Oscar Profile #499: Overlooked Supporting Actresses

In 1996, when Julie Andrews was the only actor nominated for the Broadway version of Victor/Victoria, she withdraw her nomination with the comment, “I have searched my conscience and my heart and find that I cannot accept this nomination, and prefer instead to stand with the egregiously overlooked.” Well, Julie, you and they are in good company. Awards bodies have been egregiously ignoring great work for decades.

Over the next four weeks, I will be using this space to highlight two dozen performances that I feel Oscar egregiously overlooked from 1927-1999, six in each acting category. We begin with Best Supporting Actress, an award I heard someone on a TV show in 1964 call “the old lady’s award” even though there were very few old ladies up to that time and beyond who won one. More often, the award went to someone starting out in the movies, whether they were a young ingenue or middle-aged stage veteran. The only winners over 50 up to that point were Jane Darwell at 61, Ethel Barrymore at 65, Josephine Hull at 73, and Margaret Rutherford at 71.

Academy Awards history is filled with actors who won Oscars for the wrong film. That is not the case with any of the women on this first list. They were all overlooked multiple times, one as many as six times. One of them did, however, eventually win a career achievement Oscar. I like to think it was representative of all of them.

THE MOST EGREGIOUSLY OVERLOOKED

LOUISE BEAVERS in IMITATION OF LIFE (1934)

Oscars weren’t given for supporting performances until 1936, although occasionally a supporting performance would be nominated in the lead category. Such might have been the case for Louise Beavers as the African American mother in the first version of Imitation of Life. When the furor over Bette Davis not being nominated for Of Human Bondage caused the Academy to allow write-in votes for the first time, both Myrna Loy in The Thin Man and Beavers in Imitation of Life were considered strong contenders. Alas, none of the write-in candidates won with the Oscar going to Beavers’ co-star Claudette Colbert, who won for her performance in It Happened One Night.

Beavers’ heartbreaking portrayal of the mother whose light-skinned daughter passes for white was the standout in a long career that ranged from peeling a grape for Mae West in She Done Him Wrong to succeeding Ethel Waters and Hattie McDaniel in the title role of the pioneering TV comedy series, Beulah. Beavers died in 1962, ten years to the day that McDaniel, her friend and contemporary, died.

BEULAH BONDI in OF HUMAN HEARTS (1938)

Beulah Bondi was an accomplished stage actress who made her film debut reprising her Broadway role of the neighborhood gossip in the 1931 film version of Street Scene. Her portrayal of the 70-year-old Lucy Cooper while still in her 40s in Leo McCarey’s 1937 film, Make Way for Tomorrow has long been considered one of the greatest portrayals of old age ever captured on film. She had an equally powerful role as the preacher’s widow who writes President Abraham Lincoln asking him to find her son (James Stewart), a Union doctor that she hasn’t heard from in some time. She later played Stewart’s mother on screen in Vivacious Lady, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life and on TV in 1971’s The Jimmy Stewart Show.

Two years after receiving her first Oscar nomination for playing Andrew Jackson’s pipe-smoking wife in The Gorgeous Hussy, Bondi was again nominated for Of Human Hearts. She lost to Fay Bainter, who had played her daughter-in-law in Of Human Hearts, as Bette Davis’ aunt in Jezbel. Bondi finally won an acting award, a 1977 Emmy for The Waltons, when she was 88. She died in 1981 at 91.

AGNES MOOREHEAD in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

A founding member with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten of Welles’ Mercury Theatre, Agnes Moorehead’s radio performances were legendary before she made her first film in 1941, playing Welles’ mother in Citizen Kane. Her portrayal of Aunt Fanny Minafer in Welles’ 1942 film, The Magnificent Ambersons earned her the Best Actress award of the New York Film Critics leading to her first Oscar nomination, albeit in the supporting actress category. Her performance is mesmerizing from start to finish but reaches its zenith as she falls to her knees, pleading with nephew Tim Holt not to put her in the poorhouse.

Moorehead would subsequently receive Oscar nominations for Mrs. Parkington, Johnny Belinda and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She would later receive seven Emmy nominations for playing Elizabeth Montgomery’s mother on Bewtiched, the role for which she is best remembered to her chagrin. She died in 1974 at 73.

THELMA RITTER in PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

Thelma Ritter was a radio actress whose unbilled performance in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street led to a remarkable screen career that earned her six Oscar nominations between 1950’s All About Eve and 1962’s Birdman of Alcatraz. Although she never won, she holds the record for the most nominations in the supporting actress category. The closest she came to winning is believed to be her unforgettable down-at-her-heels police informant in 1953’s Pickup on South Street for which she was rumored to have lost to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity by one point.

Ritter, who played Bette Davis’ maid in All About Eve, created the role of the Bronx mother in the 1955 TV production of The Catered Affair that Davis played in the 1956 film version. Her portrayal of Marthy, the waterfront hag in New Girl in Town, the musical version of Anna Christie, earned her a 1957 Tony along with co-star Gwen Verdon as Christie. She died in 1969 at 66.

GLADYS COOPER in SEPARATE TABLES (1958)

Gladys Cooper came to Hollywood in 1939 for three weeks’ work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and stayed until 1967, playing the mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, or great-grandmother of legendary stars from Bette Davis and Irene Dunne to Deborah Kerr and Rex Harrison. She was Greer Garson’s daughter in Mrs. Parkington, her would-be mother-in-law in The Valley of Decision, and her aunt in The Happiest Millionaire. She was Dean Stockwell’s grandmother in The Valley of Decision and his great-grandmother in The Green Years.

Nominated for three Oscars, Cooper should have won for her doubting nun in The Song of Bernadette as well as for her non-nominated interfering busybody in Separate Tables. Oddly, though, it was Wendy Hiller as the film’s hotel manager who won for a role in which Hiller complained that all you see is the back of her head. Made a Dame of the British Empire upon her return to England in 1967, she died 1971 at 82.

ANGELA LANSBURY in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

Angela Lansbury did it all backwards. A character actress at 18, a Broadway legend in her 40s and a TV star in her 60s and 70s, her career trajectory has been the opposite of the way most acting careers go. She was nominated for Oscars for the two of her first three films, Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. She reached the zenith of her screen career with her startling portrayal of the mother from hell in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. From there she conquered Broadway, winning Tonys for Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd.

TV’s Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) made Lansbury a household name, earning her 12 of her 18 Emmy nominations to date. She received a fifth Tony award for 2009’s Blithe Spirit, became a Dame of the British Empire in early 2014 and later that year received an honorary Oscar for her screen career which continues to this day. The Adventures of Buddy Thunder is in pre-production as she approaches her 95th birthday.

THE MOST EGREGIOUSLY OVERLOOKED AND OSCAR

  • Louise Beavers – no nominations, no wins
  • Beulah Bondi – 2 nominations, no wins
  • Agnes Moorehead – 4 nominations, no wins
  • Thelma Ritter – 6 nominations, no wins
  • Gladys Cooper – 3 nominations, no wins
  • Angela Lansbury – 3 nominations, Honorary Oscar

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