Category: Oscar Profile

Oscar Profile #370: Charlton Heston

Born October 4, 1923 in No Man’s Land, now part of Wilmette, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, Illinois, John Charles Carter became Charlton Heston after his parents’ divorce, his mother’s remarriage and adoption by his stepfather. Charlton was his mother’s maiden name, Heston was her new husband’s surname.

The highly imaginative child became interested in acting while in high school and made his film debut in the title role a 16mm silent version of Peer Gynt in 1941 when he was 17. Attending Northwestern University on a drama scholarship, he married fellow student Lydia Clarke in March,1944 and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in which he served for two years as a radio operator. After the war he was active in theatre, including Broadway and early live TV. His portrayal of Marc Antony in a 1950 film version of Julius Caesar directed by his Peer Gynt director, David Bradley made Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Heston’s first official Hollywood film was 1950’s Dark City in which he starred opposite Lizabeth Scott and Viveca Lindfors, but it was Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth that established him as a major star. He had numerous successes during the next few years including Ruby Gentry opposite Jennifer Jones, The President’s Lady as Andrew Jackson opposite Susan Hayward, The Naked Jungle opposite Eleanor Parker and Lucy Gallant opposite Jane Wyman. Then came superstardom as Moses in DeMille’s 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments.

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Oscar Profile #369: Frances McDormand

Born June 23, 1957 in Chicago, Illinois, Frances McDormand was the adopted daughter of Canadian-born parents, Noreen Eloise (Nickleson), a nurse from Ontario, and The Rev. Vernon Weir McDormand, a Disciples of Christ minister from Nova Scotia, who raised her in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. She began her stage career after graduating from Yale in 1982, appearing on Broadway in the 1984 revival of Awake and Sing!, the same year she made her film debut in Blood Simple, marrying the film’s director, Joel Coen.

In 1987 she played another supporting role in one of her husband’s films, Raising Arizona, in which the female lead was played by her college roommate, Holly Hunter. The following year, McDormand received a Tony nomination for playing Stella in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire and an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the wife of a racist deputy sheriff in Mississippi Burning.

Despite her Oscar nomination, McDormand languished in minor, often unbilled roles, until her iconic portrayal of the pregnant sheriff in Coen’s 1996 masterwork, Fargo, which brought her numerous awards including an Oscar for Best Actress. She also had important roles in that year’s Primal Fear and Lone Star. Despite the Oscar, however, it was back to supporting roles in films, two of which in 2000, brought her further awards recognition. She was recognized by various critics’ groups for her work in both Wonder Boys and Almost Famous, her overbearing mother in the latter bringing her a third Oscar nomination, her second in support.

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Oscar Profile #368: Henry King

Born January 24, 1886 in Christiansburg, Virginia, Henry Edmonson King left school at 15 to go to work for the Norfolk and Western Railroad. He later became an actor with the touring Empire Stock Company. He married actress Gypsy Abbott, with whom he would have four children, in 1914. He made his first film as an actor in 1913, became a director in 1915 and directed himself to great success in 1916’s Little Mary Sunshine among other films. His great silent film successes included 1921’s Tol’able David, his first film as producer; 1923’s The White Sister in which he drew a mustache on Ronald Colman thus making his career; 1925’s Stella Dallas and 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth in which he cast an unknown Gary Cooper over the objections of producer Sam Goldwyn.

King was one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although he would never win an Oscar himself, and would in fact only receive two Oscar nominations over the course of his long career, he would remain one of the most versatile of directors, tackling everything from historical dramas to action-adventure films to musicals.

The first of seven King films to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, was 1933’s pre-musical version of State Fair starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor. Lightning would strike again with 1937’s In Old Chicago starring Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche and Alice Brady as Mrs. O’Leary whose cow started the Chicago fire and 1938’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, King’s first musical, with Power, Faye and Ameche joined by Ethel Merman.

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Oscar Profile #367: Rex Harrison

Born March 5, 1908 in Lancashire, England, Reginald Carey Harrison was the third child and only son of William Reginald Harrison, a cotton broker and his wife Edith Mary (née Carey). A precocious child, he dreamed of going on stage because he liked the applause and changed his name to Rex because it was the Latin word for King and because it would fit better on a marquee.

Harrison went on the stage in 1926 at the age of 18 and made his film debut in a bit part in 1930’s The Great Game, followed by bit parts in five more films through 1936 when he had his breakthrough role on stage in Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears. He had married socialite Colette Thomas in 1934, who gave birth to his son, actor Noel Harrison (1934-2013).

In better screen roles now, he appeared opposite Vivien Leigh in both 1937’s Storm in a Teacup and 1948’s Sidewalks of London, in support of Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell in 1938’s The Citadel, opposite Margaret Lockwood in 1940’s Night Train to Munich and Wendy Hiller in 1941’s Major Barbara. He divorced Thomas in 1942 and married actress Lilli Palmer in 1943 with whom he had son Carey Harrison. His last British film of note was 1945’s Blithe Spirit.

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Oscar Profile #366: John Alton

Born October 5, 1901 in Sopron, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary) as Johann Jacob Altmann, the son of an American-born father, legendary cinematographer John Alton was raised on films steeped in German Expressionism during his European childhood, which informed his later use of low light, his motto being “it’s not what you light…it’s what you don’t light.”.

Alton began his career as a lab technician at MGM in 1924, became a cinematographer three years later when he filmed the German location scenes for Ernst Lubitsch’s 1927 film of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Having moved to Paris to work on the Lubitsch film, he stayed there for a few years while working for Paramount, moving to Argentina in the early 1930s where he helped build that country’s film industry. He trained several cinematographers and directors, photographing over twenty films himself, even directing a few.

Returning to Hollywood in 1937 with his wife, journalist Rozalia Kiss, he quickly developed a reputation as one of the industry’s most accomplished cinematographers, but it was the films noir of the late 1940s that cemented his reputation for his highly contrasted black-and-white cinematography that included unusual camera angles designed to symbolically enhance and sometimes mock the on-screen action. He was especially adept at photographing exterior shots as effectively as he did studio work. His work reached its zenith with 1947’s T-Men, 1948’s He Walked by Night, Hollow Triumph aka The Scar and Raw Deal.

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Oscar Profile #365: Viola Davis

Born August 11, 1965 in St. Matthews, South Carolina, the fifth of six children whose father was a horse trainer and whose mother was a maid. Two months after she was born, her parents moved her and three of her siblings to Cedar Falls, Rhode Island, leaving her two oldest siblings with her grandparents. She became interested in acting while attending Cedar Falls High School, and after graduation she attended Rhode Island College, majoring in drama, graduating in 1988.

Regional theatre eventually led to Broadway and a role in the 1996 production, Seven Guitars, the same year she made her film debut in a small role in Substance of Fire. Frequently seen in guest appearance on TV, Davis also found occasional work on the big screen in such films as Out of Sight, Traffic, Kate & Leopold, Far from Heaven, Antwone Fisher, Syriana and World Trade Center in the next decade, with time out for a return to Broadway in 2001’s King Hedley II for which she won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award. She won a second Drama Desk award for 2004’s Intimate Apparel, the year after she married her husband, Julius Tennon. They would adopt an infant daughter named Genesis in 2011.

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Oscar Profile #364: Walter Lassally

Born December 18, 1926 in Berlin, Germany to a German father and Polish mother, Walter Lassally’s father was an engineer and industrial filmmaker. Although Protestant by religion, both parents were Jewish by heritage and his father was forced to stop working when the Nazis came to power in 1932. With his father imprisoned in 1938, his mother obtained Peruvian visas with English travel visas as his father had been promised a job in Canada. The family fled to London in June 1939, two months before the war started, but his father’s promised job in Canada did not come through. He worked through the war in various capacities, and became a German-to-English translator after the war. Walter Lassally’s middle name of “Israel” was imposed upon him by the Nazis when it was placed on his passport.

Lassally’s chosen profession as a cinematographer did not come about because of his father’s background, but because of his early and continuing love for films which he took in at local cinemas whenever he could. His first job in film was working at a photographic studio. He then found work as a clapper boy at Riverside Studios, which allowed him to work with film crews now and then. He became a photographer of documentary films while working as an assistant cameraman on such theatrical films as 1949’s Woman of Dolwyn and 1950’s Night and the City.

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Oscar Profile #363: Alan Ladd

Born September 3, 1913 to Ina Rawley and Alan Ladd, an accountant, Alan Walbridge Ladd was four when his father died. He was five when he burned his apartment, playing with matches. His mother moved them to Oklahoma City. He was malnourished, undersize and nicknamed “Tiny” at eight, when his mother married a housepainter who moved them to California. He picked fruit, delivered papers, and swept stores to earn money. In high school he discovered track and swimming. By 1931 he was training for the 1932 Olympics, but an injury ended his plans. He opened a hamburger stand called Tiny’s Patio, and later worked as a grip at Warner Brothers, while beginning his on-screen career as an extra in films. He married high-school sweetheart Marjorie “Midge” Harrold in 1936. Their son, Alan Ladd, Jr. was born in 1937. His destitute alcoholic mother moved in with them and Ladd witnessed her agonizing suicide from ant poison a few months later. Ladd’s 5’5″ height and coloring were regarded as not right for movies, so he concentrated on radio, where talent scout and former actress Sue Carol discovered him early in 1939.

Under Carl’s management, Ladd’s screen career improved, including an unbilled part in as a reporter in Citizen Kane. He and Harrold were divorced in 1941 and he married Carol in 1942. Given a contract by Paramount, he became a star opposite Veronica Lake in 1942’s This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, quickly followed by the same year’s Lucky Jordan. He filmed 1943’s China before being inducted into the army in January of that year. Daughter Alana was born while he was in uniform. He was discharged in October 1943 due to illness.

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Oscar Profile #362: Richard Barthelmess

Born May 9, 1895 in New York New York, Richard Barthelmess was the son of stage actress Caroline Harris (1866-1937) and her husband, Alfred Barthelmess who died when Richard was just a year old. He had walk-ons in his mother’s plays from an early age. Educated at Hudson River Military Academy and Trinity College, he began acting in college and other venues. By 1919 he had five years of stock experience. Encouraged by stage and film star Nazimova, a friend of his mother’s, he made his screen debut as an extra in one of her films.

Barthelmess’s rise to screen stardom was meteoric. In 1919, he became a major star opposite Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, followed a year later by Griffith’s equally popular Way Down East also opposite Gish. Also in 1920, Barthelmess married first wife, actress Mary Hay with whom they had a daughter, future actress Mary Barthelmess.

Now a major star, Barthelmess formed Inspiration Pictures in partnership with Charles Duell and director Henry King. Their 1921 film, Tol’able David was a huge success, making Barthelmess an instant heartthrob. Among his many other popular silent films was the first screen version of The Enchanted Cottage in 1924.

Barthelmess was divorced from Mary Hay in 1927, the year he married second wife, Jessica Stewart Sargent, with whom he would remain married until his death.

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Oscar Profile #361: Shelley Winters

Born August 18, 1920 in St. Louis, Missouri to Jonas Schrift, a designer of men’s clothing, and his wife Rose (née Winter), a singer, Shirley Schrift, would become the actress Shelley Winters. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York when Winters was 9. Her sister Blanche having married a Los Angeles theatre manager, Winters joined her there when she was 16, later returing to New York. Having been one of many who auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and being told by George Cukor to get acting lessons, she did.

Winters began her career in summer stock, making her Broadway debut in 1941’s The Night Before Christmas. She married first husband, Captain Mack Paul Mayer in 1942 at the beginning of her Hollywood career. Having appeared uncredited in numerous small roles, she finally got her big chance in Cukor’s 1947 film, A Double Life as the waitress who is murdered by Ronald Colman. Mayer divorced her in 1948, unable to cope with her Hollywood lifestyle.

Now a hot property, Winters made a succession of popular films including Cry of the City, Winchester ‘73, He Ran All the Way and A Place in the Sun for which she received her first Oscar nomination. She married Italian actor Vittorio Gassman in 1952, with whom she had a daughter the following year. They divorced in 1954. Her mid-50s successes included Executive Suite, I Am a Camera and The Night of the Hunter. On Broadway in A Hatful of Rain, she married co-star Anthony Franciosa in 1957. They would divorce in 1960 after she won her Oscar for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.

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Oscar Profile #360: Holly Hunter

Born March 20, 1958 in Conyers, Georgia to Opal, a homemaker, and Charles Hunter, a part-time sporting goods company representative and farmer with a 250-acre farm, Holly Hunter was the youngest of seven siblings.

Hunter’s parents encouraged her acting talent from an early age. Her first on-stage role was in a fifth-grade play in which she portrayed Helen Keller. After graduating high school, she went to Pittsburgh to pursue a degree in drama from Carnegie Mellon University. After her graduation in 1980, she moved to Manhattan where she met playwright Beth Henley in a stalled elevator on upper Broadway. That meeting led to her being cast as a replacement for Mary Beth Hurt in Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and then in the starring role in her Miss Firecracker.

Having made her film debut in a one-line role in 1981’s The Burning, her film career was slow to get going. In 1984, she was offered the female lead in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, but had to decline since she was committed to another play. She recommended her roommate, Frances McDormand, who not only got the role but her future husband, Joel Coen, out of the deal. Hunter’s own breakthrough role was in 1987’s Raising Arizona in a role the Coen Brothers wrote specifically for her. She emerged as a genuine star when she replaced a pregnant Debra Winger in the same year’s Broadcast News, for which she received her first Oscar nomination. Two years later she won an Emmy for TV’s Roe vs. Wade and three years after that won another one for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.

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Oscar Profile #359: Gene Kelly

Born August 23, 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Eugene (Gene) Kelly was the third son of a phonograph salesman and his wife. His father had once been Al Jolson’s road manager. Although it was Gene’s dream to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, his mother enrolled Gene and his older brother James in dance classes when he was 8. Both boys rebelled and Kelly didn’t dance again until he was 15. By the age of 17, he was inventing dance routines for his younger brother Fred to perform to earn money for the family in the early days of the Depression. At 19, he enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh and was later admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Law School. He was also involved in the University’s Cab and Gown Club which staged original musical productions. After graduation, he taught dance for a while before deciding to become a full-time entertainer.

Kelly’s first Broadway assignment was in Cole Porter’s 1938 Leave It to Me! in which he supported Mary Martin. In 1939’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, he devised his own choreography and met first wife, Betsy Blair, who he married in 1941. He was propelled to stardom in the lead role in Rodgers & Hart’s 1940 musical, Pal Joey. During the run of the play, he also choreographed Best Foot Forward before going to Hollywood to make For Me and My Gal opposite Judy Garland, the success of which kept him in demand at MGM as well as other studios on loan-out.

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Oscar Profile #358: Christopher Walken

Born March 31, 1943 in Astoria, Queens, the son of a bakery owner and his wife, Ronald Walken, named by his mother after her favorite actor, Ronald Colman, and his brothers Kenneth and Glenn were child actors on television and in the theatre in the 1950s.

Initially billed as Ronnie, the actor changed his first name in 1964 to Christopher. His breakthrough role came in the 1963 Off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward opposite Liza Minnelli. His Broadway credits include featured roles in 1958’s The Visit in support of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; 1964’s High Spirits in support of Beatrice Lillie, Tammy Grimes and Edward Woodward and 1965’s Baker Street in support of Fritz Weaver and Inga Swenson. He was more prominently featured as the young King of France in 1966’s The Lion in Winter in support of Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris.

Walken’s breakthrough screen role came in 1971’s The Anderson Tapes in support of Sean Connery. He had important roles in 1966’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village and 1977’s The Sentinel, Annie Hall and Roseland. His role in 1978’s The Deer Hunter brought him an Oscar and lasting fame. He continued in major films for the next ten years, among which were The Last Embrace, Heaven’s Gate, The Dogs of War, Pennies from Heaven, Brainstorm, The Dead Zone, A View to a Kill, At Close Range, The Milago Beanfield War and Biloxi Blues. In 1991, he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in Sarah, Plain and Tall opposite Glenn Close, a role he reprised in 1993’s Skylark and again in 1999’s Winter’s End.

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Oscar Profile #357: Helena Bonham Carter

Born May 26, 1966 in London, England, Helena Bonham Carter was the youngest of three children of Elena, a psychotherapist, and Raymond Bonham Carter, a merchant banker. She is the great-granddaughter, on her father’s side of the family, of former Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith, and the great-niece of director Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest). She set her sights on an acting career in 1979 at the age of 13, landing her first job in a commercial at the age of 16. Her first film was the 1983 TV movie, A Pattern of Roses. She had her first starring role as an Edwardian heroine in James Ivory’s 1986 film of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View when she was just 19 years old.

Bonham Carter’s rise was meteoric. She also had the title role in 1986’s Lady Jane, and had an amusing cameo in Ivory’s 1987 film, Maurice. She was Ophelia to Mel Gibson’s title character in 1990’s Hamlet and another Edwardian heroine in Charles Sturridge’s 1991 film of Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. She had her best role to date in yet another James Ivory adaptation of a Forster novel, 1992’s Howards End, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA.

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Oscar Profile #356: Lester Persky

Born July 6, 1925, Lester Persky was an independent film producer who either co-financed or co-produced more than 30 films, many of them high profile successes, primarily between 1968 and 1979. The Harvey Weinstein of the 1970s, information on him remains as fragmented as his credits, which were parsed between The Devon Company, The Claridge Associates, Bright-Persky Associates, Persky-Bright Productions and various other entities.

Young Persky attended Brooklyn College, but his studies were interrupted by World War II when he spent two years as a merchant seaman. He then worked as a reporter trainee at The New York Times, but gave up a career in journalism to work for an advertising agency as a copywriter. This experience led him to establish his own advertising agency, which became hugely successful.

Financially secure, Persky who bore a canny resemblance to gap-toothed comedy Terry-Thomas, put his money where his heart was, producing films that indulged his fancy. A film buff at heart above everything, his philosophy was that the major studios never went broke putting all their money on one film, and neither did he. For every flop, he had two or more hits. He even bragged about saving $13,000 on the notorious 1976 Marlon Brando-Jack Nicholson flop, The Missouri Breaks because Brando didn’t “act up” as much as it was thought he would.

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