October 18, 1902 – Miriam Hopkins:
“They give me feeble-minded parts. I don’t object, you understand, but when the writers tell me they wrote the part with me in mind, I begin to wonder.”
Hopkins was one of the first actors approached to play the female lead in It Happened One Night (1934). She turned it down and it went to Claudette Colbert instead, and Colbert won an Academy Award. Hopkins, a southern girl from Georgia auditioned, along with the biggest stars and hundreds of unknowns, for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, but the part went to English actor Vivien Leigh, and she won an Oscar.
Hopkins had a well-publicized feud with her archenemy Bette Davis. Hopkins believed Davis was having an affair with Hopkins’s husband at the time, Ukrainian born filmmaker Anatole Litvak, when they costarred in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943). Davis admitted to finding pleasure in shooting a scene in Old Acquaintance where she vigorously shakes Hopkins when Hopkins’s character makes unfounded allegations against Davis. Press photos were even taken with the two stars in a boxing ring, gloves up, and director Vincent Sherman between them as a referee. Davis described Hopkins as a “terribly good actress”, but also “terribly jealous”.
Their conflict went even further back than that. Hopkins and Davis had worked together in the theater when Hopkins was the established star and Davis was the up-and-coming new girl.
Hopkins didn’t like it when Davis became a star, too, and she hated it when Davis won the Academy Award for Jezebel (1938): Hopkins had originated the role on Broadway.
After Old Acquaintance, Hopkins walked away from films for five years.
Hopkins was a vivacious blond who had starred in several Broadway productions before going Hollywood. A publicity release from Paramount Pictures in 1930, quotes her as saying:
”I want to know about things. I want to make something worthwhile of myself.”
After a career in the theater, when she was working on her first film, Hopkins carried an attitude that making movies didn’t hold the gravity of working on stage, a point of view that she held through life. Yet, she was made for Hollywood with her striking blond hair, peaches and cream complexion ‐ and slight Savannah drawl. Her friends in the biz claimed Hopkins was an extremely warm, witty and intellectual woman.
The great gay poet Frank O’Hara, who knew many of the top female stars of the Golden Era, wrote that her parties were unlike most of those given by movie stars:
“Most of her guests were chosen from the world of the intellect, and they were there because Miriam knew them all, had read their work, had listened to their music, had bought their paintings. They were not there because a secretary had given her a list of highbrows.”
The diminutive actor was born Ellen Miriam Hopkins. She was proud of being from Georgia and she retained traces of her affection for the South and kept her drawl throughout a long career. After graduation from Syracuse University, Hopkins went to New York City to study dance and was signed with a ballet company to go on tour to South America. On the day the company was to sail she broke an ankle and was forced to look for work in the theatre.
She was cast in the chorus of the first Music Box Revue on Broadway in 1921. After that, parts came quickly. She had her greatest success in the theatre in the 1930s. Then, after being away from the theatre for many years, and against the advice of friends and family, she took over the lead role, Sabina, in Thornton Wilder‘s The Skin Of Our Teeth from Tallulah Bankhead. Her last appearance on Broadway was in Look Homeward, Angel in 1958. She said at the time that she if she could do anything, it would be to would start her career all over again and do it differently.
”I’ve always had bad judgment about plays and movies. I turned down Broadway and I turned down Twentieth Century, and I also turned down It Happened One Night. I said it was just a silly comedy.”
I wish she had been nicer to herself; Hopkins was one of Hollywood’s top stars during its most glamorous era. Following her film debut in 1930 in Fast And Loose, she appeared in series of good films, giving good performances. She was already a star when she was offered the highly coveted lead role in Becky Sharp in 1935, the first full length feature produced in Technicolor.
Some of her other films include Dr. Jekyl And Mr. Hyde (1931), Design For Living (1933), These Three (1936), Men Are Not Gods (1937) and The Heiress (1939). Her latest films were Fanny Hill: Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure (1965) and The Chase (1966).
In 1934, she had starred in The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman. Set in an all-girls boarding school run by two women, when an angry student runs away from the school and to avoid being sent back, she tells her grandmother that the two women are having a lesbian affair. The accusation proceeds to destroy the women’s careers, relationships and lives. It is the theatrical basis of her film These Three (1936) and in the remake, The Children’s Hour, she plays the aunt of Shirley MacLaine, who took the role that Hopkins played in the earlier film.
Hopkins was not afraid of the new medium of television. She performed in original teleplays from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, in programs such as The Chevrolet Theatre (1949), Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (1951), Lux Theatre (1951-1955), and series including The Outer Limits (1964), and even an episode of The Flying Nun in 1969, playing a movie star.
Unlucky at love, Hopkins was married four times: to actor Brandon Peters in 1926, to screenwriter Austin Parker in 1928, to Litvak in 1937, and to journalist Ray Brock in 1945. She divorced Brock in 1951.
She was a proud Democrat and a big booster of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hopkins lived in a townhouse on Sutton Place on the island of Manhattan where she had her last breath in 1972, taken by a heart attack just nine days before her 70th birthday. She is buried in Bainbridge, Georgia, which is practically Alabama.
Here is my favorite anecdote about her. It is from an article in the Los Angeles Times from June 4, 1951:
”A set of patio furniture was quickly returned to screen star Ella Raines‘ home today, after she asked police to recover it from her former tenant, Miriam Hopkins.
Police said they received a telegram from Raines in New York saying she had been informed the furniture was in possession of Hopkins, who formerly rented the house.
‘Please exercise your prerogatives to the fullest extent of the law…’ Raines’ wire said in part. The rest of the telegram was devoted to some observations about Miss Hopkins’ character.
‘I’ve had a lot of trouble with her and she’s been most difficult’, she said. ‘She’s completely irresponsible.’
‘After all, she had my mother’s telephone number out there in Hollywood and could have called if she wanted to borrow the furniture. But the first I heard about it, was when my mother told me someone backed a car up to the house and carted the stuff away.’
Hopkins said it was all a mistake. She just borrowed the redwood patio set for a party and was late in returning it because she was having it repainted.
‘She said some vicious things about me, but I don’t want to say anything about Ella’, Hopkins said. ‘She’s a sweet little girl and I can’t understand it. I borrowed the patio furniture for a party last Sunday and I was just being neighborly, you know, like swapping rice pudding or something.’
Raines’ mother, Mrs. E. Raines, reported to valley police last week that the furniture was missing. After receiving the wire from the star, police called Hopkins at her new home.
‘Police called yesterday’, Hopkins said, ‘I’ve never laughed more. We’ve all been absolutely hysterical.’
The patio furniture was returned immediately after the police called, Hopkins said.
‘The cushions on the chairs were mine, anyway’, she added.
Hopkins’ relationship with Raines was anything but friendly. Raines had told reporters that Hopkins deserved to be spanked.“
As a follow-up, columnist Sheilah Graham wrote:
“Miriam Hopkins hops out of town for radio shows and summer stock in the east. Ella Raines will slap a bill on Miriam for the extra-curricular use of her furniture, if she can catch up with her in the East.”