Sondergaard, Gale (1899–1985)

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Sondergaard, Gale (1899–1985)

American actress who was the first woman to receive the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (1936), for her portrayal of Faith in Anthony Adverse. Name variations: Gale Biberman. Born Edith Holm Sondergaard in Litchfield, Minnesota, on February 15, 1899; died in Woodland Hills, California, in August 1985; graduated from the University of Minneapolis, 1921; married second husband Herbert Biberman (a stage director), in 1930; children: one daughter.

Selected filmography:

Anthony Adverse (1936); Maid of Salem (1937); Seventh Heaven (1937); The Life of Emile Zola (1937); Lord Jeff (1938); Dramatic School (1938); Never Say Die (1939); Juarez (1939); The Cat and the Canary (1939); Sons of Liberty (1939); The Llano Kid (1940); The Blue Bird (1940); The Mark of Zorro (1940); The Letter (1940); The Black Cat (1941); Paris Calling (1941); My Favorite Blonde (1942); Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942); A Night to Remember (1943); Appointment in Berlin (1943); Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943); The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (1943); Spider Woman (1944); Follow the Boys (1944); Christmas Holiday (1944); The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944); Gypsy Wildcat (1944); The Climax (1944); Enter Arsene Lupin (1944); The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946); Night in Paradise (1946); Anna and the King of Siam (1946); The Time of Their Lives (1946); The Road to Rio (1947); Pirates of Monterey (1947); East Side, West Side (1949); Slaves (1969); Pleasantville (1976); The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976); Echoes (1983).

The daughter of a professor, Gale Sondergaard was born in Litchfield, Minnesota, in 1899, and became interested in acting while she was in high school, where she also learned that she would never be ingenue material. "It's such a pity that you can't be an ordinary girl at an ordinary tea party," said one of her teachers after she had lost a coveted leading role in a school play. "But you can't be—you have something much more interesting to offer." After graduating from the University of Minnesota School of Drama, Sondergaard began her acting career with a stock company under the direction of Jessie Bonstelle . She then made her Broadway debut replacing Judith Anderson in the role of Nina in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, after which she signed a three-year contract with the Theater Guild. Sondergaard appeared in a number of plays before leaving the theater to follow her second husband, writer-director Herbert Biberman, to Hollywood. Feeling out of place in the movie capital, she was quite willing to sacrifice her career, but her husband's agent convinced her to audition for the supporting role of Faith Paleologus in Anthony Adverse (1936). Director Mervyn LeRoy, who was looking for an unknown, cast her. That year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added Best Supporting Actress to its roster of awards, and Sondergaard became the first winner in the new category. The actress went on to supporting parts in numerous films, usually cast as an evil character. By 1940, she had gained the reputation as Hollywood's "Queen of the Heavies," although in an interview in 1971, she pointed out that she had also portrayed sympathetic characters (e.g., Madame Alfred Dreyfus in Emile Zola), but that moviegoers only remembered her villains. In 1946, Sondergaard received a second Academy Award nomination for her supporting role of Lady Thiang in the film adaptation of Margaret Landon 's Anna and the King of Siam, starring Irene Dunne and based on the life of Anna Leonowens .

Sondergaard's film career came to a halt when she was blacklisted following the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (HUAC). Her husband, one of the "Hollywood Ten" who refused to give testimony to HUAC, was sent to prison. Sondergaard did not reemerge until 1965, when she appeared in the off-Broadway one-woman show Woman. In 1969, she returned to films, playing a small role in a project of her husband's called Slaves. After that, she made guest appearances on the television shows "Get Smart" and "It Takes a Thief," and had a six-month run on the soap opera "The Best of Everything." Sondergaard returned to the screen again in Pleasantville and The Return of a Man Called Horse (both 1976), and made her last film Echoes (1983) just two years before her death.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Maltin, Leonard. "FFM Interviews Gale Sondergaard," in Film Fan Monthly. April 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts