Hattie McDaniel: An Oscar Legend
“Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards, for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you.” — Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech at the 12th Annual Academy Awards held on Feb 29, 1940.
In 1940, “Gone With The Wind” dominated the Oscars, winning eight Academy Awards, a record that stood for twenty years. The most significant and historic Oscar awarded that night was the one that was given to Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With The Wind”. In winning the award, McDaniel became the first African-American to ever win an Academy Award. She was also the first African-American, who wasn’t a servant, to ever attend an Academy Award Banquet. It would be twenty four years before another African-American would be awarded another Oscar.
Louella Parsons, an American gossip columnist, wrote about Oscar night of 1940: “Hattie McDaniel earned that gold Oscar, by her fine performance of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. If you had seen her face when she walked up to the platform and took the gold trophy, you would have had the choke in your voice that all of us had when Hattie, hair trimmed with gardenias, face alight, and dress up to the queen’s taste, accepted the honor in one of the finest speeches ever given on the Academy floor. She put her heart right into those words and expressed not only for herself, but for every member of her race, the gratitude she felt that she had been given recognition by the Academy. Fay Bainter, with voice trembling, introduced Hattie and spoke of the happiness she felt in bestowing upon the beaming actress Hollywood’s greatest honor. Her proudest possession is the red silk petticoat that David Selznick gave her when she finished Gone with the Wind”.
Gone With The Wind premiered on December 15, 1939 at the Loew’s Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, Georgia. As the date of the premiere approached, all the black actors from the film, including Hattie McDaniel, were barred from attending and excluded from being in the souvenir program. Gone With The Wind’s producer, David O. Selznick, had attempted to bring McDaniel, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregationist laws, which would have prevented McDaniel from sitting in the theatre with her white peers and co-stars. Clark Gable angrily threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was allowed to attend, but McDaniel convinced him to attend anyway. While the Jim Crow laws kept McDaniel from the Atlanta premiere, she did attend the Hollywood debut on December 28, 1939. This time her photo was featured in the program upon Selznick’s insistence, as it would be everywhere else except in the south.
Hattie McDaniel was already an accomplished radio and film actress when auditions began, but competition for the role of “Mammy” in Gone With The Wind was almost as fierce as the one for the part of Scarlet O’Hara. Eleanor Roosevelt herself even wrote to film producer David O. Selznik to ask him to consider her own maid Elizabeth McDuffie for the role. Clark Gable, who was already good friends with Hattie McDaniel, wanted McDaniel for the role of “Mammy”. When McDaniel showed up already dressed as a maid and nailed the audition, she was given the part.