Saturday, October 15, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Mildred Pierce" (1945)

Scene from Mildred Pierce
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Directed By: Michael Curtiz
Written By: Ranald MacDougall (Screenplay), James M. Cain (Novel)
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film Noir
Running Time: 111 minutes
Summary: A hard-working mother inches towards disaster as she divorces her husband and starts a successful restaurant business to support her spoiled daughter.

The Movie

Joan Crawford today is considered one of the greatest classic Hollywood actresses. With her staunch eyebrows and defensive stance, she helped to create a powerful female archetype that stood up to male oppression. While Crawford was herself a tad controversial - especially behind the scenes with Bette Davis - her work spoke for itself. She was a star and knew how to make every last ounce of her ego shine on the big screen. She was the tough woman that Hollywood would transition into over time, though with less melodrama in the performances.

Among her defining works was director Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce. It fit the bill of the archetype that she would play. She was tough. She was an unconventional mother whose relationship with her daughter would grow sour by film's end. It was a mold that played well against the happier, more upbeat stories of the era. There was something about Crawford that shined in the film, and it would continue to as the decades rolled along.

The other most interesting thing about Mildred Pierce is that the film was the first ever Oscar campaign. While not nearly as memorable as later campaigns by the likes of Harvey Weinstein or Chill Wills, it set a precedent that is still being used to this day. It is because of this campaign that Crawford's career was resurrected and given some levity. While the performance speaks for itself, the campaign is deserving of its own legacy. It may not be the most interesting, but it is ground zero for Oscar enthusiasts who enjoy this aspect of every Oscar year.

The Campaign

In the time leading up to Mildred Pierce in 1945, there was one commonly held notion around Hollywood: Joan Crawford's career was over. She was "box office poison." Having been in the business for almost 20 years, she had a nice run of work that saw her define a new type of woman. However, the work wasn't hitting as well and the chances of Crawford being around at the end of the decade were unsure. At most, she would be a supporting player - as was the case in 1944's ensemble film Hollywood Canteen. Her relevance was fading fast, and there had to be a way to resurrect the career.

The answer came from a young press agency called Rogers & Cowan. Among the talent that they collected was Crawford, who was starting to work on Mildred Pierce. The question arose again: How do you save her career? Shortly into production, R&C's Henry Rogers and Warren Cowan had the novel idea of spreading rumors through the gossip mill. This started by sending a story to press figure Hedda Hopper. The news was that the first two reels of the film had been seen, and they marked great things for Crawford. They complimented her acting, even attaching the words "Academy Award" to the end to plant the idea in everyone's heads.

Cowan would confess that he never saw the two reels. However, it was the start of a conventional push. Next came the marketing that highlighted Crawford's acting. Rogers and Cowan promised to have Crawford available for all potential interviews. They spread awareness of the film before it even was released. Soon, there was anticipation to see the Crawford experience that was supposed to be Oscar-worthy. For a woman that was "box office poison," Crawford managed to have quite the comeback in 1945 when the film jump started her flailing career and saw a resurgence of fans tag along.

The Payoff

The film received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and one for Best Actress for Joan Crawford. Everything was looking right. R&C had met their goal, but needed to go one step further to actually make it a true comeback. Crawford needed to win. Best Picture almost seemed irrelevant by comparison (The Lost Weekend would win). The prospects of Crawford winning were possible for everyone except the actress, who refused to attend the ceremony because she was sure that she would lose. R&C would claim that she was "sick" and in bed.

Crawford did win. When news spread of her location, the press immediately flocked to her home where she accepted the award by her bedside. Pictures of her laying with the award were supposed to be so effective that any additional Academy Award coverage was bumped off of the front page. R&C had done it. They had officially resurrected Crawford's career while also making her Oscar acceptance one of the most memorable in history. While her legacy would likely change as the years passed, everyone would remember the woman who got an Oscar in her bedroom.

R&C's campaign would set the bar for what the Oscars' "For Your Consideration" campaign would look like. While it would be expanded upon, the notion of spreading gossip about stars roots back to Mildred Pierce and the unseen two reels of films. The company would continue to do campaigns, next most notably for Best Actress winner Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda in 1948. While regulations have changed and the press aren't as directly related to the campaign as Hedda Hopper was, the components were all there. It may have not produced a Best Picture winner, but it saved a "box office poison" actress' career. That alone is quite an achievement.

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