Oscar Politics: Actors' Careers

Historical and political factors have always influenced the types of films and artists nominated for the Oscars. Working in a popular art form, filmmakers are subjected to both stimulating and disruptive conditions of the socio-political contexts in which they operate.

World War II disrupted the careers of many actors and directors who were mobilized into the war. Some, in fact, lost the popular status, which they had previously enjoyed. Clark Gable, “The King,” joined the Air Force in 1942, rising in rank from lieutenant to major, and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his bombing missions over Germany. Gable's first film after being absent from the screen for four years, Adventure, was trumpeted by MGM as “Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him.” But this, and other Gable postwar films, failed and his commercial standing began to decline; it didn't help that Gable was not aging well.

The career momentum of Mickey Rooney, who had been America's biggest boxoffice draw with the Andy Hardy series, reached its peak during the early years of the War. It's doubtful that he would have been nominated for The Human Comedy, if it were not for the shortage of men. Later, like other actors, Rooney's career was interrupted by military service, after which his popularity plummeted.

At the same time, other careers benefited from the war. Humphrey Bogart became a major star in the 1940s, after his appearances in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, the film that established him as a screen super-hero.

In other cases, the War delayed recognition that would have been received earlier. William Holden became a star with his very first film, playing the boxerviolinist in Golden Boy (1939). Then, mobilized to the Army, Holden did not make a single movie for three years. But after WWII, Holden's screen image ripened and his popularity rose, reaching a climax in 1950 with two films, Born Yesterday and Sunset Boulevard, both nominated for Best Picture. Three years later, Holden won the Best Actor for Stalag 17, after which his career blossomed for another decade.

The exposure of film artists, on'screen and off, has often made them the first “targets” to be affected by changes in the political climate. Film's strategic position as a powerful medium has always been recognized by the ruling elite, as was evident by its use and misuse by Hitler and Mussolini. Arguably the worst years for American film artists in terms of freedom of expression and organization were during Senator Joseph McCarthy's political witchhunt. As a result, the careers of many first-rate Hollywood artists were destroyed in the 1950.

Gale Sondergaard

Gale Sondergaard, the first supporting winner (Anthony Adverse), became one of the earliest political casualties due to her marriage to director Herbert Biberman, who was suspected of Communist leanings and later became one of the “Hollywood Ten.” Blacklisted at the peak of her career, Sondergaard couldn't work for decades. Her appeal to the Screen Actors Guild for protection was rejected on the grounds that “all participants in the International Communist Party conspiracy against our nation should be exposed for what they are–enemies of our country and our form of government.”

Sondergaard emerged out of forced retirement in 1965 in a onewoman show OffBroadway, and later made several comebacks, none of which too successful. In 1978, as a gesture of reconciliation, the Academy asked her to be a presenter at Oscar's fiftieth anniversary.

Anne Revere

Another Supporting winner, Anne Revere, for National Velvet, was also at the peak of her craft when she was blacklisted for taking the Fifth Amendment before the HUAC, on April 17, 1951. By that time, Revere made over thirty films. Her part in A Place in the Sun, in which she played Montgomery Clift's mother, was severely cut, leaving only a few of her scenes. Rumor has it that actor Larry Parks named Revere (along with others) as a member of the Communist Party. Revere was out of work for close to a decade. But, like many others, she found rescue in the Broadway theater, winning a Tony Award for Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. Audacious director Otto Preminger, who helped restore the careers of many blacklisted artists, facilitated Revere's comeback in his movie Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, but at sixty'seven, she was too old to resume an active screen career.

Kim Hunter

Kim Hunter made a spectacular debut in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she won Supporting Oscar. However, shortly after that, her career was ruined when her name appeared in Red Channels, a Red'scare pamphlet. Hunter, too, was unable to get any work in Hollywood or New York and was finally rescued by the producers of the television series Omnibus.

Lee Grant

An auspicious Hollywood beginning, with a supporting nomination for her very first film, Detective Story, in which she played a shoplifter, marked Lee Grant's career. Grant was married at the time to writer Arnold Manoff and was a close friend of actor J. Edward Bromberg, both of whom were suspected Communists. Grant did not get any work for ten years because she refused to cite her husband before the Committee. “The Committee wanted me to turn Arnold in,” she later recalled. I simply wouldn't do it. No work was ever important enough to make me turn in my husband!”

Fortunately, Grant was still able to work in the theater–“Movies and TV were closed to us, but not the theatre. But doing a play a year wouldn't support me, so I went to Herbert Berghof and he set me up in a class.” Grant taught drama for many years, during which her attorney worked hard to prove her innocence. Years later, Grant's name was taken off a list with a mild apology from Washington, D.C. Despite this experience, Grant never became bitter, as she told a reporter: “I was lucky, I was only 32 when it was over, I still felt I have time to make up for.” Besides, she perceived it as a “a fascinating war, which fulfilled part of my life. I never would have believed it if I hadn't been part of it.”

Grant returned to films in an impressive role in The Balcony, and has not stopped working since, both as an actress and as director. In the 1970s, Grant won two more nominations, and a supporting Oscar for Shampoo. In her acceptance speech, Grant said: “I would like to thank the artistic community for sustaining me in my wins and losses, and sitting on the curb, whatever it was.” Her remarks were greeted with a huge applause.

Larry Parks' career reached its zenith with a Best Actor nomination for the title role in The Jolson Story. But his career plummeted when he was forced to admit to past membership in the Communist Party. Officially, Parks was never blacklisted, but Columbia didn't renew his contract and other studios didn't hire him.

John Garfield

Few actors have arrived in Hollywood with the established reputation of John Garfield, a member of the famed Group Theater. For his very first film, Four Daughters, Garfield received a supporting nomination, and a few years later, a lead nomination for Body and Soul. However, in 1952, Garfield's career ended abruptly when he died of a heart attack the night before he was supposed to appear before the Committee. Garfield wasn't accused of any particular thing, but he was suspected of leftwing politics because of his membership in The Group Theater.

Simon Signoret

McCarthyism damaged the reputation of foreign artists as well. Maurice Chevalier, who was popular in the United States in the 1930s, was refused reentry in 1951, for having signed a Communistinspired decision, “the Stockholm Appeal,” which called for the banning of all nuclear weapons.

French actress Simone Signoret also encountered difficulties in getting offers from Hollywood, despite numerous promises made. As she recalled in her memoirs: “Each time there had been a vague offer of my participation in an American production made in France, negotiations had rapidly broken off.” In the late 1950s, despite assurance from American directors that times had changed, Signoret held onto her belief that “McCarthy was not dead, even if the citizens of this country thought they had buried him.” Several films fell through for what she describes as “Washingtonian reasons.”

When Signoret was offered the lead in Room at the Top, her feeling was “if I was going to lose Alice, I wanted to know immediately.” Signoret feared that, if Americans were involved, “there was no point in beginning to negotiate.” But it was a British production, and Signoret not only got the part, but also won the Best Actress for it.