Oscar: Winning–Luck? Fate? Context?

In the performing arts, getting instant recognition for one’s work is often a result of luck or circumstances over which actors have little control.

The hand of fate is an often-used term in showbiz, because it describes quite accurately how screen careers are created and sustained–from getting the first break, to being cast in an attention-grabbing feature, to being nominated and even winning the Oscar. Fluke, or as actors say, “being the right person at the right time in the right place,” often is a more crucial factor in determining the shape of screen careers than acting talent or skill.

Winning at another studio than your home

Many players gave their Oscar-winning performances not at their home studios but when they were loaned out to other studios as punishment measures. Producer Samuel Goldwyn let Warner borrow Gary Cooper for the title role of Sergeant York (Cooper’s first Oscar) in exchange for their own “difficult” and rebellious contract player, Bette Davis. At William Wyler’s suggestion, Goldwyn cast Davis in The Little Foxes, which became one of her best-known roles, for which she earned accolades and Best Actress nomination.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert scored a great victory in Columbia’s It Happened One Night despite the fact that both were at first reluctant to appear in Frank Capra-directed comedy. Colbert, in fact, was about to sail for Europe, and Gable was loaned out to Columbia by Louis B. Mayer as a “disciplinary” act, having rejected several scripts that the studio had created for him. MGM considered It Happened One Night a minor project at a minor studio, which Columbia was at the time.

Film history, however, proved otherwise: It Happened One Night won Best Picture, Director, and acting awards and also changed Columbia’s low status in Hollywood. The movie’s unanticipated critical and commercial success show again the effect of serendipity, namely, that once a movie is released, it assumes an independent life of its own. The history of the Oscars is replete with cases of unpredictability due to the combined facts that artists often are be the worst judges of their own work, and that audiences’ response can never be accurately predicted, or else there will only be successful pictures.

Warner Baxter

Actor Warner Baxter was assigned by default the role of the Cisco Kid in the Western In Old Arizona, which garnered him an Oscar. The intended actor for the part was Raoul Walsh (better known as director), who had a car accident in which he lost an eye. Mercedes McCambridge believed that she might have never “stumbled onto an Oscar,” for All the King’s Men, “if it hadn’t been for a pushy friend of mine who took me to a “cattle call” in New York. Her part, as a corrupt politician’s assistant and mistress, launched a vital screen career after McCambrdige won a supporting Oscar for it.

Winning for Parts Intended for Other Actors

Numerous players have won their Oscars for parts for which they had not been the first or even second choice. MGM and Katharine Hepburn, who had the final say over her leading men, offered Cary Grant the choice between the two male leads in The Philadelphia Story: As Tracy Lord’s ex-husband, or as the canny journalist. Grant chose the former and Jimmy Stewart, cast as the reporter, went home with the Oscar. Originally, with Hepburn’s blessing, The Philadelphia Story was going to star Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable.

In hindsight, Grant committed another error, when he turned down the part of Judy Garland’s down-and-out husband actor in A Star Is Born. Director George Cukor begged Grant to do it, but rumors have it that Grant felt the role was too similar to his offscreen life at the time. The part was later played with great distinction by James Mason, who received a Best Actor nomination for it.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that if the original actors played the roles intended for them, they would have been singled out by the Academy, but chances are they would at least have been nominated for it. In the absence of her husband, MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg (who died in 1936), Norma Shearer made out major errors of judgment. Among others, Shearer turned down the title role in Mrs. Miniver, which then went to Greer Garson, bringing her an Oscar and her best remembered role. Though she was in her early forties, Shearer was apprehensive to play a woman who’s old enough to have a teenage daughter.

Joan Crawford is best known for her eponymous heroine in Mildred Pierce, but few people know that her role was first offered to Bette Davis, who turned it down. Bette Davis herself delivered by accident what’s undoubtedly the finest performance of her career, Margo Channing in All About Eve. Claudette Colbert was initially cast in the role of the aging actress, but a back injury prevented her from doing it. Producer Darryl Zanuck then opted to replace Colbert with Ingrid Bergman, who was then in Italy, working and living with Roberto Rossellini. Davis was Zanuck’s last-minute choice, though, in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine any actress but Davis in that role.

Ingrid Bergman

Director Anatole Litvak chose Ingrid Bergman to play the mentally disturbed woman in the intense drama The Snake Pit, but she declined, based on her feeling that “it all takes place in an insane asylum and I couldn’t bear that.” Instead, the role went to Olivia de Havilland, who scored a great victory, winning an Oscar nomination and a citation from the New York Film Critics. After the film’s success, Litvak confronted Bergman, “look what you turned down!” “It was a very good part,” Bergman replied, “but if I had played it, I wouldn’t have got an Oscar for it.”

Bergman also turned down the part of the Swedish maid in The Farmer’s Daughter because as she noted, “for me to play my own part as a Swedish girl was not what I wanted.” Instead, Loretta Young was cast in this political comedy and received an Oscar for her very first nomination, after acting in the business for 22 years. Known for her strong instincts, the stubborn Bergman later said she had never regretted refusing either of those roles.

Marlon Brando’s stunning role in On the Waterfront, as the none’toobright exprizefighter Terry Malloy, was first offered to Frank Sinatra, on the strength of his 1953 Supporting Oscar for From Here To Eternity. However, when director Kazan learned that Brando was available, he broke his promise to Sinatra and instead cast Brando. And in 1962, Brando himself turned down the title role in David Lean’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia, which went to a then unknown British actor, Peter O’Toole. Though physically wrong for the role (and forced to undergo plastic surgery before shooting began), O’Toole became an international star overnight, receiving for this part the first of his seven Best Actor nominations.

Rod Steiger scored critical acclaim in Paddy Chayefsky’s soggy television drama Marty, but when the play was transferred to the big screen, he refused to do it again. Instead, a relatively obscure thespian, Ernest Borgnine, until then cast in villainous roles (From Here to Eternity), was chosen. Marty, which won Best Picture, Best Actor, and other awards, broadened Borgnine’s range of appearances and placed him on a higher-prestige list of actors.

Sophia Loren’s part in Two Women was first intended for Anna Magnani under George Cukor’s direction. The idea was to cast Magnani in the mother’s role and Loren as her daughter. Magnani, however, rejected this proposition because Loren was “much taller than me,” claiming that she could not perform with a daughter “I have to look up to.” Loren was excited about the prospects of performing with Magnani, who at the time was the doyenne of Italian actresses. She tried to persuade Magnani, but to no avail. As it turned out, this part was singlehandedly responsible for changing Loren’s image as a sex symbol, establishing her as a dramatic actress of the first rank.

Peter Finch

The hand of fate also accounted for Peter Finch’s most accomplished screen roles. Ian Bannen was originally cast as the Jewish homosexual doctor in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, but after a month of shooting, he became sick and had to be replaced. Finch’s first reaction when the role was offered to him was, “But I’m not queer.” Later, however, on a second thought, Finch was persuaded that “it was a fabulous script and a fabulous part.” Director John Schlesinger later said that he “can’t think of anyone who could have done it better,” and that Finch’s performance was “definitive.” Finch won for his role as a doctor, competing over the love of a bisexual man with Glenda Jackson, international recognition, including his first Best Actor nomination.

Nor was Finch the top choice to play the demented television commentator in Sidney Lumet’s farce Network. The role had been previously offered to–and rejected by–George C. Scott, Glenn Ford, and Henry Fonda. It was apparently screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s idea to approach Finch for the juicy part. According to Finch’s biographer, the arrival of Network’s script in Jamaica, where Finch was vacationing, “absolutely galvanized him, his major concern being that someone else would take it before he could stake his claim.” As soon as Finch finished reading the screenplay, he was frantic to let the producers know he was more than interested.

Finch knew that Network provided a plum role–and “Oscar material,” and thus didn’t want to miss the opportunity. However, it is not always easy for actors to assess the quality of screen roles before or even after the shoot begins.

Coming Home, one of Hollywood’s first anti-Vietnam War movies, was in various phases of pre-production for at least six years, until Jane Fonda’s company, IPC, brought it to the screen. The film, which earned Jane Fonda and Jon Voight acting laurels, is now considered to be a perfect piece of casting. But Voight’s role, as the paraplegic war veteran, was first offered to Jack Nicholson (on the heels of his triumph in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and to Sylvester Stallone, fresh from Rocky’s glory. United Artists wanted a bankable star, though producer Jerome Hellman and director Hal Ashby managed to convince the studio that Voight was the right actor for the part.

Helen Hunt Vs. Holly Hunter

In 1997, industryites wondered why did Holly Hunter turn down the lead role in the comedy As Good As It Get, which after all, was directed by the man who “discovered” her, James Brooks.

Brooks’ Broadcast News offered Hunter her first meaty screen role–and her first Best Actress nomination. As a result of Hunter’s rejection, Helen Hunt, until then best known for her TV series (Mad About You) and some indie movies, became the eternally grateful beneficiary. Hunt won Best Actress for her very first nomination, which catapulted her to the front rank of Hollywood leading ladies.


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