Tag Archives: hattie mcdaniel

Oscars Through the Years: Historic Winners and Oscar Overlooks

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Olivia de Havilland accepts her Best Actress Oscar for The Heiress (1949).

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.

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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.

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Historic win

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

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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.

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Olivia de Havilland hugs sister Joan Fontaine on Oscar night when Joan won for Suspicion.

Oscar Overlooks

BARBARA STANWYCK

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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

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1941: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Ball of Fire

LOST TO: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

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1944: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Double Indemnity

LOST TO: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

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1948: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Sorry Wrong Number

LOST TO: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

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Finally, in 1982, she got her due.

MYRNA LOY

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.

 

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The Oscars in History

Today is Oscar Sunday, and your author is in rain-soaked Los Angeles today trying to stay dry. Tonight, right down the street and for the 86th time in history, the Academy will pick what it considers to be the best achievements in filmmaking over the past year.

To many people, the Oscars are synonymous with glamour, fame, chic, and high fashion. The one night when the stars we see on the screen come together to celebrate the best among them, in the best outfits from the best designers. We see joy at wins and barely masked sorrow at losses, a lavish ceremony punctuated by long breaks for expensive commercials. It has become a moneymaker and a television extravaganza, and genuine appreciation for the talented winners is often trumped by concern for corporate sponsors and commercial breaks.

But it has not always been this way. The Oscars of today would be almost unrecognizable by those who attended the first Academy Awards 86 years ago, in a small room in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929. It was a private dinner with awards announced in advance for the best and brightest of the years 1927 and 1928. Janet Gaynor won a Best Actress Oscar for 3 roles (Seventh Heaven, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and Street Angel), while the Best Actor Oscar went to Emil Jannings for two (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command). The entire ceremony lasted for 15 minutes, and it was not broadcast over any medium.

Janet Gaynor receives her Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks.

Janet Gaynor receives her Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks.

Over the years, the Oscars morphed into what they are today. With the advent of television and corporate sponsorship of the telecast, the ideas, morals, and priorities have shifted to make the Oscars primarily a moneymaking endeavor for the network on which it is broadcast. That does not mean, however, that the Oscars themselves have lost their significance. Despite the capitalistic drive of the Oscar telecast, the Oscars remain an integral part of the industry and influence forever the lives of all who are nominated or win. They have become a part of our cultural fabric.

Owing to the mass audience that the Oscars attract and the interconnection between the ceremony and culture as a whole, the Oscars have a reputation for being political, whether those politics manifest in choice of winners, in speeches, or in occurrences during the ceremony. National and world struggles have often been reflected during the Oscars, and they have helped shape the lens through which we perceive what goes on in our world.

Here are some classic Hollywood Oscar moments that have interwoven into our national dialogue.

HATTIE MCDANIEL WINS BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS FOR GONE WITH THE WIND, 1940

For a film whose premiere she was not allowed to attend, and at a segregated ceremony in which she was relegated to the back of the room, Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind at the Academy Awards in 1940. Her speech is, in my opinion, one of the most eloquent and heartfelt of any speech ever given at the Academy Awards.

SIDNEY POITIER WINS BEST ACTOR FOR LILIES OF THE FIELD, 1964

In the same vein, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. It marked the second Oscar in history for a black actor, after Hattie McDaniel’s historic win in 1940. After the ceremony, Poitier declined to comment on the significance of the occasion to reporters, preferring to reflect further before making a statement so important given the times.

JANE FONDA WINS THE OSCAR FOR KLUTE, 1972

In 1972, Jane Fonda won the Oscar for Klute in the wake of her active campaigns against the Vietnam War. She was a very controversial figure in Hollywood at this time and during her speech she acknowledged the controversy by saying “There is a great deal to say…and I’m not going to say it now.” A few months later, Fonda went to Hanoi to continue her anti-war campaigning, becoming known to a generation as “Hanoi Jane.”