Janet Gaynor (October 6, 1906 – September 14, 1984) was an American actress and painter.
One of the most popular actresses of the silent film era, in 1928 Gaynor became the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in three films: Seventh Heaven (1927), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Street Angel (1928). This was the only occasion on which an actress has won one Oscar for multiple film roles. This rule would be changed three years later by AMPAS. Her career as the primary actress of Fox Studios continued with the advent of sound film, and she achieved a notable success in the original version of A Star Is Born (1937).
She chose to work only occasionally after her marriage to film costume designer Adrian in 1939. She was severely injured in a 1982 vehicle collision, which contributed to her death two years later.
Born Laura Augusta Gainor in Germantown, Philadelphia, her family moved west to San Francisco during her childhood. When she graduated from high school in 1923, Gaynor decided to pursue an acting career. She moved to Los Angeles, where she supported herself working in a shoe store, receiving $18 per week (2009: $230).
She managed to land unbilled small parts in several feature films and comedy shorts for two years. Finally, in 1926, at the age of 20, she was cast in the lead role in The Johnstown Flood (1926), the same year she was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars(with Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río and others). Her outstanding performance won her the attention of producers, who cast her in a series of films.
Standing 5'0" tall, Gaynor was one of Hollywood's leading ladies within a year. Her performances in Seventh Heaven (the first of twelve movies she would make with actor Charles Farrell) and both Sunrise, directed by F. W. Murnau, and Street Angel (in 1927, also with Charles Farrell) earned her the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928. At the time, the award was awarded for multiple roles: it was given on the basis of the actor's total work over the year, and not just for one particular performance. Gaynor was not only the first but also, at 22 years old, the youngest actress to win an Academy Award for Best Actress up until 1986 where deaf actress Marlee Matlin, aged 21, won for her role in Children of a Lesser God.
Gaynor was one of only a handful of leading ladies who made a successful transition to sound films. For a number of years, Gaynor was the Fox studios foremost actress and was given the choice of prime roles, starring in such films as Sunny Side Up (1929), Delicious (1931),Merely Mary Ann (also 1931), and Adorable (1933), as well as State Fair (1933) with Will Rogers and The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), which introduced Henry Fonda to the screen as Gaynor's leading man. However, when Darryl F. Zanuck merged his fledgling studio, 20th Century Pictures, with Fox Film Corporation to form Twentieth Century Fox, her status became precarious and even tertiary to that of actresses Loretta Young and Shirley Temple, although she always received top billing in every movie that she made during the 1930s, including Ladies in Love (1937) with Constance Bennett, Young, and Tyrone Power. She managed to terminate her contract with the studio and achieved acclaim in films produced byDavid O. Selznick in the mid-1930s.
In 1937, she was again nominated for an Academy Award, this time for her role in A Star Is Born. After appearing in The Young in Heartwith Paulette Goddard the following year, she left the film industry for nearly twenty years at the age of 32 in order to travel with her husband Adrian, returning one last time in 1957 as Pat Boone's mother in Bernadine.
Later life and death
Gaynor's first marriage was to Jesse Lydell Peck from September 11, 1929 to April 7, 1933. She was married to MGM costume designerAdrian from August 14, 1939 to his death on September 13, 1959. With him she had one son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, born in 1940.
She was married to producer Paul Gregory from December 24, 1964 to her death on September 14, 1984.
In addition to acting, Gaynor was an accomplished visual artist and her oil paintings were featured at the Wally Findlay Galleries show in New York, March 25 to April 7, 1977.
Gaynor was close friends with actress Mary Martin, with whom she frequently travelled. A Brazilian press report noted that Gaynor and Martin briefly lived with their respective husbands in the state of Goiás in the 1950s and 1960s.
She died on September 14, 1984, at the age of 77, due largely to the aftermath of a traffic accident in San Francisco two years earlier;specifically, her death resulted from complications following several operations. In the accident, a van ran a red light at the corner of California Street and Franklin and crashed into her Luxor taxicab. The crash killed Mary Martin's manager Ben Washer and injured the other passengers, including Gaynor's husband Paul Gregory, as well as her close, long-time friend, Mary Martin. Gaynor was in serious condition with eleven broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, an injured bladder and a damaged kidney. The driver of the van was sentenced to a three-year prison term for drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter.
She was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California next to her second husband Adrian, but her stone reads "Janet Gaynor Gregory," her legal name after her marriage to her third husband, producer and director Paul Gregory. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame can be found at 6284 Hollywood Blvd.