February 20, 2014 5:16pm PT by Scott Feinberg
20 Feet From Movie Stardom: The Overlooked Story of Hollywood's Greatest Extra
Who has appeared in more films that were nominated for, and which then won, the best picture Oscar than anyone else? Katharine Hepburn? Jack Nicholson? Meryl Streep? Good guesses, but no.
Try Bess Flowers.
Flowers, who died in 1984 at the age of 85, was never noticed by most moviegoers, but hers was a household name and face for people in Hollywood from the time she arrived in town in 1922 until she made her final film appearance in 1964. Known as “the Queen of the Hollywood Extras,” she appeared in over 350 films, including 23 that were nominated for the best picture Oscar, such as Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945) and A Place in the Sun (1951), and five that won it, namely It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It with You (1938), All About Eve (1950), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). Both are records that stand to this day.
(For point of reference, Hepburn appeared in 7 and 0, Nicholson has appeared in “just” 10 and 3 and Streep has under her belt 5 and 3, respectively.)
Flowers, who was born in Sherman, Texas, ran away from home to get away from her overbearing father. Using some savings that she pilfered from her mother, she intended to buy a train ticket to New York to try to become a Broadway actress, but, at the station, saw an advertisement that made her change her mind: “I’ll go to California and get in pictures,” she decided. “So I did. I got a job the first day I ever went on an interview."
Being tall and stylish, Flowers had no trouble finding work—initially supporting parts, such as a nearly-nude model in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman in Paris (1923), and then even a few leads. “[The studios] liked tall women because [leading men] didn't have to bend down to kiss them and ruin their profile,” she recalled later in life. But, around the time of the transition from silent movie to talkies, she began taking on bit parts and extra work, and never really went back.
At the time, extras had no union, and most found gigs through independent services that consulted with the studios or, after 1925, Central Casting, a wing, at that time, of the studios. Most were paid three dollars plus a boxed lunch for a full day’s work. (Years later, in 1945, Flowers helped to found the Screen Extras Guild, which fought for better pay and working conditions for extras, and served as one of its first vice presidents and recording secretaries.)
One of the best decisions that Flowers ever made was to buy from the studios many of the outfits that she wore in movies. Consequently, when casting directors needed someone to appear as “the stunning woman in the party scene, the dressed-to-the-teeth elegante at the gala premiere [or] the bejeweled peacock in the box at the opera,” as New York Magazine described some of the roles she played in 1971 article, they knew that they could call on her to come with her own clothes, as opposed to having to make or rent clothes for her. This type of person was known as a “dress extra.” (In the last years of her life, Flowers lived at the Motion Picture County House—where she required a special storage room to house her immense wardrobe.)
Directors began to notice and even ask for Flowers. She became a regular in the films of James Cruze, Frank Capra, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Gregory La Cava, among others, and a frequent collaborator of everyone from Joan Crawford (appearing in 12 of her films) to The Three Stooges. Her parts rarely had dialogue or received screen credit, but some are easier to spot than others. For instance, in the final scene of All About Eve, she can be seen telling Anne Baxter’s title character, “I’m so happy for you, Eve,” and in Imitation of Life (1959) she plays the star of the play in which Lana Turner’s character first garners acclaim.
As time passed, some hardcore film buffs began to make a sport of spotting her in films. “Her not appearing in a movie would cause considerable worry to her even more considerable fans, who would then deluge M-G-M and [gossip columnists] with inquiries about her health,” New York Magazine reported, and by the 1970s, when film societies began screening classics and she came across the screen, her appearances were greeted with “an ovation even Garbo would envy.”
That must have pleased Flowers immensely, for though she was an extra, she never wanted to be just another face in the crowd. As she told historian Anthony Slide late in life, “I wanted to be an individual always, never one of the horde.”