In 1935 the gracious, gushy, southern blonde became the star of the first feature film photographed in the new three-strip Technicolor process...Becky Sharp. Her future co-star and rival Bette Davis despised her, and later 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 more than 20 years.
While attending Syracuse University where her Uncle was a professor, Miriam became very involved in the drama society, art, and ballet. With the full intention of being a star someday, she moved to Manhattan to fullfill her dream. Miriam eventually signed with a ballet troupe and was to perform in South America. On the 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 better suited the role she had been hired for. Critics seemed to either love her or hate her.
On May 11, 1926, she married the first of her four husbands, actor Brandon Peters, whom she divorced in June of 1931. She married three more times: Austin Parker ( 1931-1932 ) , Anatole Litvak ( 1937-1939 ) , and Raymond Brock ( 1945-1951 ) .
In 1929, a production head of Paramount Studios was raiding Broadway for new film stars for talking pictures. Miriam was offered a $1,000-a-week, seven-year contract. She made her film debut in Fast and Loose ( 1930 ) . It was a disaster for her. She was frizzy-haired and 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 barmaid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ( 1932 ) . Her popularity soared.
Miriam became well known for her elegant parties, where she loved to recite poetry to her guests who were a medley of people in all of the arts, picked by Miriam for their intellect ... rather than just movie people.
Throughout the 1930s Hopkins appeared with famous actors in numerous films including The Story of Temple Drake ( 1933 ) , a scandalous but tamed film based on William Faulkner's sensatioal book Sanctuary, All of Me ( 1934 ) , and These Three ( 1936 ) , a film based on Lillian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour.
Yet she seemed to intersperse her good roles with dreadful ones.
Hopkins was often a terror to work with, her attitude always sizzling in anger. Edward G. Robinson, who appeared with Miriam in Barbary Coast ( 1935 ) , said of her " ( she was ) puerile and silly and snobbish, complaining about every line, ( using ) , every trick to upstage me." Robinson, always known as a gentleman, was finally pushed to the limits for his first and only time in public, and told Miriam off, setting her straight in front of everyone on the set.
Hopkins costarred with Bette Davis in The Old Maid ( 1939 ) . The year before, Davis had had a short affair with Miriam's husband, director Anatole Litvak. Miriam of course seethed with rage when she found out, fueling her hatred of Davis. She divorced Litvak in late 1939. Hopkins believed appearing opposite her rival was a way to get even; to upstage and madden her. She did her best, but hurt her own performance as a result. Miriam's temperament was becoming legendary. Davis revealed that after working with Hopkins she would go home at night and scream for an hour. They were teamed again in 1943 for Old Acquantance. A scene where Bette took Miriam by her shoulders and violently shook her was the real thing. Davis remarked, "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, Miriam realized she had to settle for playing supporting roles. She played the role of Olivia DeHavilland's aunt in The Heiress ( 1949 ) , a snobbish mother of Gene Tierney 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 to play her aunt in The Children's Hour ( 1961 ) a remake of Hopkin's 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. Other roles she played 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 televison appearances which included The Flying Nun and The Outer Limits.
Miriam 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, Oct. 9, 1972.
Sources : Fasten Your Seat Belts---The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk; They Had Faces Then by John Sringer 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 designer and artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, furnishings and jewelry, and celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2002. Visit the glamorous studio at 2779 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago where adorning the walls is Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.