The 86th Academy Awards are just days away, and the anticipation is mounting for the nominees with each passing second. And why not? It’s the biggest awards show in cinema. Some actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Daniel Day-Lewis, churn out award-worthy performances year after year with the hopes of taking home an Oscar, cementing their legacy as the top performer amongst their peers. The accolades last for a lifetime and beyond, but what of the show itself?
Today, the Academy Awards are about pomp and circumstance. Grandiose musical numbers, elaborate stages and a guest list of the most talented performers in Hollywood are all necessary parts of the Academy Awards. However, it wasn’t always so.
When the inaugural show took place on May 16, 1929, the television set was still in its infancy. The show wasn’t even broadcast, but rather, took place in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Attendance cost $5, and was attended by only 270 people. The winners had been announced several months prior to the show, so there was little excitement to the show, and the audience consisted primarily of Academy members.
After the first year, the popularity of the Academy Awards skyrocketed. The public wanted to be a part of it, and it has been broadcast over the radio ever since. It would eventually make its way to television in 1953 during the 25th Academy Awards, and millions of viewers from the United States and Canada tuned in to see who would win.
Shortly thereafter, in 1966, the broadcasts were played in color, bringing the viewing experience to a whole new level. Now in its 86th year, the Academy Awards are the only place to be and the only show to watch each year.
However, all of the spectacle that is the Academy Awards would mean absolutely nothing without the core reason for their existence: the categories for the awards. The show’s awards are broken up into several categories: The most prominent awards are Best Picture, Best Actor/Actress in a Leading Role,Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Director, but there are a host of others worthy of mention as well.
Once again, the categories as we view them today have evolved over time. The second Academy Awards show actually featured less awards than its predecessor, as the number of categories decreased from 12 to seven, but after that, the number of categories just kept rising. Supporting actors and actresses did not have their talents acknowledged until 1936, which was the 9th Academy Awards show. The first documentary did not appear on a ballot until 1941. Despite the popularity of animation, it would take until nearly 75 years since the inception of the Academy Awards for an animated category to exist, with “Shrek” taking home the first honor in 2001.
The first category we’ll discuss is Best Actor in a Leading Role. For some actors, winning this award just once isn’t enough. In the 86-year history of the Academy Awards, exactly one man has won three Oscars as the leading man: Daniel Day-Lewis. Eight actors sit behind him with two Oscars, and it’s a stupendous list that includes Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks and Gary Cooper. There’s something to be said about their work too, as not one man, including Day-Lewis, has less than five nominations. Longevity and range are certainly key to winning multiple Oscars for these men.
However, even Daniel Day-Lewis must look up to the leading lady of the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. The great actress Katherine Hepburn currently holds four wins for Best Actress, which is two more than any woman in Oscars history. Coupled with a whopping 12 nominations, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking that title from her. That is unless you consider the venerable Meryl Streep, of course. The 15-time Best Actress nominee has two wins under her belt, and she annually manages to find herself in the running. If longevity and range are the keys to victory for the men, then they must be considered the keys to immortality for Streep if she can land just two more wins in her lifetime.
Yet what would these great leads be without the actors and actresses that support them? These men and women may not garner the attention that their leading counterparts do, but they are every bit as crucial to the process of making an award-winning film, if not more so in some cases. Let’s first examine the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category.
Walter Brennan is the only man with three Supporting Actor victories, all achieved within a four-year period. The timespan alone is impressive, but the fact that it’s held up over 60 years is a testament to his performances. Six men have won the award twice, including Michael Caine and, most recently, Christoph Waltz. Waltz is an impressive two-for-two in his brief time in the Oscars circuit, with both wins occurring within three years of each other and both under the direction of Quentin Tarantino. If he catches fire just once more, he’ll join Brennan at the top of the Supporting Actor Mountain.
In the Best Actress in a Supporting role category, things are much more spread out. Only two women have won more than one Oscar in this category: Shelley Winters and Diane Wiest. This speaks to the wealth of talented actresses that have worked in Hollywood over the years. Thelma Ritter was nominated six times but never won an Oscar. This gives her the “honor” of most nominations without a victory, but it still must be acknowledged that just being nominated that many times is incredibly difficult.
For all of the talent these actors and actresses possess, they still need someone with the vision to take a great script and turn it into something special. The Best Director category acknowledges these great visionaries each year, and has done so since the inaugural Oscars ceremony. John Ford, legendary director of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley,” is the only director to secure four victories, with William Wyler and Frank Capra sitting just behind him at three each. Wyler’s 12 nominations are the most for any director. Martin Scorcese sits in second with eight nominations, but more on him in a moment.
To date, only four women have ever been nominated for the honor: Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow. Of those four, only Bigelow won for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” which defeated the blockbuster “Avatar,” helmed by her ex-husband James Cameron. “The Hurt Locker” would go on to defeat “Avatar” in the Best Picture category as well. She also received a nomination for 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The transition from Best Director to Best Picture is almost too easy, as it is incredibly rare that a victory for the director doesn’t precipitate a victory for the film. This award is presented to the film that is head and shoulders above everything else released during the requisite period. At the inaugural Academy Awards, the honor went to “Wings,” a film starring Clara Bow and Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. Of course, opinions differ as to which film should win each and every year, and several shocking upsets have occurred over the years.
“How Green Was My Valley” won over “Citizen Kane” in 1942, which is shocking given the enduring popularity and respect the latter film holds to this day. Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro have twice been the victims of upsets at the Academy Awards, with “Rocky” winning over “Taxi Driver” in 1977 and “Ordinary People” winning over “Raging Bull” just four years later.
Adding salt to the wound is the fact that Scorcese would suffer a third defeat when “Goodfellas” ceded the Oscar to “Dances With Wolves” in 1991. Other notable Best Picture upsets include “Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction” (1995), “Shakespeare In Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” (1999), and “Crash” over Brokeback Mountain” (2006).
Yet, for all its controversies, the Best Picture category has always presented us with the best thing a movie viewer could ever ask for: choice. We’re spoiled. Just look at this year’s nominees. From the heart-rending sorrow of “12 Years A Slave” to the intense isolation of “Gravity” to the deliberately overindulgent “Wolf of Wall Street,” every single film is worthy of its place at the top, but only one will wear the crown.
The 86th Academy Awards feature some of the closest odds in recent memory, and predicting the winners will be nearly impossible for all but the most astute of movie buffs. That won’t stop people from trying to analyze everything about these films to glean who will emerge victorious, but no matter who the winners are, we’re lucky just to have these films in our lives.
And the Oscar goes to…