I’m interested in the history of the Academy Awards, and every now and then I see some people have surprising backgrounds for Oscar winners. I’m trying to avoid the likes of F. Murray Abraham or Marlee Matlin, who are known for winning one Oscar and not having the most impressive careers later. Robert Redford and Kevin Costner are probably known for beating Scorsese as Directors so even if the consensus is that they don’t deserve the Oscars, people are aware of it.
This list may include some people who won in surprising ways. So you might expect a singer to have best original song, or a foreign director to have received best foreign language film, but they might’ve won in unexpected categories.
It is based on the information I’ve gleamed as a millennial American film buff. It’s entirely possible that someone with a different perspective wouldn’t be as surprised by some of this stuff.
Lets go in alphabetical order.
A now obscure character actor in the 1930s and 1940s having a best supporting actor Oscar isn’t exactly a surprise. Winning it three times is remarkable, especially considering that the only other men to win three acting awards are Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson, and the only women with three acting awards are Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. Brennan is a three time winner for Best Supporting Actor for Come and Get It, Kentucky and The Westerner, three movies that don’t exactly have much of a reputation any more.
Nicholas Cage rarely appears in films in which his Oscar cred is a selling point. They’re not going to put “Academy Award winner Nicholas Cage” on the poster for Left Behind.
Given that most viewers now would know him as Ed from The Honeymooners, and maybe Santa Claus in that Christmas Twilight Zone episode, Art Carney’s Oscar is likely to be a bit of a surprise, more likely to be an answer to a trivia question “Who won best actor against Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part 2?” Another factor in his relative obscurity as an acknowledged Oscar winner would be the lack of other notable film roles, and the other films from the year that overshadowed Harry and Tonto, including Blazing Saddles, the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express, early Scorsese Ellen Burnstyn vehicle Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence.
Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, with a respectable awards tally, winning an Oscar for Going My Way (Best Picture winner of 1944) and getting nominations for its sequel The Bells of St Mary and the darker The Country Girl. The reason this feels surprising (your mileage may vary) is that he hasn’t really been in movies that aged well. And he’s better known for his music anyway.
In contrast, it’s doesn’t feel as surprising that Sinatra has an Academy Award since he was in some films that often make Top 100 lists (From Here To Eternity, The Manchurian Candidate) and was notable enough as an actor that a rumor about how he got his breakout role was the basis for an iconic scene in The Godfather.
Heston has been in some noirs that have held up (Touch of Evil) as well as some sci-fi (The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes) and these aren’t categories that tend to be honored by the Oscars, even if we’re going to remember his response to seeing the statue of liberty a lot more than we will the typical Oscar-winning performance. He is the type of old school movie star who you might think will get one Academy Award nomination in a long career. And he did. It was for Ben Hur, which had a very good run at the Oscars.
The novelist won for his screenplay adaptation of Cider House Rules, his sole nomination.
Anyone familiar with film could accept that a relatively obscure British theater actress affiliated with the Royal Shakespeare company might end up with two Oscars by being in a few prestige pictures. But it may seem an odd element for the background of a Member of Parliament. Her entrance into British politics ended up keeping her out of the international spotlight, and out of newer films which would have capitalized on her record. She had four oscar nominations, two for literary adaptations based on a DH Lawrence novel, and an Ibsen play, and two for films about contemporary romance. This was all during the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls era of the New Hollywood, when American films just got so much more attention.
Her retirement from politics and return to acting might raise her profile.
Albert Lamorisse, Inventor of Risk–
This was originally supposed to be an entry on Pedro Almodovar. It’s not that surprising that an international filmmaker with Almodovar’s reputation has a Best Foreign Language Film academy award. But it is does seem weird for him to also have a screenplay Oscar. Further inspection suggested that this was also true of Richard Schweizer, Pietro Germi, and Claude Lelouch. Lamorisse was the weirdest, for two reasons. Many would know him as the inventor of the board game Risk, so that’s not the background you’d expect for an Oscar-winning screenwriter. He was also the only man to win a screenwriting Oscar for a short film.
The angry young man of the revolutionary and quite modern (for its time) British play Look Back in Anger won an Oscar for adapting Tom Jones.
George Bernard Shaw-
The Nobel prize winning playwright was given a screenwriting Academy award for the film adaptation of Pygmalion. He was 82 at the time, and the award came thirteen years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.