What Would Hattie McDaniel Say to Viola Davis?
Monday, 27 February 2012 06:43
In 1940 - 72 years ago this Wednesday, to be exact - actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Oscar. She won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mammy in "Gone with The Wind," the blockbuster film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh that also won Best Picture that year. (See her acceptance speech here.)
In the movie, McDaniel played the no-nonsense maid who was the practical foil to Scarlett O'Hara's fanciful heroine. In real life, McDaniel was a Kansas native who showed a talent for entertainment early on, singing, writing songs and performing in the minstrel shows popular at that time. She was among the first black female voices heard on nationwide radio. Once she got into movies, she simply took the roles that she could get, appearing in over 300 films in her Hollywood career, mostly playing maids, housekeepers and cooks. But those roles earned her the scorn of her own people and the ire of the NAACP.
Her retort: "I'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one."
Contrary to her “mammy” image, McDaniel was a popular, vibrant woman who married four times. She owned an enormous mansion in L.A.’s West Adams Heights neighborhood, along with actresses Louise Beavers and Ethel Waters. When some white homeowners tried to push rightful black property owners out of the area using an old segregation covenant, McDaniel was part of the case, which ended in victory for the black homeowners. In her Hollywood days, she befriended established stars like Olivia de Havilland, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Shirley Temple, Ronald Reagan and Clark Gable, who famously attended McDaniels’ annual Movieland party.
When film work slowed up for McDaniel, she was able to star in her own radio show, "Beulah," the first black woman to do so. She remained in the role until she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which ultimately killed her. (A TV version of the show ran with other actresses for three seasons.) Although she wished to be buried in the then Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) where other Hollywood luminaries were interred, it was then segregated. McDaniel was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, but in 1999, the owners added a plaque to Hollywood Forever in memory of McDaniel and to honor her last wish.
In 1940, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was a plaque, not the statue that is given out today. The whereabouts of McDaniel's Oscar, which she willed to Howard University, are still unknown. While on display at Howard, it disappeared. Rumors that it was thrown into the nearby Potomac River by protestors during the civil rights unrest of the 1960s are unfounded.
Octavia Spencer mirrored McDaniel's win in the Best Supporting Actress category in last night's Academy Awards ceremony for her role in “The Help,” a movie that chronicled the plight of maids in '60s Mississippi. . (See her acceptance speech here.) But we wondered what McDaniel might say to Viola Davis, the acclaimed star of "The Help," after her loss to the formidable Meryl Streep in the Best Actress slot.
Here's a fictionalized note we believe McDaniel might have written to Davis this morning.
It is wonderful to see that women of our race are still in the motion pictures. I had such a great time in my day, hanging out with Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. You know, he came to my parties at my home in L.A. every year. He was a great gentleman just like the character he played in “Gone With the Wind.” People always thought of me as Mammy after that, and I didn't mind. It kept me working in entertainment for years and years because those were the only roles I could get. I was brown-skinned like you, but nowhere near as thin. They didn't make the actresses starve back then like they do today. I thought your hair and dress were very beautiful, but back then, all of Hollywood would have been scandalized by a dress like that, especially on a black woman. Well, maybe Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge could have gotten away with it. I've never seen a woman wear that hairstyle you have, but I think it looks pretty. I hear that’s called "natural" hair. Well, what other kind is there? I didn’t understand that.
Viola, I'm very happy for you. You are a great actress, and I know you've had success on stage and even have two Tony Awards. We could barely get past the chitlin’ circuit in my day. You did the minstrel shows back then, and sometimes the folks wore blackface. It was insulting, but that's just the way it was. I know you wanted to work. I did – and did you know I made over 300 movies? I only got credit in about 80. I pretty much played maids, cooks and housekeepers in all of them. My own people said I was setting back the race, but I just wanted to do what I loved.
I think it's nice any time you are recognized for the work you do. I was happy that your castmate, Octavia Spencer, won, and her speech was so heartfelt. When I won my Oscar, they made me say what they wanted me to, and let me tell you that, was some acting! When I was in tears leaving the podium, it was because I didn't get to thank the people I really wanted to. And although I wasn't disappointed in your nomination because of your obvious talent, I am truly saddened that despite the efforts of Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Cecily Tyson, Pam Grier, Halle Berry and so many others, nearly 75 years after my big win, the biggest acting award a black woman is nominated for is still one where she's playing a maid.
Viola, I didn't want to see my successors have to do that. I could sing, dance and write songs and act, and I never got to show all those talents in any one role. I was typecast, and I never did do anything else. I enjoyed my life despite those limitations, and I'm proud of my work. But I'm truly disheartened that so little has changed in the people who make the films happen.
I am encouraged by people like that lady director Ava Duvernay, and even Tyler Perry, who are creating more opportunities for us to do more things. I think Tyler should have hired an actress to play Madea, but I guess it's his money. I just hope that he'll make better movies eventually. I worked with some of the greatest directors of that time, and I'm telling you, I was in some wonderful movies, even if people looked down at me and the work I did.
I don't think you should worry about this loss, Viola. I just hope the nomination will give you the chance to do something more and grow beyond these limited definitions of what black women can do. Don't be ashamed of it, but don't settle for less. I had to play all those roles of maids so that hopefully my daughters in the movie business didn't have to. Yet 72 years later, so little has changed. It's shameful.
Viola, I hope you will take this chance and use the visibility you've enjoyed this awards season to make it right. I guess you'll have to find a way to get it done yourself.
With much love and respect,
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