Sunday, February 13, 2011

Silence is Golden: Jane Wyman's Oscar-Winning Performance in "Johnny Belinda"

Jane Wyman paid her dues. When she arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s, Wyman worked steadily, but no one knew her name. During this early period in her career, she appeared in dozens of films, some classics, including an uncredited part in My Man Godfrey (1936).

A Hollywood glamor shot early in Jane Wyman's career
In 1937, as a contract player at Warner Brothers, Wyman had her first credited part as “Dixie the hatcheck girl” in Smart Blonde starring Glenda Farrell as journalist Torchy Blane. From 1932 to 1936, Wyman appeared in 19 films. In 1939, she stepped into the role of Torchy Blane in Torchy Blane…Playing With Dynamite. But it would be six long years before Wyman would get a role she could sink her teeth into.

Ray Milland and Wyman in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945)
In 1945 Wyman got what would prove to be her breakout performance. On loan to Paramount, she played Helen St. James, Ray Milland’s sympathetic girlfriend in The Lost Weekend. The film was a huge critical and commercial hit, winning Oscars for Milland and director Billy Wilder. It also won the award for Best Picture. Tough New York Times critic Bosley Crowther took notice of Wyman’s performance in Weekend. He said, “Jane Wyman assumes with quiet authority the difficult role of the loyal girl who loves and assists the central character—and finally helps regenerate him.” From a critic like Crowther, this was a rave.

Claude Jarman Jr., Gregory Peck, and Wyman in a publicity still from The Yearling (1946)
After her success in Weekend, Wyman’s home studio, Warner Bros. didn’t give her better scripts. Loaned out again in 1946, this time to M-G-M, Wyman costarred with Gregory Peck and Claude Jarman Jr. in the Clarence Brown production of The Yearling. The 10-month shoot was tough on Wyman and the rest of the cast. In spite of the production difficulties, Wyman received the first of her four Best Actress Academy Award nominations for her portrayal of Orry Baxter. She didn’t win, but Wyman was now a certified movie star.

Wyman as Belinda McDonald in Johnny Belinda (1948)
In 1948, Warner Bros. adapted the stage play Johnny Belinda and cast Wyman in the lead. Since the play was a modest success, the expectations for the film version weren’t too high. Under the steady direction of Jean Negulesco, Wyman gave the performance of a lifetime. As deaf mute Belinda, she never uttered a line of dialogue. Wyman managed to convey the frustration and longing of a young woman considered less than human by the local villagers in her Cape Brenton [Canada] home. She did this through her expressive eyes and physical gestures. Although by today’s standards, the movie is somewhat dated, Wyman’s performance is not. This is what Crowther said of Wyman's performance in his review of the film in The New York Times on October 2, 1948: “Miss Wyman brings superior insight and tenderness to the role. Not once does she speak throughout the picture. Her face is the mirror of her thoughts.”

Johnny Belinda lobby card
Johnny Belinda was nominated for a total of 11 Oscars. It lost in every category except Wyman’s surprise win for Best Actress of 1949 (Wyman expected Irene Dunne to win for I Remember Mama).

Jane Wyman would go on to further film successes, working with legendary directors like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, but her performance in Johnny Belinda is a master class in film acting technique, making Wyman a legend in her own right.  


A special midnight screening of Johnny Belinda will be held at Facets Film School on Saturday, February 26, 2011. Admission is $5.
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