For drama to truly work, there needs to be more than a leading man and a leading lady. They need antagonists, friends, family, and in general a world of people to make their narratives appear convincing, to give them challenges to work against and help in overcoming those challenges. When one of these “other people” is a woman, we refer to her role as a supporting actress, and when they break out of the limitations of their role and make it more than a stereotype or faceless prop, we consider them for this award.
1914 brought us a number of excellent performances by women in supporting roles. Mabel Normand had been on the Keystone scene for a while, but she had a chance to really shine as the villainous counterpart to Charlie Chaplin in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance.” Mae Marsh was one of D.W. Griffith’s favorites, and he gave her an important part as “The Little Mother” in “Judith of Bethulia” – representing, as it were the suffering of an entire people in her own person. Mildred Harris played a migrant transformed into a princess in “The Magic Cloak of Oz,” and in the similar fantasy “Cinderella” Inez Martel is the fairy godmother. Finally, Elsa Krueger brought sex appeal and a sense of amorality to her femme fatale role in “Silent Witnesses.”
The nominees for best supporting actress for 1914 are:
- Mabel Normand for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
- Mae Marsh for Judith of Bethulia
- Mildred Harris for Magic Cloak of Oz
- Inez Martel for Cinderella
- Elsa Krueger for Silent Witnesses
And the winner is… Elsa Krueger in “Silent Witnesses!”
All of the women nominated stood out to me in some way, but Elsa Krueger made the strongest impact, with relatively little screen time. She is both vivacious and ego-centric, and the way she treats the servant-heroine of the story as though she weren’t even there heightens the dramatic impact of the tragedy. Truly, she represents the “New Woman” in Russian garb, with the particular sense of class consciousness that country had in the mid-teens.