The great actress race: 1968

Babs and Hepburn went head-to-head

A 25-year-old Broadway sensation from Brooklyn with only one film to her credit faced off against four formidable talents in the 1968 Academy Awards race for actress and came away with an Oscar, one of two statuettes handed out in what turned out to be the closest acting race in Acad history.

Tyro Barbra Streisand tied with vet thesp Katharine Hepburn, who scored a record 11th nomination for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Britain’s King Henry II, in Anthony Harvey’s “The Lion in Winter.” Pic was based on the Broadway play by James Goldman, who adapted it for the screen.

Streisand, who had earned raves for originating the role of entertainer Fanny Brice in the Broadway production of “Funny Girl,” received similar praise for the role in William Wyler’s hit film. Streisand easily took the Golden Globe for actress in a comedy or musical, and though competition was fierce, had been regarded as a strong contender for an Oscar even before the noms were announced.

Their rivals were:

  • Joanne Woodward, who had already been tapped by the New York Film Critics Circle. She earned her second Oscar nom for her tender turn as a Connecticut spinster who falls in love in the independently produced low-budget drama “Rachel, Rachel,” directed by her husband, Paul Newman, in his helming debut.

  • Patricia Neal, receiving her second bid for playing the mother of a World War II veteran in “The Subject Was Roses.” She was lauded for her return to films after a series of strokes that sidelined her for three years.

  • Vanessa Redgrave garnered her second Oscar bid in three years for portraying controversial dancer Isadora Duncan in “Isadora.”

Based on the year’s earlier kudos, Woodward had the most momentum, with a Golden Globe alongside her New York Film Critics honor. (Non-nominee Liv Ullmann took National Board of Review and National Society of Film Critics honors for “Shame.”)

Woodward had already won an Oscar statuette for the multiple-personality drama “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957).

The thesp, however, famously threatened to boycott the Oscarcast, citing her spouse’s snub in the directing category, until Newman persuaded her to attend — reminding her that he did receive a bid as producer of the picture nominee.

Streisand, whose rave reviews were accompanied by gossipy reports of egotistical behavior on the “Funny Girl” set, certainly had hooked up with the right helmer in terms of Oscar odds — Wyler had directed a record 12 Academy Award-winning performances, including Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur” and Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.”

In the days leading up to the ceremony, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Gregory Peck, looking to boost the star wattage at the ceremony, secured the attendance of Neal — a past winner (for 1963’s “Hud”) who pundits claimed would benefit from a strong welling of sympathy for her return to acting — but not of Hepburn, who, after her Globes defeat, was lagging in the last leg of the race and declined to risk losing the Oscar in person.

Also, Hepburn won a second Oscar the year before for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (she didn’t attend that ceremony either).

Streisand had sent in her RSVP to the Acad, as had Redgrave, the category’s dark horse due to “Isadora’s” tepid reception, despite the likely presence of protesters decrying the British thesp’s views against the war in Vietnam.

When actress presenter Ingrid Bergman announced “It’s a tie!” — the first in a major category in more than 40 years — gasps echoed throughout the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More amazingly, this tie apparently was a dead heat; Fredric March (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) and Wallace Beery (“The Champ”), both awarded the actor Oscar in 1931, had been separated in the tally by a single vote. At the time, it constituted a mathematical tie under Academy rules, subsequently revised to only allow multiple honors in the case of an exact tie.

“Lion” helmer Harvey accepted the statuette for Hepburn (she reportedly was watching the show on TV from her Los Angeles home). Streisand followed, accepting the golden boy into her arms with the now-famous greeting, “Hello, gorgeous!”

While neither award generated as much shock as the tie itself, subsequent revelations that the Acad had bent the rules to allow Streisand to join the org even before her first feature was completed led to barbed whispers that, had the actress not been allowed to join (and presumably vote for her perf) that year, she would have lost to Hepburn by a single vote.

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