The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1934
1934. Wonderful year. This goes twofold for me, since my favorite film of all time was made this year. Every time I talk about this year, I make sure to note that there’s no way I can be subjective when my favorite film is involved. I just can’t. That’s the one place I refuse to do it. Fortunately, The Thin Man isn’t nominated here, so it won’t affect this category at all. Recapping the year is easy. It Happened One Night won everything. Picture, Director (talked about here), Actor (here), and, yes, Actress (writing too. First big five winner in history). But of all the categories of 1934, this one is the most interesting. For several reasons. The first is that this is one of the few categories for which the Academy announced the order of finish. Claudette Colbert won, Norma Shearer finished 2nd, and Bette Davis finished 3rd (QED, Grace Moore was last). The most important part about all this, though, is the Bette Davis nomination. Let me explain.
Bette Davis begged out of her Warner Bros. contract to make this film. They agreed because they assumed she was going to fail. But the film actually ended up being her breakthrough. And come Oscar time, when she got nomination buzz, Warners spitefully told people not to vote for her. And since the voting system wasn’t as, shall we say, objective, as it is now (votes were tabulated by the heads of the Academy. Warners was one. No bias at all, I’m sure), she wasn’t nominated. And her supporters, outraged, petitioned the Academy for a write-in vote. The outcry was large enough (probably because at that time the Oscars were small enough) that it actually worked. The Academy caved (kind of like when they caved in 2008 and started the 10 nominees), and this became one of only two years to ever feature a write-in vote (that counted).
It didn’t work out for Bette Davis (3rd), but the year after this, Hal Mohr actually won Best Cinematography for A Midsummer Night’s Dream without being nominated (which is great. He was the best there). But, this decision was strong enough to get several things to happen. First, it got the write-in ballot for two years. Then it got the Academy to change its voting practices. They handed over the entire voting and counting process to PriceWaterhouse (who still does it). And it also created that Oscar groundswell we know so well, especially when it comes to Best Actress, that got Bette Davis to win a slam dunk Oscar (considered a makeup Oscar) the year after this, for Dangerous. I’ll talk about that when I get to it, but for now, can you see how important 1934 is (even without The Thin Man)?
BEST ACTRESS – 1934
And the nominees were…
Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night
Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage (write-in)
Grace Moore, One Night of Love
Norma Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (more…)