Bette Davis despised the gushy, southern, gracious blonde who became the star of Becky Sharp, the first feature film photographed in the new three-strip Technicolor process—and slept with her husband.
Ellen Miriam Hopkins was born into wealth Oct. 18, 1902, in Savannah, Ga. When she was 14 her parents separated, and she and her mother moved to Barre, Vt. Her sisters remained behind, and Miriam did not speak to her father again for over 20 years.
While attending Syracuse University where her uncle was a professor, Miriam became involved in the drama society, art and ballet. With the full intention of becoming a star someday, she moved to Manhattan to fulfill her dream. Miriam eventually signed with a ballet troupe and was absolutely thrilled to learn they would perform in South America. On the very day the boat was to sail, she broke her ankle.
In 1921, with the help of another uncle who had Broadway connections, Hopkins became a chorus girl in the Music Box Revue for $40 a week. She appeared in several other Broadway productions throughout the 1920s, yet she seemed to be constantly fired or replaced with actresses who were better suited the role she had been hired for, and critics either loved her or hated her. On May 11, 1926, Hopkins married the first of her four husbands, actor Brandon Peters, whom she divorced in June of 1931. Her other husbands were Austin Parker ( 1931-1932 ) , Anatole Litvak ( 1937-1939 ) and Raymond Brock ( 1945-1951 ) .
In 1929, a production head of Paramount Studios was scouring Broadway for new film stars for talking pictures. Hopkins was offered a seven-year contract and $1,000 a week. She made her film debut in Fast and Loose ( 1930 ) . It was a disaster for her. She was frizzy-haired and appeared overweight in unbecoming clothes. The gorgeous Carole Lombard outshone the southern girl with the overwrought, stagey diction. That same year, Hopkins was quoted as saying, 'I want to know about things. I want to make something worthwhile of myself.' After appearing in a few other minor, dreary roles, she emerged as the pretty, thin, sensual barmaid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ( 1932 ) . Her popularity soared. Hopkins also became well known for her elegant parties, at which she loved to recite poetry to her guests who were a variety of people in all of the arts, picked by Hopkins for their intellect.
Throughout the 1930s, Hopkins appeared with numerous famous actors in films such as The Story of Temple Drake ( 1933 ) , a tame movie based on William Faulkner's scandalous book, Sanctuary. Other films included All of Me ( 1934 ) and These Three ( 1936 ) , the latter a film based on Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour. Yet, she seemed to intersperse her good roles with dreadful ones.
In 1938, Bette Davis had a short affair with Hopkins' husband, director Anatole Litvak. Hopkins, of course, seethed with rage when she found out, fueling her hatred of Davis. She divorced Litvak in late 1939. She believed appearing opposite her rival Davis in The Old Maid ( 1939 ) was a way to get even—to upstage and madden her. She did her best, but hurt her own performance as a result. Hopkins' temperament was becoming legendary. Davis later revealed that after working with Hopkins, she would go home at night and just scream for a whole hour. They were teamed again in 1943 for Old Acquaintance. A scene where Davis took Hopkins by her shoulders and violently shook her was the real thing. Davis remarked of Hopkins, 'I don't think there was ever a more difficult female in the world.' In 1940, the Harvard Lampoon had cited Hopkins as 'the least desirable companion on a desert island.'
By the 1950s, Hopkins realized she had to settle for playing supporting roles. She played the role of Olivia de Havilland's aunt in The Heiress ( 1949 ) , Gene Tierney's snobbish mother in The Mating Season ( 1951 ) and a whore in The Outcasts of Poker Flat ( 1952 ) . There were no more roles for 10 years until she joined Shirley McClaine in The Children's Hour ( 1961 ) , a remake of Hopkins' film These Three. This time, the movie was made with the title and the original lesbian theme by Lillian Hellman intact. She also appeared in Fannie Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure ( 1964 ) . Other roles included being Robert Redford's mother in The Chase ( 1966 ) and an aging movie star in The Comeback ( 1969 ) . Between 1950 and 1967, Hopkins made a dozen television appearances that included The Outer Limits ( 1964 ) and The Flying Nun ( 1969 ) .
Hopkins was once quoted as saying, 'I've always had bad judgement about plays and movies. I turned down Broadway, and I turned down Twentieth Century, and I also turned down the movie It Happened One Night, which won Claudette Colbert an Academy Award. I said it was just a silly comedy.'
Miriam Hopkins died of a massive heart attack in New York City on Oct. 9, 1972, days shy of her 70th birthday.
Sources: Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk; They Had Faces Then by John Springer and Jack Hamilton; The Great Movie Stars by David Shipman; Hollywood Album compiled by The New York Times; Miriam Hopkins Web sites
Steve Starr is the author of 'Picture Perfect'-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, writer, and artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. Starr's personal collection of over 950 original Art Deco photo frames is filled with images of Hollywood's most glamorous personalities. His column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications including Entertainment Magazine Online, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
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