Fay Bainter (1893-1968)

Fay Bainter
Fay Bainter

Fay Bainter was a character actress whose career on stage, screen and television spanned six decades of considerable success. She began her acting life on stage as a child performer and she had a successful Broadway career before she appeared in movies.

When she did, she made cinematic history when she became, at the 1939 Academy Awards ceremony, the first performer to be nominated for Oscars in two different categories, as Best actress for 'White Banners', and as Best Supporting Actress in 'Jezebel'. She won for Jezebel and subsequently was nominated again, late in her career, in 1961 for her performance in 'The Children's Hour.'

Invariably in a supporting role, and always near the top of the supporting-cast list, Bainter worked steadily in Hollywood from the 1930s until the early 1950s, when she began to concentrate on television.


She was born Fay Okell Bainter on December 7, 1893 in Los Angeles to an American father and English mother. She had an elder sister, Grace. Her stage-struck mother put her on stage as a child performer when she was five and Fay from an early age was determined to pursue a career in acting.

Stage Career

She joined a travelling stock company and made her first professional appearance on stage in 1908 in The County Chairman in Burbank, California. She continued working in stock, learning her new trade and she made her debut on Broadway in 1912 in 'The Rose of Panama'. She became a member of producer and impresario David Belasco's company and for two decades, initially in romantic or ingenue roles, she worked steadily, establishing a reputation as a clever, reliable, hard-working performer.

She starred in New York in a number of hit plays such as 'Arms and the Girl' and 'The Willow Tree' in 1917, 'East is West' in 1918, ''The Enemy' in 1925, ''Fallen Angels' in 1927, 'Jealousy' in 1928, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' in 1933 and in 1934 she was outstanding as Fran Dodsworth in 'Dodsworth'.

Hollywood Actress 1934

Fay had ignored all opportunities to work in the movie business but in 1934, aged 41, she was offered a role in 'This Side of Heaven', co-starring opposite Lionel Barrymore with whom she had previously worked on stage. It was the start of a new, highly successful career.

She quickly became a success in her new medium and she gave well received performances in movies such as 'Make Way for Tomorrow' and 'Quality Street' in 1937. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the movie 'Jezebel' in 1938, playing the stern, aunt of Bette Davis. In the same year, she was also nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'White Banners', losing out to Bette Davis' performance in 'Jezebel'.

Fay continued to work steadily and adroitly during the 1940's, notably in 1940 when she played Melissa Frake in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical 'State Fair' and in the same year the role of Mrs. Gibbs in the film production of the Thornton Wilder play 'Our Town'. She had more success in the title role of Elvira Wiggs, in 'Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch' in 1942, and as the eccentric aunt of Merle Oberon in 'Dark Waters' in 1944 and as Danny Kaye's mother in 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' in 1947.

In the late 1940s her movie career slowed down as she began a new stage of her life as a television actress. Her last movies were 'June Bride' in 1948, 'Close to My Heart' in 1951, and 'The President's Lady' in 1953. She made no more movies until 1961 when she made a brilliant comeback in 'The Children's Hour' for which she was once again nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

Later Career

Many performers who had been big players in the 1930s and 1940s jumped on the television bandwagon in the 1950s as their glamorous movie careers began to wind down, and Fay was no exception. Her first appearance on the small screen was in 1949 in 'The Ford Theatre Hour' and she continued to make regular appearances for the rest of her career in programs such as 'Schlitz Playhouse', 'The Ford Television Theatre' in 1954, 'Lux Video Theatre' between 1950 and 1955, 'Armstrong Circle Theatre' between 1953 and 1955, 'The Donna Reed Show' in 1962 and 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour' in 1965.

In addition she returned triumphantly to her first love, the stage, in 1958, when she appeared in the touring company of 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' by Eugene O'Neill.


Fay married once, in 1921, to Reginald Sydney Hugh Venable, a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. The couple had one son, Reginald Venable Jr., who became an actor. Reginald, the son, died on June 27, 1974 in Los Angeles, California at age 50.

Fay Bainter died on April 16, 1968 from pneumonia in Los Angeles. She was buried by the side of her husband in Arlington National Cemetery. She was aged 74.

Fay Bainter Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Supporting Actress ... Jezebel (1938)
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... White Banners (1938)
Best Supporting Actress ... The Children's Hour (1961)

Fay Bainter Filmography

This Side of Heaven
Quality Street
Michael Strogoff
Make Way for Tomorrow
White Banners
Mother Carey's Chickens
The Shining Hour
Yes, My Darling Daughter
The Lady and the Mob
Daughters Courageous
Our Neighbors - The Carters
Young Tom Edison
Our Town
Bill of Divorcement
Babes on Broadway
Woman of the Year
Mister Gardenia Jones (Documentary short)
The War Against Mrs. Hadley
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
Journey for Margaret
The Human Comedy
Presenting Lily Mars
Salute to the Marines
Cry 'Havoc'
The Heavenly Body
Dark Waters
Three Is a Family
State Fair
The Kid from Brooklyn
The Virginian
Deep Valley
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Give My Regards to Broadway
June Bride