In the 1940s, Hollywood turned away from the rags-to-riches stories of the previous decade to lift America's spirits during the war and later reflect its darker undercurrents after. Throughout the decade, actresses played a wide array of darkly complex women who suffered mental illness, alcoholism or desperate circumstances brought on by their male counterparts. While some great performances were overlooked, as the Academy more often than not does, others have stood as timeless classics.
Whether cast in the shadow of dance partner Fred Astaire or deemed a gifted comedienne but lacking in the drama department, Ginger Rogers defied her naysayers by taking home Oscar for her performance in Sam Wood’s melodrama Kitty Foyle. Rogers played the titular role, a working-class all-American girl who marries rich, only to discover she’s really in love with a poor, but committed doctor (James Craig). Her resilient turn as Kitty Foyle earned Rogers the Academy Award over more acclaimed dramatic stars as Bette Davis in The Letter, Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Martha Scott in Our Town.
After losing out to Ginger Rogers the year before, Joan Fontaine triumphed over all with her performance as a wealthy woman who impulsively marries a charming ne’er-do-well (Cary Grant), only to have the growing suspicion that he’s planning to murder her for her money. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Suspicion earned the actress her only Academy Award of her career, with her win being famous for her alleged snub of her nominated sister, Olivia de Havilland, who attempted to congratulate Fontaine on her way to the podium. Confirmed repeatedly by de Havilland over the years, Fontaine’s slight sparked a lifelong rivalry between the two sisters that lasted well into the next century. Nonetheless, Fontaine managed to beat out Bette Davis in The Little Foxes, de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn, Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire.
Though her performance may be a bit over-sentimental for contemporary audiences, Greer Garson’s turn as the titular Mrs. Miniver, a stalwart family matriarch who nobly tends to her gardens while putting on a good face during the darkest days of World War II. So effective was her performance that even Winston Churchill himself was moved and called it an invaluable piece of propaganda. Greer won the Oscar over more deserving competition like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, as well as Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen and Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees.
In her first-ever nomination for Best Actress, Jennifer Jones won the Oscar for her performance as a teenage peasant girl in a tiny French village who claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in a secluded grotto. Of course, no one believes her as the town’s religious and political leaders struggle with what to do, though Bernadette remains steadfast in her conviction. Jones’ endearing performance transformed the unknown actress into a star and earned her the Academy Award over Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier, Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph and Greer Garson in Madame Curie.
While shut out the previous year, Swedish star Ingrid Bergman took home her first of three career Oscars for her sterling performance as a late 19th century singer driven mad by her new husband (Charles Boyer) in George Cukor’s classic thriller, Gaslight. Lesser actresses would have resorted to over-the-top histrionics in playing a woman losing her grip on sanity, but Bergman strikes all the right notes and holds the film tightly together. She deservedly won her first Best Actress award over the likes of Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away, Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington, Greer Garson in Mrs. Parkington and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.
There was no doubt that Joan Crawford deserved the Oscar as the titular Mildred Pierce, one of the greatest performances of her storied career. A noir-like melodrama directed by Michael Curtiz, the film featured Crawford as a divorced mother of two who struggles to gain financial security by becoming a waitress and eventually a restaurant owner, all while catering to the materialistic whims of her eldest daughter (Ann Blyth). Mildred Pierce was Crawford’s first commercial hit in years and revitalized her flagging career. But more importantly, she won her only Academy Award over Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, Jennifer Jones in Love Letters and Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.
There were certainly more deserving actresses in 1946, chiefly Celia Johnson in David Lean’s heartbreaking romance drama Brief Encounter. But still, Olivia de Havilland carried Mitchell Leisen’s wartime drama as a woman forced by financial circumstances to give up her son following the death of her husband in World War I. Years later, when another great war wreaked havoc, she’s reunited with her grown son (Roland Culver), though she initially resists revealing her identity. De Havilland won the first of her two career Academy Awards over Johnson in Brief Encounter, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Rosalind Russell in Sister Kenny and Jane Wyman in The Yearling.
In her first of two career nominations, Loretta Young won her only Oscar for her turn as Katie Holstrom, an outspoken and independent-minded woman who moves from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., where seeks out a career in politics regardless of the powerful forces standing in her way. Along the way, she attracts the amorous attention of a congressman (Joseph Cotten), who helps Katie on the eve of her own election. Undoubtedly her most memorable performance, Young won the Oscar over stiff competition that included Joan Crawford in Possessed, Susan Hayward in Smash-Up – The Story of a Woman, Dorothy McGuire in Gentleman’s Agreement and Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra.
Having been shut out in 1946 for The Yearling, Jane Wyman roared back with a completely silent performance as Johnny Belinda, a deaf-mute farm girl who finds a new lease on life thank to learning sign language from a newly arrived doctor (Lew Ayres). Wyman was absolutely brilliant in the role that eschewed the usual sentimentality in favor of a more ambiguous look at a non-traditional character, particularly when audiences were left with figuring out her fate in the end. Wyman’s career-best performance easily won her the Academy Award for Best Actress over Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, and Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number.
The last Academy Award for Best Actress in the decade also happened to be winner Olivia de Havilland’s final nomination of her career. But she saved the best for last in William Wyler’s romantic drama, The Heiress, where she played an plain and ungraceful spinster who falls for a handsome young man (Montgomery Clift) whom she’s convinced shares her feelings, only to discover through years of heartache that he was only out for her money. De Havilland was in top form and beat out an off-year field that included Jeanne Crain in Pinky, Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart, Deborah Kerr in Edward, My Son and Loretta Young in Come to the Stable.