Category: Oscar Profile

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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Oscar Profile #355: Milton Krasner

Born February 17, 1904 in Brooklyn, New York, Milton Krasner entered the film industry as an assistant cameraman in 1917 at the age of 13. While working at the Vitagraph and Biograph studios in New York City, he was promoted to camera operator. He became a cinematographer in 1933.

Krasner’s first film of note as a director of photography was the 1939 W.C. Fields comedy, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, directed by George Marshall. He followed that with such successes as 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns, The House of Seven Gables and The Bank Dick, 1941’s Buck Pirates, 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein and Arabian Nights, for which he received his first Oscar nomination.

Krasner’s post-Oscar nomination films of the 1940s included Gung Ho!, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Dark Mirror, The Egg and I, The Farmer’s Daughter, A Double Life, The Accused, The Set-Up, House of Strangers and Holiday Affair. His 1950 output alone included Three Came Home, No Way Out and All About Eve, for which he received his second Oscar nomination.

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Oscar Profile #354: Gig Young

Born November 4, 1913 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Byron Barr (screen name Gig Young) was raised in Washington, D.C. and Waynesville, South Carolina. Having developed a passion for theatre, he won a scholarship to the famed Pasadena Playhouse. While appearing in a play in Mexico, he and fellow actor George Reeves were spotted by a Warner Bros. scout and offered studio contracts.

Barr’s first twelve films saw him either billed under his birth name or not credited at all. He was first billed as Gig Young, the name of his character, in 1942’s The Gay Sisters in which he was fifth billed. He was second billed in 1943’s Air Force, followed by another major role in 1943’s Old Acquaintance, after which he served in World War II. His first film after the war was 1947’s Escape Me Never, the same year he was divorced from actress Sheila Stapler, his wife of seven years. In 1948, he had important roles in three major films, The Woman in White, The Three Musketeers and Wake of the Red Witch. Now in constant demand, he married acting coach Sophie Rosenstein in 1950. She would die less than two years later.

Well-known as an alcoholic within the industry, Young earned the first of his three Oscar nominations for playing one in 1951’s Come Fill the Cup, which led to roles in such high-profile films as 1953’s City That Never Sleeps and Torch Song, 1954’s Young at Heart and 1955’s The Desperate Hours.

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Oscar Profile #353: Margaret Leighton

Born February 26, 1922 in Barnt Green, Worcestershire, England, Margaret Leighton was the daughter of a businessman who made her acting debut at the Old Vic in 1938’s Laugh with Me which was also televised that year. She made her Broadway debut in 1946 in five touring plays starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, beginning with Henry IV. She returned to England, where she married publisher Max Reinhardt in 1947 and made her film debut in 1948’s The Winslow Boy, which was released in the U.S. in 1950 after American audiences had already seen her as the second lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1949 film, Under Capricorn starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph cotton and Michael Wilding, who would later become her third husband.

Busy in British films in the early 1950s, she starred in such films as The Astonished Heart, The Elusive Pimpernel, Calling Bulldog Drummond, Home at Seven, The Holly and the Ivy, The Teckman Mystery and The Good Die Young opposite future husband Laurence Harvey.

Leighton divorced Reinhardt in 1955 and married Harvey in 1957. In-between she won a Tony for Broadway’s Separate Tables in which she played the role that would be split between Deborah Kerr and Rita Hayworth in the 1958 film version. It was a role she had first played in London in 1954.

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Oscar Profile #352: Fritz Lang

Born December 5, 1890 in Vienna, Austria, Friedrich Christian Anton Lang, Fritz for short, was one of the most influential film directors of all time yet won no major awards, possibly due to his reputation as a tyrant on film sets.

Although trained in Paris in 1913-14 to be a painter, Lang returned to Vienna at the outbreak of World War I and volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army. He joined as a private, but received a battlefield commission as a lieutenant. Injured three times and suffering from shell shock, while recuperating in 1916, he wrote scenarios and ideas for films. After his discharge in 1918, he went to work for producer Eric Pommer, leading to his employment as a director at Berlin’s Ufa studio and others.

Lang married first wife Lisa Rosenthal in 1919. She committed suicide in 1921 after finding him in a compromising position with writer Thea von Harbou, then married to actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the star of Lang’s 1922 masterpiece, Dr. Mabuse, co-written by von Harbou. She and Klein-Rogge were quickly divorced and Lang and von Harbou were married in 1922.

Klein-Rogge had a major role in Lang’s second masterpiece, 1927’s Metropolis, from von Harbou’s novel for which she received sole credit for the screenplay. She would also co-write Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M with Lang as well as two more celebrated Dr. Mabuse films in 1933.

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Oscar Profile #351: Sam Shepard

Born November 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois where his US Army officer father was stationed, Samuel Shepard Rogers, known professionally as Sam Shepard, spent his childhood moving from base to base around the US until the family settled in Duarte, California. He became interested in acting and writing while in high school, while at the same time working as a ranch hand in Chino. Upon graduation in 1961, he entered Mount San Antonio Junior College intent on becoming a veterinarian. A touring theater company in 1962 rekindled the acting bug and he left home to join them.

While working as a busboy at the Village Gate, he became involved in writing plays for Off-Off-Broadway venues, graduating to Off-Broadway, winning six Obies between 1966 and 1968, five of them for Off-Off Broadway productions. 1967’s La Turista earned him his first for an Off-Broadway play. Oh! Calcutta!, for which he was a contributing writer was his first play to be presented on Broadway in 1969. That same year he married actress O-Lan Jones, with whom he had a son born in 1970. From 1970-71 he had an affair with singer-songwriter Patti Smith that ended when he moved with his wife and son to London. They returned in 1975

Still writing plays, while occasionally contributing to film screenplays, Shepard burst upon the screen in an acting role in 1978’s Days of Heaven, all but stealing the film from charismatic star Richard Gere. The following year he earned his second Off-Broadway Obie as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child. He then won further acclaim as an actor for 1980’s Resurrection opposite Ellen Burstyn, 1981’s Raggedy Man opposite Sissy Spacek and 1982’s Frances opposite Jessica Lange with whom he began a relationship that produced two children, lasting through 1999 when Shepard felt he could no longer live in New York city and moved to Kentucky to raise thoroughbred horses. His relationship with Lange continued off and on through 2010 when they permanently split up.

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Oscar Profile #350: Samuel Fuller

Born August 12, 1912 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller was one of seven siblings, whose life was as interesting as any of the many characters of his long career. One of the best writer-directors never to be nominated for an Oscar, his films which were mostly overlooked during his lifetime, have gained in stature since his death.

His father having died when Fuller was 11, young Sam went to work at the age of 12 as a copy boy on the New York Evening Graphic where his older brother Ving was a staff cartoonist. Mentored by veteran crime report Rhea Gore, the former wife of Walter Huston and mother of John Huston, he became a crime reporter himself at 17, breaking the news of actress Jeanne Eagels’ death in 1929.

Moving to Hollywood, Fuller’s first screenplay was 1936’s Hats Off. With time out for military service during World War II, he became increasingly annoyed with the direction directors were taking with his screenplays and in 1949 signed a three-film contract with independent producer Robert Lippett stipulating that he be allowed to direct as well as write at his writer’s salary. His first film was 1949’s I Shot Jesse James, followed by The Baron of Arizona and the 1951 Korean War film, Steel Helmet for which he won a Writer’s Guild award.

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Oscar Profile #349: Glynis Johns

Born October 5, 1923 in Pretoria, South Africa while her Welsh parents were on tour, Glynis Johns was the daughter of actor Mervyn Johns (1899-1992) and pianist Alice Maude Steele (1901-1970).

A trained dancer, pianist and singer as well as actress, Johns made her first stage appearance as a child ballerina in London’s Garrick Theatre in 1935. She made her film debut in 1938’s South Riding and continued in British films largely unnoticed through 1941. In 1942, she married actor Anthony Forwood with whom she had her only child, actor Gareth Forwood (1945-2007). In 1943, she received excellent notices for her portrayal of a resistance fighter and martyr to the cause in The Adventures of Tartu retitled Sabotage Agent for the U.S. market. Other important roles during this period were as Deborah Kerr’s friend “Dizzy” in 1945’s Perfect Strangers AKA Vacation from Marriage and as the titled mermaid in 1948’s Miranda. She and Forwood divorced in 1948. He later became Dirk Bogarde’s manager and life partner. She would later marry three times, her last marriage ending in divorce in 1964.

1951’s No Highway in the Sky in support of James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich was an international success, resulting in Johns being brought to the U.S. to play the title role in the 1952 Broadway play Gertie. In Hollywood, she starred opposite Richard Todd in two Disney live-action features, 1953’s The Sword and the Rose and 1954’s Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue.

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Oscar Profile #348: Max Steiner

Born May 10, 1888 in Vienna, Austria, Max(well) Steiner was a child prodigy who conducted his first operetta when he was twelve and became a full-time professional, either composing, arranging, or conducting, when he was fifteen. He wrote and conducted the operetta, The Beautiful Greek Girl which led to opportunities to conduct other shows in various cities around the world, including Moscow and Hamburg. He was invited to London to conduct Lehar’s The Merry Widow and stayed for 8 years conducting theater productions and symphonies. With the outbreak of World-War I in 1914, he was interned as an enemy alien. Through his friend, the Duke of Westminster, he was given exit papers to go to America, but his money was impounded. He arrived in New York in December 1914 with only $32 to his name.

Steiner quickly acquired work in New York as a musical director, arranger and orchestrator. In 1919, he accepted an offer to go to work for RKO in their musical department. It didn’t take long for him to be named director of that department. His first credited score was for 1930’s Dixiana, quickly followed by the Oscar-winning Cimarron and Katharine Hepburn’s early films including A Bill of Divorcement and Little Women, but it was 1933’s King Kong that put him on the map.

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Oscar Profile #347: Richard Brooks

Born May 18, 1912 in Philadelphia, PA to Russian Jewish immigrants Hyman and Esther Sax, Reuben Sax known professionally as Richard Brooks, grew up poor. He studied journalism at Temple University for two years from 1929-1931 before discovering that his parents were going into debt to pay for his education at which time he quit school and rode the freight trains seeking work, but eventually returned to Philadelphia where he found work as a newspaper reporter. It was while working as a reporter that he changed his name, legally changing it in 1943.

Brooks wrote and directed plays for the theatre in the late 1930s and early 1940s, marrying actress Jeanne Kelly in 1941. She became known professionally as Jean Brooks and became a star in Val Lewton’s 1943 film The 7th Victim by which time the marriage had broken up. He joined the marines during the war, but never served overseas. Instead he worked for the film units in Quantico, VA and Camp Pendleton, CA. where he honed his craft and wrote the novel The Brick Foxhole which became the 1947 film, Crossfire. He married second wife Harriette Levin in 1946.

Working for Universal, and then independent producer Mark Hellinger after the war, he wrote the scripts for The Killers and Brute Force, both starring Burt Lancaster. He then went to work for Warner Bros. where he co-wrote 1948’s Key Largo with John Huston. A chance meeting with Cary Grant at a racetrack resulted in Brooks’ first directorial job on 1950’s Crisis starring Grant and José Ferrer.

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