19 July 2021

The Short-Lived History Of Oscar Write-Ins

For two years in Oscar history —in 1935 and 1936— the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed its members to vote for anyone they chose, even when that person was not officially nominated. Reason for the Academy to permit these write-in votes was the public outrage that occurred over the snub of Bette Davis' performance in Of Human Bondage (1934). Bette's powerful and daring portrayal of the coarse waitress Mildred was unanimously praised by critics, audiences and Hollywood celebs alike, with Life magazine even calling it "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a U.S. actress". The fact that Bette wasn't among the Best Actress nominees led to a huge uproar and a write-in campaign followed to have her nominated anyway. (Even Norma Shearer who herself was nominated for The Barretts of Wimpole Street supported the campaign.)

Among the general public there were many people shocked by the omission of Bette from the list of Oscar nominees. A man named James Fitzgerald sent this letter to the movie fan magazine Movie Classic, showing his indignation and calling on others to also make themselves heard.
 
Source: Movie Classic via archive.org
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In order to put an end to all the criticism, several days after the announcement of the nominations the Academy decided to change the rules and issued a statement: "Despite the fact that the criticism fails to take into consideration that the nominations have been made by the unrestricted votes of each branch, the awards committee has decided upon a change in the rules to permit unrestricted selection of any voter, who may write on the ballot his personal choice for the winner." Bette Davis became the only write-in nominee that year but eventually lost to Claudette Colbert for her performance in It Happened One Night. When Bette did win the next year for her role in Dangerous, she called the Oscar her consolation prize for losing out with Of Human Bondage.



The next year, write-in votes were again allowed and there was one studio that decided to go all in. Studio boss Jack Warner encouraged all Academy members among his employees to submit write-ins for Warner Bros. films. This resulted in unofficial nominations in seven different categories, including Michael Curtiz for Best Director in Captain Blood and Paul Muni for Best Actor in Black Fury (Warners being the only studio that year with write-in nominees). Warners' active campaigning eventually paid off when the unofficially nominated Hal Mohr (see photo) took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Technical issues of write-in voting aside, the Academy realised that this kind of voting was not the way to go, seeing how easy it was for studios to manipulate the system and win Oscars. (It was later revealed that write-in nominees Muni and Curtiz had come close to beating the eventual winners Victor McLaglen and John Ford, who both won for The Informer.) 

Write-in voting was thus abandoned a year later and Hal Mohr remains the only write-in winner in Oscar history.

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