Oscar Profile #418: Charles Brackett

Born November 26, 1892 in Sarasota Springs, New York to New York State Senator Edgar Truman Brackett and his wife Mary, nee Corliss, Charles Brackett’s American family heritage could be traced back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629. A 1915 graduate of Williams College, he earned his degree from Harvard University. A member of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War I, the future multiple Oscar winner was awarded the French Medal of Honor. He married Elizabeth Barrows Fletcher, a descendant of Stephen Hopkins of the Mayflower in 1919 with whom he had two daughters.

Brackett’s writing career included a stint as a drama critic for the New Yorker from 1925 to 1929, succeeding Herman J. Mankiewicz. A frequent contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and Vanity Fair, he wrote five novels between 1920 and 1934. His first film was 1925’s Tomorrow’s Love which he adapted from one of his own short stories. A prolific screen writer, his first collaboration with Billy Wilder, with whom he would work through 1950, was 1938’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. He was elected president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1938, serving through 1939.

Brackett received his first Oscar nomination for writing in collaboration with Wilder and Walter Reisch for 1939’s Ninotchka. He received his second for 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn in collaboration with Wilder. Their other film that year, Ball of Fire resulted in a nomination for Wilder for Best Original Story but their combined screenplay was not nominated.

The writer became a producer as well with 1943’s Five Graves to Cairo and 1944’s The Uninvited. His third film as producer, 1945’s The Lost Weekend won the Oscar for Best Picture although Academy rules at the time credited the studio (Paramount), not the actual producer with the win. He and Wilder did win for their screenplay and Wilder also won for Best Director. He next produced 1946’s To Each His Own for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Original Story.

Brackett produced 1948’s A Foreign Affair for which he, Wilder and Richard L. Breen were Oscar nominated for their screenplay. That same year his wife Elizabeth died. Five years later, he would marry her younger sister, Lillian with whom he would be married until his death. He was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1949 and would serve in that capacity through 1955.

A fallout with Wilder caused the two to go their separate ways after 1950’s Sunset Boulevard for which he would win his second Oscar in collaboration with Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr. With the credit now going to the producer instead of the studio, he was also nominated for Best Picture. His first film as a producer for Twentieth Century-Fox, to which he would be attached for the remainder of his career, was 1951’s The Mating Season. He would win a third Oscar for co-writing 1953’s Titanic with Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen, another film he produced.

Brackett’s ninth and final Oscar nomination came as producer of 1956’s The King and I. The following year he received an honorary Oscar for his service to the Academy. His final screenplay would be for 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth which he also produced. He would produce two more films after that, 1960’s High Time and 1962’s State Fair. He died in 1969 at 76.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), directed by Billy Wilder

Brackett’s writing partner became the first person to win Oscars for both writing and direction with this film. Brackett would have become the first person to win for both producing and writing if the award for Best Picture had been given to the producer as it subsequently would, but at the time the award was given to the studio. This was Brackett’s third film as a producer following Five Graves to Cairo and The Uninvited and his third as an Oscar nominee following his nods for writing Ninotchka and Hold Back the Dawn. Ray Milland’s Oscar for Best Actor was his only nomination.

TO EACH HIS OWN (1946), directed by Mitchell Leisen

Brackett’s fourth Oscar nomination for this film was his first for one not in collaboration with Billy Wilder. It was, however, a reunion for him with the director and star of the Brackett-Wilder collaboration, Hold Back the Dawn for which he was previously nominated. He was also the producer of the film for which his original story was nominated. Olivia de Havilland famously won her first Oscar for her portrayal of the unwed mother who gave up her son to her best friend and is reunited with the unsuspecting World War II pilot on leave in London. John Lund played both her late fiancé and her son.

SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), directed by Billy Wilder

Brackett and Wilder parted ways after a falling out during the filming of this legendary film which earned them Oscars for their screenplay. They allegedly almost came to blows over the montage depicting Gloria Swanson’s character Norma’s preparations for her comeback. Brackett thought the sequence was cruel in its emphasis on what age had done to the one-time beauty, but Wilder insisted it was essential to show how driven she was in her pursuit of youth. Wilder won the argument and privately told friends that he would not be making any more films with Brackett. Brackett moved from Paramount to Twentieth Century-Fox.

THE MATING SEASON (1951), directed by Mitchell Leisen

Brackett’s first film as writer and producer for Twentieth Century-Fox reunited him with director Leisen and his co-writers, Walter Reisch (Ninotchka) and Richard L. Breen (A Foreign Affair). The three would win Oscars for Titanic two years later. Thelma Ritter, who earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Gene Tierney’s self-sacrificing mother-in-law, would later play the unsinkable Molly Brown in Titanic. John Lund who previously starred in two of Brackett’s films (To Each His Own and A Foreign Affair played Ritter’s son.

THE KING AND I (1956), directed by Walter Lang

Brackett received his ninth and final Oscar nomination for producing this beloved film version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. He would produce nine more films including Teenage Rebel, Ten North Frederick, The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, Journey to the Center of the Earth (for which he also wrote the screenplay), High Time and State Fair, a remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 musical, the only one they wrote directly for the screen. The former president of the Academy received an honorary Oscar the year after his last nomination.

CHARLES BRACKETT AND OSCAR

  • Ninotchka (1939) – nominated – Best Screenplay
  • Hold Back the Dawn (1941) – nominated – Best Screenplay
  • The Lost Weekend (1945) – Oscar – Best Screenplay
  • To Each His Own (1946) – nominated – Best Original Story
  • A Foreign Affair (1948) – nominated – Best Screenplay
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – nominated – Best Picture
  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Oscar – Best Story and Screenplay
  • Titanic (1953) – Oscar – Best Story and Screenplay
  • The King and I (1956) – nominated – Best Picture
  • Honorary Award (1957) – Winner – For Outstanding Service to the Academy.

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