In a society in which the “male gaze” is dominant, women are common subjects for visual media. In the silent era, women could surprise you with their boldness, their strength, and sometimes their villainy. Often, the most interesting roles for women were not the leads, but were to be found in the characters that make up the world of action in which they play. The women actors of 1917 had opportunities to add complexity and color to the movies that audiences went to see.
ZaSu Pitts stands out in a supporting role for Mary Pickford in “Little Princess.” She is Becky, the scullion maid with no parents, who is excited by her new friend and also helps her survive her new condition of poverty. Musidora, who won a Century Award for her supporting role in “Les Vampires” is up again for “Judex.” In “The Atonement,” her character, Diana Monti, tries to escape her fate when Judex arrives on the boat where she is holding his true love captive. In “Polly Redhead” Gertrude Astor navigates a fine line between being jealous of Polly and being her benefactor when she brings the existence of Polly’s doppelganger to the attention of her employer, setting the end plot into motion. May Emory is over the top as a jealous rival for Gloria Swanson in “Teddy at the Throttle,” displaying comic timing and ability and getting a face full of mud for her efforts.
The nominees for best actress in a supporting role for 1917 are:
- ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess
- Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)
- Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead
- May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle
And the winner is…ZaSu Pitts in “Little Princess!”
Pitts completely blew me away with her deferential, demure, yet nuanced and perky performance. I think she actually stole the show from Pickford a couple of times, and that’s quite an accomplishment. It probably helped that the two of them had real chemistry and became good friends after this film. I believe this is the first time Pitts has appeared on this blog, and she came in with a bang. I’m happy to honor her performance with a Century Award.