Surprise Endings Highlight Actress Award Competition

The annals of the actress awards are filled with enough twist endings, intrigue, politics and laughs to rival many of the films for which the Oscars were presented.

Here are a few highlights:

The first actress to be honored by the Academy was Janet Gaynor, in 1929. At that time a single best actress award was given for an entire year’s work, so the Fox contract star was acclaimed for her performances in three films: “Sunrise” and “Seventh Heaven,” both silent pictures, and “Street Angel,” a partial talkie. Only 22 at the time, Gaynor remained the youngest actress to win for a leading role until 1986, when Marlee Matlin, 21, won for “Children of a Lessor God.”

In 1933, Katharine Hepburn began what was to become the most successful Oscar career in history by taking the best actress award in “Morning Glory.” Over 48 years, Hepburn claimed a total of 12 nominations and four awards, all for leading roles.

The next year Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable became the first co-stars to win best actor and actress, for “It Happened One Night.” Bette Davis had been widely rumored to be a shoo-in for her performance in “Of Human Bondage” – so much so that Colbert had booked herself on a train to New York the night of the ceremony. Academy officials had to catch up with Colbert at Union Station and whisk her off to the Biltmore Hotel, still in street clothes, to accept the award.

In 1936 the Academy added the award for best actress in a supporting role. Three years later, Hattie McDaniel took that honor for “Gone With the Wind,” and became the first African-American to win an Oscar. (The next black actress to win was Whoopi Goldberg in 1990 for “Ghost.”)

When World War II arrived, Davis was elected the first female president of the Academy. She presided over the 1942 ceremony, where the nomination of two feuding sisters – Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine – heightened the drama. Fontaine, then 23, walked off with the statuette for her role in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.” (But de Havilland had her revenge; she later went on to win two best actress trophies.)

In 1945, as the war came to an end, Joan Crawford won her first – and only – best actress award for “Mildred Pierce.” Crawford, whose career had been in a slump for several years, also became the first actress to hire a personal publicist to wage an Oscar campaign on her behalf. Terrified that she might lose in spite of her efforts, Crawford stayed home on the big night. Upon hearing she had won, the actress donned her best nightgown and received reporters sitting up in bed.

The Oscars of the ’50s were in many ways a reflection of the restrictive social mores of the time. Ingrid Bergman was shut out of the industry for several years because of her decision to leave her husband and cohabit with director Roberto Rossellini in Italy. In 1956, however, the Academy forgave Bergman and honored her for her return to Hollywood in Fox’s “Anastasia.” Bergman was conspicuously absent, though, preferring to soak in a tub in Paris while Cary Grant picked up the statue in her stead.

Elizabeth Taylor took the 1960 best actress honors for “Butterfield 8,” in what was expected to be a tight race. Taylor’s campaign was given an unexpected boost by reports of the acute illness for which she was hospitalized just as balloting began.

The audience at the 1968 ceremony was surprised when presenter Ingrid Bergman announced the best actress award was a tie between Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) and Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”). Some were even more shocked by Streisand’s daring-for-its-day transparent outfit.

In 1973,10-year-old Tatum O’Neal became the youngest actress ever to win a regular Oscar for her performance in “Paper Moon.”

Throughout the ’70s Oscar was often touched by controversy as the awards ceremony, and the films it honored, were used as a platform for political expression.

Upon arriving at the 1970 ceremony, anti-war activist Jane Fonda raised a clenched fist and shouted the obligatory “Right On!” to much applause. Two years later, however, accepting the best actress award for “Klute,” Fonda opted for a simple “Thank you,” noting, “There’s a great deal to say, but I’m not going to say it tonight.”

“Julia” co-star Vanessa Redgrave was less circumspect when she accepted an award for her supporting role in the 1977 film. Redgrave caused an uproar when she thanked the Academy for electing her despite the protests of Jewish groups for her activism on behalf of a Palestinian homeland.

In 1985 three black actresses, all stars in Steven Spielberg’s screen version of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” were nominated: Whoopi Goldberg, for best actress; Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery for best supporting actress. None went home with a prize. That was the year Geraldine Page, the only woman to be nominated seven times without receiving an award, finally broke her losing streak, winning best actress for “The Trip to Bountiful.”

Of course, this is only a handful of the events that have kept the Oscars from being boring. Volumes could be filled with stories surrounding the statuette, and, in fact, several already have. For more juicy Oscar tales try Anthony Holden’s “Behind the Oscar” or Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s “Inside Oscar.”

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