Top: Charles W. Brackett, left, along with actress Gloria Swanson and director Billy Wilder during filming of “Sunset Boulevard” in 1950. Bottom, from left: Jane Wait, Ranald MacDougall, John Sayles and Eva Marie Saint (with Marlon Brando) in “On the Waterfront.”
Jane Wait was at the 1958 Golden Globes Award Ceremony, a raucous affair most Hollywood historians remember as the night Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. commandeered the Beverly Hilton stage and took over the show.
What’s much more memorable to Wait, – and she and her husband Newman Wait Jr., had a front row seat – was watching some of the biggest names in show business exchange pleasantries with their friend, Charles W. Brackett. A Saratoga Springs native and a highly successful screenwriter and producer, Brackett was a four-time Oscar winner before passing away in 1969 at the age of 77.
“It was a star-studded affair, Elizabeth Taylor was there, and so many people came up to Charlie at our table and showed him the utmost respect,” said Wait, who, along with her husband, was an invited guest of Brackett’s and his wife, Lillian. “It was truly impressive, and he really was a genuine gentleman. He was brilliant, with a great sense of humor, and you could tell people really liked him.”
Wait, now 97 and still a Saratoga Springs resident, became friends with Brackett because of their association with the Adirondack Trust Company in Saratoga Springs. It was Brackett’s father, New York State Senator Edgar Truman Brackett, who originally founded Adirondack Trust back in 1901, while Newman Wait Jr. had started working for the bank in 1946 and would eventually became president by 1964.
“At some point, I think when my husband was treasurer, the state mandated that anyone serving on a certain kind of board had to attend at least two meetings a year,” said Wait. “Well, Charlie was on the board but he never came to the meetings. But after it was mandated by the state, he had to show up at least two times a year so we got to know him pretty well. We had some great times with him, and he always felt really connected to Saratoga. I was a member of the Presbyterian Church and every Christmas he sent the most beautiful cross made out of fresh lilies that would hang in the church. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Brackett was a three-time Oscar winner for Best Writing, and in 1958 received an honorary Oscar “for outstanding service to the Academy.” He was also known for his collaboration with director Billy Wilder, a six-time Oscar winner who shared one of his wins with Brackett for writing the 1951 screenplay to “Sunset Boulevard.”
It was Brackett who in “Sunset Boulevard” purportedly wrote the classic line for Gloria Swanson, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”
“I don’t know that one, but I know that Charlie loved to write,” said Wait. “His father didn’t want him to have anything to do with writing. He wanted him to become a lawyer. He told him, ‘you’re going to law school.’ So Charlie went to law school, and when he graduated he presented his father with the law degree and then took off to New York to start writing.”
Charles Wait, Jane’s son and currently the bank president at Adirondack Trust, didn’t have a lot of personal interaction with Brackett, but he remembers the stories. Evidently Edgar Truman Brackett wasn’t a warm and fuzzy father, and a family tragedy didn’t make things easier. Charlie’s older brother, Edgar Jr., died of blood poisoning after a cap gun his father had given him as a present misfired.
“The powder got into the cut, it was infected and he died,” said Charles Wait. “So Edgar Brackett decided he should never speak to his other son, and he communicated to him only through writing. Charlie would communicate back through writing, and that’s why writing became his passion. It is a strange story and who knows if it’s true, but it’s one I’ve heard for years.”
Jane Wait can’t verify the story, but if it is true it certainly wouldn’t surprise her.
“He let Charlie’s older brother have the cap gun against his mother’s wishes,” said Jane Wait. “It’s such a sad story. I’m not sure if it’s all true, but his father certainly made things uncomfortable for Charlie.”
A 1910 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School, Brackett went to Williams College for four years before getting his law degree at Harvard. He served in the U.S. Army in France during World War I, spent some time in Saratoga as an attorney, and then began his writing career by producing articles for the Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker. His first Hollywood writing credit came in 1925, but he didn’t move out west until 1932 when he was hired by Paramount Studios.
Brackett’s first big success and his first Oscar nomination came in 1940 for Best Screenplay for “Ninotchka.” His screenplays were also nominated in 1947 for “To Each His Own” and 1949 for “A Foreign Affair,” before he won Oscar No. 2 in 1951 for writing “Sunset Boulevard” with Wilder and Richard Breen. His third writing Oscar was for “Titanic” in 1954, and in 1958 he claimed his honorary Oscar.
“He invited us out again for another week in Hollywood and we had a wonderful time,” Wait said of Brackett, who was also president of the Screen Writers Guild (1938-1939) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1949-1955). “He gave us an escort and told us, ‘anything you want, it’s yours.’ Well, I loved geology, studied it, and when I said I wanted to go to the La Brea Tar Pits he looked at me and laughed and said, ‘my God, where did you come from.’ It was one of those wonderful memories of him I just cherish.”
Brackett and his first wife, Elizabeth Fletcher, had two daughters in their 30-year marriage before she passed away in 1948. Five years later, Brackett married her sister, Lillian, who also became close to the Waits.
“He had alzheimer’s near the end, and I can remember visiting him on our way to Hawaii and he wasn’t doing very well,” she said. “Lillian told us to go upstairs and see him, and that we’ll think he remembers us and we’ll have a wonderful conversation, and then once you leave he won’t have a clue you had been there. But that was an indication of the fact that he was a wonderful gentleman. That’s just how he behaved.”
Despite his four Oscars, Brackett isn’t that familiar a name to most people in the Capital Region, although James Parillo, executive director at the Saratoga Springs History Museum, said that many people throughout Saratoga County know the name.
“He came from a very prominent family, so I think most people around here recognize the name,” said Parillo. “We have some of his personal papers and a few other items that were donated to us.”
According to Saratoga Springs City Historian Maryann Fitzgerald, Brackett returned to the area on occasion to visit old friends. One of those friends, a fellow writer, was American humorist Frank Sullivan who also graduated from Saratoga High in 1910.
“He came east occasionally, usually on business, and he retained his partnership in the law firm of Brackett, Eddy and Dorsey, and was a vice-president at Adirondack Trust,” she said. “He always found the time to chat with old friends along Broadway.”
While Brackett’s successes on Oscar night – this year’s ceremony is next Sunday, Feb. 24 – make him the biggest winner ever from the Capital Region, the area has produced a handful of Oscar recipients and nominees.
The obvious one is Amsterdam native Kirk Douglas, the biggest star to come out of the region ever. Douglas was nominated for Best Actor three times (“Champion,” 1950; “The Bad and the Beautiful,” 1953; and “Lust for Life,” 1957), and finally earned his Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1996. It was also Douglas’s production company, “Bryna Productions,” that produced “Spartacus,” in which he played the title role but was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The film itself earned four Oscars.
Marilyn Gordon, a Glenville resident and Douglas’s niece, said the 102-year-old star is doing fine. Her two favorite Kirk Douglas films are “Lust for Life” and “Spartacus.”
“He has so many great performances, but ‘Lust for Life,’ his performance as Van Gogh was outstanding,” said Gordon, whose mother and Kirk’s sister, Ida Sahr, lives in Schenectady and turns 100 later this month. “It was also one of the first films made by his own production company which he named after his mother, Bryna. And of course everybody remembers him as ‘Spartacus.’ Those two were both outstanding.”
Capital Region movie fans will also never forget Eva Marie Saint’s Oscar-winning performance in “On the Waterfront,” with Marlon Brando. A Newark, New Jersey native, Saint grew up in Delmar and graduated from Bethlehem Central High School. Though she made a number of very successful films after “On the Waterfront,” she never again was nominated for an Oscar.
Here is a list of some Capital Region natives and others with long connections to the area who have flirted with the Oscar. Some were successful, the others came very close.
- Charles W. Brackett won writing Oscars for “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Titanic,” and earned four more nominations. He also won a Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1958. He was born in Saratoga Springs in 1892.
- Edwin J. Burke won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for “Bad Girl” in 1932. He was born in Albany in 1899 and died in New York City in 1944. He was also known for writing some of Shirley Temple’s early films.
- John Caglione Jr. was an Oscar winner for Best Makeup in 1991 for “Dick Tracy,” and also earned a nomination for “the Dark Knight” in 2008. Born in New York City in 1957, Caglione grew up in Troy and graduated from Troy High School in 1976. He is also an Emmy Award winner for HBO’s “Angels in America.”
- Kirk Douglas earned an honorary Oscar in 1996 for ’50 Years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community.” Born in 1916 in Amsterdam, Douglas was also nominated for three Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscars. They were “Champion” (1950), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1953) and “Lust for Life” (1957). Douglas has remained connected to the Amsterdam community throughout his long life (he turned 102 on Dec. 9, 2018) and earlier this year had a historic marker put up on the street where he grew up.
- Ranald MacDougall was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Screenplay category in 1946 for “Mildred Pierce,” starring Joan Crawford. Born in Schenectady in 1915, he also was a co-writer for the 1963 epic, “Cleopatra,” with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. One of his two wives was actress Nanette Fabray. He died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 58 in Pacific Palisades, California.
- Mickey Rourke was nominated in 2009 for Best Actor in a Leading Role for “The Wrestler.” He was born in Schenectady in 1952 but his family soon moved to Florida. He also was in successful films such as “Diner,” “Rumble Fish” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village.”
- Eva Marie Saint won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando in 1954. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1924, she grew up in Delmar and graduated from Bethlehem Central in 1942. She also had major successes in films such as “Hatful of Rain,” “Exodus,” “North By Northwest,” and “Raintree County.” Her most recent work is 2014’s “Winter’s Tale” with Colin Farrell.
- John Sayles was nominated twice for Best Screenplay for “Passion Fish” (1992) and “Lone Star” (1996). He was born in Schenectady in 1950 and grew up in the city, graduating from Mont Pleasant High School. Typically serving as writer and director of many of his projects, Sayles also enjoyed success with films such as “Eight Men Out” (1988) and “Matewan” (1987).
- Maureen Stapleton won a 1982 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “Reds.” Born in Troy in 1925, she also earned Oscar nominations for “Lonely Hearts,” “Airport” and “Interiors.” One of just 14 actresses to win an Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award, Stapleton died in 2006.
- Monty Wooley was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for “Since You Went Away” (1944) and Best Actor in a Leading Role for “The Pied Piper” (1942). Technically he’s not a Capital Region native, having been born in New York City in 1888, but he called Saratoga Springs home for the last 20 years of his life.
- Donald Westlake was a nominated for a Best Writing Oscar for “The Grifters” in 1990. He was born in Brooklyn in 1933, grew up in Albany, and became one of the most accomplished crime writers of the 20th century. He died in 2008.
- Thomas Curley won an Oscar for Sound Mixing with Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins for 2014’s “Whiplash.” He is a Troy native and a graduate of Shenendehowa High School (1994) and the University at Buffalo.
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