Rejection is inevitable for every actor at some point in a film career. It was no different for the classic stars. Many had to face a movie studio decision of giving a role to someone else; a harsh reminder that it was nothing personal – it was show business.
Unquestionably, Bette Davis was able to play the strongest of female characters, but she also lost a lot of roles to other film actresses. Davis felt she could play any part, including the role of “Maxine Faulk” in “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), the role of “Queen Elizabeth” in “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1936), the role of “Vera Charles” in “Mame” (1974), and the role of “Cassandra Tower” in “Kings Row” (1942). Davis even fought for the title role of “Mildred Pierce” (1945) but would lose it to her arch rival Joan Crawford.
Almost twenty-five actresses were either considered or screen tested for the role of “Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” Jean Arthur, Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow, and Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were among them. Norma Shearer, retired from film after “Her Cardboard Lover” (1942), but was still strongly considered by the studios for the part of “Scarlett O’Hara” as among the roles Ms. Shearer turned down. Her comment on it: “Scarlett O’Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I’d like to play is Rhett Butler.”
Sometimes when an actor turned down a role, it helped another actor shoot to stardom. Such was the case for Jean Harlow when she accepted the role of “Gwen Allen ” in “The Public Enemy” (1931) after silent film icon, Louise Brooks, was first offered the role but turned it down.
There have been many other classic stars who have fought for roles they ultimately did not win. Imagine Joan Crawford instead of Norma Shearer in the title role of “Marie Antoinette” (1938)? Marlene Dietrich as “Martha ‘Mama’ Hanson” in “I Remember Mama” (1948)? Lena Horne as “Julie LaVerne” in “Showboat” (1951)? Charlton Heston as “Thomas Moore” in “A Man For All Seasons” (1966)? Sometimes these decisions beg the question “What if?”