a series of beginner’s guides to some of my favourite people in movies.
Last week’s was all about legendary director John Ford. This week, I’m talking about Janet Gaynor.
The diminutive, subtle, uber-expressive leading lady who walked off with the very first Best Actress Oscar, for Sunrise and a couple of Frank Borzage movies: 7th Heaven and Street Angel.
She won it for three films?
It was the first year – they hadn’t quite got the format down pat.
Did she know what a big deal it was?
Let’s ask her. “Naturally, I was thrilled, but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn’t mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I’d have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”
Well, Doug was cool. How do those three movies stand up today?
Astonishingly well. Sunrise is perhaps the most famous silent film of all, and one of the best, equipped with an emotional tractor-beam too often absent from director F. W. Murnau’s eye-wideningly inventive works. Gaynor gives a more stylised performance than usual, while still exhibiting much of the breathtaking naturalism that was her forte. 7th Heaven (pic below) is a touching, compulsively-watchable metaphysical romance that trips a little towards the end, but gets by on the strength of the actress’s peerless sense of conviction, while in Street Angel, which also pairs her with Charles Farrell, her unmatched expressiveness wrings every last drop of emotion from a vividly-etched story that casts her as the world’s worst prostitute and builds to a violent, outrageous and ambitious climax.
Please don’t tell me she Cuba Gooding Jr-ed it after that?
Not a chance. Gaynor had made her name back in 1926 when, aged just 20, she landed a lead role in Fox’s epic disaster movie, The Johnstown Flood. After scooping her Oscar, she reunited with Borzage and Farrell for the exquisite Lucky Star, an uplifting drama with the atmosphere of a romantic dream, re-teamed with Murnau for 4 Devils (now a lost film), and embraced sound by unexpectedly becoming a musical-comedy star – though sadly none of those musicals have been released on DVD. Then she made A Star Is Born.
Oh, with Barbra Streisand?
Don’t even think about it.
Well which version is she in, then?
Why the original, of course (pic below): a Hollywood-on-film masterpiece, in which her wide-eyed hopeful becomes a megastar, while the love-of-her-life – matinee idol Norman Maine (Fredric March) –hits the skids, and then the bottle. Hard. It was Gaynor’s last crack at a meaty, emotive part, and she was never better.
Anything else to report?
You won’t find much of worth in Three Loves Has Nancy – a screwball comedy in which Gaynor struggles manfully against miscasting – but her last film before early retirement, The Young in Heart, is a little beauty: a bracingly different, magical movie about a family of con artists trying to swindle a sweet old dear out of her life savings.
Why’s it so good?
The film fuses the sentimentality of a typical David O. Selznick production with a sense of irreverence and absurdity that’s like something from an ‘80s indie movie. And, as a con woman feeling pangs of conscience, Gaynor runs away with the film. She retired shortly afterwards, marrying costume designer Adrian. He was gay, and she – according to Hollywood rumour, and please do remember that Hollywood rumour says that everyone in Hollywood is gay – was as well.
Did anyone ever hear from her again?
Yes. She made a brief comeback in the early ‘50s, making a teen comedy (Bernardine) and a trio of TV episodes, before giving one last small screen appearance in the early ’80s.
I take it she remains best remembered for playing Violet Hooper in the 1981 season of The Love Boat?
Sunrise, 7th Heaven and A Star Is Born?
What to say: “That was Mrs Norman Maine.”
What not to say: “Poor man’s Streisand.”
Next week: Lee Tracy