Oscar Scandals: Davis, Bette–Of Human Bondage

In the first year, the Academy asked the entire membership to nominate achievements by the August 15, 1928 deadline.  Five boards of judges, one from each branch, were appointed to consider the nominations.

The ten nominees who received the highest number of votes were turned over to the board of judges, who narrowed them down to three in each category.  A central board of judges, one from each branch, then examined the finalists and determined the winner and the two honorable mentions.  The winners were announced immediately, though the ceremonies took place at the Academy’s annual banquet.

However, Mary Pickford‘s Best Actress win for her performance in Coquette, a movie that few people liked or saw, was an upset that created an uproar.  Pickford’s win had more to do with her status as silent movie star and Academy Charter Members than with the quality of her work per se.

The other contending performers, Ruth Chatterton in Madame X and Jeanne Eagles in The Letter, were deemed worthier of Oscar.  (A legendary stage actress, Eagles never fulfilled her potential as a movie star–she died of heroin overdose in 1929).

As a result, a reform took place, and in the next six years, the selection process was broadened.  The nominations were now made in primary elections by the branches, and the final voting by the entire membership.  The regulations stated: “Each Branch will vote separately for nominations, like a primary election. The five highest persons, or achievements, for each award will be certified and placed on a ballot for submission to all members of the Academy.  Academy members will then select from the submitted nominees, one for each award and those votes will govern the final selections.”

Bette Davis Scandal

The new procedures came under severe attack in 1935, when Bette Davis’s breakthrough performance in Of Human Bondage failed to get a nomination. Under contract to Warner, Davis engaged in fights over her demand to get more challenging roles, pleading Jack Warner to loan her out to RKO, where John Cromwell was making a big-screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard as the crippled artist.  The female part, Mildred, was that of a slatternly Cockney waitress who torments the disabled intellectual.

The critics thought Davis was a major new talent–Life magazine declared “Davis gave the best performance ever recorded on the screen by an American actress.”  Then, novelist Maugham himself praised Davis publicly, but the film’s downbeat tone resulted in a box-office flop and not many viewers–or Academy members–saw it.

The Hollywood Reporter was so incensed that it demanded so see the votes–the Hollywood community simply refused to let the Davis scandal go without a battle.

The Academy was besieged by telegrams from Hollywood celebs demanding a write-in ballot to give Davis a fair chance.  Out of noblesse oblige, even the Oscar-nominated Norma Shearer (The Barrets of Wimpole Street) supported Davis’s cause.

Just days after the nominations were announced, the Academy’s president, writer Howard Estabrook, issued a statement:  “Despite the fact that the criticism fails to take into consideration that the nominations have been made by the unrestricted votes of each branch, the awards committee has decided upon a change in the rules to permit unrestricted selection of any voter, who may write on the ballot his personal choice for the winner.”

In February 1935, the voting was thrown wide‑open and write‑ins were permitted; members were allowed to name anyone they chose.  The write‑in votes were then counted exactly as the votes for the official nominations.

When Bette Davis announced that she would attend the ceremonies, the three Best Actress nominees declined the invitation.  The anxiety-ridden Davis recorded in her memoirs: “The air was thick with rumors. It seemed inevitable that I would receive the coveted award.  The press, the public and the members of the Academy who did the voting were sure I would win! Surer than I!”  At least Davis lost to a good performance, Claudette Colbert’s in It Happened One Night.

One artist, Hal Mohr, who won an Oscar for cinematography in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) became the first and last write‑in winner.  In the same year, it was revealed that through the write-in campaign for Paul Muni’s work in Black Fury, he came second to Victor McLaglen (the Best Actor for The Informer).  But the confusion and technical problems involved in write‑ins eventually brought about their demise.