Hattie McDaniel and Fay Bainter
Ah, award shows! Those infamously schlocky and monumentally affected parades of self-congratulation! Often we’re left wondering how such talented actors can come across so plastic on stage, but Hattie McDaniel’s acceptance speech for her 1939 role of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind is truly moving.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote:
“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.
McDaniel, of course, won for playing a maid—one of the only roles a black woman could get at the time. And while her most famous scene may be cinching up Scarlett O’Hara’s bodice, the night promised a moment of recognition for her amazing performance. The heartfelt words of a groundbreaking actress are only half the story, though.
When Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta in 1939, all of the black actors were barred from attending. Producer David O. Selznick asked that an exception be made for Hattie McDaniel, but MGM advised him not to because of Georgia’s segregation laws. Clark Gable threatened to boycott the Atlanta premiere unless McDaniel was permitted to attend, but McDaniel herself convinced him to go.
There is a cut between Fay Bainter’s presentation of the award and McDaniel’s acceptance; this was the part where she had to walk up to the podium from her segregated table in the back: Even in Los Angeles, McDaniel and her date were required to sit at a segregated table for two, apart from her Gone with the Wind colleagues. Regardless, she delivers one of the most poignant speeches in Oscar history. In 2006, she was depicted on a United States postage stamp, wearing the dress and gardenias from that historic night.