This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 1 – Mar. 3, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.
Sometimes the movies teach us distasteful life lessons.
You know the lessons we’re talking about: life isn’t fair; the rich live by a different code; the only way to get ahead is to cheat. Sound familiar?
All these joyous virtues are celebrated in the 1936 drama Becky Sharp. This movie, set during the Napoleonic Wars and loosely based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, is about a selfish, ambitious woman who climbs over everybody to advance in society.
“Life owes me many things and I intend to get them,” says Becky Sharp. “All it takes is the least touch of wit.”
(Did you notice another life lesson here? By stating that life owes you something, you have license to grab it. And you don’t even have to be that clever. Whee!)
Now, there are few people who could portray Becky as thoroughly unlikable and unsympathetic as Thackeray originally intended. Really – only one person could pull it off, and that would be Miriam Hopkins.
Don’t get us wrong. We love movies about ambitious women because Hollywood usually portrays them in an amusingly bad way. We also love how the supporting cast is usually filled with morally-outraged citizens who decry the heroine’s behaviour. But Hopkins succeeds in making Becky Sharp so odious, by the end of the movie you’re weary of the character, and weary of Hopkins too.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Look at this list of talent: Francis Dee, Cedric Harwicke, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, and the criminally underutilized Billy Burke. The minor characters here are quite interesting, and it makes one wonder what the movie would be like if the story were told from their point of view.
The male characters in this movie are used, then discarded, by Hopkins in her pursuit of the more rich and more powerful. They all seem mesmerized by Hopkins, which we fail to see, but that is the plot so we must accept it.
(Oops – nearly missed another life lesson here: Other people are to be used up and punted aside so we can get what we want. Life is a cabaret, old chum!)
Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for this film, which is another puzzling thing. Her acting seems to be from the Look-At-Me School of Dramatics. In each scene, we are acutely aware of Hopkins’ acting: Look at me! I’m fake-crying! Look at me! I’m twirling!
In the end, what we are left with is another disappointing life lesson: If you display ambition and an annoying personality, you can get anything you want – including an Academy Award nomination.
Academy Award Nominations (1936):
Becky Sharp – starring Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Written by Francis Edwards Faragoh. Pioneer Pictures/RKO Radio Pictures, 1935, B&W*, 85 mins.
*Becky Sharp was billed as Hollywood’s first feature-length colour film, but the version we screened was black & white.