Monday, September 9, 2013

A first: Hattie McDaniel wins Best Supporting Actress for 1939 movie 'Gone With The Wind' (Videos)

Hattie McDaniel accepts Academy Award
Unless you are a movie buff or film historian, you probably are not aware of actress Hattie McDaniel, an African American who was born June 10, 1895 in Witchita, Kansas. She was called “colored” back then, among other names that supposedly identified her ethnicity. McDaniel was one of 13 children born to Henry McDaniel and Susan Holbert, a gospel singer. Her father was a Baptist minister who played the banjo and performed in minstrel shows.

In 1900 the McDaniel family headed for Denver, Colorado.
McDaniel is Mammy in Gone with the Wind
Hattie attended Denver East High School, where she graduated. When she was a teenager she trained to work in her father’s minstrel show. In 1920 she became a member of Professor George Morrison’s troupe, a traveling orchestra and minstrel show called Melody Hounds. She toured with the band for five years. 

McDaniel  began her singing and dancing career, performing comedy skits while attending high school. Years later she was asked to perform on Denver’s KOA radio. This gave McDaniel the distinction of being the first Black woman to sing on radio. Her brother Sam was a performer on radio station KNX. He was a regular on The Optimistic Do-Nuts. McDaniel was added to the show after she moved to Los Angeles in 1929. Sam and sister Etta persuaded her to move to California. On the radio show Hattie was popular with the listening audience. She earned the nickname “Hi-Hat-Hattie.” 

McDaniel’s brother, an aspiring actor, played a butler in the Three Stooges’ short film, Heavenly Daze. Her sister Etta also wanted to be an actress. McDaniel honed her skills as a songwriter while performing in her father’s minstrel. From 1926 to 1929 she recorded some of her songs on Okeh and Paramount Record labels. McDaniel had her eyes on getting into the movies, and in 1931 she got a break—sort of—as an extra in a Hollywood musical. 

A couple of years later she landed a nice size role in The Golden West, 1932. She got more bit parts, but no substantial roles. Significant roles for Black actors and actresses were few and far between, as is the history of Hollywood and Black actors. McDaniel was not discouraged by the roles she got. She refused to step away from her dream. In the meanwhile, she worked as a rest room attendant and other jobs to earn a living, while waiting for the next role.

Hattie McDaniel
In the movie Judge Priest McDaniel performed a duet with humorist/actor Will Rogers. It was a major role for her. Stepin Fetchit, another Black actor, also appeared in the movie. The next year she won a hefty role playing Mom Beck in The Little Colonel. McDaniel had finally gotten the eye of a Hollywood director, and her movie career was looking up.

During the late 1930s Blacks appeared in movie roles that were stereotypical and somewhat demeaning in tone and context. Black actors played maids, mammies, slow taking buffoons, tap dancers. Despite these roles that would not make them rich, Black actors wanted to make it in show business. They understood the roles they accepted, and limitations put on them in an all White industry. In a racist tinged America White movie goers were not ready to accept Blacks on the big screen unless they played subservient roles.

Stephin Fetchit appeared in the comedy Carolina, Judge Priest and Steamboat the Bend. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a tap dancer, was in The Little Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and One Mile From Heaven. Louise Beavers, playing a maid in the classic movie Imitation of Life and No Time For Comedy. She went to get more memorable roles. 

Whereas African Americans viewed her roles as stereotypical, McDaniel milked her roles for all they were worth. And, yes, she had answers for her critics. The Kansapedia-Kansas Historical Society wrote of McDaniel: "Hattie McDaniel's screen career was built upon the image of the verbally flip, clever maid whose knowledge of human nature is wider and wiser than that of the bourgeois sorts who employ her. Hattie McDaniel filled these roles with an ironic energy, using her massive figure,enormously mobile face, and rich voice to transform the meek servant into a knowing critic of the ways of the masters. When asked why she played only these stereotypical domestics, McDaniel replied: 'It's Better to get $7,000 a week for playing a servant than $7.00 a week for being one.'

"That was her practical response; her artistic response was equally direct. She created a series of memorable characters whose inescapable humanity could be enjoyed by both white and black audiences. In Alice Adams (1935), Show Boat (1936), Saratoga (1937, and The Mad Miss Manton (1938), she managed to embody the conventional virtues of the faithful servant, while preserving a sense of pride and autonomy in her characters. McDaniel's control over her own artistic vision built toward her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Named best supporting actress for this performance, she became the first black American to win an Academy Award."

McDaniel’s big break came when she auditioned in 1939 for, and got the role of Mammy
McDaniel auditions for role of Mammy
in Gone With The Wind, a movie that earned her $1,000 a week; considerably less than what  White female actresses earned. She beat a number of Black actresses bidding the role. McDaniel auditioned in full “mammy” costume, making her stand out from her competitors. Butterfly McQueen also had role in the movie. Her career basically stood still after Gone With the Wind.  McDaniel was awarded for her efforts by winning  an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The 12th Academy Awards  took place at the Cocoanut Grove Restaurant of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The award presentation was preceded by a banquet in the hotel. McDaniel and her guest had to sit in the back of the room. They were not allowed to mingle with the White actors and their guests. Her fellow White actors appeared to be satisfied with the arrangement. At the premiere in Atlanta, McDaniel and other Black actors were not allowed to attend because of racism in the segregated South. Clark Gable, the leading male actor in Gone With The Wind, threatened to boycott the premiere if McDaniel could not attend. Supposedly she persuaded him to attend. When the movie premiered in Hollywood McDaniel was there.

A gossip columnist name Louella Parsons wrote about Oscar night, 1940: "Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar by her fine performance of 'Mammy' in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen's taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor.” 

McDaniel said in her acceptance speech: “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.”

YouTube videos

The Oscar that McDaniel accepted at the award ceremony was not the actual Oscar (golden statue) she received. The presentation was a farce. Off stage or sometimes later, McDCaniel received a golden plaque with the image of Oscar statue imprinted on it. She donated the Oscar to Howard University. Not long afterwards it disappeared during six days of rioting in Washington, D.C. after the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther Kings. To this day no one knows what happened to the Oscar. The university told Jet magazine in 1998 that the university had no record of it arriving at Howard. It has been rumored that civil rights protesters took the Oscar and threw it in the Potomac River. 

Sidney Poitier was the next Black actor to win an Oscar 24 years later for “Lilies Of The Field.” It took 38 years before another Black actor won an Oscar. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his role in “Training Day.” Even today the Oscar is elusive for African Americans in movies. None of Tyler Perry’s movies have ever been nominated for an Oscar, despite his movies being big money makers, attracting integrated audiences.

Through the 1940s McDaniel appeared in many more movies, but her on screen characters did not change. The NAACP and the African American community were not happy seeing Blacks playing the roles written for them. They did not feel these were the only parts Black actors and actresses could play. The NAACP did not consider the fact that there were no “colored’ directors, producers or “colored” owned studios during that time.

Walter White, president of the NAACP, asked Black actors and actresses to stop accepting the negative roles. He reasoned that the roles reflected poorly on the Black community. He said Black people were portrayed as a people incapable of progressing farther than cleaning and cooking and being mammies for White people’s children. He urged White owned studios to create positive parts for Black actors. White’s plea fell on deaf ears. Besides, White movies goers would not accept “colored” actors playing roles like those of White actors and actresses. Because of the conflict between McDaniel and the NAACP, roles for her slowed down considerably.

McDaniel returned to radio in 1947 to perform in “The Beulah Show” on CBS radio. The show debuted on TV in 1951. Before the show had a full season McDaniel suffered a heart attack, forcing her to take a short leave of absence. She returned shortly to continue filming. Misfortune hit again when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1952.

Hattie McDaniel succumbed to cancer October 26, 1952 in Woodland Hill, California. She was 57. She was the first African American actor be interned at the Angeles-Rosedale Cemetery. She married four times, three of which ended in divorces; her first husband preceded in her death. 

Her estate was valued at less than $10,000 when she died. She left $1.00 to her first husband, Larry Williams. She had no children. McDaniel was posthumously awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1975 she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Her face was on a  January 25, 2006 Commemorative Stamp, which was produced for Black History Month.

 McDaniel played a maid 93 times out of the 300 movies she appeared in.

Black actors and actresses that have received Oscars:

  • 1940 Hattie McDaniel  Best Supporting Actor, Gone With The Wind 
  • 1963 Sidney Poitier  Best Actor in Leading Role,  Lilies of The Field
  • 1982 Louis Gossett, Jr.   Best Supporting Actor, Officer and A Gentleman
  • 1989 Denzel Washington  Best Supporting Actor, Glory
  • 2002 Denzel Washington  Best Leading Actor in Leading Role, Training Day
  • 1990 Whoopie Goldbeg  Best Supporting Actress, Ghost
  • 1996 Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Best Supporting Actor, Jerry McGuire
  • 1999 Michael Clarke Duncan  Best Supporting Actor, The Green Mile
  • 2002 Hally Berry  Best Actress in Leasing role, Monster's Ball 
  •  2004 Jamie Foxx  Best Leading Actor, Ray
  • 2004 Morgan Freeman  Best Supporting Actor, Million Dollar Baby
  • 2006 Forest Whitaker  Best Leading Actor, The Last King of Scotland
  • 2007 Jennifer Hudson  Best Supporting Actor,  Dreamgirls
  • 2009 Mo’Nique  Best Supporting Actor, Precious
  • 2009 Roger Ross Williams,  Best Documentary Short Subject
  • 2011 Octavia Spencer  Best Supporting Actor,  The Help
  • 2012 T. J. Martin  Best Documentary Feature, Undefeated

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