Today, we are accustomed to thinking of the “leading role” for actresses of the classic era as being the chief romantic interest for the male star. Women, we are told, were consigned to simply being objects of men’s attentions, not agents of their own interests. Well, folks who think that way might be surprised by the strong, often dominating, women in the movies of the silent era. Men often seem to be the objects of their whims, weaknesses, designs, and errors.
I hope it will surprise no one that none of this year’s nominees gave their performances while tied to train tracks. Clara Kimball Young as “Trilby” is perhaps the most victimized of our women, but she is no simple damsel – at the beginning she displays a free, bohemian attitude to life, all the more strongly contrasted with her submissiveness once under the thrall of Svengali. Anna Q. Nelson is ultimately the love interest for Rockliffe Fellowes in “Regeneration,” but she is much more, being a society woman who also transforms from being flippant and irresponsible to devoted to improving her world, and as such becomes the inspiration for a “bad” man to find the good in himself. Vera Kholodnaia began her rise to fame portraying a good wife tempted into bad behavior by wealth and excitement in “Children of the Age,” whose eventual fall drags her hapless husband along helplessly. Fanny Ward is similarly tempted by greed in “The Cheat,” and while she may be the victim for Sessue Hayakawa, ultimately it is her actions that decide the fate of her own husband, accused of trying to kill the villain. In one of the classic roles for strong women, Geraldine Farrar brought life to “Carmen” for director Cecil B. DeMille after a famous run of stage performances, showing the free and open attitude to sex of that character as well as her duplicity and selfishness. Finally, the Italian diva Francesca Bertini takes on a tragic role as a woman caught between the violent man she truly loves and the official who uses his position to take her honor in “Assunta Spina.”
The nominees for Best Leading Actress of 1915 are…
- Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
- Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
- Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
- Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
- Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
- Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina”
And the winner is…Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby!”
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t what I expected. But, when I went back and looked at all of the performances, I realized how impressive what Young did here really is. Where most of our lead characters travel through an arc – often towards tragedy – Trilby actually has to show two separate transformations. First, she comes on strong, almost like Carmen, but with a bit more of an artistic flair, then she changes as she falls in love with Billie, becoming a softer, more controlled personality. And finally, she gives us the soulless robot of Svengali. Her development is fascinating, and more complex than the others, great though each of them was in her own way.