Jeanne Eagels, who starred in the 1929 production of The Letter (later remade in 1940 with Bette Davis), was the first actor to be posthumously nominated in Oscar's history. She had died in October 1929 of a heroin overdose, six months prior to the Academy Awards ceremony. She was 39.
Kathryne Kennedy, her co-star in the Broadway production of Somerset Maugham's Rain, said of Eagels, "I sincerely doubt if Jeanne Eagels really knew, in spite of her pretensions, that she was a great actress. She was. Many times backstage I'd be waiting for my entrance cue and suddenly Jeanne would start to build a scene, and [we] would look up from our books at once. Some damn thing—some power, something—would take hold of your heart, your senses, as you listened to her, and you'd thrill to the sound of her."
Eagels was well-enough known that the character Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) says of her in All About Eve that seeing her on stage for the first time was one of the two greatest moments of his life.
Her own assessment? "I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn."
In 1957, she was the subject of a very fictionalized account of her life, Jeanne Eagels, starring Kim Novak in the title role.
Despite an Oscar nomination for best actress, very little of Eagels's film work survives. The Letter exists only as a 35mm work print with no sound other than dialogue and is unavailable on VHS or DVD. A couple of her silent movies survive in truncated form. Her second talkie, Jealousy, and the other five films of her nine film body of work, have been entirely lost.
Not a very satisfying memorial for an actress of her reputation.
Orpheus in Action #37
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