Oscar Actors: Gaynor, Janet–Social Background, Awards, Career, Filmography

Career Summary:
Occupational Inheritance: No
Social background: Middle Class; father theater painter; stepfather electrician
Parents divorced when she was 8
Education: Hollywood Secretarial School
Training: School plays
Film debut: 20
Stardom: 21-22
Oscar Award: 22 (for 3 roles)
Oscar Nominations: 2
Other Awards:
Career Span: 12 years (1926-1938)
Retirement: 1938 (age 32)
Comeback: “Bernardine” (age 51)
Marriages: 3, including gay costume designer Adrian
Death: September 14, 1984 (age 77)
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The first Best Actress Oscar winner, for three acting achievements was Janet Gaynor, who became a major Hollywood star in the early years of the Depression.

The appeal of the diminutive, dimpled, and sweetly wholesome Gaynor lay in her ability to project naivete and vulnerability even when she played prostitutes and fallen women.

Gaynor was born on October 6, 1906 as Laura Augusta Gainor in Germantown, Philadelphia.  She was the younger of two daughters born to Laura (Buhl) and Frank De Witt Gainor. Frank Gainor worked as a theatrical painter and paperhanger. When Gaynor was a toddler, her father began teaching her how to sing and dance.  As a child in Philadelphia, she began acting in school plays.

After her parents divorced in 1914, Gaynor, her sister, and her mother moved to Chicago. Shortly thereafter, her mother married electrician Harry C. Jones, and the family moved to San Francisco.

After graduating from S.F. Polytechnic High School in 1923, Gaynor spent the winter vacationing in Florida, where she did stage work. Upon returning to San Francisco, Gaynor, her mother, and stepfather moved to L.A. so she could pursue an acting career. She enrolled at Hollywood Secretarial School, and supported herself by working in a shoe store and later as a theater usher. Her mother and stepfather encouraged her to become an actress and she began making the rounds to the studios to find film work.

Gaynor won her first professional acting job on December 26, 1924, as extra in Hal Roach comedy short. This led to more extra work in features and shorts for Film Booking Offices of America and Universal.

Universal eventually hired her as a stock player for $50 a week. Six weeks after being hired by Universal, an executive at Fox Film Corporation offered her a screen test for a supporting role in “The Johnstown Flood” (1926). Her performance in the film caught the attention of Fox executives, who signed her to a five-year contract and began to cast her in leading roles.

Later that year, Gaynor was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars (along with Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río, Mary Astor).

Within a year, Gaynor was the most popular star on the Fox lot, based on her strong performance in German director Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise, and Frank Borzage’s box-office hit Seventh Heaven.

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At 22, she won the first Best Actress Oscar for three films: Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. Gaynor is still one of the three youngest women to have won the Oscar.

On Screen Couple

Fox made a screen couple out of Gaynor and Charles Farrell, with whom she appeared in many pictures. At the height of their popularity in the 1930s, Gaynor and Farrell were known as “America’s favorite lovebirds.”

In 1934, Gaynor shot to the position of Hollywood’s top box-office star.

After getting out of her Fox contract, Gaynor scored in two successful films for producer David O. Selznick: A Star Is Born (1937), for which she was also Oscar-nominated, and The Young in Heart (1938). Rather shockingly, she then announced her retirement from the screen, much of it spent on a Brazilian ranch.

Married to Designer Adrian

Gaynor married attorney Lydell Peck in 1934, but divorced him two years later. In 1939, Gaynor married the noted costume designer Gilbert Adrian. Widowed in 1959, she married producer Paul Gregory in 1964.

In the 1950s, Gaynor emerged out retirement for some TV and radio work. She made a comeback in the romantic film “Bernardine” (1957), which starred singer Pat Boone.

In 1976, Gaynor’s paintings were exhibited in a New York gallery.

In 1978, she was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for “her truly immeasurable contribution to the art of motion pictures and for the pleasure and entertainment her unique artistry has brought to millions of movie fans around the globe.”

Gaynor’s final appearance was in 1980, in the short-lived Broadway stage adaptation of the cult film, “Harold and Maude,” playing the Ruth Gordon part, and in an episode of the TV series “Love Boat.”

In 1983, she was critically injured in a traffic accident in which her husband and actress-singer Mary Martin (Peter Pan) were also hurt. She sustained broken ribs, broken pelvis and collarbone, and other internal injuries from which she never recovered.

Her 1984 death of pneumonia was directly attributed to the accident’s injuries.

Over the last decade of Gaynor’s life, rumors abounded in the industry about her “special” (bisexual) friendship with Mary Martin.

Janet Gaynor’s Oscar Roles

Gaynor was nominated for four screen roles: three in 1927-8, for which she won the Best Actress, and one in 1937, for A Star Is Born.

Sunrise

Fox, 1927, directed by F. W. Murnau

In this celebrated silent film, Gaynor plays the dejected wife of farmer George O’Brien, who falls for a seductress from the Big City.

Nominated for four Oscars, Sunrise won three: Unique and Artistic Picture (Best Production), Best Actress for Gaynor, and Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss; Rochus Gilese was nominated for Interior Decoration.

Seventh Heaven

Fox, 1927, directed by Frank Borzage

In this well-executed melodrama (Borzage’s specialty), Gaynor plays a waif rescued by Parisian sewer worker Charles Farrell, who then goes to War and comes back blind. The movie launches the successful teaming of Gaynor and Farrell, which would continue in half a dozen features.

Nominated for five Oscars, Seventh Heaven won three: Director for Borzage, Actress for Gaynor and Adaptation for Benjamin Glazer’s script, based on the play by Austin Strong. The other nominations were for Best Picture (then called Production) and Interior Decoration (Harry Oliver).

Street Angel

Fox, 1928, directed by Frank Borzage

In the third film cited by the Academy, Gaynor plays a poor woman who resorts to prostitution. Forced to flee by the police, she takes refuge with a circus and falls in love with a painter (again played by Fareell). Winning an Oscar for Gaynor, the film was also nominated for Ernest Palmer’s Cinematography and Harry Oliver’s Interior Decoration.

A Star Is Born

UA (Selznick International), 1937, directed by William Wellman

In the first of the many versions of this popular saga, Janet Gaynor plays a young, hopeful actress named Esther Blodgett, who upon arrival in Hollywood falls in love and then marries an alcoholic superstar, Norman Maine (Frederic March). As the career of Esther, now renamed Vicki Lester, goes up, Norman’s goes down, quickly hitting skidrow.

Produced by Selznick, the film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director (William Wellman), Actress (Gaynor), and Actor (March). The film won the Original Screenplay Oscar (by Wellman and Robert Garson) and a Special Award for W. Howard Greene’s color cinematography, which was then a novelty.

Marriages

Gaynor was romantically involved with friend and frequent co-star, Charles Farrell, during the time of their silent films until she married her first husband. Choosing to keep their relationship out of the public eye, Gaynor and Farrell were often assisted by mutual friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in maintaining the ruse. Looking back, Fairbanks would later recall, “We three were so chummy that I became their ‘beard,’ the cover-up for their secret romance. I would drive them out to a little rundown, wooden house well south of Los Angeles. I’d leave them there and go sailing or swimming until it was time to collect them and then we’d all have a bit of dinner.”

According to Gaynor’s biographer Sarah Baker, Farrell proposed marriage during the filming of Lucky Star, but the two never followed through with it. In her later years, Gaynor would hold their different personalities accountable for their eventual separation.

Gaynor was married three times and had one child. Her first marriage was to lawyer Jesse Lydell Peck, whom she married on September 11, 1929. They separated in late December 1932, and she was granted a divorce on April 7, 1933.

On August 14, 1939, she married MGM costume designer Adrian in Yuma, Arizona. This relationship was a lavender marriage, since Adrian was openly gay within the film community while Gaynor was rumored to be gay or bisexual. The couple had one son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, born in 1940. Those rumors were never hinted at in newspapers or magazines. Gaynor and Adrian remained married until Adrian’s death from a stroke on September 13, 1959.

On December 24, 1964, Gaynor married her longtime friend, stage producer Paul Gregory, to whom she remained married until her death. The two maintained a home in Desert Hot Springs, California and also owned 3,000 acres of land near Brasília.

Gaynor and her husband traveled frequently with her close friend Mary Martin and her husband. A Brazilian press report noted that Gaynor and Martin briefly lived with their respective husbands in Anapolis, state of Goiás at a ranch in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a project by the Jan Magalinski Institute to restore their houses to create a Cinema Museum of Goiás.

On the evening of September 5, 1982, Gaynor, her husband Paul Gregory, actress Mary Martin, and Martin’s manager Ben Washer were involved in a serious car accident in San Francisco. A van ran a red light at the corner of California and Franklin Streets and crashed into the Luxor taxicab in which the group was riding, knocking it into a tree.[38] Ben Washer was killed, Mary Martin sustained two broken ribs and a broken pelvis, and Gaynor’s husband suffered two broken legs.[39] Gaynor sustained several serious injuries, including 11 broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, a punctured lung, and injuries to her bladder and kidney.[40] The driver of the van, Robert Cato, was arrested on two counts of felony drunk driving, reckless driving, speeding, running a red light, and vehicular homicide.[38][39] Cato pleaded not guilty and was later released on $10,000 bail.[39] On March 15, 1983, he was found guilty of drunk driving and vehicular homicide and was sentenced to three years in prison.[41]

As a result of her injuries, Gaynor was hospitalized for 4 months and underwent two surgeries to repair a perforated bladder and internal bleeding. She recovered sufficiently to return to her home in Desert Hot Springs, but continued to experience health issues due to the injuries and required frequent hospitalizations. Shortly before her death, she was hospitalized for pneumonia and other ailments.

On September 14, 1984, Gaynor died at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs at the age of 77. Her doctor, Bart Apfelbaum, attributed her death to the 1982 car accident and stated that Gaynor “never recovered” from her injuries.

Gaynor is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to her second husband, Adrian. Her headstone reads “Janet Gaynor Gregory,” her legal name after her marriage to her third husband, producer and director Paul Gregory.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Janet Gaynor has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6284 Hollywood Blvd.

On March 1, 1978, Howard W. Koch, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presented Gaynor with a citation for her “truly immeasurable contribution to the art of motion pictures.”

Gaynor’s Filmography

1926: The Johnston Flood, The Shamrock Handicup, The Midnight Kiss, The Blue Eagle, The Return of Peter Grim

1927: Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, Two Girls Wanted

1928: Street Angel, Four Devils

1929: Christina, Lucky Star, Sunny Side Up

1930: Happy Days, High Society Blues

1931: The Man Who Came Back, Daddy Long Legs, Merely Mary Ann, Delicious

1932: The First Year, Tess of the Storm Country

1933: State Fair, Adorable, Paddy the Next Best Thing

1934: Carolina, Change of Heart, Servants’ Entrance

1935: One More Spring, The Farmer Takes a Wife

1936: Small Town Girl, Ladies in Love

1937: A Star Is Born

1938: Three Loves Has Nancy, The Young in Heart

 

1957: Bernardine (Comeback)