The Best Picture Project – Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Mrs. Miniver

Directed by William Wyler

Screenplay by George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West and Arthur Wimperis

Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright and Richard Ney

Who would have thought William Wyler, three-time winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, 12-time nominee in the same category, who would make the mammoth and always entertaining western The Big Country and who would win his last directing Oscar for the biblical behemoth Ben-Hur – which gave the world the phrase Academy Award Winner Charlton Heston – would win his first Oscar for the much less ambitious and almost terminally dull war-pic, Mrs. Miniver? Considering the films he was nominated for previously, including the film that made Laurence Olivier a star, Wuthering Heights, it’s almost unthinkable. But cest la vie. Some things cannot be changed.

In other posts here I’ve talked about luck being something like the ultimate trump card, carrying actors or films to glory where they might not otherwise have won. Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest took home the Best Actress Oscar because the race that year was exceedingly weak, and It Happened One Night benefited from weak categories across the board.

But Mrs. Miniver might be the first time a film managed to combine the two: luck to have the association with a popular cause – WWII – and the luck to find itself up against weak option in most other categories – perhaps it’s greatest adversaries were Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Magnificent Amberson. So lucky was the film that even the most inconsequential members of the cast suddenly found themselves Oscar nominees, something as improbable as Charlton Heston winning that Oscar as Best Actor. Incidentally, Wyler managed to benefit from luck again, at least one more time, in that his The Best Years of Our Lives managed to gather enough post-war sentiment to make him a two-time winner for Best Director.

Mrs. Miniver was a popular and timely film, based upon a character created by Jan Struther created for a series of newspaper columns that quickly morphed from being about the trivia of domestic life to reflections of the state of England at war. A book followed and the book proved so popular it apparently helped get the US interested in fighting in the war. It was only a matter of time before it became a movie.

Because it was such a timely and popular film that means it inevitably suffers when looked at through the prism of history, when the rose-colored glasses of the war effort were off and the film can be looked at as simply a film. As I’ve said before, the film is almost staid and terminally-dull and watched with other films of the period, without the context of it being a Best Picture winner, it would probably be indistinguishable from any others. There is simply nothing there to lift it above the heads of other films. The only thing it has the helps it rise above the rest is the WWII sentiment, which not only made it popular with the public, but with the Academy as well, so much so that the film managed to place five actors across the four acting categories, even though they mostly gave indifferent performances.

The most notable of the contenders in the acting categories was eventual-winner Greer Garson, who walked off with the Best Actress statuette largely because she was able to make her lack of emotion seem like inner strength. If not for the scenes involving the German pilot invading her kitchen, or the death of her daughter-in-law in her own arms during a bombing-run, she might not have emoted in the film at all. It might be one of the worst choices ever for Best Actress, which actually makes me a little sad, because I thought she was utterly charming and splendid as the ill-fated Mrs. Chips in Goodbye Mr. Chips.

Others placed in various races included Walter Pidgeon, as Mr. Miniver, who jockeyed in the Best Actor race, despite seeming to play a Brit with a strong middle-American accent – perhaps this was by choice but it was pretty distracting to me, especially when he fell into using phrases we might commonly think of as British.

Teresa Wright, your Best Supporting Actress winner, was agreeable as the daughter-in-law doomed to an ironic death, but being joined in the race by Dame Mae Whitty seems almost like an insult, as all the great Dame needed to do was offer a bit of snobbery to get her hands on her second career nomination.

The fifth and final nominee from the cast clearly had the benefit of being in a popular film that struck a nerve – what I’m going to call “The Sixth Sense effect” – because without it he never would have come close to a nomination. In this case I’m talking and Henry Travers placing in the Best Supporting Actor category. Traver’s was wonderful as Clarence the angel four years later in It’s a Wonderful Life, but here his role simply requires him to ring the church bell, show off a rose he’s grown and act a little slow in the head – and not the showy way of being slow in the head, i.e. Rainman. You might be able to argue in all the other cases that the actor or actress deserved to be nominated, but in the case of Henry Travers, no argument can possibly be made to hold water.

Alas, while Mrs. Miniver doesn’t seem very worthy of a Best Picture Oscar, it’s difficult to choose a replacement from 1942. There were a host of nominees – there were ten that year – many of whom I haven’t seen, but while The Magnificent Ambersons would be the obvious choice as replacement winner, it’s harmed by the fact that it’s studio butchered it. Perhaps the better choice is the film that didn’t even rate a nomination as Best Picture: Sullivan’s Travels.

Trivia:

Not only does Wyler hold the distinction of 12 nominations for Best Director – a number Katherine Hepburn would be amazed by – and the most consecutive noms in the category with seven, he also holds the record more having his films take more nominations and more wins than any other director: 127 noms, 39 wins. Moreover, he’s directed more actors to nominations (35) and victories (13) than any other director. The next closest in both categories is Elia Kazan, with 24 and 9, respectively. The next closest among the living in noms is Martin Scorcese, with 20, and in wins, is a tie at 5 by Scorcese, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.

Mrs. Miniver was a film that, despite its popularity, actually created a bit of controversy and titillation factor when Greer Garson married co-star Richard Ney. The interest didn’t arise from the fact that Ney was 11 years younger than Garson, because older women marry younger men more often than anybody would know. No, the interest was the fact that Ney played Garson’s son in the film, giving the relationship an almost, but not quite, incestual feel to it.

For a very limited time in his career, Walter Pidgeon was something of a good luck charm, starring in back-to-back Best Pictures, How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver. After those two years the luck would wear off as he would never again star in a movie that would win Best Picture. However, he did manage a turn in The Bad and the Beautiful, the film that has the distinction of winning the most Oscars, five, without having also been nominated for Best Picture.

Click here to see those already seen and to get a list of those left to see.

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