Monday, November 15, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert in "Private Worlds"
Lost the 1935 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis in "Dangerous"

Grade: ***

Even if Claudette Colbert couldn't quite emulate Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Irene Dunne in gaining Default Nominee status in the Thirties and Forties, she managed to win an Oscar before all of them. Just two months prior to the release of Gregory La Cava's "Private Worlds" Colbert was picking up the 1934 Best Actress Oscar for It Happened One Night, and she was clearly in the mind of the Academy when they doubled the number of nominees from three to six in 1935. "Private Worlds" represents a huge departure from Frank Capra's romantic comedy to more ethical, issue-driven dilemna, set in a psychiatric hospital under upheaval from new boss Charles Boyer.

If the "worlds" referenced in the title are a very vague way of suggesting that everybody has skeletons in their closets, the result isn't quite so juicy. La Cava spends the first twenty-five minutes of the film establishing that Colbert's Jane is a paladin of humanist know-how, solving any problems that she encounters and maintaining her composure at the testiest of times. Colbert's grace can often serve her well, and her soft expressions suggest a maternal, knowing affection that always helps to see her inside of the character. It's a weapon that's effective in her final nominated-performance in David O. Selznick's Since You Went Away, where it moulds nicely into the maternal instinct of her wartime housewife. In "Private Worlds", however, Colbert's radiating comfort can tend to align itself with Jane's insipid lack of fault, and it feels as if she's too plainly bringing out the inarguable competencies of the character.

Colbert recognises that Jane's passivity generates as much tension and conflict within the hospital as it does calmness, and there's an aloof charm about her that suggests a 'Private World' underneath that immovable exterior. The film tends to lampoon tidbits of backstory onto Jane, as when Colbert is forced to divulge a story of a former lover killed in the war, and in its constant liberal placement of her in so ethically strong a position. It's somewhat of a stretch for us to really care about failed romances and workplace prejudice. Colbert herself is adept at generating empathy, and she deals with the martinet tendencies of the script supremely, proffering a learned, studious faux-ambivalence to Jane's outlook and how she copes with internal politics and confrontation. Does she secretly court attention? Is the hospital's hierarchy really none of her concern? Colbert implants more greys into our perception of Jane than initially promised, and carries the film through its dourest periods of nonchalance.

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