Tonight is Oscar night. As Los Angeles prepares for an evening of glamor, style, and nightmarish street closures (it once took me an hour to walk to the store one block away when I was in Hollywood on Oscar night), we look back on the films and performances that most moved us this year, and honor them with the industry’s highest award.
This year’s Oscar lineup has had its fair share of criticism, and a shakeup of Academy voting rules in the face of this criticism has further rocked the industry. This is a post all its own, and a very worthy topic for analysis on a classic film blog due to the members the new rules affect, but I would like to save that discussion for after the Oscars. Today, I would like to focus on celebrating the history of the awards, historic wins, historic snubs, and those for whom Oscar was always just out of reach.
JANET GAYNOR: The first performer to win Best Actress
At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1929, held in the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, Janet Gaynor was named the Academy’s first Best Actress for her work in three films–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. The entire ceremony, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, lasted for 15 minutes and all the awards had been announced ahead of time.
Here is Janet Gaynor in those three films.
Notice that this first Oscar ceremony came right on the cusp of sound technology. The Jazz Singer, the first film to have a synchronized dialogue track, was disqualified from the ceremony because the organizers felt that it was unfair to have sound films compete with silents.
HATTIE MCDANIEL: The first African-American to win an Oscar
For her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939), Hattie McDaniel won the first Academy Award presented to an African-American performer. The aftermath of Gone With the Wind had not been easy for McDaniel. Jim Crow laws had been raging in the South for over 40 years, and Hattie McDaniel had suffered huge amounts of discrimination based around where and how she could travel with the film. She was unable to attend the gala premiere in Atlanta, and even at the Oscars ceremony where she was an odds-on favorite to win, she was unable to sit with the rest of her Gone With the Wind co-stars, instead having to walk from the back of the room to accept her award.
Hattie McDaniel’s legendary Oscar has since been lost. After her death, she willed the statue to Howard University, where it was rumored to have been stolen and thrown in the Potomac River during civil rights protests in the 1960s. But an investigation into its whereabouts gives more credence to the idea that inadequate intake procedures at the university during the time of its arrival was responsible for its being misplaced.
JOAN FONTAINE: Wins for Suspicion
After having been defeated by Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle the previous year when she was nominated for Rebecca, Joan Fontaine ended up winning for Suspicion (1941) during the Academy Award ceremony in 1942. She was up against her sister, Olivia de Havilland, nominated for Hold Back the Dawn.
Fontaine’s win for Suspicion is historic in several ways. With her win, she became the sole person who has ever won an acting Oscar for a Hitchcock film. In addition, she and Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings who have ever won lead acting Oscars. Olivia won her first Oscar just a few years later, for To Each His Own, and a second three years later for The Heiress.
Though nominated four times for the Academy Award, Barbara Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar. One of the most chameleonic actresses on the screen, her nominations reflected her versatility and range, but each time she lost out to another actress. Here are some clips from each of Barbara Stanwyck’s nominated performances, along with the winning performances.
1937: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Stella Dallas
LOST TO: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
1941: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Ball of Fire
LOST TO: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
1944: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Double Indemnity
LOST TO: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight
1948: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Sorry Wrong Number
LOST TO: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
Finally, in 1982, she got her due.
While Stanwyck was at least given the honor of being nominated, the great Myrna Loy never even received a nomination. It is considered one of the Academy’s greatest oversights, considering Myrna Loy’s long and illustrious career, and especially her role in the huge Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, and her much-beloved portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man.
The Academy finally gave Myrna an honorary award, at least 70 years late, which she accepted with a simple “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much.”
Thanks for reading, and be sure to watch the Oscars this evening at 5 PM Pacific time! And if you’re in Los Angeles, stay off those roads.
Here’s the one that gets me: Nino Rota had his Oscar for the score to “The Godfather” taken away because there’s one song (less than 2 minutes of screen time!) that he had used in a previous movie, making it “not an original score.” This year, John Williams gets nominated for a score that is basically a revision of the “Star Wars” theme he already won an award for in 1977! If that can stand, they really should restore Rota’s name to the list of official winners.