OK, so one of the things about being a nerd, is that when Your Humble Blogger looked at the results of the Oscars, the immediate thought was “how often does that happen?”, followed by research to see whether the perceived departure from pattern is real or illusory. And it turns out that, in fact, in 76 years, only once before has a film been awarded an Oscar for Best Picture, for its lead actress, and for its director, while that director was nominated for his lead performance, but lost. Seriously, though, it seemed unusual to me that the Best Actress role was in the Best Picture, but that the Best Actor was not, so I looked it up. And it turns out that not only is that pattern unusual, but it’s unusual that the Best Actress role was in the Best Picture. I mean, I was sort of aware of that pattern, but not how entrenched it is, or for how long.
The last time a lead actress won the Oscar for a role in a Best Picture was ... can you guess? Do you remember? Yes, it was 1998, when Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love. Joseph Fiennes was not nominated for his role, and the director, John Madden, lost to Stephen Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan. It retrospect, of course, Mr. Fiennes had far more to do with the success of the movie than Ms. Paltrow, but there it is.
The previous instance was seven years earlier, when Jodie Foster won for The Silence of the Lambs. Her support in that instance was Anthony Hopkins, who won for Best Actor, and the director, Jonathan Demme, won as well. Two years before that, Jessica Tandy won for Driving Miss Daisy, which won Best Picture despite its male lead and supporting actors losing, and its director not even being nominated. In 1983, Shirley McLaine and director James L. Brooks won for Terms of Endearment, Jack Nicholson won for his supporting role, which would now almost certainly have been nominated in the lead category.
In 1977, as I mentioned above, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen take home Oscars for Annie Hall, but Richard Dreyfuss gets the Lead Actor award for The Goodbye Girl. Two years before that, everybody wins for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then there’s a bit of a dry spell, going back to ... guesses? Come on, don’t be shy ... 1942, when Greer Garson wins for Mrs. Miniver. William Wyler, the director, wins, but James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) beats out Walter Pidgeon.
In 1939, that year of years, Vivian Leigh, Victor Fleming and Gone with the Wind beat the stiff competition, but Robert Donat beats Clark Gable (and Jimmy Stewart, and Lawrence Olivier, and, um, Mickey Rooney). In 1936, it’s The Great Ziegfeld and Louise Rainer, but William Powell isn’t nominated (Paul Muni takes it for his Pasteur) and Robert Z. Leonard loses to Frank Capra (for Mr. Deeds). And then there’s 1934, when It Happened One Night to Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable and Frank Capra.
And that’s it. Out of 77 Best Pictures, eleven won Oscars for their leading actresses. That’s up against twenty-seven times the Best Picture has won for a leading actor. And if you take out the three sweeps, it’s twenty-four to eight, or three to one. On the other hand, you could look at it like this: out of 77 Best Pictures, only 35 have won an Oscar for either of their leads.
All of this, by the way, is cobbled together by hand, so I may well have missed some or gotten some wrong. The database is not user-friendly; I can’t send a query to just show me the information I’m looking for. They claim that they will have some sort of statistical search at some point, and presumably this sort of nonsense would be easier at that point. Which would let me do a similar search for writers; I suspect that about half of Best Pictures haven’t won Oscars for writing, either. A quick look shows four out of the last ten, right?
As for the films and roles, I think it’s interesting to what extent the eight movies really have female protagonists. I still think that Million Dollar Baby is about Frankie, with Maggie providing the motion of the plot, but there are plenty of reasons my own biases would lead me to that view of it, and other people to see Maggie as the protagonist. I also think Shakespeare was about, you know, Shakespeare, and Ziegfeld about Ziegfeld. I also think Annie Hall wasn’t the protagonist of Annie Hall, but I haven’t seen it in years. Miniver, Endearment, and Wind all definitely have female protagonists. I haven’t seen Daisy, but she’s the lead in the play. For the doubles, Ellie supports Peter, and Nurse Ratched supports McMurphy, but Lecter supports Clarisse. Well, not supports. You know.