Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Jeanne Eagels
Jeanne Eagels in "The Letter" (1929)
Lost the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar to Mary Pickford in "Coquette"
Jeanne Eagels made just two talking pictures before her early death from a drugs overdose at the age of thirty-nine. Her most famous quote, "I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn." is a bold statement in itself, and though this film is my opening foray into the work of Ms. Eagels, I can certainly subscribe to the "great" if not the "greatest" tag. While William Wyler's remake would market itself with the tagline, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!", De Limur's original version of Somerset Maugham's "The Letter" was content to rest on that line, as if the mere confession of its tainted anti-hero Leslie Crosbie is itself enough to underline her treachery and put an end to any pretense.
Eagels' pretense had reached a height upon a courtroom stand, as an examining barrister asks her if she can recall the events of her and boyfriend Geoffrey's final, murderous encounter. Her response, "I'll try..." is trying, but so forlorn, resolute, and demanding of the court's attention without feeling at all threatening, and as she feathers her calculated lies with fragile affectations and insistent glances, she does so with such a mechanical ease that the entire scene is uproariously funny. Eagels makes Leslie impulsive in her answers, as if she's eager to get a rehearsed story across, but isn't cracking under the pressure and, quite to the contrary, appears to be adapting and eventually revelling in the attention she so keenly craves. She finds it difficult to hold back on the romantic dialogue of the story, heightening her well-to-do voice at just the right places so as to seem acceptably prudish but still thoroughly identifiable as a housewife.
While I consider Bette Davis' 1940 reprisal to be probably the most deserving Best Actress nomination of the entire decade, Eagels doesn't have as much of the feigned grace that Davis brought to Leslie. She plays her as more of a bitter, shameless shrew, if anything conjuring up images of Bette's lauded 1934 turn in "Of Human Bondage". In the famous scene in which Leslie retrieves the letter that would incriminate her, from the woman that her victim really loved, Eagels shuts Leslie off from any sort of empathy with the woman. In part, this can be attributed to "The Letter" and its lack of concern for this strand of the story, turning the exchange into a bit of theatre geared by racial oneupmanship. Still, Eagels doesn't capitalise on what should be Leslie's real lesson and shame in the film, a realisation of those haunting final words.
The waspish demeanour of Eagels imprints the film with a veracity that fits acutely into the modest brand of cinema that marks De Limur's film, more reflective of the stage or television in its quickfire, bare-bones approach to issues of the heart. So much could go wrong with playing somebody with little-to-no redeeming features about their personality, who lies through 90% of her film, but Eagels is aware of the pitfalls of being overzealous and romantic with Leslie, who one can imagine being oblivious to passion unless it were thrust in front of her face. We're used to seeing women in films of this era receive comeuppance for their errors, or at least appear to act out of downtrodden, desperate hysteria. After her crime Eagels' Leslie acts assuredly, through contempt for a life she never really had, and if the film doesn't want to punish her for that, I'm certainly not going to complain. There are few opportunities to see someone be this conceited.