Jeanne Eagels (June 26, 1894 – October 3, 1929) was an actress on Broadway and in several motion pictures. She was a former Ziegfeld Follies Girl who went on to greater fame on Broadway and in the emerging medium of "talkies" (films with sound).
She was posthumously considered for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her 1929 role in The Letter after dying suddenly that year at the age of 35. That nomination was not only the first posthumous Oscar consideration for any actor, male or female; it was also the first time any woman had been considered for a posthumous Oscar in any competitive category.
Around 1911, she came to New York City to advance her acting career. Because of the stiff competition for parts, once again she had to work her way up from the chorus. Even in the chorus line she excelled and she eventually became a Ziegfeld Follies Girl. During this period, one of her acting coaches was Beverly Sitgreaves, who had once shared the stage with the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Eagels was in the supporting cast of Mind The Paint Girl at the Lyceum Theatre in September 1912. The play featured Billie Burke and William Raymond.
She changed the spelling of her surname to "Eagels," allegedly because this spelling looked better in lights. Although she struggled for recognition as a dramatic actress, her beauty, talent, and luck led to her getting bigger parts in better shows. Her stage career blossomed, and in 1915 she appeared in her first motion picture. In 1916 and 1917 she made three films for Thanhouser Film Corporation.
David Belasco said of her, "Beautiful, ah yes, with that wonderful golden hair, blue angelic eyes, sweet mouth, and cunning nose. Her eyes were hard and bitter but shined with ambition. Thousands of girls have come to me, but never such a girl as Jeanne Eagels, with the air of a Duse, the voice of an earl's daughter, and the mien of a tired, starved little alley cat." Her hair was actually brown, but she bleached it when she came to New York.
Her greatest success, and her favorite role, was Sadie Thompson in Rain, which she played for two years on Broadway, and two more years on tour in the early 1920s. In 1925 she married stockbroker Ted Coy, a Yale graduate and famous college football player.
She talked fast and gestured with her hands. Few knew or understood her. She was explosive, mercurial, neurotic, loyal, generous, and sweet. She usually ignored all except the humblest members of her company. She hated most managers, interviews, movies, gossip, autograph seekers, night clubs, and Actors Equity. She liked dogs, auction sales, dill pickles, and ice cream with cherries. Her philosophy was Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend. The cause of her untimely death at the age of 39 was never clearly established, but pathology reports focused on the cumulative effects of alcohol or drug abuse. None which ever was conclusive in the three autopsies performed.
Many rumors and stories regarding Jeanne Eagels' life were presented later in an unauthorized biography published after her death, The Rain Girl: The Tragic Story of Jeanne Eagels. Written by Ed Doherty and published 1930, the book portrayed Eagels in a rather negative light. The result lead to a lawsuit filed by her mother which later was dismissed. In 1957, Columbia Pictures produced the film Jeanne Eagels with Kim Novak, in which Eagels is depicted as starting her career as a scantily-clad carnival dancer and avoiding any real facts about her early life and times.
After a season on Broadway she took a break to make a movie. She appeared opposite John Gilbert in the MGM film, Man, Woman and Sin (1927), which was directed by Monta Bell. Critics said she looked great and was very attractive playing the role of Vera Worth, a capricious vamp. She plays the mistress of the newspaper publisher who employs her as the society editor.
In 1928, after failing to appear for a performance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Eagels was banned by Actors Equity from appearing on stage for 18 months. The ban did not stop Eagels from working in film, and she made two "talkies" for Paramount Pictures, including The Letter and Jealousy (both released in 1929). Her performance in The Letter garnered high praise from critics and she was considered for a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
The story of her death was covered by a young crime reporter named Samuel Fuller, later a noted film writer and director.
Eagels was posthumously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in The Letter, but the Oscar went to Mary Pickford for the film Coquette. Eagels' performance in this film inspired many actors new to the medium of talking pictures, including Bette Davis, who repeated the role in the 1940 remake of the film.