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Oscars mystery: Whatever happened to Hattie McDaniel's Academy Award?

May 27, 2010 |  6:16 am

J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post has written a fascinating account of this unsolved mystery, tracing the Academy Award to the capital's Howard University, where it disappeared decades ago. Hattie McDaniel won the best supporting actress race at the 1939 Oscars for the role of Mammy in best picture champ "Gone With the Wind." She beat Edna May Oliver ("Drums Along the Mohawk"), Olivia de Havilland ("Gone With the Wind"), Maria Ouspenskaya ("Love Affair") and Geraldine Fitzgerald ("Wuthering Heights"). Upon her death in 1952, she bequeathed it to the historic African American college.

Seven decades after McDaniel's historic victory, Mo'Nique became the fourth African American woman to be honored in this category with her win for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." Mo'Nique referenced the pioneer in her heartfelt acceptance speech, saying, "I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to." She wore a royal blue dress and gardenia in her hair as McDaniel had back on Feb. 29, 1940, when she attended the 12th Academy Awards.

The newsreel footage of that night below cut out the time it took for McDaniel to get to the podium. She had been seated far in the back of the venue -- the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. Note that McDaniel is presented with a plaque rather than the Oscar statue as were all supporting winners from the inception of these categories, in 1936, to 1942. Before announcing the name of the winner, Fay Bainter -- who had her own place in Oscar history as the first dual nominee with her 1938 bids for best actress ("White Banners") and supporting actress ("Jezebel"), winning the latter -- said, "It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color." Bainter had not peeked into the envelope but been tipped by the Los Angeles Times, which had printed a list of the winners before the ceremony. The academy soon plugged the leak, instituting measures to ensure the secrecy of the results.

Mo'Nique has spoken of her desire to produce a biopic about McDaniel. Whoopi Goldberg -- only the second African American woman to win an Oscar -- took home a daytime Emmy Award in 2002 for producing the documentary "Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel." Goldberg -- one of only 10 people to sweep the grand slam of awards -- is also the only African American actress with two Oscar nods, losing lead actress for "The Color Purple" (1985) before winning the supporting award for "Ghost" (1990).

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