On the night of the 1951 Oscar ceremony, José Ferrer wasn’t even in Los Angeles. A stage actor through and through, he was in New York, rehearsing his latest play with Gloria Swanson. So when Helen Hayes announced that he had won Best Actor for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac, Ferrer delivered his acceptance speech from the La Zamba nightclub, in Manhattan, with the help of an open radio circuit.
You can hear smattered yells and cheers the moment he’s patched through—an iconic photo of the evening shows Swanson standing up from her seat next to Ferrer in excitement, gloved hands over her head, as the night’s Best Actress winner, Judy Holliday, wraps her arms around him for a hug. “From the bottom of my heart I thank you for what I consider a vote of confidence and an act of faith,” Ferrer told the audience. “And believe me, I will not let you down.”
That phrasing carried extra meaning, for just as Ferrer was being handed Hollywood’s highest honor—making him the first Latino actor to win an Oscar—he was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for possible ties to communism. The dichotomy of this moment, both a coronation and a threat, perfectly encapsulated Ferrer’s uneasy place in Hollywood, where he was often considered too left-wing, too snobby, too difficult. It was a place he’d occupy even in death, when his history-making Oscar disappeared.
Ferrer was the extremely accomplished son of Rafael Ferrer and Maria Providencia Cintron, who moved their family from Puerto Rico to America when José was six. He fenced, played piano at the concert level, and got into Princeton at the age of 14. After college, Ferrer began working in theater, building experience as a stage manager in Suffern before transitioning to Broadway. He found early success in a 1940 production of the comedy Charley’s Aunt, but it was his turn as Iago in a 1943 production of Othello—which also starred Paul Robeson and Ferrer’s then-wife Uta Hagen—that made him a true star. He broke into Hollywood five years later, with his performance as the Dauphin in the 1948 Joan of Arc. It was his first movie role, and he was immediately nominated for an Oscar.
When Ferrer wasn’t working, he lent his name to various progressive causes. He fought against segregation in D.C., attended “crisis” meetings on atomic energy and foreign policy, and signed a letter in 1947 condemning the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The letter called the HUAC investigations into Hollywood, which had already generated a “blacklist” of entertainers considered unemployable due to communist leanings, “morally wrong.”
“Any investigation into the political beliefs of the individual is contrary to the basic principles of our democracy,” it read. “Any attempts to curb freedom of expression, and to set arbitrary standards of Americanism, are in themselves disloyal to both the spirit and the letter of our Constitution.”
Ferrer would have to answer for that letter in 1951, when he was subpoenaed by the HUAC. At the time, his name had appeared in Red Channels, a pamphlet circulated in the 1950s that listed entertainers suspected of communist affiliations—and implicitly suggested you not hire them. The influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also stoked the paranoia. As the history professor Jennifer Frost writes, Hopper bolstered the HUAC proceedings with many anticommunist columns. Ferrer was just one of her targets. According to Frost, Hopper kept a file on Ferrer’s political activities and covered his subpoena with much suspicion, insisting that he was “in the Red searchlight” and would likely return for further testimony.
Ferrer vehemently denied any communist sympathies. He had changed his mind about the HUAC mission, he insisted, and recognized that some of the organizations he had supported in the past had red ties—he just didn’t do his research at the time. Ferrer knew as well as anyone that the HUAC held his career in their hands. Trade publications had speculated in the lead-up to the Academy Awards that red paranoia could influence the outcome for the first time in Oscar history, after a teachers association rescinded an award to Ferrer for his Cyrano performance.
Ultimately, Ferrer was cleared. There’s some debate over how the HUAC reached that outcome—the drama professor Milly S. Barranger, in her biography of actress and producer Margaret Webster, argues that he earned his freedom by giving up four names—but he avoided the dreaded blacklist.
Still, Ferrer’s troubles weren’t over. He struggled to find consistent work, at one point going through a “four-year [film] famine” where he couldn’t get hired. “Go to anyone in Hollywood, even now, and ask them how come they did not use me for some picture they made and I can tell you what they’ll say,” he told The New York Times. “They’ll say: ‘Oh, he’s a stage personality; he’s box-office poison; he’s too intellectual; he’s an egghead; he’s arrogant; he’s egomaniacal.’ Nobody once asked me to act in a movie in four years. I made no secret that I was willing to act in movies.”
He continued acting and directing well into his 70s, and received many other honors to match his 1951 Academy Award, including the National Medal of Arts. But Ferrer’s legacy was always a bit complicated, his treatment in Hollywood wildly inconsistent. That was still apparent eight years after his death, when his Oscar went missing. His son, the actor Miguel Ferrer, offered to pay for a new one, but the Academy refused, citing a policy that it did not replace Oscars for dead recipients.
“The Academy is tripping over themselves to be culturally inclusive… [but] my dad won an Oscar in 1951 with an un-Anglicized name, the first Hispanic to ever win an Oscar, and the Academy is so intractable to this day,” Miguel told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. Ferrer might’ve seen his award as a vote of “confidence” and “faith,” but Hollywood, in the end, had very little of either in him.