Rather than focus on a specific performance for this year’s THE ACTORS! week in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon I decided to take a look back at one of the most hotly contested Best Actress races in Oscar History. Or at least it is by my estimation. Although the contest didn’t end as I would’ve liked, it makes for great drama and fun speculation.
The year was 1951, which celebrated achievements in the motion picture industry for 1950. Two of the greatest movies of all time were pitted against each other – Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s All About Eve and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. The other contenders for the top award that year were George Cukor’s Born Yesterday, Vincente Minnelli’s Father of the Bride and Bennett/Marton’s King Solomon’s Mines. All of the nominated movies that year are memorable, but the Mankiewicz and Wilder works stood (and stand) well above the others.
All About Eve was given the top honor, but it along with Sunset Blvd. made history. The former received 14 nominations (won 6) breaking the record of 13 set by Gone with the Wind in 1939 and the latter became only the second film in Oscar history to receive nominations in every acting category failing to win a single one. Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey had held the record since 1936.
The merits of both All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. are numerous, but today I’ll focus on the extraordinary performances delivered by Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, which made the Best Actress category in 1951 a thrillfest. Even if only in my own mind. Consider, for a moment, the careers of the two legends and the fact that the roles of Margo Channing and Norma Desmond are definitive accomplishments. I get chills thinking about that. Yet, neither Davis or Swanson took home Oscar at the 23rd Academy Awards held on Thursday, March 29, 1951 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
One of the actresses up against Davis and Swanson for Oscar in 1951 was Eleanor Parker for her performance in John Cromwell’s Caged. I’m removing Eleanor Parker from contention in this discussion right off the bat, but not because she was an unworthy player. While Eleanor delivered a memorable performance in Caged and deserved to be on the ballot as much as anyone else included the truth is that the race for Best Actress of 1950 was a four-pronged affair. Parker – for all her talent didn’t stand a chance. Although in reality who knows what could have happened if even one small factor had played out differently. In truth the role played by Eleanor Parker in Caged is typical of one Academy voters have historically gone for, that of a woman hardened by prison life, a role that required the stripping away of glamour leaving the character bare and raw.
For her performance in Caged Eleanor Parker received the first of three Best Actress nods in her career, all falling short of a win. She delivered an Oscar-worthy performance the year after Caged in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) and again in Curtis Bernhardt’s Interrupted Melody in 1955.
Let’s go back to Thursday, March 29, 1951. We’re at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Introduced by host Fred Astaire, the previous year’s Best Actor, Broderick Crawford is called upon to present the Best Actress honor. Crawford walks onto the stage, reads the list of nominees and announces Judy Holliday the Best Actress of the year for George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. The crowd responds enthusiastically for Miss Holliday who is not present at the ceremony. From the wings emerges Ethel Barrymore to accept for Holliday, “I’m very honored to be asked to accept this award for Judy Holliday for her radiant performance in Born Yesterday.”
I agree. Judy Holliday is radiant in Born Yesterday. And it was refreshing that a relative newcomer’s performance was recognized by the Academy in a genre that is all-too-often ignored. I would have been thrilled to hear Holliday’s name read by Broderick Crawford in any year – except 1951.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Holliday’s portrayal of the dumb blonde who in the end turns out not to be so dumb. That’s a familiar character in numerous productions on stage, in the movies and on television and Holliday was aces at it. No one did it better and she’d perfected her portrayal of dim wit, Billie Dawn in the hit stage version of “Born Yesterday” for four years before immortalizing the character in Cukor’s movie. According to an April 1953 article in Life Magazine Holliday zeroed in on the minute details of the character by studying her mongrel dog, Lifey. Well, it didn’t matter where Holliday picked up acting tidbits, what mattered was that as a result of her portrayal of that archetypal character her rise to fame had been sensational having portraying a similar character in stellar fashion in Cukor’s Adam’s Rib the year before. So deep was the affection for Judy, so appreciative were her peers that come awards season her dumb blonde, her first starring role was acknowledged alongside Margo Channing and Norma Desmond.
Her portrayal of aging Broadway superstar Margo Channing garnered Bette Davis the eighth of her eleven Best Actress nominations. By 1950 Davis had won twice – for Alfred E. Green’s Dangerous (1935) and William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938). Although her career had waned by this point Bette was considered one of the best actors to ever appear on film. For her role as Margo Channing Davis won Best Actress at Cannes and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. She’s a marvel in the role and history has proven Margo as memorable as Bette herself. Davis would always credit Margo Channing with resurrecting her career.
Acting in feature films was not central to Gloria Swanson’s existence by 1950. The legendary actress who had in many ways epitomized Hollywood in days gone by had not made a feature film for nine years before appearing in Sunset Blvd. That said, Swanson was immortal to those who knew her movies and she would cement her place in film history (as far as I’m concerned) with her portrayal of Norma Desmond, a once-famous silent movie star teetering on the brink of sanity and longing for a comeback. Gloria’s Norma stands among the most memorable screen characters of all time. For her efforts Swanson was awarded The Golden Globe and won the National Board of Review as Best Actress. Her Oscar nomination for Sunset Blvd. was the third of her career with previous nods for performances in Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson (1928) and Edmund Goulding’s The Trespasser (1929). She never won.
The fifth ‘Best Actress’ whose name Broderick Crawford read on March 29, 1951 was Anne Baxter. Baxter had turned in an Oscar-winning performance in Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge in 1946 and was hired to play the ruthless and scheming Eve Harrington because Joseph L. Mankiewicz believed she had what it took, namely “bitch virtuosity.” Indeed, Anne matches the best of ’em in that department with this performance. Baxter is so good at being bad that she would have likely taken home another Oscar in 1951 if she’d been listed in the Supporting Actress category, instead of Best Actress. I’ve read that it was 20th Century Fox that decided to pit Anne Baxter against Bette Davis perhaps to heighten the drama by mirroring the rivalry in the movie. And I’ve read that it was Baxter herself who lobbied for a Best Actress notation. Either way it was a dumb decision. For one, there was no way Baxter could beat Davis. Two, there was no way Baxter could beat Swanson. Three, there was no way Baxter could beat Holliday. And four, Baxter may have beaten Eleanor Parker, but didn’t deserve to in my opinion. In retrospect this is where this race got really interesting.
If Anne Baxter had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress she would have knocked out one of the contenders in that field, which included Josephine Hull for Henry Koster’s Harvey, Hope Emerson for Caged, Nancy Olson for Sunset Blvd. and her All About Eve co-stars Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter. I’m guessing the likeliest candidates to have been shoved aside to make room for Baxter would have been either Emerson because Caged was not a high-profile movie or Ritter because her role in All About Eve is small. So, for fun let’s say that Baxter is placed on the Best Supporting Actress ballot replacing Ritter. Odds are that she would have been a shoe-in to take home Oscar. Although personally I would have a difficult time choosing her over winner Josephine Hull whose comedic performance in Harvey is outstanding.
Back to Best Actress – with Anne Baxter safely tucked away in the Supporting world the popular thought is that Oscar would have been free to go home with Bette Davis because the Baxter/Davis head-to-head rivalry split the votes, which is why Judy Holliday ended up with the golden statue. But that theory bothers me. I agree that Davis should have received more votes than Holliday, but I also think she would have ruled over Baxter. In other words I don’t think either one should have posed a serious threat to Davis. The real threat should have been from Gloria Swanson who should have inched out over Bette for the win. I don’t get why people discount Gloria in that popular theory. Although I think it’s likely that Gloria’s chances were diminished by Sunset Blvd. itself due to its grim depiction of the industry that clothed and fed Academy voters. I think at least half of the voters were likely bothered enough by Wilder’s sordid tale to affect this category, but it couldn’t have been more than that. Gloria Swanson had a decent chance of winning.
Here’s what I think happened…
Eleanor Parker was not in contention. Anne Baxter was eliminated because she should have been on the Supporting list and therefore a relative few votes would have wound up in her corner. I can’t see Baxter’s title character equalling Margo Channing in anyone’s eyes. I think it was Davis and Swanson that cancelled each other out with equally passionate performances. Although I lean Swanson’s way here it’s not an easy choice. So with Bette and Gloria in a dead heat the performance that stood out among the dramatic field was the sole comedic turn by Judy Holliday who delivered in memorable fashion.
I’m not sure that makes sense, but it’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. But no matter how you look at it this was a race to remember.
I don’t know about you, but I wondered why Judy Holliday didn’t show up at the Pantages to pick up her Oscar. I mean, this was her first (and only) nomination for her first starring role in a motion picture. At first I thought it was because Judy was as not a Hollywood player. She wasn’t into the glitz and glamour. But it turns out that she was paying close attention to the Academy Awards from a celebration 3,000 miles away.
On March 29, 1951 Jose Ferrer was hosting a party at New York’s La Zambra nightclub to celebrate Gloria Swanson’s 52nd birthday. Ferrer and Swanson were co-starring on Broadway in ‘Twentieth Century.” As the night went on the birthday party turned into an East-Coast Oscars bash with a radio feed connected directly to the Pantages. Among the attendees were nominees George Cukor, Celeste Holm and Judy Holliday. As the night progressed Holliday’s nerves were getting the better of her. She (reportedly) stared straight ahead, having little interaction with anyone. Swanson was another matter. Donning a mink she’d made a grand entrance and delivered stage-worthy gestures at every turn. (Life, April 9, 1953) I imagine she was not unlike Norma Desmond when she goes to see DeMille at Paramount.
At 12:24 am EST. Jose Ferrer’s name was called, Best Actor for Cyrano de Bergerac. Everyone at the nightclub was ecstatic for the evening’s host. Judy Holliday embraced him while Gloria Swanson jumped up with arms flailing about.
A few minutes later the name of the winner for Best Actress came across the airwaves – Judy Holliday. Gloria uncovered the eyes she’d hidden with her hand. Holliday stood, cried and smiled, but had little to say. Before long Gloria approached Judy and in the style of old Hollywood said simply, but dramatically, “Judy, bless your heart. It’s just as well I didn’t win. It would have meant I have nothing to look forward to in life.” (Life)
This post kicks off my participation in this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, which I am co-hosting with Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. We’re starting things off with dedications to ACTORS! this weekend so be sure to visit Once Upon a Screen to read those entries. Also be sure to stay tuned for many more Oscar-related posts throughout the month and tune in to Turner Classic Movies as the network’s 31 Days of Oscar marathon continues until March 2. This year’s Oscar winners will be announced at the 88th Oscars on Sunday, February 28th.