Classic Hollywood had about as many controversies, scandals, and seedy stories as it did guys in fedoras. And since the Academy Awards, or the Oscars to you and me, established themselves as the most prestigious and most coveted award ceremony in Tinseltown, it was natural that it would also garner a few of these controversies.
10. A Coquettish Tea Party
It didn’t take long before the Oscars found themselves mired in controversy. In fact, it began with the second-ever ceremony thanks to an Academy Award of dubious distinction.
That year, Mary Pickford starred in Coquette. Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford had been one of the biggest stars of the silent era and this was her first talkie. Expectations were high, but the movie failed to make an impression on the critics or the public. Despite the flop, Pickford decided that she deserved an Oscar for her efforts and intended to convince the Academy of this, as well.
This was a lot easier back then. For starters, Pickford was a founding member of the Academy, as was her husband, fellow movie star Douglas Fairbanks. But more importantly, she only had to shmooze the five people who comprised the Board of Judges, since they were the ones who selected the winners.
So one day, Pickford invited the judges over for a tea party at her lavish estate, Pickfair. Back then, this was probably one of the most glamorous locations in the country, described as “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House… and much more fun.” An invitation there was one of Hollywood’s greatest honors so, unsurprisingly, the judges rewarded Pickford’s generosity with an Oscar.
Whether or not the judges were truly swayed by the tea party we cannot say with 100 percent certainty, but we do know one thing. Pickford’s Oscar win caused a big enough row that, the following year, voting was opened to all academy members.
9. The Two Franks
The Moonlight – La La Land mix-up for the Best Picture winner is one of the most noteworthy controversies in recent memory, but something similar happened all the way back in 1934. The ceremony was nowhere near as elaborate back then. The host of the show, Will Rogers, walked up to the podium and announced the winner for each category. When it came time to present the award for Best Director, Rogers simply proclaimed: “Come up and get it, Frank!”
Just one problem – there were two Franks nominated for the award – Frank Lloyd and Frank Capra. Frank Lloyd was the actual winner but, as you might expect, both men got up and awkwardly made their way to the podium. But here’s how Capra himself described the experience:
“My table exploded into cheers and applause. It was a long way to the open dance floor, but I wedged through crowded tables…The spotlight searched around trying to find me. “Over here!” I waved. Then it suddenly swept away from me — and picked up a flustered man standing on the other side of the dance floor — Frank Lloyd! The applause was deafening as the spotlight escorted Frank Lloyd onto the dance floor and up to the dais, where Will Rogers greeted him with a big hug and a hearty handshake. I stood petrified in the dark, in utter disbelief, until an irate voice behind me shouted, “Down in the front!”
That walk back…was the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm.”
8. The Write-In Winner
The Frank mix-up was not the only black eye of the 1934 ceremony. That year, the Academy was also heavily criticized for snubbing Bette Davis, who had received universal acclaim for her role as Mildred Rogers in the movie Of Human Bondage. Life Magazine even called it “probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress.”
The Academy, however, did not feel like her efforts even merited a nomination. Many were angry, while others even suspected that Davis had been intentionally omitted because her role was that of a semi-villainous, selfish, and unsympathetic character, and the Academy did not want to encourage such roles for their biggest stars.
Anyway, in an attempt to quell the outrage, the Academy made an unexpected change to the following year’s awards – they allowed write-in votes. It’s pretty safe to say that they weren’t actually expecting any write-in to win, but Warner Bros. decided to take full advantage of this new rule and campaigned heavily for write-in nominations in every category where they didn’t already have a candidate.
And they succeeded. Their guy, Hal Mohr, an industry veteran who previously worked on the iconic The Jazz Singer, won Best Cinematography for A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The Academy dropped the rule soon after, thus cementing Hal Mohr as the first and only write-in winner in Oscar history.
7. The First Refusal
Refusing an Oscar is a very rare occurrence, but it has happened. It’s not like the winners are legally obligated to receive the awards. The most famous example is Marlon Brando, who refused his Oscar for The Godfather in 1973 and, in one of the most infamous moments in the ceremony’s history, sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to highlight the protest organized by Native American activists at Wounded Knee. And not only was she almost universally booed but, according to her, John Wayne had to be restrained from rushing the stage to remove her.
The first-ever refusal, however, happened much earlier, back in 1935. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols won the Best Screenplay Oscar for The Informer but did not accept the award due to an ongoing writers’ strike. The Screen Writers Guild was boycotting the Oscars because, as you will find out shortly, the Academy was not a fan of unions.
Ultimately, though, the matter got sorted and Nichols finally accepted his Oscar a few years later, during the 1938 ceremony.
6. The First Stolen Oscar
At the 1938 ceremony, Alice Brady won Best Supporting Actress for her role in In Old Chicago. The actress, however, was unable to attend the festivities and collect her prize because she was at home with a broken ankle. Instead, a mystery man walked on stage, accepted the award on her behalf, and promptly walked off. Neither he nor the award was ever seen again. That’s the story of the first stolen Oscar or, at least, that’s been the story for eight decades until one curious student decided to investigate it and get to the truth.
The Academy is extremely tight-lipped when it comes to information regarding “mishaps” involving their awards, so they were no help. Alice Brady died of cancer the following year, so she had never given her version of events. But the intrepid student found an old newspaper photograph of Brady receiving the award post-engraving, so it did eventually make its way to her.
And as far as the mystery man was concerned, there was no mystery about it – it was the director of In Old Chicago, Henry King. He accepted the award on Brady’s behalf, went out partying that night, and then returned it to the Academy to have it engraved. What exactly happened with it after Alice Brady died remains unclear, although it did make its way to auction in 2008. It was sold to an anonymous buyer so the only remaining mystery is the current location of the first stolen Oscar that was never actually stolen.
5. Marketing for Marty
Just a few years after the Academy Awards came into existence, studios learned that the tagline “Oscar winner” was a great way of promoting their movies and their stars, so they began actively campaigning for Oscar nods. The first film to get this treatment was 1936’s Ah, Wilderness! from Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The studio splashed out on an eight-page advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter, even depicting MGM mascot Leo the Lion in a tuxedo, getting ready to receive an Oscar.
The campaign was a giant flop and the movie received zero nominations at that year’s ceremony. The failure put off other studios for a few years, but eventually, they came back in full force, and they probably culminated in 1955, with a little movie named Marty. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Marty had a modest budget of around $340,000. However, the studio then spent between $350,000 and $400,000 to promote the movie, thus turning it into the first film where the marketing costs outweighed the production costs. And their strategy panned out – Marty won four Oscars, including Best Picture.
4. Hattie Makes History
The 1940 edition of the Academy Awards featured a landmark moment in American history when Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind. However, the circumstances surrounding this momentous occasion served to remind everyone of the racist realities faced by the Black community, even those who were celebrated.
It started on December 15, 1939, when the film premiered in segregated Atlanta. McDaniel wasn’t there for a simple reason – she was not allowed inside the theater where her movie was playing. Then the same problem arose at the Oscars, which were taking place at the swanky Cocoanut Grove nightclub inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel had a “no-Black people” policy and it was necessary for MGM bigwig David O. Selznick to call in a few favors to even get McDaniel accepted inside the venue. And even when he did, McDaniel could not sit at the same table as her white co-stars. Since Gone with the Wind had garnered 13 nominations, it was the heavy favorite, and, unsurprisingly, the stars of the film and O. Selznick himself were seated at a place of honor, front and center. Hattie McDaniel, on the other hand, stood at a small table against the far wall, alongside her escort and her manager.
McDaniel’s historic win didn’t even help her career. She got typecast in domestic roles and received heavy criticism from the Black community for perpetuating a negative stereotype. As a final insult, her wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery was also denied because they, too, had a whites-only policy.
3. The Blacklisted Winner
A unique situation arose at the 1956 Academy Awards ceremony when a writer named Robert Rich won the Oscar for Best Original Story for The Brave One, not to be confused with Best Screenplay. Robert Rich did not appear to accept the award for a simple reason – he did not exist.
The name was a pseudonym. On its own, this would not be too embarrassing. After all, artists use pseudonyms all the time, but this particular nom de guerre had been used by a man who had been blacklisted in Hollywood – Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters from Classic Hollywood, responsible, among other things, for Roman Holiday and Spartacus. He was also the most prominent member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who had been blacklisted in 1947 for their Communist sympathies.
Even so, someone of Trumbo’s talents could not simply be discarded, so studios continued using him under aliases or as a ghostwriter. This also meant they could pay him peanuts compared to what he was worth. But his win for The Brave One meant that the jig was up and, even though Trumbo started getting work as himself from 1960 on, it wasn’t until 1975 that the Academy officially recognized him as the winning screenwriter and presented him with his Oscar.
2. Hollywood’s Longest Feud
Some scandals are too big to be contained in a single awards ceremony. Case in point: the legendary feud between two of classic Hollywood’s biggest stars – Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – that lasted for over three decades and culminated at the 35th Academy Awards.
Supposedly, their rivalry started way back in 1933. Bette Davis had just starred in Ex-Lady, her first film where her name was prominently featured above the title. However, nobody in Hollywood cared because everyone was talking about Joan Crawford’s public divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This was enough to get the animosity started, but the two women officially became enemies in 1935, when Crawford married the man Davis had fallen in love with, her co-star in the movie Dangerous, Franchot Tone.
Bette Davis ended up winning the Oscar for her role in that movie at the 1936 Awards, but Crawford still got the last laugh. She threw some vintage shade at Davis when they met following Bette’s big win. Instead of congratulating her, Crawford said “Dear Bette! What a lovely frock.”
The feud simmered for the next couple of decades, with occasional jabs and snipes in the press. In 1945, Joan Crawford won her only Oscar for Mildred Pierce, in a role which, to her delight, Bette Davis had turned down. Then, in 1962, the unthinkable happened – the two women signed on to star in the same movie – the seminal psychological horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
According to others involved in production, neither actress shied away from getting physical with the other when the occasion arose, but it was at the 1963 Oscars that their feud reached a climax. Davis had been nominated for her role in the movie. Crawford had not, but she still intended to steal her co-star’s thunder. She started calling up other nominees, offering to accept on their behalf should they not make it to the ceremony. According to Davis, Crawford also started campaigning against her.
Anne Bancroft took Crawford up on her offer. She was busy on Broadway and, as it happened, she was nominated in the same category as Bette Davis. And she won, thus forcing Davis to smile and clap while her arch-rival got on stage to accept the award.
1. No Unions in Hollywood
Nowadays, the Motion Picture Academy is chiefly known for the Oscars since that is its main responsibility, but that’s not why it was created almost 100 years ago. In fact, the Academy’s original goal was to stop actors, directors, and writers from unionizing.
Officially, its stated goal was to act as a mediator and “help studios arbitrate contracts.” If any kind of dispute should arise between the talent and the studio, the Academy was supposed to intervene and find a reasonable solution so that there would never be a need for any of those pesky unions. They’ll even give the stars some shiny golden statues to make them feel validated.
Nobody bought it, though. Everyone in Hollywood knew that the Academy was the brainchild of MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer and his executive cronies and that its true goal was to rubber-stamp whatever the studios wanted. That’s why actual unions in the form of the Screen Actors and Screen Writers Guilds appeared just a few years later, followed soon after by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, despite the best efforts of the Academy and the studios.