Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Lead Actress

Best Leading Actress 1917

Women in silent movies were exotic, strong, beautiful, and courageous. Many, if not most, of the recognizable iconic images of the period are of women: Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Theda Bara. The men have no equivalents, except perhaps among the silent clowns (Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton). In Europe, an entire genre (the “Diva film”) was dedicated primarily to looking at women posing in varying costumes, and although this genre didn’t get the same level of recognition in the US, it influenced film making everywhere. To be a star was to be looked at, and women stars used their visibility to become forces of power and even authority.

Yvette Andréyor played the significant role in the “Judex” serial of being the unrequited love interest of the hero – and the daughter of his worst enemy. In “Jacqueline’s Heart,” she unknowingly confides her distress to the woman who was the prime motivator for Judex’s vengeful plans: his mother. She handles this scene, and the emotional drama of the series masterfully. Mary Pickford had her own ideas for the character of Gwendolyn in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” ideas that sometimes conflicted with those of the director, Maurice Tourneur. Mary was enough of a heavyweight in Hollywood that she got her way, and the result is a highly sympathetic and moving performance. Edna Purviance was Chaplin’s leading lady throughout this period of his short films, and once again turned in a thoughtful, funny, and charming performance for “The Immigrant.” She’s a fellow newcomer to the United States, who Charlie meets and pursues, and her reactions are really the emotional center of the romance for the audience. Gloria Swanson was still a rising star when she made “Teddy at the Throttle,” and she’ll be back many times in future years. Here, she gave a comedic twist on the “girl tied to the train tracks” cliché that demonstrated timing and physical ability as well as the acting skill she’s remembered for today. Vera Karalli appears as a mute ballerina in “The Dying Swan,” whose tragic life is a fascination for a mad artist. She conveys her sadness, and its transformation to joy and then to horror, through body language and dance.

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Yvette Andréyor in Jacqueline’s Heart (Judex)
  2. Mary Pickford in Poor Little Rich Girl
  3. Edna Purviance in The Immigrant
  4. Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle
  5. Vera Karalli in The Dying Swan

And the winner is…Mary Pickford for “Poor Little Rich Girl!”

Having declared 1917 “the year of Mary Pickford” in an earlier post may have been a dead giveaway to regular readers how this was going to go. It was not a no-brainer, though, because all of the women nominated had definite strengths. Pickford in “Poor Little Rich Girl” really makes the whole story work. It’s impossible to imagine another actress pulling it off so well. Even in the context of a fairly schmaltzy story that isn’t really my cup of tea, I was decidedly moved by the end, and genuinely wondering/worrying if the script was going to let her die at the end. That’s the power of her acting.

Best Leading Actress 1916

The nineteen-teens was an era of memorable female images on the screen. Whether they were Vamps, Divas, or Damsels, whether exotic, matronly or sweetly pretty, women were the focus of much of the camera’s gaze. Coming out of the nineteenth century, when women were covered up with heavy garments in the West, the development of cinema in the early twentieth seemed to offer increasing opportunity for women to become visually distinctive, and in a silent medium visual distinctiveness was the key to fame and prestige. Actresses with leading parts seized that opportunity to display their talents in the new visual medium.

The women up for Century Awards in this category each gives a performance that goes beyond spectacle, however. Vera Kholodnaia became  tremendous super-star in Russia, in part for her role in “A Life for a Life,” in which she portrays the tragic character of a woman who marries a man she does not love as part of a “deal” between her lover and her mother. Florence Turner is more down to earth in “East Is East” in her role as a working-class orphan who inherits a fortune and gives it away to find true happiness in herself. Former opera singer Geraldine Farrar shows that her success in “Carmen” was not a one-time achievement by taking on the unlikely role of a teenage saint in “Joan the Woman.” Marguerite Clark would later influence Walt Disney’s vision of a fairy tale princess in her turn as “Snow White.” And Violet Wong stars as the much put-upon young bride in an unhappy marriage in “The Curse of Quon Gwon.”

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

And the winner is…Vera Kholodnaia!

Uh oh, columns!

Vera Kholodnaia had worked with Evgeni Bauer several times by 1916, including in them movie “Children of the Age,” which I discussed two years ago. And, although she had already earned recognition as a major star by this time, it was “A Life for a Life” that was her biggest success, resulting in her being dubbed “the Queen of the Screen.” And she truly shows her ability as a silent film Diva in this movie, as she goes from innocence, to happiness in newfound love, to betrayal and tragedy. In a real life tragedy, she would survive the Russian Revolution by only two years, but her funeral in 1919 was one of the biggest events of that year. We can honor her work now with a Century Award and still look forward to any more surviving pictures she did in the short years remaining to her.

Best Leading Actress 1915

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…

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina

And the winner is…Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby!”

Some women look better in men's jackets

Some women look better in men’s jackets

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.

Century Awards Update

With just two weeks left before the Century Awards, I want to go ahead and finalize my nominees. Last year I wisely announced only four nominees for each category on the initial day, then added one for each category in the finals. This year, I figured I had done such a good job watching 1915 movies that I didn’t need to do that – and lo and behold I discovered four exceptions. So, I’m adding a sixth movie to three categories and a seventh in one. This breaks the Academy’s rules all over the place, but luckily I’m not bound by them.

So, here’s the updated categories:

Assunta Spina

Best Costume Design

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites
  6. Alice in Wonderland *New*

Best Stunts

  1. Work
  2. The Lamb
  3. The Champion
  4. Regeneration
  5. By the Sea
  6. Fatty’s Faithful Fido *New*
  7. Fatty’s Tintype Tangle *New*

Best Lead Actress

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina” *New*

See you on the Red Carpet!

Best Lead Actress 1914

The concept of the “movie star” got underway toward the end of the Nickelodeon Era, in spite of studios like Biograph and Edison that forbade using actors’ names in any publicity or in “credits” attached to the film. But audiences had started to figure out which performers they liked, and to demand more of them, and more information about them as well. And even today there are names from the silent era that shine out among the first stars, many of whom went on to long and rewarding careers.

The women nominated for acting in 1914 are among the most recognizable names of the period. Blanche Sweet got her first shot at a lead role in a feature with “Judith of Bethulia,” while Pearl White will forever be remembered as the Queen of the Serials for “The Perils of Pauline.” Marie Dressler demonstrated remarkable comedic talent in the title role of “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” holding her own against comedy veterans Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Mary Pickford is probably one of the most recognizable names of the period, and her performance as the fabled “Cinderella” shows why. Finally, Beatriz Michelena is less well-remembered today (most of her films are lost), but she was no slouch as the first Latina movie star, and represents the strong woman of the West in “Salomy Jane.”

The nominees for best actress in a leading role for 1914 are:

  1. Blanche Sweet for Judith of Bethulia
  2. Pearl White for Perils of Pauline
  3. Marie Dressler for Tillie’s Punctured Romance
  4. Mary Pickford for Cinderella
  5. Beatriz Michelena for Salomy Jane

And the winner is…Marie Dressler for “Tillie’s Punctured Romance!”


As opposed to the male actors, where I was searching for a performance worthy of an award, this was a tough call because all of the nominated women were terrific. Ultimately, I went with Dressler because her performance is so different to what we expect from the generally young and vivacious actresses of the time. She plays broadly, but with remarkable timing, and shows herself to be one of the great comediennes of her generation.