As the most prominent and famous Award Show for film (especially in the United States), there are a lot of varied views on the Academy Awards. Some passionately follow the awards races every season to try to predict winners, others tune in just to see the collection of celebrities, while still others refuse to watch it ever since they snubbed their favorite movie. No matter where you fall on the ceremony, the Awards have a rich and complicated history that's worth diving into.
Introduced in 1929, the Academy Awards — more familiarly known as the "Oscars" — are given out annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to honor the best films and filmmakers of each given year, with a predominant focus on Hollywood and other facets of the American film industry (although a prestigious "Best International Feature Film" award exists, and occasionally a foreign film will sneak its way into a Best Picture nomination or even a win). Everybody has their own opinion on the Academy Awards, from thinking of it as "that show where actors get on stage and do funny things and hand each other awards" to "that thing that snubbed multiple classic films for Best Picture". What everyone can agree on is that it's Hollywood's Biggest Night.
The award's purpose was originally to encourage better filmmaking and promote the industry, so it makes sense that it is presented in a star-studded, multi-hour televised ceremony. Though there are several other Award Shows of its type, most famously the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, the Oscars are by far the most popular and well-known and are the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for most things associated with awards ceremony. Due largely to their popularity, receiving an Oscar is incredibly prestigious; it's generally considered the highest honor one can receive for filmmaking.
The Academy that votes on who wins the awards is not a school, but a collection of people in the film industry that is dedicated to the advancement of films. Apart from the Oscars, the Academy runs several charity events and scholarships, operates some libraries and archives in Los Angeles, as well as a museum dedicated to motion picture history. The Academy has about 10,000 members; the exact number is unknown and by invitation only. The only way to become a member is either to be nominated for an Oscar or be sponsored by other Academy members and pass a review process. It's all very shadowy and political and insider-y and a bit like trying to get into a yacht club, though in recent years the Academy has begun releasing annual lists of new members to try to shake off that image. The Academy is organized into several branches based on the different disciplines: the actors branch, the music branch, the cinematographers branch, the sound branch, etc. The branches by themselves select the nominees— each branch's balloting and qualification process can be quite different (see the example of the documentary branch). The Academy as a whole nominates 10 films for Best Picture and votes from each category's final nominees, to determine who wins each category's Oscar.
What films become eligible can depend on a variety of criteria; aside from individual categories' requirements, the major rule is that it must be exhibited in a movie theatre in Los Angeles County for at least one week. (The 2021 Oscars waived that rule due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.) The awards often receive flak from more mainstream audiences for largely paying attention to smaller, artsy films over blockbusters. This largely began in 1977, when Star Wars lost Best Picture to Annie Hall. Since then, it's been rare for many of the top-grossing films of a given year to also get nominated for (let alone win) the top honor.note Many see little to no problem with this inclination (box office success being its own reward), while others fervently believe the Sci Fi Ghetto is at fault and that the Oscars are dominated by showy films designed solely to win awards, something that has been dubbed "Oscar Bait".
Any time the awards are brought up, expect somebody to mention Award Snub. That a film someone likes didn't win is one of the most-discussed aspects of the Awards; even years later, many are still sore over their favourites losing out to what they see as an inferior film.
As of 2023, the Academy gives out the following twenty-three awards each year:
- Best Picture
- Best Directing
- Best Actor in a Leading Role
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role
- Best Actress in a Leading Role
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role
- Best Animated Feature
- Best Animated Short Film
- Best Cinematography
- Best Costume Design
- Best Documentary Feature
- Best Documentary (Short Subject)
- Best Film Editing
- Best International Feature Film
- Best Live-Action Short Film
- Best Makeup and Hairstyling
- Best Original Score
- Best Original Song
- Best Production Design
- Best Sound
- Best Visual Effects
- Best Adapted Screenplay
- Best Original Screenplay
The following are some specific historical retrospectives concerning certain practices of the academy.
- The first Oscar ceremony involved quite a bit of Early-Installment Weirdness.
- There was no "Best Picture Award" given, but instead, two different (and oddly redundant) awards—Most Outstanding Production (which went to Wings) and Most Unique and Artistic Quality of Production (which went to Sunrise). After that first ceremony, the awards were merged into a single Best Production Award, with the name later changed to Best Picture. Due to this, many sources list Wings as the sole "Best Picture" winner for the first ceremony (both categories are included in the list below).
- Winners were announced in advance, and Runner-up awards were given.
- An award for Best Title Writing was given out. With the silent film era rapidly drawing to a close, the award was never given again.
- Two Best Director awards were given, one for drama and one for comedy. Starting with the second Oscars, only one directing award was given out.
- For the first three Academy Awards, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards were given for the best body of work within a year (rather than an individual performance in a film), and the winners of the awards would announce the same category that they won in for the next ceremony. The latter stopped because Norma Shearer was nominated two years in a row (she was nominated in 1931 after winning in 1930), which put her in the potentially awkward position of naming herself as the winner. Ever since they've been announced by the previous year's winner of the opposite-gender category.
- There were no nominees for the second ceremony. The nominees that are listed are unofficial and were taken from people and works that the Academy considered.
- Three films hold the record of 11 Oscar wins: Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Return of the King. Of these three, Titanic was nominated for 14 categories (itself a record tied only with All About Eve and La La Land) while The Return of the King won every category it was nominated in. The next film with the most wins is West Side Story, which won 10. The relative rarity of double-digit wins can be explained both by voters wanting to spread the love and the increasing rarity of big-budget epics and blockbusters, which tend to do well in "below-the-line" categories, that also feature the kind of "above-the-line" scripts and performances commonly viewed as "serious" and "Oscar-worthy".
- Only three films have won all of the "Big Five" awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay): It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs.
- Everything Everywhere All at Once won more awards in the above-the-line categories (Picture, Director, and the Acting and Screenplay awards) than any film in the ceremony's history, with six of the possible seven. The only category it missed out on, Best Actor, was due to the film not having one eligible to be nominated (the male performer with the most screentime was nominated and won for Supporting). This came in spite of it being a sci-fi/action film (see those genres' historic difficulties below). Ironically, its low budget meant that it performed far less well below the line than most critically acclaimed genre pictures, with only a win in Editing.
- Walt Disney holds the record for both the most nominations and wins by a single person, 59 and 22 respectively. Walt also holds the record for the most wins in one night, grabbing four awards in 1954 for four separate films.note
- John Williams follows just behind Disney as the 2nd most Oscar-nominated person, with Williams racking up a whopping 53 nominations.
- From 1945 until 2009, the Best Picture Oscar went to the film that simply received the most votes. The 2009 Academy Awards returned to the original voting format: voters rank the nominated films from best to worst, and then the votes are tallied up to determine which film wins the award. One could argue that this was done to ensure that all of the nominated films will be on a level playing field and (along with the extra five nominations) help to placate the people who complained about the Best Picture snubs from the 2008 awards.
- Bong Joon-ho's Parasite in 2020 is the first and currently only non-English language film to win Best Picture, though eight films from the United Kingdom and one from France that were in English have won before it. (It also became only the third film to win Best Picture and the Palme d'Or, often regarded as the top prize in international cinema; the others are The Lost Weekend and Marty.) In his acceptance speech, he notably mentioned that the Oscars are a provincial award in the rest of the world. Indeed, the Academy's relationship to world cinema has long been questioned and scrutinized:
- While the Academy was founded in the United States, it is not expressly an American institution and there are no rules about national origin limiting the main categories. However, its members are overwhelmingly American, and as a result the films it nominates are overwhelmingly American (or at least written and performed in English). Complaints about the awards' lack of diversity (see below) have contributed to the Academy's gradually expanding its international membership, which may be reflected in the slightly more diverse nominations of recent years.
- The International Feature Film category (known before the 2020 awards as "Best Foreign Language Film") is notorious for extremely complicated rules, including that a country can only submit one film to the Academy for nomination consideration. It's also subject to the rules about television airings; Japan wanted to submit Shall We Dance? in 1997, but it had already had a TV airing in its home country and was disqualified. (They submitted Princess Mononoke instead; it didn't get a nomination.) The category's existence was meant to expand the Oscars' influence worldwide, but it likely also had the side-effect of siloing international nominees to that single category.
- While the Oscars' lack of representation of international cinema can be explained by its base nation, the awards historically have not been very representative of the population of the United States more broadly:
- Academy Award nominees have overwhelmingly been of European descent throughout its history. For the first several decades of the ceremony, nominees were almost exclusively White. Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to win an acting award in 1939, had to sit at a segregated table during the ceremony. While things have improved considerably since then, it's still common for several awards every year to have exclusively White nominee slates, and it's even more rare for more than one person of color to be nominated in the same slate. This obviously has an impact on the diversity of the winners. Notably, it took until 2002 for Halle Berry to become the first person of color to win Best Actress; it took two decades for another (Michelle Yeoh) to win, and Berry still remains the only Black woman to claim the award.
- The division of acting awards into male and female categories has been questioned by certain commentators and even smaller awards shows for years, both by those who think that all the actors should compete with each other regardless of gender and those who believe the binary division has contributed to the exclusion of trans and nonbinary performers, who understandably reject being placed in either category. However, the Oscars have been in no hurry to remove the gender division, in part because of concerns that the Acting category would follow the pattern of all the other categories and become much less diverse. Cisgender men dominate almost every other category in nominations and wins by a wide margin, and any progress on that front has been much too slow for most women in the Academy to feel secure in eliminating the dedicated Actress categories.
- The existing individual above-the-line category that's not gender-divided, Best Director, is the most commonly cited example of the Oscars' gender disparity. Even after nearly a century of awards, you can still count the number of women director nominees on your fingers. The first, Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties, didn't come until 1975; the next two came decades later (Jane Campion in 1993 and Sofia Coppola in 2003). The first winner, Kathryn Bigelow, was only the fourth woman nominee; her victory for The Hurt Locker in 2009 famously involved her beating out her ex-husband James Cameron (for Avatar)note . The next winner, 2020-21's Chloé Zhao with Nomadland (which also won Best Picture), was the first and only woman of color to even be nominated. A year later, Campion's win for The Power of the Dog made for the first and only time a woman was nominated twice, and that a woman won Best Director for two consecutive years. While these changes indicate a shift, it remains a small one. To put it bluntly, the Oscars would have to nominate almost exclusively women for over a century to even the scales; they have only nominated more than one in a year once (2020-21) and once again nominated none in 2022.
- The genres the Academy likes best are: Epic Movie, The Musical, period dramas, Biopic and realistic dramas. Pure genre works winning Oscars are highly rare:
- The Return of the King's 2003 sweep showed the Academy is willing to give a serious look to genre films as worthy of the Academy's highest honors in writing and directing in addition to the technical awards which such films usually garner, but the lack of awards recognition for any other high fantasy films suggest it might be the exception that proves the rule.note
- The victories of Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven in The '90s are seen as a belated acknowledgment of The Western as a serious genre years after the genre's peak in popularity (as only three westerns have won Best Picture).
- The crime genre (Gangster, Film Noir, and Police Procedural) never won top honours until In the Heat of the Night in The '60s (followed by The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting and The Godfather Part II in The '70s). But this was very much an exception, as only one other crime movie, The Departed, (a contemporary gangster filmnote with a higher degree of profanity and violence than any other winner) won Best Picture. Other exceptions of dark/gritty genre movies winning Oscar glory is Silence of the Lambs (a horror-thriller film about a Serial Killer that features an FBI agent as the protagonist) and Rebecca (a gothic thriller and the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win Best Picture).
- Horror is likewise almost completely shut out every year at the Oscars, and wins are particularly rare. Almost every horror film nominated for the Oscars (including the most successful example in Silence of the Lambs, the only one to win Best Picture) has dipped its toes in other genres and/or been recognized solely for technical achievements like makeup. Above-the-line wins for horror/horror-adjacent movies can be counted on your fingers: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Misery, Black Swan, and Get Out
- The Comedy Ghetto also applies for best picture, as only three (all romantic comedies) have ever won Best Picture: It Happened One Night, The Apartment, and Annie Hall.
- Science fiction traditionally receives some love in the technical categories and can sometimes even take home the most statues at a given ceremony as a result, like with Mad Max: Fury Road and Dune (2021), but it rarely competes in Best Picture, with only three such films (A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) nominated in the awards' first 80 years. It wasn't until the category expanded the number of nominees in 2010 that they have started more regularly competing, with both Avatar and District 9 being nominated that year, though neither won. 2017's The Shape of Water, a (romantic) science-fantasy film, finally won Best Picture, and 2022's Everything Everywhere All at Once became the first "purely" sci-fi film to win the top honor.
- The superhero genre has historically struggled to gain recognition for the Oscars. While plenty are nominated for technical categories, most often Best Visual Effects, very few actually end up winning those awards. When it comes to the big awards, The Dark Knight was infamously snubbed a Best Picture nomination in 2008, though it did get a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination for Heath Ledger, which it won. Since then, Black Panther and Joker managed to get significant attention in the major categories, with Joaquin Phoenix managing to win Best Actor for Joker, but neither managed to win Best Picture. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever also received many nominations in 2022, but not one for Best Picture. Three superhero films have also won Best Animated Feature: The Incredibles, Big Hero 6, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Incredibles 2 was also nominated, but lost to Spider-Verse. Logan was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2017, but didn't win.
- The entire medium of animation has traditionally been neglected by the Oscars.
- Though the first animated feature film was given an honorary Oscar, animated films have struggled mightily to be honored at the Oscars. While Disney's Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1991, most animated films were unable to even be nominated outside of Best Original Score and Song until the Best Animated Film category was introduced in 2001. Even then, this was something of a compromise, as some Academy members advocated for the category to be made explicitly so that animation couldn't be nominated in Best Picture again; since the award's creation, only two (Up and Toy Story 3) have returned to the category, both only after the number of nominations was increased. To date, The Incredibles remains the only animated film to win an Oscar outside of Best Animated Feature or the Music categories when it won for Sound Editing in 2005. Many categories, including Director, Editing, Production Design, and all Acting categories, have never received an animated film nomination and others are rare, with Pixar's run of screenplay nominations in the 2000s probably being the biggest exception.
- Those who work in animation have also criticized the Academy for massively favoring a certain type of film in their nominations and winners for Animated Feature: computer-generated Western films primarily marketed for children and produced by Disney (or its subsidiary Pixar). To date, Spirited Away is the only non-Western and traditionally animated film to win the category, arguably still the most "mature" winner, and won the statue in just the award's second year; The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio are the only stop-motion winners. Pixar alone has won more than half of the Animated Feature Oscars, and Disney proper is the runner-up in the win category; they and DreamWorks Animation combine for more than half of the nominations as well.
- Back when theatrical cartoons were a major box office draw, the Animated Short Subject feature was an award that studios clamored for. Since those became associated with television and home video, Animated Short nominees are most likely to be avant-garde subjects that most people are unlikely to ever see outside of the festival circuit (unless the studio that produced them later becomes famous).
- The award for Best Documentary Feature has also suffered from having a rather strange definition — documentaries can be disqualified for airing on TV too soon as well as for involving the use of too much archival footagenote . Additionally, until Bowling for Columbine won in 2002, it was fairly rare for any Academy Award-winning documentaries to be available to the common public at all. Five of the six winners before Bowling for Columbine all involved Jews being killed as a result of antisemitism. While there's nothing wrong with that (the films, not antisemitism), people would probably raise eyebrows if Best Picture winners had this level of topic frequency. And before that, there was the infamous Hoop Dreams snub of 1994.
- Since Bowling for Columbine, though, the award has come under the same scrutiny as most other major categories, and most winners, while not as famous as An Inconvenient Truth or March of the Penguins, can usually be found at your local dollar store.
- The nature of the category also allows for some oddities, such as installments of non-American television series being nominated as long as the documentaries haven't aired in the US; the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation current affairs program The Fifth Estate received several such nominations as a result. Multi-part and limited series were originally eligible for the documentary feature award but were eventually made ineligible after the contentious victory of the nearly 8-hour O.J.: Made in America in 2017.
- The first "Best Documentary" award was for feature films and short subjects both and featured four winners and 24 nominees. Starting in 1943, the second time the award was given, the Academy made a distinction between features and short subjects.
- In 2008, the late Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, a first for a superhero film, and sparking a debate about whether his death played a role in the win. Ledger was only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar, the first being Peter Finch, Best Actor, who won in 1976 for Network. Curiously, both actors were Australian.
- There have been three times in which two actors won an Oscar for playing the same character in separate films: Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in The Dark Knight and Joker, and Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose as Anita in the 1961 and 2021 film adaptations of West Side Story.
- In 1946, WWII veteran and non-professional actor Harold Russell won two Oscars for the same performance in The Best Years of Our Lives, one for Best Supporting Actor, and an honorary Oscar for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" as a double amputee.
- At the 1934 Oscars, the public was able to contribute to the votes. Bette Davis had lobbied really hard to play Mildred in Of Human Bondage. Warner Bros let her do so (the film was for their rival RKO) only because they thought the film would sink without a trace. When the film became a smash hit and turned Bette into a star, Jack Warner tried to campaign to stop her being nominated for Best Actress. When she was snubbed, audiences protested and she was allowed as a write-in vote. Claudette Colbert won for It Happened One Night, but the scandal caused the Academy to permanently change their voting procedures. Davis won the following year for Dangerous in what was universally seen as an open apology (a contemporary report said she could have won that year for playing a paramecium in The Story of Louis Pasteur).
- There was an Academy Juvenile Award that was presented here and there throughout the years as a way of recognising performers under the age of eighteen - either for a specific performance or for general contribution. The first winner Shirley Temple was recognised for her contribution in 1934 as a whole, whereas the final winner Hayley Mills was recognised for her performance in Pollyanna. The award was dropped after 1960, and juvenile performers have been nominated for the main awards along with their adult contemporaries. Of the twelve Juvenile Awards given, those awarded to Judy Garland and Margaret O'Brien had to be replaced when the originals were lost.
- The Academy instated a right of first refusal agreement in 1950, stating that any recipient who wanted to sell their award (or their heirs) had to first give the Academy the opportunity to buy it back for $10. This amount was later changed to $1 in the 1980s. Harold Russell, mentioned above, famously sold his competitive Oscar in order to pay for his wife's medical expenses; he was exempted from the agreement since he was a pre-1950 winner. A small metal plaque bolted to the rear of every Oscar states that the statue cannot be transferred.
- A few Oscars from before the prohibition occasionally hit the open market. Steven Spielberg bought Bette Davis's 1938 Oscar for Jezebel for $578,000.
- While there are several winners that have refused to go to the ceremony to accept the award in person, such as Woody Allen and Katharine Hepburn, there are two instances of a nominee flat-out rejecting the award, usually to make a point:
- George C. Scott won an Oscar for his seminal performance as Gen. George S. Patton in the epic biopic Patton. Scott had nothing but contempt for the Oscar ceremony, decrying it as a "two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons." The movie's producer, Frank McCarthy, accepted the award on Scott's behalf.
- Marlon Brando rejected the second Oscar he won for The Godfather. Instead, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist-actress and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to the ceremony. Claiming to be the actor's representative, Littlefeather said that Brando was turning down the Oscar, the reasons being the treatment of the American Indians in the film industry. In the statement published by The New York Times next day, Brando said: "The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile, and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children ... see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know."
- James Ivory is the oldest person to win an Oscar, with Call Me by Your Name winning Best Adapted Screenplay at age 89. John Williams currently holds the record for the oldest Oscar nominee at 92 for his nomination of Best Original Score for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Before that, the oldest nominee was the late Agnès Varda for her documentary Faces Places. Varda still holds the record for Oldest Female to be nominated for an Oscar. In addition, she was also eight days Ivory's senior, with both of them nominated at the 90th Academy Awards.
- All Quiet on the Western Front (2022) holds the record of nine nominations for a German film, beating the original record-holder Das Boot with its six nominations.
- There have been three cases of a performer winning an acting Oscar for portraying a Real Life person who had a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray was the first, but the other two are less obvious: Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (her duet with Johnny Cash on "If I Were a Carpenter" reached #36 in 1970) and Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (Shirley's Instrumental version of the Folk Music standard "Water Boy" reached #40 in 1961). What about Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter? Lynn's success was confined to the Country Music chart. She never made it past #70 on the Hot 100.
- While there have been many examples of straight actors being recognized for playing a queer character (or a queer actor being recognized for playing a straight character), there have only been five instances of Queer Character, Queer Actor being nominated: Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Stephanie Hsu in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Colman Domingo in Rustin, and Jodie Foster in Nyad.