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No 'Doubt' Viola Davis could win at Oscars for portraying a long-suffering wife

February 19, 2009 |  9:52 pm

While there may seem to be as many Oscar theories as there are awards categories, a handful of them seem to hold up over the 80-year history of the awards. Chief among them is that playing the role of the long-suffering wife has a rewarding payoff: Oscar gold. And that bodes well this year for Viola Davis, who contends in the supporting actress race for her role in "Doubt" — a wife willing to defy her domineering husband to make a better life for their son. Conversely, Penelope Cruzwho is ahead of Davis in our latest odds — is an unstable woman who makes her ex-husband suffer in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," much as Oscar winner Joanne Woodward did in "The Three Faces of Eve" back in 1957.

From the very first year of the Oscars — when Janet Gaynor took home the best actress award for a trio of roles, including one literally billed as "the wife who suffers at the hands of her wayward husband in 'Sunrise' " — this has been a fairly trusty way to win an Oscar.


Every decade at least two actresses can credit their lead wins to playing the put-upon spouse. In the 1930s, it was Norma Shearer in "The Divorcee" and Luise Rainer in both "The Great Ziegfeld" and "The Good Earth." In the 1940s, both Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion" and Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" endured great mental anguish at the hands of handsome hubbies Cary Grant and Charles Boyer respectively.

During the 1950s, two best actress winners — Shirley Booth in "Come Back, Little Sheba" and Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl" — suffered through marriages to alcoholics (Burt Lancaster, Bing Crosby) while a third, Simone Signoret, turned to drink herself in "Room at the Top."

While drink fueled the fire of the less-than-silent suffering of Elizabeth Taylor in 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" both of 1968's winners — Katharine Hepburn ("The Lion in Winter") and Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" — went to great lengths to hide their pain at betrayals by hubbies (and "Lawrence of Arabia" co-stars) Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif.

Though this role went out of vogue in the liberated 1970s and '80s, Jane Fonda won her second Oscar for playing a variation on the theme in 1978's "Coming Home." More recently, Holly Hunter in "The Piano" and Jessica Lange for "Blue Sky" proved that the right role as the wronged woman can still win an Oscar. And just three years ago, Reese Witherspoon sang of her marital woes in "Walk the Line."

The role has not been as prevalent among supporting actress champs since this award was introduced at the ninth Academy Awards ceremony in 1936. Back in the 1940s, Anne Baxter ("The Razor's Edge") and Claire Trevor ("Key Largo") prevailed for playing alcoholic mistresses. The first long-suffering wife to win this category was Kim Hunter in 1951 for reprising her stage role as Stella to Marlon Brando's Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire." And Miyoshi Umeki won in 1957 for playing the doomed Japanese war bride in "Sayonara."

In the 1970s, Cloris Leachman ("The Last Picture Show") and Lee Grant ("Shampoo") won for playing unhappily married women who take lovers, while Beatrice Straight was rewarded as the wife who stands by her man (William Holden) even after he leaves her for his mistress (Faye Dunaway) in "Network." And Maggie Smith won for playing an Oscar loser married to a bisexual (Michael Caine) in "California Suite."

Two long-suffering wife supporting winners in the 1980s were Mary Steenburgen ("Melvin and Howard") and Olympia Dukakis ("Moonstruck"). And most recently, Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock") and Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind") prevailed for playing put-upon wives at the start of this decade.


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Photos: Universal, Sony Pictures Classics

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