May Whitty received her second and last Oscar nomination for her performance as Lady Beldon in Mrs. Miniver.
Lady Beldon is an archetype that has been seen and played millions of times: she is the cantankerous, cranky old lady who speaks her mind freely and is feared by everyone while having a more tender side that she rarely shows to other people. Nowadays, the role would probably be played by Maggie Smith (who in Downton Abbey has a scene that is almost identical to one of Whitty's scenes in this, even if as a whole Smith's role in the series is much more complex than Whitty's role in this). For most of the time, Whitty doesn't really have to do anything particularly challenging in terms of acting but she nonetheless catches the viewer's attention thanks to her screen-presence which is properly commanding as it should be and she makes you easily see why she is both feared and respected among the townspeople. For most of her scenes she has to do mainly one thing: bitch snobbishly. It's not much of an acting stretch and Whitty could do it in her sleep but she nonetheless does it quite wonderfully: each of her line-readings is pretty much perfect and she makes them properly entertaining without ever making her character too unlikeable. She is delightful in every scene she appears and leaves a strong mark without ever overshadowing the other actors. Her routine might not seem anything special as it looks effortless (and it probably is) but she actually adds a lot to the whole movie. Also, despite not sharing a great deal of screen-time with her, she shares a nice chemistry with Teresa Wright (who plays her niece) and Whitty does a good job in showing Lady Beldon's love towards Carol.
There are two scenes in which May Whitty gets the opportunity to explore the character a little more and she nails both of them, making Lady Beldon a more complex character than it seems at first. The first of these two scenes is the one in which Lady Beldon visits Kay to voice her disapproval over Vin's and Carol's marriage. It's a great moment in which May Whitty does a wonderful job in slowly revealing the motives behind Lady Beldon's hostile behavior: she too married at a young age and her husband died at war and she wants to spare her niece from same pain. Whitty is actually very moving in this scene and conveys beautifully the regret, the nostalgia and the tenderness for her lost love, and is truly great as she gradually softens up when Kay reminds her of what it's like to be in love. She plays the scene with welcome quietness and turns it in one of the most effective of the movie.
The second scene is actually her best, and it takes place at the annual flower contest: Lady Beldon wins every year but this time the townspeople are rooting for the stationmaster, Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers in an Oscar-nominated performance), to win. Lady Beldon has to announce the winner, and she sees that the judges have voted for her: and then, she has a truly amazing moment in which she realizes that they voted for her just because of who she is and through her facial expression Whitty conveys masterfully Lady Beldon's sadness and disappointment as well as her dignity, pride and sense of justice, building up perfectly to the moment in which she finally announces Ballard as the winner of the first prize. And her following speech is both hilarious ("We Beldons are not used to competitors... In the old days, we just lopped off their heads") and touching ("But if I had to lose, there's no man I'd sooner lose to than James Ballard"). She also is very good in the final scene of the movie in which she delivers some silently heartbreaking reactionary moments.
Overall, May Whitty doesn't have a particularly challenging role in Mrs. Miniver but even if she could do her routine in her sleep, it still is a lot of fun and when she has a chance to do more, she thrives. It's a very entertaining turn with some strong dramatic moments that makes the movie a better experience.