Jeanne Eagels became the first posthumous Oscar nominee for her performance as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter.
The Letter is a typical film of this era – dated, awkwardly made and in general, not very good. The story revolves around a woman who kills her lover upon discovering his affair, and an incriminating piece of letter that may ultimately decide her fate. It’s only an hour long, which made it more tolerable even though I was watching a horrible version on youtube. The performance by the cast, however, is downright laughable, especially the chinese woman. They were literally waiting for each other to deliver their lines, and it was quite funny to watch.
Jeanne Eagels died shortly after this film was made, and many people have wondered what kind of career she would have had. In The Letter, she rises above her film and its cast, making Leslie a raw and fierce presence. I found her approach to the character incredibly brave and original – given how this is the era for melodrama antics, I expected Eagels to go with the teary-eyed, weak with passion route that is defined by many actresses of this era. Eagels justified her character’s motivations with an intense passion that was almost insane and possessive, and the performance actually reminded me of Glenn Close’s fantastic turn in Fatal Attraction.
I never found a false note in Eagels’ performance, and she brings so many layers to her performance that I found her work wonderfully ahead of its time. It’s true that Eagels seemed very fidgety throughout the film (some attribute it to her addiction in real life), but strangely enough, it works for her interpretation of the character. She gives Leslie this unstable, abrasive side that can be very difficult to handle, but the fieriness of her personality gives The Letter the life it needs. Be it when she swallowed her pride to retrieve the letter from the chinese woman, or her fantastic confrontation scene with her husband when she revealed the truth without any shame or remorse – Eagels gives a really unique and interesting performance that would have deserved a better film. 4.5/5.