Janet Gaynor is not well-known by modern moviegoers, but to movie historians and film buffs, hers is a familiar name. She was the first actress to win a Best Actress Oscar at the very first Academy Awards ceremony, held in 1928.
The diminutive, doe-eyed film star was born Laura Gainor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 6, 1906. Her family moved to California and young Janet grew up, harboring a desire to become an actress someday. This was the era of silent films, so, upon graduating high school, she decided to migrate to Los Angeles, with the hope of getting roles in movies. After two thankless years of accepting non-credited film work, her patience was finally rewarded in 1926, when she got the lead part of Anna Burger in The Johnstown Flood. It wasn’t a particularly notable picture, but her sensitive performance did catch the eye of the powers-that-be and she started to get offers for more feature films. She had a waif-like quality that movie makers knew would be appealing to audiences
She starred in The Midnight Kiss, The Return of Peter Grimm and Blue Eagle in her first full year as a featured star, but it was the work she did during 1927 and 1928 that really made her a major silent star. Her work in Seventh Heaven, Sunrise: Two Humans and Street Angel garnered both critical and popular praise. Having viewed these movies in a film retrospective of her performances, I can attest to the fact that her characters, as she played them, were delicate and sympathetically vulnerable. In today’s world, these films might be considered overly sentimental, but to anyone who loves romantic movies, these are some of the best examples of this genre. Her work in these films was honored in 1928, when she was given the Best Actress Oscar
When sound hit the movies, a lot of actresses in the industry fell by the wayside, largely because their real voices did not match their good looks. The heads of Fox Studios were relieved to discover that Janet Gaynor was more than up to the task of making the transition to talkies. Only after Fox merged with 20th Century did her career start to lose ground. To salvage it, she got out of her contract and went on to star in films for other studios.
One of her most notable later roles was in 1937 in A Star Is Born. Gaynor portrayed aspiring Hollywood actress Esther Victoria Blodgett, who is renamed Vicky Lester and then marries alcoholic film actor Norman Maine (Frederic March), whose star is fading, as hers is rising. Janet Gaynor received an Academy Award nomination for her performance. Two remakes of A Star Is Born were later made, the equally outstanding 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason and the dismal 1976 rock version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
In terms of her personal life, Gaynor was married three times, but insiders claimed that these marriages were to cover up her real sexuality. She was rumored to have been in a long term romantic relationship with Broadway legend Mary Martin.
Gaynor retired from the screen in 1939 and died at age 77 in 1984, having never gotten over injuries she sustained when a car crashed into a taxi in which she was a passenger.