Miriam Hopkins is just the sort of intellectual east coast actress I find most interesting. She was born in Savannah and raised in Bainbridge, Georgia where her mother’s twin brother was mayor. After her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Vermont, where she attended the prestigious Goddard Seminary, which would later become Goddard College. She then attended Syracuse University where another uncle was head of the geology department.
Although Hopkins more than embraced the glamorous lifestyle of the classic Hollywood starlet, her solid family and educational background back east helped her to keep a head on her shoulders. Rather than being swept away by the tide of artifice and manipulation perpetuated by the studio system, Hopkins kept her head afloat and even became a leader in community. Like her arch nemesis and co-star Bette Davis, Hopkins never hesitated to voice her opinion on the set. She worked with some of the biggest directors of the day, including William Wyler, Ernst Lubitsh, and Michael Curtiz. Of working with Curtiz, Hopkins once remarked:
“He was a complete madman – mad and adorable. For twelve weeks he yelled at me and I yelled back at him. We’re exactly alike.”
Apparently, Hopkins’ feisty attitude made it difficult for her to stay at one studio. She started out at Paramount but then moved on to Samuel Goldwyn and Warner Brothers.
Hopkins was a staunch progressive Democrat, supporting the presidential campaigns of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. Throughout the 1940s she served as the second vice president of the Hollywood Democratic Committee. According to archives:
“The group worked on behalf of liberal causes including civil liberties, racial justice, and peace, and it actively supported the Hollywood community against the Dies Committee and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It was placed on the HUAC list of subversive organizations.” (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Through my research, I was unable to confirm that Hopkins was a member of the Committee of the First Amendment, which openly protested the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, many of her friends and coworkers, like Wyler and Bette Davis, were active members – so it is likely she was aware of their work, though she perhaps did not participate in the protest herself.
Aside from her political activities, Hopkins was also very social. She was known for giving lavish intellectual parties. A frequent guest, the Irish-American author John O’Hara, once remarked:
“most of her guests were chosen from the world of the intellect…Miriam knew them all, had read their work, had listened to their music, had bought their paintings. They were not there because a secretary had given her a list of highbrows.”
Miriam Hopkins must-see movies
THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931): Hopkins stars as the Princess Anna, alongside Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Charles Ruggles (BRINGING UP BABY (1938), in this charming musical comedy directed by Ernst Lubutsch.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931): Directed by Rouben Mamoullian and co-starring Frederic March
BECKY SHARP (1935): based on William Makepeace Thackary’s novel “Vanity Fair”, this film directed by Mamoullian earned Hopkins an Academy Award nomination. Its star-studded cast includes Frances Dee, Cedric Hardwicke, and Billie Burke.
The studio system capitalized on Miriam Hopkins’ feud with actress Bette Davis (who seemed to feud with everybody, if we’re honest), which may have begun when Davis had an affair with Hopkins’ then-husband Anatole Litvak. The two first co-starred together in THE OLD MAID (1939) and would take up arms against each other again in OLD ACQUAINTANCE (1943). My personal theory is that the two were probably too similar to get along, much like Davis and Crawford. That’s a lot of dynamite to have on one set without something inevitably exploding.
THE HEIRESS (1949): Directed by William Wyler, Hopkins plays Olivia de Havilland’s romantic aunt and confidante in this masterpiece.