Oscar and the Oldest Profession
These streets are paved with gold or at least Oscar nominations. Whether the character portrayed was called a fallen woman a good time girl a nightclub (or dance hall) hostess a lady of the evening a courtesan a call girl a streetwalker a prostitute a whore or even an escort an actress playing a woman working in the oldest profession has had a pretty good shot at getting an Academy Award nomination (or golden statuette) for her performance. In Hollywood an actress who is willing to “get down and dirty” to earn recognition from her peers is frequently rewarded for doing so at this time of the year and playing a “hooker with a heart of gold” has been one of the most popular ways (and if I were to include nominees that played molls tramps sluts loose kept and other women of questionable character this article would be endless).
No matter what euphemism was used for their characters’ “chosen” profession at the time actresses that have played prostitutes have reaped the rewards for their efforts beginning with the very first Academy Award nominations – Gloria Swanson as Sadie Thompson (1928) later played by Joan Crawford (in Rain (1932)) and Rita Hayworth (in a 1953 musical) among others. A couple of years later Greta Garbo received a Best Actress nomination playing the title role in Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie (1930) and two years after that Helen Hayes was the first to win the award for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931).
Though Bette Davis failed to win the Best Actress Academy Award for her stunning performance as the object of Leslie Howard’s obsession – Mildred Rogers (later played by Eleanor Parker and Kim Novak) – in the original Of Human Bondage (1934) in fact she was a write-in candidate many feel that her first of two Oscars in the category the following year (as Joyce Heath in Dangerous (1935)) was a make-up award for the prior “snub”. But lightning didn’t strike twice for the actress when she returned to the profession onscreen in Warner Bros.’s (and director Lloyd Bacon’s) “ripped from the headlines” story about gangster Lucky Luciano’s treatment of his nightclub gals titled Marked Woman (1937) a film in which Humphrey Bogart plays an ambitious district attorney! That same year Claire Trevor earned the first of her three Supporting actress nominations opposite Bogart (and others) in Dead End (1937).
Years later Donna Reed shed her squeaky clean image in the pre-Pearl Harbor World War II Academy Award winning blockbuster From Here to Eternity (1953) to take home the Supporting Actress Oscar (on her only nomination) for playing a hostess that catches Montgomery Clift’s eye; Frank Sinatra also won his Supporting Oscar for the film. That same decade Shirley MacLaine earned the first of her four (to date) Best Actress nominations as Ginnie Moorehead a woman that had been purchased for Sinatra’s blocked writer-Korean War veteran character before his drunken return home by bus to Parkman Indiana in Some Came Running (1958).
In 1960 Elizabeth Taylor was the sentimental favorite that won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars as Gloria Wandrous (in BUtterfield 8 (1960)) a slut that’s insulted when Laurence Harvey’s character offers her money; she beat Melina Mercouri’s “happy hooker” the Greek Ilya in Jules Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960). Proving that this was the year to play such women Shirley Jones (as Lulu Bains) won the Supporting Oscar on her only nomination for tempting Burt Lancaster’s evangelist Elmer Gantry (1960). MacLaine who was also nominated that year (The Apartment (1960)) later received another for playing Irma la Douce (1963) though her dance hall hostess title role in Sweet Charity (1969) was not nominated.
Though one can’t really count Audrey Hepburn’s Best Actress nomination as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Lila Kedrova’s Supporting win playing a retired Madame in Zorba the Greek (1964) aka Alexis Zorbas certainly qualifies as does Jane Fonda’s Best Actress Oscar as Bree Daniels in Klute (1971) Marsha Mason’s nomination as Cinderella Liberty (1973) and (more recently) Julia Roberts nomination as the titled Pretty Woman (1990). One could even count Jon Voight’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) right?
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog