Sunday, April 5, 2009

And the Winner Is: Memorial Oscar Canpaigns

Actors like to talk a good game about how they aren't that into prizes and honors. They usually insist that their work is their prize. The Oscars are different, however. Except for George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, nobody turns down an Academy Award or, once nominated, can resist doing a little politicking on their own behalf. Here are some of Hollywood's more creative attempts to mine Oscar gold.

  • Tea for Two (or More) Silent screen icon Mary Pickford rose to fame playing spunky child-women in such films as "Rebeca of Sunnybrooke Farm" and "Little Annie Rooney". With advent of sound in the late 1920's the co-founder of United Artists realized she needed a new image. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters", Pickford said. "I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover." So she loped off her trademark curls and took the lead in "Coquette", playing a dangerous femme fatal. The movie got mixed reviews, but Pickford earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress anyway. Eager for the award, Mary started campaigning right away, inviting all the members of the Central Board of Judges for tea at Pickfair, the fabled estate she shared with husband Douglas Fairbanks. The get-together worked; Mary was named Best Actress for 1928-29.
  • Write-Ins and Wrongs--The big movie news in 1934 was the stunning performance Bette Davis gave in "Of Human Bondage". Life magazine even went so far as to declare that Davis gave "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a US actress." However, when the Oscar nominations were announced, Bette's name was not listed for Best Actress. Furor was so great over Davis' Oscar snub that the Academy agreed to let members write-in Bette's name on their nominating ballots. It didn't help. The winner was Claudette Colbert for "It Happened One Night". Davis later claimed Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers where she was under contract, sent out the word that no one was to vote for her. From then on, the firm of Price, Waterhouse handled all the tabulation chores. The following year, Davis earned the Best Actress statuette for "Dangerous", but she wasn't happy about it. Bette called her new Oscar "a consolation prize", adding "Even if the honor had been earned, it had been earned last year."
  • The Comeback Kid--Joan Crawford was ready for a comeback in 1945. Let go by MGM, Crawford signed a deal with Warner Brothers for a reduced salary. She turned down so many of the scripts they sent her that Joan took herself off salary until the studio gave her the right part. The right part was the title role in "Mildred Pierce", where Joan played a self-scarifying mother two-timed by her ungrateful daughter. While making the film, Joan had her publicist start spreading reports that she was doing such a great job she was a cinch to win the Oscar. Soon, the Hollywood trade papers were filled with word about Crawford's comeback. "Mildred Pierce" was a hit and Joan received the best reviews of her career. Nominated for Best Actress, Joan got cold feet the night of the ceremony and had her doctor release a statement that she was too ill to attend the gala. When she was alerted that the Oscar was hers, Joan put on her best nightie and dolled herself up for the cameras. The front pages of the next days papers featured Joan in bed cradling her Oscar.
  • Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better--The race for Best Actress in 1948 was between Jane Wyman and Olivia deHavilland. Both actresses had showy roles that Oscar loves to honor: Wyman played a deaf woman fighting to keep her child in "Johnny Belinda" and deHavilland portrayed a gal struggling with mental illness in "The Snake Pit". Their respective Oscar campaigns quickly became a contest of one-up-man ship, as Wyman and deHavilland went to great lengths to show who put more effort into their acting. Wyman, for example, put cotton in her ears, studied sign language and learned to lip read. deHavilland, meanwhile, toured mental hospitals in preparation for her part. When the London Film Critics awarded Jane their best actress citation for "Johnny Belinda", Olivia's flacks reminded newspaper columnists that "The Snakepit" hadn't opened in England yet, implying that Wyman's win wasn't that big a deal. The Oscar eventually went to Wyman who, at the moment of her victory, was struck by this thought as she strode up to the podium: "Did I or didn't I put on my girdle tonight?"
  • Kissing Cousins--Grizzled character actor Chill Wills left no stone unturned when he snagged as Oscar Nomination for "The Alamo" in 1960. He hired a fellow named W.S. "Bow-Wow" Wojciechowicz as his press agent, who sent letters out to Academy members reminding them that powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had praised Wills' performance as Oscar worthy. The only problem was Bow-Wow hadn't gotten Hedda's OK to quote her. When she got wind of the mailing, an angry Hopper withdrew her support for Wills, declaring, "He's just lost my vote". Chill apologized to Hedda, admitting, "my representative may have gone too far", but he added "that Miss Hopper has also".
  • Bow-Wow's next trick was to place ads in the Hollywood trade papers with a picture of Wills and the names of Academy members in ABC order. The text read, "Win, lose or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you all." After Groucho Marx saw the ad, he placed one of his own. "Dear Mr. Chill Wills," Groucho wrote, "I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo".
  • Bow-Wow was just getting warmed up. In The Hollywood Reporter, he created an ad that featured Wills as his "Alamo" character and featured copy that read, "We of 'The Alamo' cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Cousin Chill's acting was great. Your Alamo cousins". This missive enraged John Wayne, "The Alamo"s star, director and producer. In an open letter that appeared in Daily Variety, Wayne said neither he or his production company had anything to do with Chills' "untrue and reprehensible claim". After this last stunt, even Bow-Wow admitted he went too far. The publicist apologized for the ad and said Wills knew nothing about it. The damage was done, however. On Oscar night Wills' cousins gave the Oscar to Peter Ustinov for "Spartacus".
  • Come Blow Your Horn--Eccentric actress Sally Kirkland had been knocking around Hollywood for years, but had yet to become an above-the-title movie star. In 1987, she received the best reviews of her career in "Anna", an independent film about a struggling actress. Deciding it was now or never, Kirkland campaigned for an Oscar nomination as if her life depended on it. She hired two publicists. Ads trumpeting her reviews for "Anna" became a fixture in the trades. Kirkland even sent letters to every Academy member on her own behalf. Then she got friend (and two-time Oscar winner) Shelley Winters to make 150 phone calls pumping for votes. Sally got her Best Actress nomination, but she wasn't through campaigning by a long shot. Kirkland was always ready for interviews and talk show appearances, declaring at one point an Oscar would make her "the happiest woman in the world and my belief in God will be reaffirmed." The Oscar went to Cher for "Moonstruck", but Sally refused to be disheartened. After making all the Oscar after parties, Kirkland took time to discuss her future film projects with the press, even hinting that one role was "definitely an award winning part". Kirkland has yet to earn another Oscar nomination.

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