How Edith Wilson Won an Oscar

1944 film Wilson Zanuck Edith Wilson Long Wharf Theatre
Poster for the 1944 movie WILSON

A thin man, about 5 feet 11 inches tall with a high forehead, high cheekbones and a long, thin nose upon which sat rimless glasses, Woodrow Wilson had the air of a stubborn academic not a silver screen hero. Nonetheless, in 1944 the famous film producer and head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, thought Wilson was the perfect film subject for the time. Zanuck personally admired Wilson and having just returned from serving in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, he wanted to provide some historical context for the war to the public. He thought making a film that showed Wilson struggling 30 years earlier over the question of entering World War I would help explain the origins of World War II. A biopic about any large public figure such as a president is always a daunting task. Zanuck, though, faced a unique hurdle in getting the movie produced.

At the time of Wilson’s presidency presidential papers were not considered to be public record like they are now. The full control of all of Wilson’s papers was left in the hands of his wife Edith upon his death. As she had been during his presidency and illness, Edith Wilson was extremely protective of her husband and his reputation. She was notorious for restricting access to Wilson’s papers to only those she liked and deemed had good intentions towards the portrayal of her husband. If she suspected a biographer or journalist of writing any word against him she would withdraw their rights to use the papers. Zanuck then had no choice if he wanted to use these key primary sources to make the film he so thought the world needed to see. He gave Edith Wilson complete and total control over the screenplay for the film Wilson. She reviewed each draft of the script writer Lamar Trotti wrote and all of her comments were incorporated into the final filming script. Furthermore, she was allowed to have full control over how she herself was depicted in the film by actress Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Wilson premiered to critical acclaim in the summer of 1944. The New York Times called the film “an impressive screen biography” and noted “Fitzgerald makes a remarkably understanding woman of the second Mrs. Wilson.” Despite its financial failure Zanuck was quoted as calling the film “nearest to my heart … an artistic and sociological success.” It ended up being nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1945, including relative newcomer Alexander Knox for Best Actor for his portrayal of Woodrow Wilson. It won for best editing, sound, art direction, cinematography, and for the screenplay that Edith had had such an important role in creating.

Check out a clip of the biopic Wilson below.

– Kimberly Shepherd

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