Elizabeth Hartman and Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue (1965)
Look, I can’t help it: The Oscars rule. I care about them. I refuse to stop thinking about them. And if you read snicks‘ recent Oscar snubs piece, you’d refuse too. If you love entertainment, glamor, and winning, you simply have to love the Oscars. And Project Runway. But hey, back to the Oscars! Even the biggest Oscarphiles can stand to know more about the precious gold statuette, and I’m willing to bet most of you don’t know about these five nominees, actresses who’ve faded from public consciousness. Let’s revisit the weird and wild catacombs of the Academy‘s most fascinating forgotten ladies, shall we?
Eva Le Gallienne: Respected Actress, Kickass Lesbian
Before Gloria Stuart hurled an ugly diamond into the Atlantic in Titanic, Eva Le Gaillienne was the oldest woman nominated for an Oscar at age 80 for Resurrection, a 1980 Ellen Burstyn/Sam Shepard joint about a woman who survives a car crash and gains magical healing powers. But oh, Eva Le Gallienne was the truly magical one: Beginning in the late 1910s, Le Gallienne enjoyed lesbian relationships — which she reportedly was candid about within the acting community, though never really outside of it — with some of Hollywood’s best-known women, including actresses Tallulah Bankhead, Alla Nazimova (who coined the term “sewing circles” to describe interwining lesbian relationships within Tinseltown), Josephine Hutchinson, and writer/socialite Mercedes de Acosta, who wrote a tell-all about her sapphic relations called Here Lies the Heart.
Allegedly Le Gallienne once said to her friend, writer May Sarton, of lesbianism: “People hate what they don’t understand and try to destroy it. Only try to keep yourself clear and don’t allow that destructive force to spoil something that to you is simple, natural, and beautiful.” She also garnered a Tony and an Emmy. Where’s her biopic, dammit?
Elisabeth Bergner: Fasten Your Seatbelts, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Life
Elisabeth Bergner landed a Best Actress nomination for 1935′s Escape Me Never and lost to Bette Davis in Dangerous. So what, you ask? Well, amazingly, Bergner later inspired Davis’s greatest character, and one of the greatest in all of cinema: Margo Channing in All About Eve. Bergner once relayed a story to Cosmpolitan writer Mary Orr about a kowtowing young actress (a real-life Eve Harrington, if you’re familiar with Anne Baxter’s character — and YOU ARE familiar with the film) who made herself a star by ingratiating herself with Bergner. Orr wrote up the story as a piece called “The Wisdom of Eve,” and that later served as the basis for Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s classic. If you can’t beat ‘em (at the Oscars), make ‘em play you in a film classic!
Susan Peters: Random Hardships
This beautiful young thespian garnered an Oscar nod for her first significant film role as a lovestruck teenager in the Greer Garson/Ronald Colman jam Random Harvest in 1942. That’s about as sunny as Peters’ story gets, I’m afraid, as only three years later she became paralyzed during a hunting trip with her husband and son when a rifle discharged and lodged a bullet in her spine.
Though confined to a wheelchair, Peters still performed in hailed stage productions of The Glass Menagerie and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Unfortunately, she then died in 1952 at age 31 of pneumonia and kidney disease complicated by anorexia-nervosa, an illness that wasn’t even in the public consciousness until the late ’70s. Peters’ descent was as strange and precipitous as it was tragic.
Jocelyne LaGarde: Aloha, Oscar!
The 300-pound Tahitian beaut earned her only Oscar nomination for her only film role: Queen Malama Kanakoa in 1966′s Hawaii, an adaptation of James Michener‘s tome. That’s remarkable enough, but more remarkable is that LaGarde didn’t know a word of English. How did she learn to speak so well that she’d win a nomination for acting’s highest accolade? Get this: She was taught each of her lines phonetically.
Though Sandy Dennis would take home the Oscar that year for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, LaGarde amazingly won the Golden Globe. This makes me wonder why people go to acting school when a director can simply show them how the dialogue should fall out of their mouths.
Elizabeth Hartman: Patch of Blue
I bring up Elizabeth Hartman mainly for one reason: She gives one of the single best performances I’ve ever seen in 1965′s A Patch of Blue, a simple morality tale of a blind white woman who meets a conscientious black man (Sidney Poitier) in a park, strikes up a friendship with him, and vies for romance despite having a brutally racist, physically abusive mother (Shelley Winters).
At the time, she was the youngest Best Actress nominee ever at the age of 22. Her innocent fragility in the film is heartbreaking, and unfortunately, so is the rest of Elizabeth Hartman’s life: After relocating from Hollywood to Pittsburgh in the early ’80s, Hartman succumbed to her lifelong depression and jumped from the fifth floor window of her apartment in an apparent suicide. Her story is devastating, but I can’t recommend A Patch of Blue enough. Try telling me Julie Christie deserved to win over that. Go on. Try.
Any personal favorites you’d like to add? I’m always willing to bandy lesser-known bits of Oscar history, in case that isn’t startlingly apparent to you.