Get ready for possibly my most tedious and potentially controversial list to date. The Oscars are a week and half away where the best in film for 2018 will be honored and new legacies will be born and etched into the Hollywood history books. However, sometimes it’s easy to forget the great award winners that came before and those will be the focus of my list today. While many movies have earned Oscar gold over the years, some have managed to become iconic not just for box office success but for dominating their respective Academy Awards seasons. There have been times where movies have swept all of their nominations while others are more memorable for taking home the bulk of the Academy Award “Big Five”. Today I’m going to honor a handful of movies that not only succeeded at the Oscars but did so as some of the most dominant success stories in the show’s history. These are my picks for the Top 10 Academy Award Performances.
With the understanding that this is a pretty ballsy kind of list to make and this is only a subjective look at the history of the Oscars from my perspective, I wanted to try and make this list the best look possible at the very best success stories from Oscar seasons of the past. So to do that I set some ground rules:
First off, all films on this list had to win at least FIVE Academy Awards in their respective years. Second I didn’t simply create a list of who had the best win-to-nomination ratio because that would be too simple. Instead I not only considered movies that earned numerous nominations and won most of their categories, I also looked as the kinds of awards they won and whether or not a film managed to shine not just for technical achievement, but acting and other aspects of filmmaking as well. I gave heavy preference to movies that may not have had a lot of nominations but were able to earn most of if not a clean sweep of the Academy Award Big Five (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and a screenplay writing award) and chose to automatically add any film that has earned all five in the same year to this list as that has become the true definition of an Oscar sweep.
Finally I did not consider ANY movie that failed to win either Best Picture and/or Best Director as I personally feel winning these two awards simultaneously is an important part of having a truly dominant Academy Awards presence.
Considering how many movies I examined for this list I know there are BOUND to be some people who question my placements because even though a movie may have won many awards, if they failed to win the big ones they may have been skipped over for one reason or another. With that in mind here are a few honorable mentions to get us started:
- “On the Waterfront”
- “The English Patient”
- “West Side Story”
- “The Last Emperor”
What Academy Award performances do you think was most impressive? Did I get it right or do you think I could have picked better films for this list? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list! Be sure to look for my Oscar predictions next week and check out the big show on Feb. 27.
10. “It Happened One Night”
Starting off with the first of three winners of the Big Five, “It Happened One Night” won every award it was nominated for in the 7th Academy Awards in 1934. It just so happened that those were the only five awards this classic was nominated for as well making this sweep all the more memorable. “It Happened One Night” became the first movie ever to win the Big Five and it was the only film until 1975 to win both primary acting awards (Lead Actor and Actress) in the same ceremony. There are plenty of reasons why this film has become so historic, eventually being enshrined in the National Film Registry in 1993, but its most notable achievement remains being the standard bearer for what a dominant Academy Awards performance should look like.
“Gigi” is one of several films that won every award it was nominated for at the Oscar earning nine at the 1959 ceremony. Among those wins were three of the Big Five, earning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and going on to win awards of art direction, cinematography, costume design, editing, musical score, and original song. What keeps it from placing higher on this list is that it received no Oscar nominations (and thus no wins) for it’s acting despite earning four nominations and one victory for its performances at the Golden Globes. Even without the acting honors however “Gigi” still became one of only four films with five or more nominations to sweep all of the categories where it was represented. “The Last Emperor” went on to sweep with nine nominations in 1987 but it just barely lost out to “Gigi” for this list due to “Gigi’s” longer lasting legacy. Both performed similarly at their respective ceremonies but “Gigi” did it first.
8. “The Silence of the Lambs”
To date the only horror movie to win Best Picture, “The Silence of the Lambs” cemented its legacy at the 1991 ceremony earning all of the Big Five awards including acting wins for Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. These five awards would be all the film received that night though after losing its other two nominations for Best Sound and Best Film Editing, but it was a massive improvement from the lone Golden Globe the film had won previously. To date “The Silence of the Lambs” is the last film to earn the Big Five sweep which is a big part of why it is considered one of the most acclaimed and respected movies of all time, eventually being enshrined in the National Film Registry as a result. While many films have received more nominations, the odds that were against “The Silence of the Lambs”, seeing as the Academy had rarely ever recognized horror pictures in the past, makes its Big Five dominance a game changer.
7. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
The third and final Big Five sweep on this list, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a 1975 classic that had a massive presence at the 1976 Academy Awards with nine nominations in total. The only five it took home just happened to be the biggest awards of the night while it lost a supporting actor award as well as honors in cinematography, editing and original score. While it could have certainly been more dominant, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” parlayed an equally impressive Golden Globes sweep of all six nominations it received at that ceremony into only the second Big Five Oscar sweep in history which proved to be only the beginning to its legacy as one of the greatest picture’s ever made. Not only is it in rare company, it’s also the most nominated film of the three Big Five sweepers and was eventually enshrined in the National Film Registry in 1993.
One of if not the most iconic film to come out of the late 90s, and eventually the highest earning film ever for a time, “Titanic” was a darling during award season earning a record tying 14 nominations at the 1998 Academy Awards, matching “All About Eve” which earned six wins in 1950 and later being matched by “La La Land” (also six wins) at the 2017 ceremony. With that said though “Titanic” wasn’t even nominated for all of the Big Five and only took home Best Picture and Best Director of those five awards while losing the Best Actress award and experiencing an infamous snub for Leonardo DiCaprio who was not nominated for Best Actor. “Titanic” did earn awards for art direction, cinematography, costume design, film editing, score, song, sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects while also being nominated for makeup and Best Supporting Actress. It’s eleven wins are tied for the most in history with two other film (more on them later) and while only two of those victories were within the Big Five categories it’s hard to deny “Titanic” it’s right as one of the most dominant movies in the history of the Academy Awards.
This biopic was THE film of the 55th Academy Awards taking home eight honors from its eleven nominations including all but one of the Big Five. “Gandhi” earned the Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Picture awards and could have been a Big Five sweeper but it did not earn a Best Actress nomination. “Gandhi” had previously dominated the Golden Globes a month earlier, sweeping all five categories where it was nominated, and was fully expected to be a heavy hitter at the Oscars. It did lose out on the awards for Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Makeup but won everything else it was nominated for making it one of the most successful biopics in Oscar history. Its award winning screenplay was eventually published into a book and it remains one of the winningest British-produced films in Oscar history.
4. “The Bridge on the River Kwai”
Nearly sweeping its eight nominated categories at the 30th Academy Awards, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” took home four of the Big Five honors at the ceremony on its way to becoming one of the most iconic British-American co productions ever made. The film won a slew of technical awards including cinematography, film editing and its musical score as well as Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. It completed its domination with a Best Adapted Screenplay honor while losing the Best Actor in a Supporting Role award where Sessue Hayakawa was nominated. It’s performance mirrored its Golden Globe record where it won for Best Actor, Director and Motion Picture – Drama while losing the Supporting Actor award there as well. Most impressively though it dominated in a year where all five directors of the Best Picture nominated films made up the class of Best Director nominees, a first in the history of the show. This made both categories among the most competitive in the show’s history to that point adding to “The Bridge on the River Kwai’s” already impressive Oscar resume.
3. “Gone with the Wind”
“Gone with the Wind” held the record for the highest grossing film for decades and still holds that record today when adjusted for inflation. It was also a hit at the 12th Academy Awards where it secured 13 nominations, a record for the time, and earned eight wins including four of the Big Five. “Gone with the Wind” took home honors for director Victor Fleming, lead actress Vivian Leigh, its adapted screenplay by Sidney Howard and was named Best Picture while also earning awards for Best Supporting Actress, cinematography, art direction, and editing. It actually earned two nominations in the supporting actress category while losing in the original score, sound and visual effects categories. But, “Gone with the Wind’s” legacy could have been even bigger had it earned its final award. Clark Gable was nominated and lost for Best Actor, giving the film nominations for all of the Big Five. In the end “Gone with the Wind” still remains one of the most nominated films in Academy Award history and took home more than its fair share of hardware to earn its place as one of the most legendary films in cinema.
2. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
With a record-tying eleven wins, the concluding chapter in Peter Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Return of the King” earned pretty much every possible award it could other than acting honors at the 76 Academy Awards including Original Score, Original Song, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Costume Design, Make-Up, Sound Mixing, and Film Editing as well as three of the Big Five honors, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Despite not being represented in any acting categories, “The Return of the King” made history as the first third movie in a series to ever win Best Picture and the second billion-dollar movie after “Titanic” to dominate an Oscar ceremony. “The Return of the King” proved that even without individual acting honors a film can dominate the Oscars making it the largest individual sweep of the Oscars in terms of awards versus nominations. But there is one other film that defined what it means to win in every aspect of the show and that bring me to my number one pick.
“Ben-Hur” didn’t earn all of the Big Five, but its eleven wins set the record for Oscar victories that has only been matched, never broken. With twelve nominations, “Ben-Hur” earned three of the biggest awards of the night, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, while it’s only loss of the night was for Best Adapted Screenplay with some attributing that loss to an issue over the writing credit. Even with that blemish “Ben-Hur” went on to prove that sometimes a film needs to be held to its merit as a product and sum of its parts earning honors for Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Special Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound Recording culminating in one of the most diverse Oscar records ever. At the time such dominance was unheard of with “Ben-Hur” being the first film to win ten or more awards. If it weren’t for the screenplay controversy “Ben-Hur” would have the record for the most wins in show history and the fact that its wins are evenly spread between direction, acting, and technical prowess makes it my pick for the best performance ever at the Academy Awards.