As chronicled in Ryan Murphy‘s upcoming FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Bette Davis was ever determined to be the first actress to win three Oscars. After all, she claimed credit for giving Oscar his nickname and had even served as the academy’s president for a stormy few months in 1941. However, while she had prevailed with each of her first two official nominations – “Dangerous” (1935) and “Jezebel” (1938) – that third win forever eluded her. Even four more bids in a row (1939-1942) and then another in 1944 did not produce another Oscar.
By 1950, the one-time queen of Warner Bros. was without a contract. As luck would have it, Claudette Colbert, who had beaten write-in candidate Davis to the Oscar in 1934, had to withdraw from playing the part of an aging actress in “All About Eve.” Davis leaped at the last-minute offer and gave one of her truly great screen performances as Margot Channing. Though she won best actress from the New York Film Critics Circle, her hopes for that elusive third Oscar were derailed when her on-screen nemesis, Anne Baxter, insisted on competing in the lead category.
Subsequent vote-splitting allowed Judy Holliday (“Born Yesterday”) to pull off a surprise win. The screen newcomer also bested Eleanor Parker (“Caged”) and sentimental favorite Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”). At age 53, Swanson thought this might be her last big shot at academy gold (she was right) and was devastated when she lost. Upon hearing the sad news, she whispered to a stunned Holliday, “Darling, why couldn’t you have waited till next year?”
By contrast, disappointed Davis gave another Oscar-worthy performance, exclaiming, “Good! A newcomer won, I couldn’t be more pleased.” Six months later, Davis claimed the consolation prize of best actress at Cannes.
Two years later in Davis contended again, this time for playing a washed-up Oscar winner in “The Star.” In one of the campier scenes in a mediocre movie, she drives drunk while one of her real pair of Oscars sits on the dashboard keeping her company. Alas, her over-the-top performance did not bring her a third trophy.
It would be a full decade before Davis was nominated again, this time for her bravura performance opposite Joan Crawford in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. However, just as her costar’s maneuverings had kept Davis out of the winner’s circle for “Eve,” so too was it to be with “Baby Jane.”
Crawford was crushed that she wasn’t nominated. Though she had won an Oscar for “Mildred Pierce” in 1945 and would reap two more bids – including one for “Sudden Fear” in 1952 when both she and Davis lost to Shirley Booth for “Come Back, Little Sheba” – she had never been a critics darling like Davis. However, she was popular with the mainstream press and she worked her not inconsiderable charms on a less-than-stealth campaign against her costar.
And come Oscar night, Crawford would be the one holding the Academy Award, having engineered to accept should absentee nominee Anne Bancroft prevail, as she did, for “The Miracle Worker.” The savvy star milked this moment for all it was worth, and kept printers’ ink flowing when she flew to Gotham to present the gold to the winner working on Broadway.
One of the other losers in 1962 was Katharine Hepburn, who had received her ninth nom for “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The Yankee original had won an Academy Award with her first nomination back in 1933 for “Morning Glory,” but been an Oscar bridesmaid ever since. All that would change in the coming years as she’d win an Oscar for each of her next three nominations – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), and “On Golden Pond” (1981) – thereby setting the record of four lead wins.
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