The topic of race relations in the south is examined in Elia Kazan’s melodramatic 1949 film Pinky. The film centers on the life of Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crane), who plays a light-skinned black woman fleeing from the south in order to make a new life for herself in the north. Passing for white, and free from racial discrimination, Pinky trains to be a nurse in New England and falls in love with Dr. Thomas Adams (who is ignorant of her true racial background). Realizing that her inter-racial relationship is problematic, she heads back to her birthplace to see her grandmother, Dysey. Tom follows Pinky to her shack of a home in the south and discovers her true background. To further complicate things, Pinky’s granny is caring for Miss Em, an elderly and sickly Southern matriarch. To repay her grandmother for all of her sacrificing, Pinky begrudgingly becomes Miss Em’s in-home nurse. Pinky loathes Miss Em for a longstanding black/white feud the two women share. As it turns out, Miss Em deeply cares for Pinky and, upon her death, bequeaths her home and land to Pinky. The film ends as a court room drama with Pinky taking on the southern white establishment. Will she inherit the land or will Miss Em’s greedy, coniving relatives steal it all out from under her? Kazan’s film was the second to explore the world of inter-racial relations in America, a relatively new subject for mainstream Hollywood (the first film to explore this topic was Imitation of Life in 1934).
The film earned three Academy Award nominations- all for the the film’s three main actresses. Competing in the Best Actress category was Jeanne Crain as Pinky. The other two nominees came out of the Supporting category. Ethel Waters, nominee, (188), was nominated for her role as Granny Dysey. Waters, as the illiterate Dysey, exudes a quiet strength as a hard-working woman who recognizes the need for her granddaughter to have a better life than she had. Waters was the 2nd black actress to be nominated for an Oscar (the first was Hattie McDaniel who was a Supporting Actress winner for Gone With the Wind).
The other Best Supporting Actress contender was another Ethel from the film. Ethel Barrymore, nominee, (187), received a nomination for her role as Miss Em, the bitter former Southern plantation matriach. Barrymore seemed to perfect the role of invalid- as her most important film roles featured her as a sickly woman on the verge of death. This was Barrymore’s fourth and final Oscar nomination. She previously won for her supporting work in 1945’s None But the Lonely Heart. The two Ethels potentially cancelled each other out for the Best Supporting Actress award that year. The Oscar eventually went to Mercedes McCambridge for All the King’s Men.