Miriam Hopkins, our first Star of the Month for 2021, was a provocative leading lady in movies of the 1930s and ’40s, where she explored racy themes in comedies of the uninhibited pre-Code era and later scored in colorful melodramas. A blonde beauty with a peaches-and-cream complexion, Hopkins was also a versatile actress who could convince as a broad or a baroness. Writing in the mid-1930s, author William H. Rideout declared that, “On all counts, Miss Hopkins is easily the finest actress on the screen today.”
During her prime, she won an Oscar nomination for playing Becky Sharp, shared an infamous cinematic ménage à trois with Gary Cooper and Fredric March and feuded onscreen and off with Bette Davis. Hopkins’ career as a movie star was cut prematurely short – some said because of an inflated ego and difficult temperament. She returned to the stage, where she had gotten her start. She developed into a strong character actress, later appearing in movies on occasion and becoming a pioneering performer in dramatic television.
Ellen Miriam Hopkins was born into a wealthy family in Savannah, Ga., on October 18, 1902. She had an older sister, Ruby. When Miriam was a teen, her parents separated and she moved with her mother and sister to Syracuse, N.Y., where she attended Syracuse University. Hopkins studied dance in New York City and began appearing as a chorus girl in vaudeville while still in her teens. In 1921, she made her Broadway debut in the Music Box Revue and worked regularly there for the next 10 years, branching from musical comedy turns into straight roles. By 1930, she had earned star billing in a play called Ritzy.
Hopkins had been spotted in a stage performance by a representative of Paramount Pictures, which was searching for talent to accommodate the demands of the burgeoning sound era in movies. She made her film debut in a Paramount short, The Home Girl (1928). Her feature debut came in the comedy Fast and Loose (1930), in which she was top billed over another newcomer, Carole Lombard.
Hopkins’ breakthrough film was The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a delightful Ernst Lubitsch musical comedy in which she plays a princess who marries an Austrian lieutenant but must compete with a beautiful violinist (Claudette Colbert) for his affections. It was the first of three films in which Hopkins benefited from “the Lubitsch Touch.”
Her strong performance as the earthy barmaid Ivy in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) reinforced her position as a leading film actress, with costar Fredric March winning an Oscar for his role(s). After a few lesser films, Hopkins came on strong again in other Lubitsch confections.
Trouble in Paradise (1932) is a sparkling comedy which casts her as a pickpocket who masquerades as a countess and joins forces with an elegant thief (Herbert Marshall) to swindle a businesswoman (Kay Francis). Design for Living (1933) is a film version of Noel Coward’s stage comedy about a woman (Hopkins) who cannot choose between two men and ends up forming a threesome with them.
In 1933, Hopkins replaced Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway in the title role of Jezebel, which was filmed in 1938 with Bette Davis in an Oscar-winning performance – much to the reported annoyance of Hopkins. By 1934, Hopkins’ Paramount contract had expired, and she moved on to Samuel Goldwyn Productions, where her first assignments were loan-outs to RKO.
In the romantic comedy The Richest Girl in the World (1934), she plays a thinly disguised Barbara Hutton, with frequent screen partner Joel McCrea as her leading man. Around this time, Hopkins turned down the role that won Claudette Colbert an Oscar: the runaway heiress in It Happened One Night (1934).
The Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Becky Sharp (1935) was Hopkins’ only Oscar nod; the film is remembered more today for being the first feature shot in Technicolor. One can only imagine her reaction when Bette Davis won that year for her performance in Dangerous. Hopkins made only a handful of films for Goldwyn, including three more with Joel McCrea. One of these, Barbary Coast (1935), a melodrama directed by Howard Hawks, features what many consider to be her best performance.
Splendor (1935) is a comedy in which Hopkins, as McCrea’s bride, is exploited by his grasping family. These Three (1936), starring Hopkins, McCrea and Merle Oberon, is director William Wyler’s first film version of the Lillian Hellman play The Children’s Hour, weakened because the topic of suspected lesbianism is eliminated due to censorship of the day.
Hopkins was lent to producer Arthur J. Rank for the British melodrama Men Are Not Gods (1936), with an interesting cast that included Gertrude Lawrence and Rex Harrison. She returned to Goldwyn and the arms of Joel McCrea for the screwball comedy Woman Chases Man (1937). Wise Girl (1937), again on loan-out to RKO, was a well-received comedy in which she plays a snooty heiress battling with a charismatic artist (Ray Milland) for the custody of two young girls.
As a genuine daughter of the American South with a charming natural drawl, Hopkins was said to be the first choice of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell to play Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film version – a role that went instead, of course, to the English Vivien Leigh.
Hopkins signed a promising contract with Warner Bros. that guaranteed script approval. Her first project there was The Old Maid (1939), a melodramatic costarring vehicle with Bette Davis in which the temperamental actresses clashed offscreen as well as on, to the delight of the studio’s publicity department. Despite the film’s success, Warner Bros. could only come up with a role for Hopkins as leading lady to Errol Flynn in an enjoyable Western, Virginia City (1940). Again, there were stories of friction between the two stars.
Old Acquaintance (1943) marked Hopkins’ second cinematic duel with Davis, and they create entertaining sparks as longtime friends who feud over work (both are writers) and romantic matters. It was said that the real-life enmity was caused in part by the fact that Davis had an affair with director Anatole Litvak in the late 1930s while he was still married to Hopkins. In interviews in later years, Davis acknowledged that Hopkins was a beauty and a good actress but also characterized her as “a real bitch.”
Again, despite her high profile role opposite Davis, Hopkins could not find suitable film vehicles. She returned to the theater, replacing Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway in The Skin of Our Teeth and taking other stage roles in the New York area. She was off the screen for six years. Hopkins returned to movies in a supporting role in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), playing Olivia de Havilland’s sympathetic aunt and winning a Golden Globe nomination. Hopkins then found a niche in television drama, where she would remain active through the 1960s. Among more than 20 TV roles was her turn as Norma Desmond in a 1955 Lux Video Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard.
She worked yet again for Wyler in The Children’s Hour (1961), his revised version of the Hellman drama with the lesbian angle restored. Hopkins plays the aunt of the Shirley MacLaine character (the role she had played in the original 1936 version, These Three).
Among other films from the final phase of the Hopkins career was The Chase (1966), a colorful melodrama set in Texas and directed by Arthur Penn with Marlon Brando and Robert Redford heading an all-star cast. Hopkins has a showy role as Redford’s guilt-ridden mother. Her final film role came in Hollywood Horror House (1970). She died of a heart attack in New York City, nine days before her 70th birthday, on October 9, 1972. She is buried in Bainbridge, Ga.
In addition to Anatole Litvak, to whom she was married 1937-39, Hopkins was wed to actor Brandon Peters (1926-27), screenwriter Austin Parker (1928-31) and war correspondent Raymond B. Brock (1945-51). In 1932, while between marriages, she adopted an infant son, Michael T. Hopkins.
Close friends, including author John O’Hara, would recall Hopkins as a warm, witty, engaging intellectual known for her elegant parties where guests included luminaries from the worlds of theater, music, writing and art. Of her reputation for being difficult, Hopkins once said, “Me temperamental? I never was! Proof of that is that I made four pictures with Willie Wyler, a very demanding director. And I made two with Rouben Mamoulian, who is the same.”