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When Bette wasn't on the list for 'Of Human Bondage,' the short life of the write-in began.

November 18, 2009|Susan King

Bette Davis and Oscar were the best of friends. But they sure got off to a rocky start.

The actress had made more than 20 films -- without an Oscar nomination -- by the time she played Mildred Rogers in the 1934 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel "Of Human Bondage." Under contract to Warner Bros. at the time, Davis fought hard to be loaned out to RKO to play the role. Warners' studio head Jack L. Warner was reluctant, thinking that such an unglamorous part could ruin her career. But Davis was persistent. "I begged, implored, cajoled," she said later. "I haunted Jack Warner's office. Every single day, I arrived at his door with the shoeshine boy." Warner finally gave in.

The film, which stars Leslie Howard as a club-footed medical student who becomes infatuated with the slovenly, boozy cockney shrew of a waitress, earned Davis her first major critical acclaim. Life magazine went so far as to say Davis gave probably "the best performance ever recorded on screen by a U.S. actress."

Hollywood was abuzz with Oscar talk for the actress. But come nomination day, Davis was omitted from the list. Claudette Colbert, who would go on to win the lead actress statuette, was nominated for the comedy "It Happened One Night"; previous Oscar winner Norma Shearer -- and wife of MGM's powerful producer Irving Thalberg -- was nominated for "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and opera singer Grace Moore was given a nod for the musical "One Night of Love."

Her omission led to a campaign in Hollywood to have her nominated -- Shearer even joined the movement.

The Hollywood Citizen News went so far as to proclaim that "the Academy is dwindling in importance, especially in Hollywood, and its current nominations have done much to harm it. Everyone in the profession is expressing amazement that Bette Davis is not even mentioned."

The protest led academy president Howard Estabrook to announce nine days later that "any voter . . . may write on the ballet his or her personal choice for the winners."

The awards were suddenly a write-in ballot affair.

And though Davis was the only lead actress "nominee" to attend the award ceremony on Feb. 27, 1935, she didn't win. Although she was never able to prove it, Davis stated in her autobiography that Jack Warner had sent instructions to his personnel not to vote for her. She wrote, "[N]ot since the decision in 1934 was so cavalier a verdict allowed to take place. Price, Waterhouse was asked to step in the next year to count the votes, which they have done ever since."

The following year, she won her first lead actress award for her role as a self-destructive actress in "Dangerous," which she called her "consolation prize" for losing out on "Of Human Bondage."

The same year Davis won for "Dangerous," cinematographer Hal Mohr became the first and only write-in nominee to win for his work on the 1935 Shakespeare fantasy "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Supposedly, the forest that had been designed by director Max Reinhardt couldn't be lighted properly, so Mohr thinned the forest, sprayed the trees with aluminum paint and covered them with cobwebs and tiny metal particles in order to better reflect the light.

Because he failed to receive a nomination, Mohr was more than a bit shocked when he got a call the evening of the ceremony, March 5, 1936, telling him he had won by write-in votes.

"I think there had been some industry antagonism toward me because I had been very active in the 1933 strike," he later said. "I was unshaven, sitting at home in my work clothes, and the phone rang. It was Eddie Blackburn, a friend, at the Biltmore Bowl, and he told me I'd won and to get the hell down there. I shaved, threw on a tux and with my wife jumped in a cab and was there in an hour. I'm very proud of that award."

It was the last of the write-in votes.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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