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When All Acting Nominees Come From Best Pictures...

If you're an Oscar stats geek, you should check out the new blog 1:37:1 which responded to the recent debate about whether or not the number of Oscar-nominated films is shrinking due to the expanded Best Picture field with lots of charts. It's fascinating but requires concentration. Then a follow up specifically looking at the acting categories.

All was lost this year for male actors without Best Picture heatThe most interesting finding in the second article is how enormously rare it is for an acting category to feature only performances from Best Picture nominated films. It's happened only 10 times in Oscar's entire 86 year history and 2 of those times were this year alone including, for the first time ever, in a supporting category. That's a disturbing development if you're of the opinion (and you should be) that great performances can happen anywhere including within movies that aren't otherwise popular or great.

The Only Times (Once All Acting Categories Were Invented) When All Acting Nominees in a Category Came From a "Best Picture"

• 1939 BEST ACTRESS Davis (Dark Victory), Dunne (Love Affair), Garbo (Ninotchka), Garson (Goodbye Mr Chips), Leigh (GWTW)
• 1940 BEST ACTRESS  Davis (The Letter), Fontaine (Rebecca), Hepburn (Philadelphia Story), Rogers (Kitty Foyle), Scott (Our Town)
• 1942 BEST ACTOR Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Colman (Random Harvest), Cooper (Pride...), Pidgeon (Mrs Miniver), Woolley (Pied Piper)
• 1943 BEST ACTOR Bogart (Casablanca), Cooper (For Whom The Bell Tolls), Lukas (Watch on Rhine), Pidgeon (Madame Curie), Rooney (The Human Comedy)
• 1964 BEST ACTOR Burton (Becket), Harrison (My Fair Lady) O'Toole (Becket), Quinn (Zorba the Greek), Sellers (Dr Strangelove)
• 1966 BEST ACTOR Arkin (Russians are Coming...), Caine (Alfie), Burton (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, McQueen (Sand Pebbles), Scofield (Man For All Seasons)
• 1977 BEST ACTRESS Bancroft (Turning Point), Fonda (Julia), Keaton (Annie Hall), Maclaine (Turning Point), Mason (Goodbye Girl)
• 1988 BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Cusack (Working Girl), Davis (Accidental Tourist), McDormand (Mississippi), Pfeiffer (Dangerous), Weaver (Working Girl)
• 2013 BEST ACTOR Bale (Hustle), Dern (Nebraska), Ejiofor (12 Years), DiCaprio (Wolf of), McConaughey (DBC)
• 2013 BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR  Abdi (Capt. Phillips), Cooper (Hustle), Fassbender (12 Years), Hill (Wolf of), Leto (DBC) 

a sample chart from 1:37:1

As we can see and to no one's surprise if you've ever read an Oscar stat in your life, Best Actor has the closest ties to the Best Picture race. In the 64 year span (1944-2008) in which we had only 5 Best Pictures a year, though, this exact correlation Actor-Pictuer has only ever happened twice (1964 & 1966). 

Do your share Mark Harris's original concern that the Academy is actually looking at less films now than they use to for honors?

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Reader Comments (19)

No. I think the new possibility of getting up to 10 nominees in Best Picture has the voters convinced that they can support a smaller film and get it into the top category of the night. It takes 5% of the votes to be nominated for Best Picture. 5%. That's nothing. A big enough campaign will net 5% of the votes. I think even the voters know that something like Her is never going to win enough support to take the prize, but it can certainly be talked up enough get in the category.

So this narrowing of the nominee field is confirmation bias. A few years ago, four of these films would not be up for Best Picture. That all but guarantees that some of these nominations framed as the Academy ONLY looking at a smaller group of films would be the surprise nominations that would be cheered for thinking outside of the box.

It's pure madness to start to speculate on which four Best Picture nominees wouldn't have made the cut, but I'd say it's pretty safe to assume Philomena and Her would have been the "Oh, look, they got in for Screenplay categories. How exciting!" nominees.

And the surprises run the other way, too. I think The Wolf of Wall Street would have been the surprise hit of the nominees, sneaking in for Supporting Actor and Best Picture when people weren't even sure it could get in for Leading Actor.

I could go on. The voters can only see a certain number of films each year. The expanded Best Picture field creates the illusion that fewer films are getting nominated when it's more or less remained the same even with five Best Picture nominees.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Robert G --actually if you look at the stats fewer films are being nominated in the 18* regular categories even if you exclude how many are up for Best Picture. I can't think that's a good sign... though the writer at 1:37:1 thinks it's too early to tell if this is a trend or just what it's been like the past couple of years

*excluding docs, animated, foreign, shorts, etcetera which have their own eligiblity rules

February 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Actually, it's happened eight times. You missed Best Actor 1964: Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole ( Becket), Rex Harrison ( My Fair Lady), Anthony Quinn ( Zorba the Creen) and Peter Sellers ( Dr. Strangelove). As flor whether this is cause for a trend or not, I think we should wait and see what happens in a year without a David O. Russell film hogging a spot in all four acting races (that's been the commonality of the last two years).....

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Richter... hmmm. i was pulling this from his chart (he said only 5 times prior to 2013) but i see that you're correct and it's 6 times.

February 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think there are two factors at work:

1) The expanded BP lineup. Of the eight times this all-BP sweep has happened, all but two were under larger BP lineups. If you nominate more great films in BP, there's going to be a higher likelihood that the acting categories are made up of performances from them. For this reason, I'm not so concerned about the "All acting nominations from BP contenders" argument.

2) Timing. The trend that worries me is the one illuminated by Mark Harris, that the two years with the fewest films earning at least one nomination are 2013 and 2012. He touches upon it briefly in his article, but doesn't really drive the point home: these past two years are the two were the nominations date was moved up by a week-and-a-half, shortening the time voters could see movies. I think this may be the simplest explanation for the lack of imagination among voters during these past two years.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I do share Harris' concern, but the real issue is the number of movies nominated, and not the overlap between best picture and best acting, since most of the years, the nominees would come from movies that would be nominated for best picture if we had 9 nominees.

Do you really think Philomena would be nominated for best picture in 5-movies line-up?

Or do you think both The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club would make it? Cut one of this movies from a 5-movie line-up and you have less 2 nominees in acting overlaping with Best Picture.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I personally love it nominations like.... Diane Lane in "Unfaithful"....Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny"... Bette Midler in "For the Boys" happen.

Those movies weren't unanimously loved or even Best Picture contenders but the Academy needs to wake up and realize that a film doesn't have to be near-perfect for it to contain an amazing performance :-)

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

cal -- i think the unfortunate thing that's happened to oscar fans in the years of the expanded races is they've all but forgotten that USUALLY in the 60+years of only 5 best pictures that one or two of those best pictures weren't big nomination leaders and sometimes weren't nominated for like best director for example. And yet when you hear Oscar fans talk about "if there were only 5" today they show no imagination in this realm and assume that the 5 BIG movies are the ones that would be in the race. I don't think history bears that out. I mean "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The Conversation" and many many more don't show that Best Picture status in their nomination count or even necessarily in which categories they show up in.

Dave -- i do too. It shows people are watching movies or at least that they are thinking about actors rather than movies when they are voting on acting categories.

February 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Richter -

Thanks very much for pointing this out - I see now that I didn't account for multiple nominees for each film (only a one-to-one matchup). This obviously can change some of the numbers (sometimes a bit dramatically), so I have recreated the chart and edited my original post. You can find the edited post here: http://137to1.blogspot.com/2014/02/acting-oscar-nominees-are-they-only.html

And to clarify about your point - it's actually happened 8 times prior to 2013 (still, only 2.4% of the time). I've noted which years in the footnotes.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Shields

Jim, thanks for the updates. I've updated this post accordingly too.

February 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If the whole point of this - in my humble opinion, entirely pointless - analysis is what the Academy lets out in official nominations, then we should note that the nominees for Best Actress 1934 and for Best Actor 1935 also all came from Best Picture nominees.
The nominees for Actress 34 were Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Grace Moore in One Night Of Love, and Norma Shearer in The Barretts Of Wimpole Street. The three movies all had Best Picture nominations. Nevertheless, write-in candidate Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage came in third on the final ballots without a corresponding Picture nom.
The nominees for Actor 35 were Victor McLaglen in The Informer and the Mutiny On The Bounty guys (Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone). The two films were nominated for the top category and placed first and second in the Best Picture race that year. But in the Best Actor race, write-in candidate Paul Muni in Black Fury came in second on the final ballots without a corresponding Picture nom.
Either way, I must say that Oscar chose deserving winners both times (Colbert and McLaglen).

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy - two fair points, and both were due to the write-in votes for non-Best Picture nominees (Bette Davis, as you noted, for Of Human Bondage in 1935 and Paul Muni, for Black Fury in 1936). I'd like to keep them in there, as they do show up in the Academy's database (with a note as to their write-in status) and reflect some of the changes in the early years of the awards. It's also simply fascinating that there were ever write-in votes that merited consideration.

And you're right, I don't know if there is even a point to the analysis - I qualified the overlap part enough to make it hard to draw any real conclusions. But it does mark 2013 as an interesting and unique year in the history of the awards, which I thought in itself merited a quick discussion.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Shields

No problem, Jim. I actually missed both Best Actress 1977 and Best Supporting Actress 1988. The latter one is fascinating, because the Best Supporting Actor line-up from that year had absolutely no overlap with Best Picture. That's rare. Another interesting lineup that had no overlap with its Best Picture lineup (in fact, all but one of them were the sole nominees for their films) was Best Actor 2006. How frequent do you think those have been (Best Actress 1994 also comes to mind)? Maybe a topic for another time?

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

cal: Philomena and Her are probably the diciest two, due to being, respectively, a bit too old and British and a bit too young in appeal. Let's say those two are, respectively, ninth and eighth. Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips are probably 4 and 5 respectively (nomination count and presence in the editing category), leaving the bacchanalia of Wolf of Wall Street and the low key family drama Nebraska at the 6th and 7th slots.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

see i don't believe Philomena was anywhere near last place.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Oh how I wish they hadn't messed with the Best Picture category! I mean, I suppose it's sort of interesting these days, because we never know how many will be nominated (though having nine three years in a row has been a bit dull!), and I do think that in 2010 and 2012 the category sported very nice collections of films. (If only they had added in Skyfall as a tenth last year...) But as against that, it sort of feels as if every film gets nominated. And it now feels as if pretty much all the categories (not just editing!) are dominated by Best Picture nominees - hence the above statistical analysis. I agree with what Nathaniel said in an article a couple of weeks ago, that the expansion of the category messes with all the historical Oscar stats we know and love. I particularly lament the loss of the 'lone director', which was always one of the most exciting aspects of the nominee slate each year. Will we ever see its like again? (I mean, Malick, Haneke and Zeitlin would all, I think, have been lone directors in a field of five, but the Academy went and ruined all of that by nominating their pictures too!!!)

Sorry, just a little rant from this self-confessed Oscar stats geek!

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

1966 is unique in that each Best Pic nominee had a corresponding nomination for their leading actor.

All the other years either have Picture line-ups greater than 5 (which makes it easier for this to happen), or Best Pictures with 2 nominated actors.

Interesting that it's only ever happened once.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I also love when nominations from not as universally lauded films find themselves in acting categories (Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight", Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder", Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids"), The topic of Oscar winners who were their film's sole nominee is equally fascinating to me.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Richter - a great idea, so I decided to run with it. Turns out it is, in fact, pretty rare - though much more common for Best Actresses.


February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim Shields

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