Janet Gaynor: The First Woman To Win The Academy Award For Best Actress

And she didn’t even want it.

On May 16th, 1929, Hollywood’s most notable stars gathered at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for the first Academy Awards. It was a small dinner event just shy of 300 people. Attendees dressed casually. Douglas Fairbanks, the Academy’s first president and presenter that night, wore white pants with a navy blazer. The first year honored directors Frank Borzage and Lewis Milestone, the films Wings and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and actors Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor. Later in life, when asked about the event, Gaynor responded, “Nobody felt there was any historical significance. I was pleased to win the award, and it was a thrill because I got to meet Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks for the first time.”

Despite her success, Janet Gaynor never wanted to go into the motion picture business. Unlike her character Vicki Lester in the original A Star is Born (1937), an early production from studio mogul and close friend David O. Selznick, Gaynor’s heart was set on a low-key, adventurous existence. There was no denying her talent though. At an early age, she was often found mimicking people or singing songs and dancing with her father Frank. Both her mother Laura and stepfather “Jonesy” took note of this and after Janet finished high school, they moved the family to Los Angeles.

The attention Janet received from her parents caused irreparable damage between her and her older sister Helen. It was Helen who had wanted to be in the pictures originally, but no amount of determination could pull her parents' attention away from Janet who they agreed was the actress in the family. Instead of pushing forward and becoming an earlier version of feuding star sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, Helen married and turned to the bottle. One of the few times Janet saw Helen during her early years of stardom was actually on May 16th, 1929, drunk in the crowd outside of the Roosevelt hotel yelling, “There’s my sister!” as Janet made her way to receive the first Academy Award for Best Actress.

It was an award she won at the age of 22 for three films: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and the film screened in every Film History 101 class, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. 1929 was the only year where winners won for multiple works and in regard to her age, she remained the youngest Best Actress winner until 1986. 7th Heaven marked the first onscreen appearance by “America’s favorite love birds”, Janet and Charles Farrell. After a successful transition into the talkie era, and thanks to public demand, the two went on to make another 11 films.

Janet was one of Fox Film Corporation’s – later 20th Century Fox – biggest stars during the 1930s. So much so that she frequently negotiated her contract for higher pay, more time off, and a reasonable work schedule, which is a testament to both her talent and intellect because each time she risked contract suspension and studio backlash.

Other than Farrell, Janet was cast alongside Henry Fonda in his debut The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935) Tyrone Power in Ladies in Love (1936), and Frederic March in the movie that inspired three remakes – one with Judy Garland in 1954, Barbara Streisand in 1976, and Lady Gaga in Bradley Cooper’s upcoming 2018 directorial debut – A Star is Born (1937). In it, Vicki Lester, a young woman with celluloid ambitions, hops on a train to Hollywood. Upon arrival though, she’s met with enough rejection to make her reconsider her dream. That is, until she meets the aging, drunk Norman Maine, Hollywood’s biggest star. The two fall in love and he takes her under his wing. Vicki quickly surpasses his career and soon Norman is known solely as Mr. Lester. Unable to put down the bottle and scarred by the damage he’s inflicted on Vicki, he swims out into the sea, never to return.

A Star is Born is one of Janet’s most memorable performances, earning her a second Academy Award nomination. At the time, her career had been steadily declining as a result of her lack of interest and the studio handing her fluffy, forgettable parts. She took on Vicki Lester as a favor to Selznick. With her career back on top, she made just two more films and, at the age of 33, retired. After fourteen years in the industry, Janet was ready for a new chapter, one that involved marriage, which she had tried once before, children, and a little room to explore.

Shortly after, in 1939, Janet married renowned MGM costume designer Adolf Adrian Greenberg, the man responsible for Joan Crawford’s severe shoulders, Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Katherine Hepburn’s white and gold gown in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Janet’s marriage to Adrian has been under speculation for decades. Adrian was openly gay in Hollywood and as for Janet, her friendships with women like Margaret Lindsey and Mary Martin were deemed too friendly by the tabloids.

It was common practice during the 1930s – and into the 1950s – for studios to interfere with their star’s personal affairs to mold an image that would appease the newly developed Hays Code and more importantly, sell more tickets. The public was hungry for Hollywood insight, and gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons always had something new on the menu. Studio heads, particularly Louis B. Mayer – Adrian’s boss at MGM – who was known for his conservative views, patched up the industry’s so-called immorality with “lavender marriages”. You can’t question someone’s sexuality when they’ve just exchanged I-do’s can you?

Whether Adrian was influenced by Mayer or not, there’s no denying that he and Janet had chemistry. Following their nuptials, the two bought a ranch in Brazil that had no modern technology other than plumbing and Janet worked alongside Adrian as he developed his own independent clothing line. The two remained happily married for 20 years until Adrian had a heart attack and passed away. 

Janet appeared in just one other film after her retirement, Bernadine (1957), at the insistence of actor and Selznick’s second wife, Jennifer Jones. But she remained on the outskirts of the industry, showing her paintings in galleries and dabbling in frozen foods with her “Janet Gaynor Signature Trees Ranch” brand. As for her legacy with the Academy Awards, she returned to the show a few more times as a presenter. When the Academy tried to get her to give the award for Best Costume Design in 1978 as a tribute to her husband, she refused, saying, “I will present the Oscar for Best Actress, or none at all.” She can be seen onstage handing Diane Keaton her Oscar for Annie Hall (1977).