Make your own list of the most moving film performances of all time — the ones that reach right in and melt you down, no matter how many times you’ve seen them — and I’ll bet serious cash that Gladys George‘s in The Best Years of Our Lives is not among them. I’ll bet, in fact, that right now most HE readers haven’t a clue who Gladys George was. But watch this clip from William Wyler‘s Oscar-winning film (or start, rather, at the 37-second mark and stay with it until 1:51) and you’ll never forget her.
This YouTube clip is a little too murky-looking to appreciate the subtlety in George’s acting, and the sound levels are weak. It’s better if you can catch it on DVD, or even on TCM. As long as it’s on a larger screen.
She manages her big score without saying a word. It’s all in the tightening of her features and the watering of her eyes as her character, Hortense Derry, listens to her broken-down alcoholic husband Pat (Roman Bohnen) read a citation for bravery given to his WWII-veteran son, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), who’s been having a rough time finding his civilian footing.
And it’s all over in 74 seconds. And the emotion only kicks in during the last 45 seconds. But it’s a devastating scene. Both characters holding it in, the burning cigarette, the pint of booze, the empathy for a young guy dealt a tough hand, etc. Gets me every time.
George was born in 1900 and died in ’54, basically from complications from too much drinking and smoking. Her most memorable role besides this was as Miles Archer’s widow in The Maltese Falcon (i.e., who’d been fooling around with Humphrey Bogart behind her husband’s back). As far as I’m concerned she lives forever and very proudly because of this one moment, which is by far the most affecting in Wyler’s film.