By John Pegum
Senior Product Manager, Humanities
This morning, 24 newly-crowned Academy Award winners are waking up – or emerging from chic after show parties – and every one of them will hope they remember the whereabouts of their much-prized Oscar statuette. If, for whatever reason, they have mislaid their award in the last few hours (or are fated to do so in the years to come), then they will be in illustrious company.
Whether through their own forgetfulness, innocent accidents, or via relatives or strangers, several Hollywood stars are now bereft of their Oscars:
• Jennifer Lawrence’s 2013 best actress award is now lost, thanks to her mother misplacing it en route to the family home.
• Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, and even Bing Crosby have lost awards, or had their awards stolen.
• Both of Marlon Brando’s Oscars, even the one he did not reject, are nowhere to be found today.
And other Oscar stories abound, some with happier endings—Whoopi Goldberg’s award was lost after she mailed it to the Academy for cleaning, though she was later reunited with it after it was discovered in an airport trash can.
But of all the lost Oscars, the most historically significant is from 1940. That year, "Gone with the Wind" won 10 Oscars. One of them was awarded to an African American for the very first time. Hattie McDaniel received the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of “Mammy,” Scarlett O’Hara’s nanny and chief critic. It is a powerful character performance, and not only because of McDaniel and Vivien Leigh’s onscreen chemistry. Prior to "Gone with the Wind," McDaniel had appeared in nearly 60 motion pictures, and in virtually all of them she had played domestic servants; more than one of which had been called “Mammy.”
There had been concerns, voiced by the NAACP amongst others, about the representation of African Americans, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan in Margaret Mitchell’s original novel. In response, some offensive language was removed from the screenplay and some scenes underwent minor edits, but the overall perspective on Southern slaves and their masters remained unchanged. There were reciprocal concerns about the “familiar” way in which McDaniel’s Mammy conversed with her masters, the O’Hara’s.
The Atlanta premiere in December 1939 was also not without controversy. McDaniel was informed that state laws barred her from attending the premiere. Clark Gable protested and threatened to boycott, but in the end, he was persuaded by McDaniel to attend.
The Hollywood premiere, barely two weeks later, was much less controversial. McDaniel was not only present, but featured prominently in the program. Her commanding performance was recognized two months later with that Oscar nomination, and she beat out some of Hollywood’s finest (including McDaniel’s co-star Olivia de Havilland). Winning the Academy Award was an achievement not to be replicated by another black actor for another 20 years (Sidney Poitier), and not by another female black actor for, astonishingly, another 50 years (the aforementioned Whoopi Goldberg).
Sadly, however, that significant and emblematic Oscar plaque (the Academy did not present Supporting Actors with statuettes then) was lost. In the 1930s, McDaniel could have been characterized as a trailblazer. By the 1960s, however, some in the Civil Rights movement looked upon previous depictions of black characters in Hollywood movies as perpetuating the exact stereotypes that they sought to overturn. Hattie’s “Mammy” came to symbolise some of those stereotypes, and so her plaque, donated to Howard University’s Drama department, was stolen and unceremoniously cast into the Potomac River by civil rights protesters.
At least, that is the commonly repeated anecdote. In truth, no one knows where that Oscar is now. Another version is that Howard University simply mislaid it. Perhaps it was packaged up by an innocent caretaker, who was not aware of the significance of the plaque; it could potentially remain safe and sound somewhere at Howard University. Considering it was Hattie’s wish for it to reside there to inspire the next generation of African Americans and, in her own words, to serve as a “beacon,” let’s hope it will one day be reinstated in its trophy cabinet.
Learn more about the casting and production trials, tribulations and commercial history of "Gone with the Wind," the work of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the life, work and reputation of Hattie McDaniel through ProQuest’s Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog and other resources for the study of Film History.
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