Oscar Politics: Studios Campaigns–Mary Pickford, Luise Rainer Vs. Garbo,

Extensive ad campaigns have been used by both the studios and individual filmmakers to call the Academy’s attention to “worthy” achievements.

These campaigns have become extremely elaborate over the years, reaching their zenith in the 1990s.

But it would be a mistake to believe that promoting and advertising is a recent phenomenon. There have always been efforts to persuade members to vote for a particular film, though they were not as explicit or expensive.

The studio for which artists worked and their position within its power structure has played a role in the Oscar race.

Mary Pickford

There was a clear link between Mary Pickford’s Best Actress for Coquette and the fact that her husband, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was then the Academy president. Besides, Pickford may have conducted the first obvious campaign, when she invited the members of the Central Board of Judges to tea at her mansion, Pickfair.

Norma Shearer

It is doubtful that Norma Shearer would have received five nominations and one Oscar had she not been married to Wunderkind Irving G. Thalberg, MGM’s head of production. There were always rumor that MGM’s employees were sent memos or got informal phone calls “encouraging” them to vote for Shearer.

Garbo

Despite respect for her talent, stature, and box-office clout in the 1930s, Garbo might have been a victim of MGM’s inner politics. On her first nomination, for Anna Christie, advertised as “Garbo Talks!” she lost out to Norma Shearer, who won for The Divorcee, also an MGM movie. At her second nomination, for Camille, Garbo lost out to another lesser actress, Luise Rainer, in The Good Earth. Rainer was then supported by Louis B. Mayer, though three years later he would drop her and her career would terminate. Then in 1939, when Garbo received her third nomination for Ninotchka, she lost because Gone With the Wind swept all the major awards, including Best Actress which went to Vivien Leigh. Unlike Garbo’s previous competitors, Leigh at least gave a good performance.

Bette Davis

Studio politics also deprived Bette Davis of a nomination, and possibly an award, for her performance in Of Human Bondage. Davis was then under contract to Warner, which loaned her out to RKO for that film. Conceivably, neither Warner’s nor RKO’s members voted for Davis, whose name could be added to the nominees’ list as a write-in. RKO knew that if she won, the rewards would be reaped by Warner, and Davis was not very popular at Warner. Davis later accused Jack Warner of asking his employees to vote against her.

Clark Gable

Gable believed that he was outvoted for what he considered to be the best work of his career, Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, because of strained relations with producer David O. Selznick, and because MGM’s publicity machine was not behind him.

The winner was Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which was also produced by MGM.

Burt Lancaster Vs. Monty Clift in Same Film

Columbia Pictures made no secret in 1953 that it was backing Burt Lancaster, not Montgomery Clift, in From Here to Eternity. Both were nominated for the Best Actor, though neither won; the winner was William Holden in Stalag 17.

Hollywood Vs. New York City

Some hold that Clift was not supported because he was always perceived as an outsider in Hollywood, “suffering” from his reputation as a New York stage actor.

Performers who had hailed back from New York City and continued to appear in both films and plays, like Geraldine Page and Julie Harris, were regarded as “suspects” in the movie colony.

Paramount

In the same year, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur failed to get nominations for the critically acclaimed Western, Shane, because neither was under contract to Paramount. Instead, the studio campaigned for William Holden (Stalag 17), who had been with Paramount for years, and for Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday). Both Holden and Hepburn won.

Judy Garland Vs. Grace Kelly

The odds were against Judy Garland in 1954, despite an impressive performance in A Star Is Born. For one thing, Warner, which produced the movie, was then in conflict with the Academy, and for another, Garland was not supported by the studio. By contrast Grace Kelly, who won that year for The Country Girl, was supported by MGM, her studio, and by Paramount, which produced the film. Besides, Kelly was much in the news, having made four back-to-back pictures: Dial M for Murder, Rear Window (both from Hitchcock) and Green Fire were the other three.

Shirley MacLaine Vs. Elizabeth Taylor

In 1958, when Shirley MacLaine was first nominated for Some Came Running, MGM supported its veteran performer, Elizabeth Taylor, in the prestige blockbuster, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the winner was Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! In 1960, MacLaine gave the best performance of her career to date in The Apartment, but, once again, MGM launched a massive campaign in the trades supporting the ailing Taylor in Butterfield 8. As discussed, the Academy’s sympathy went for Taylor, whose bout with death was ultimately more responsible for her win than her acting in that particular picture.