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Best Actress Oscar Winners of the 1940s


Oscar seemed to like his women drunk, disabled, deranged, devout or in immediate danger (often at the hands of their husbands) during the 1940s. As always, dramatic roles dominated the Best Actress Oscar winners, and many fine comic performances were bypassed. As usual, history has proven that the Academy failed to recognizes some of the best and most enduring performances.

1. 1940 Best Actress – Ginger Rogers in ‘Kitty Foyle’

Kitty Foyle
RKO Radio Pictures

Never even nominated for her fizzy roles as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner, Ginger Rogers was the surprise win in the sudsy chick flick Kitty Foyle. Joan Fontaine lost for her leading role in the year’s Best Picture winner, Rebecca, while Katharine Hepburn lost her third Oscar bid, despite her marvelous turn in The Philadelphia Story. Martha Scott lost as Emily in the film version of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, along with Bette Davis in the plantation-era period piece The Letter. Someone should have slapped Oscar on his little bare little backside for failing to nominate Rosalind Russell’s saucy reporter in His Girl Friday, one of the best screwball comedies ever to hit the screen.

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2. 1941 Best Actress – Joan Fontaine in ‘Suspicion’

RKO Radio Pictures

Oscar continued to snub Alfred Hitchcock, but Joan Fontaine won for starring in his film Suspicion as a new bride who suspects her husband is trying to kill her. She beat her sister, Olivia de Havilland, in the little-remembered Hold Back the Dust and Greer Garson as an orphanage director in Blossoms in the Dust. Bette Davis was more deserving as a manipulative Southern vixen in The Little Foxes as was Barbara Stanwyck for her terrific role as a dancer and mob moll in Ball of Fire. Stanwyck’s great performance in The Lady Eve the same year was not nominated, and Mary Astor should have given them all a run for their money as the femme fatale in the great film noir The Maltese Falcon, a spectacular film Oscar overlooked in every category.

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3. 1942 Best Actress – Greer Garson in ‘Mrs. Miniver’

Mrs. Miniver

In the midst of World War II, Greer Garson’s star turn as a brave British housewife was one of five big nominations for Mrs. Miniver, and her only win out of seven career nominations, five of them consecutive. Patriotism helped Garson win over Bette Davis’ exceptional performance as an isolated spinster in Now, Voyager; Teresa Wright as Lou Gehrig’s wife in The Pride of the Yankees; Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year; and Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (the first of her four failed nominations.) Snubbed were Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be; Veronica Lake in the unjustly ignored Sullivan’s Travels; and Jean Arthur in another great film Oscar bypassed in 1942, The Talk of the Town.

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4. 1943 Best Actress – Jennifer Jones in ‘The Song of Bernadette’

The Song of Bernadette
20th Century Fox
Jennifer Jones debuted at age 24 playing the 14-year-old with a vision of the virgin at Lourdes – a performance that just didn’t measure up to those of the fine actresses she beat out. Funny, vivacious Jean Arthur received the only nomination of her long and splendid career for The More the Merrier. Ingrid Bergman lost for the Spanish Civil War film of Hemingway’s book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, along with Greer Garson in the biopic Madame Curie and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph. Amazingly, Bergman’s luminous performance as Ilsa Lund in the year’s Best Picture, Casablanca, went without a nomination. She wouldn’t have won, but Simone Simon deserved at least a nod in the sexy, sinister horror flick Cat People. Mrrowr!
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5. 1944 Best Actress – Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight’


Ingrid Bergman was fine as the wife going slowly mad in Gaslight, but it still felt like a do-over for the Academy’s omission of her work in 1943’s Casablanca. I preferred Barbara Stanwyck’s femme fatale in the Billy Wilder’s uber-noir Double Indemnity, and Bette Davis’ nasty New York society belle in Mr. Skeffington. Greer Garson was back again in the soapy epic Mrs. Parkington. Oscar’s inexplicable omissions this year included Lauren Bacall’s sizzling debut at age 19 in To Have and Have Not, Gene Tierney as the haunting heroine of Laura, and Judy Garland in the charming musical Meet Me in St. Louis.

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6. 1945 Best Actress - Joan Crawford in ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce
Warner Brothers
Joan Crawford blew the wheels off the competition as a mega-mommy who works like a dog and sacrifices everything for her viciously ungrateful daughter in the sweeping noir soap opera Mildred Pierce. Even Ingrid Bergman’s tart-tongued, devout Mother Superior in The Bells of St. Mary's and Gene Tierney’s gorgeous, insanely jealous society wife in Leave Her to Heaven couldn’t top Mommy Dearest. Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision and Jennifer Jones in Love Letters never had a chance against Crawford, who won her first and only Oscar out of three career nominations.
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7. 1946 Best Actress – Olivia de Havilland in ‘To Each His Own’

To Each His Own
Again, better performances were ignored as Olivia de Havilland won as an older, unwed mother in this forgettable melodrama. Of the nominees, Celia Johnson was better in the four-hanky story of illicit love, Brief Encounter, as was Rosalind Russell in the biopic Sister Kenny about a resolute Australian nun fighting childhood paralysis, and Jane Wyman in the deathless children's classic The Yearling. Jennifer Jones received her final career nomination for the western Duel in the Sun. Oscar ignored Lauren Bacall’s performance in the great film noir, The Big Sleep; Rita Hayworth's sexy Gilda; Ingrid Bergman's rebellious spy in Notorious; and sultry Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Oscar, what were you thinking?

8. 1947 Best Actress – Loretta Young in ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’

The Farmer's Daughter
RKO Radio Pictures

In what many see as her finest role, Loretta Young shone in a romantic comedy with a political message, The Farmer’s Daughter. She bested the favored Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra, a critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful film of Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, and Dorothy MacGuire, who played Gregory Peck’s prejudiced fiance in the year’s Best Picture, Gentleman’s Agreement. Susan Hayward lost for her portrayal of an alcoholic in Smash Up - The Story of a Woman, as well as Joan Crawford as a homicidal factory worker in Possessed. Overlooked were Gene Tierney as a lovely widow in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Deborah Kerr as a nun in Black Narcissus.

9. 1948 Best Actress – Jane Wyman in ‘Johnny Belinda’

Johnny Belinda
Warner Brothers

In a year of powerhouse performances by great actresses, Jane Wyman won without saying a word for her portrayal of a deaf-mute victim of rape in Johnny Belinda. The wonderful actress Irene Dunne lost the last of her five career nominations for her role as the matriarch in the immigrant story I Remember Mama, as did Olivia de Havilland's performance as a woman wrongly committed to an insane asylum in The Snake Pit and Barbara Stanwyck's fretful, neurotic housewife confined to her bed in Sorry, Wrong Number. Ingrid Bergman was nominated but lost for her role as the French heroine in an unsuccessful version of Joan of Arc


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10. 1949 Best Actor – Olivia de Havilland in ‘The Heiress’

The Heiress
Not a great year for leading female roles, but Olivia de Havilland played nicely against type as a dowdy spinster whose dashing suitor is only out for her money in The Heiress. Deborah Kerr lost for her role as an alcoholic wife in Edward, My Son, along with Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned woman attempting to “pass” in an early movie dealing with racial issues, Pinky. Susan Hayward lost as an unmarried mom in My Foolish Heart, as did Loretta Young as a nun in Come to the Stable, as the decade ended with a whimper for best actress roles.
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