When members of the 2-yearold Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gathered at the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel to present the first Academy Awards, German actor Emil Jannings, who won 1927-28 best actor for his work in “The Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh,” already was back in Berlin with his statuette. The first no-show, Jannings was also the first performer to receive the gold-plated gentleman.
In 1936 the best supporting actor category was added and Walter Brennan won his first of three such awards for “Come and Get It.”
In 1939, renowned as film’s finest year, Robert Donat’s performance in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” earned best actor honors. But to this day, many film fans feel Donat was wrongly rewarded for his previous year’s performance in “The Citadel, ” and that best actor honors should have gone to Clark Gable for “Gone With the Wind, ” which set a new Oscar record that year with eight awards.
A decade of exceptional performances unchecked by the horrors of World War II, the ‘ 40s began with Jimmy Stewart’s best actor Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story,” which many film historians consider a payback for losing in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the year before. And 1940 also stands out as the year that Henry Fonda received his only nom, for “The Grapes of Wrath, ” until he won best actor for “On Golden Pond” 37 years later. It is also the year that Brennan won his third best supporting actor award for “The Westerner.”
In 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven awards, including best picture and best actor (Fredric March). But it is nonprofessional actor and amputee Harold Russell who will always be remembered for a performance that earned him a best supporting actor nod and a special award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”
After receiving three previous best actor nominations, Laurence Olivier finally snagged the big prize in 1948 for “Hamlet.” In the course of his remarkable career, Olivier would receive 10 nominations. That same year, best supporting actor Walter Huston and best director John Huston became the first father and son Oscar-winning team for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Although he won only one Oscar during the ‘ 50s, Marlon Brando looms over the decade.
The year 1951 saw Humphrey Bogart make up for his 1943 “Casablanca” loss by winning for “The African Queen.” That same year, Brando was nominated as best actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In 1952, Gary Cooper grabbed his second best actor statuette for “High Noon, ” while Brando was in the running for “Viva Zapata.”
After campaigning hard for the role of Angelo Maggio, Frank Sinatra took home the 1953 best supporting actor prize for “From Here to Eternity.” Brando logged yet another nomination as best actor for “Julius Caesar.”
Finally, the fourth time around, Brando copped the 1954 actor award for his performance in “On the Waterfront, ” which won eight awards including picture. Brando was in the actor running yet again in 1957 for “Sayonara, ” but lost to Alec Guinness for “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
The ‘ 60s were as remarkable for the actors who didn’t win as for those who did.
In 1960, Burt Lancaster (for “Elmer Gantry”) bested powerful perfs by Spencer Tracy, Olivier, Trevor Howard and Jack Lemmon to win best actor.
After having received five previous Oscar nominations, Gregory Peck won 1962 best actor for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But among the losers was Peter O’Toole for “Lawrence of Arabia.” In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first African-American actor to win the best actor award for his work in “Lilies of the Field.” Left out in the cold was Paul Newman, nominated for “Hud.”
Lee Marvin’s 1965 best actor victory for “Cat Ballou” was regarded as something of a shocker, inasmuch as he topped powerhouse perfs from Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Rod Steiger. In the 1967 balloting, Paul Newman came up short again for “Cool Hand Luke, ” while first-time nominee Dustin Hoff man from “The Graduate” got his first taste of Oscar frustration. Indeed, in 1969, Hoffman, nominated for best actor along with “Midnight Cowboy” co-star Jon Voight, lost to sentimental fav John Wayne for “True Grit” in what has become one of the most debated awards in Oscar history.
The ‘ 70s brought turbulence and superlative acting and both were reflected in the Oscars.
In 1970 George C. Scott refused his best actor award for “Patton, ” calling the Oscar race “a meat parade.” Two years later, no-show Marlon Brando caused a sensation when he sent a Native American actress named Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his best actor award for “The Godfather.”
After receiving four previous nominations, Jack Nicholson finally got his Oscar due as 1975’s best actor for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Meanwhile, George Burns, at age 80, became the oldest winner in Oscar history with his supporting actor win for “The Sunshine Boys.” In 1989, Jessica Tandy would supplant Burns, winning best actress for “Driving Miss Daisy.”
The ‘ 80s kicked off with vindication for Henry Fonda as years of oversight ended and he finally won an actor Oscar for 1981’s “On Golden Pond.”
And in 1986, after six previous noms, Paul Newman finally copped best actor for his reprise of “The Hustler’s” Fast Eddie Felson in “The Color of Money.”
Meanwhile, disabled and impaired characters inspired bravura performances in the ‘ 80s. Dustin Hoffman’s unforgettable portrayal of an autistic savant in “Rain Man” captured 1988 best actor honors. Daniel Day-Lewis’ powerful depiction of a cerebral palsy victim earned him the 1989 best actor statuette for “My Left Foot, ” beating out nominee Tom Cruise’s acclaimed turn as a disabled Vietnam vet in “Born on the Fourth of July.”
While it’s a bit early to define this decade’s trend, the ‘ 90s seem to reward the dangerous and the determined.
Jeremy Irons’ suave and sinister Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune” took 1990 top acting honors, while Joe Pesci’s mad-dog mobster in “GoodFellas” captured best supporting actor that year. A cannibalistic Anthony Hopkins in 1991’s best picture, “The Silence of the Lambs, ” had his best actor competition for lunch, while Jack Palance’s grizzled, scary trail boss in “City Slickers” rode off with best supporting actor.
His portrayal of a remorseless sheriff in the gloomy, violent 1992 best picture “Unforgiven” won Gene Hackman best supporting actor honors.
As for this year’s acting contests, with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s bloody, dark comic book turns like “Pulp Fiction” ripping through the year-end critics’ lists, Oscar time for 1994 could turn into a celebration of savage impulses dressed up as high-art entertainment. That is, unless “Forrest Gump, ” an ode to low-IQ political passivity, sweeps the nods. Either way, the old Goldwynism still seems true: “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union.”