Last night’s Academy Awards was an unusual event in more ways than one. Firstly, the pandemic made it something of a bare-bones affair. And secondly, the favourite to win in the Best Actor category – Chadwick Boseman, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – passed away in 2020, aged 43, after a long battle with cancer. In another change of routine, this award was presented at the end of the ceremony, with winner Anthony Hopkins, in a speech given from his home in Wales, acknowledging his fellow nominee: “At 83 years of age, I did not expect to get this award, I really didn’t … I want to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us far too early.”
In her own way, Jeanne Eagels was as much an icon of the Roaring Twenties as Ma Rainey, and as several media outlets have noted lately, she also heads up the select group of actors who earned Oscar nominations posthumously. While her first love was the stage, a handful of her silent movies survive. Perhaps the greatest injustice of her career occurred when Gloria Swanson swiped the film rights to her finest role, as Sadie Thompson in Rain.
In 1928, Jeanne was fired from her latest play and slapped with a punitive 18-month ban from the legitimate theatre. By then, her ‘difficult’ reputation and rumoured substance abuse preceded her, but nonetheless Paramount offered her a lucrative movie deal. Her brilliance is very much on display in The Letter, her first talking picture, released in the spring of 1929. Although it didn’t set the box office alight, critics raved about her performance.
In a report for ABC News, Carson Blackwelder explains the unique circumstances behind Jeanne Eagels’ Best Actress nomination, just a year after the Academy Awards were founded.
Let’s begin with one that doesn’t technically count — and the only woman who will be featured on this list.
The reason Jeanne Eagels cannot be considered an official posthumous nomination is because the Academy only revealed the winners in 1930, not the nominees. This was at the 2nd annual Academy Awards and Eagels would have been considered for best actress for her role in Leslie Crosbie in Jean de Limur’s The Letter.
According to the Academy’s database, ‘There were no announcements of nominations, no certificates of nomination or honorable mention, and only the winners were revealed during the awards banquet on April 3, 1930.’
‘Though not official nominations, the additional names in each category, according to in-house records, were under consideration by the various boards of judges,’ the Academy continued.
A posthumous victory might have helped to secure her cinematic legacy, but Jeanne ulimately lost to a Hollywood insider, Mary Pickford, for Coquette. The other nominees were Betty Compson, Corinne Griffith, Bessie Love, and Ruth Chatterton – who had replaced Jeanne in The Laughing Lady – for her role as Madame X, later reprised by stars like Lana Turner and Tuesday Weld.
In the New York Post, Johnny Oleksinski notes that of all the posthumously nominated actors (including James Dean, twice), only Peter Finch and Heath Ledger went on to win the coveted award. In a section on Jeanne, Oleksinski refers to Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, co-written by myself and Eric Woodard. It is the first Eagels biography in ninety years, and only the second overall. (Although his account of Jeanne’s untimely death is quite accurate, Oleksinski repeats one myth dispelled in our book – she never was a Ziegfeld girl.)
She was hailed for her acting, but Eagels’ meteoric rise to fame also led to her downfall. Some said she would drink during performances, though Eagels denied this. According to the book Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, her ex-husband once accused her of holing up in a train car with ‘six bottles of whiskey.’
Eagels made a film version of The Letter and died months later, on Oct. 3, 1929 — three weeks before the stock market crash plunged America into the Great Depression.
The publication Liberty reported that during an autopsy, doctors attributed her death to an overdose of the sedative chloral hydrate — a substance also found in Marilyn Monroe’s body. Others said it was caused purely by alcoholism.
Beyond her films, the quality of her acting was honored in a movie she never appeared in, All About Eve. In that film, the critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) tells Margo Channing (Bette Davis): ‘Once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another.’