February 24th, 2008

carole lombard 07
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"And the Oscar goes to..."

"It's so much fun being nominated -- everyone is a winner. And then, afterwards, there are four losers."
-- Liv Ullmann

Yep, tonight's the night for the Academy Awards, when the film industry supposedly honors its best of the past year. And part of me wishes the writers' strike was still on, so the focus would be on the movies instead of the glitz. Who really needs those silly production numbers, anyway? (Had I been running the show and the strike was still on, I'd have gone back to the roots and held the ceremony at the site of the first one some 80 years ago: in that mezzanine ballroom at the Roosevelt Hotel.)

Carole Lombard attended several Academy Awards ceremonies, but the only one in which she had an active stake in the outcome was in the spring of 1937, when she was among the five contenders for best actress for her work in "My Man Godfrey":

According to Lombard biographer Larry Swindell, Carole initially doubted she was going to win, esepcially since her film was made at second-tier Universal and mighty MGM had two contenders in Norma Shearer ("Romeo And Juliet") and Luise Rainer ("The Great Ziegfeld"); the other two were Irene Dunne ("Theodora Goes Wild") and Gladys George ("Valiant Is The Word For Carrie").

Then, Swindell writes, Lombard began hearing that the smart money might be on her, because Shearer already had an Oscar (for "The Divorcee," 1930) and Rainer was likely to win next year for "The Good Earth" (which she did). However, George, who was drunk, told Carole in the powder room the night of the awards dinner that the scuttlebutt was now that Rainer -- with the backing of powerful MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer -- would win. Lombard, for her part, didn't believe it.

Later that evening, the award for best actress was given, and the winner was...

To borrow the title of a popular film of 1937, Lombard learned "the awful truth" of studio politics. (Incidentally, Rainer, now in her 90s, is still alive, residing in Switzerland. She rarely, if ever, talks about her film career.)

Now, imagine an alternate universe where Lombard did win an Oscar. Well, thanks to a wonderful book by Danny Peary called, appropriately, "Alternate Oscars," you can. From the first awards up until the 1990s, Peary second-guesses the Academy on best picture, best actor and best actress; sometimes he agrees with them, but most of the time he doesn't. In fact, often some of his choices weren't even nominated that year.

While Peary writes that "of the nominated actresses Carole Lombard ws most deserving of the Oscar" for 1936, he instead gives his alternate Oscar to someone who was part of Lombard's dinner foursome that night -- Jean Harlow, for "Libeled Lady." (They were accompanied by Clark Gable and William Powell, and alas we have no pictures of the four of them that night.)

Peary calls Harlow's "Libeled Lady" character "not only sexy but funny, sometimes tough, sometimes sentimental, sometimes silly...often infuriated, and always a good sport."

No, Peary's alternate Oscar for Lombard sort of saves the best for last, giving her the award for what would be her final film, the classic Ernst Lubitsch dark comedy "To Be Or Not To Be." (Actually, Peary calls the 1942 best actress Oscar a tie, as Ginger Rogers shares honors for her work in Billy Wilder's "The Major And The Minor.")

Peary says Lombard's "verbal battles with her even more conceited husband (Jack Benny) recall the hilarious infighting between Lombard's actress and John Barrymore's egocentric stage director in 'Twentieth Century.' " He also appreciates her dramatic turn later in the film when the stakes heighten, writing it "reveals how much she had grown as a dramatic actress in the last few years."

Of course, in an alternate universe Lombard would not have only won this Oscar, but would have been around to receive it (one can imagine her joking during her acceptance speech, challenging Rogers -- who, like Carole, enjoyed playing tennis -- to a winner-take-all Oscar match), and then gone on to plan her future movies.
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