The symbolic moment at which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences turned its back on actors in popcorn movies can be precisely pinpointed as March 5, 1936.
Five of the 15 acting Oscars awarded before that date went to such genres as horror (Fredric March, “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”), Western (Warner Baxter, “In Old Arizona”) and boxing melodrama (Wallace Beery, “The Champ”). A year earlier, the screwball comedy “It Happened One Night” swept the major awards, including honors for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
The 1936 awards should have been the triumph of the action actor, because three of the four nominees came from the top-grossing adventure and ultimate picture winner “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
So who would come up on top? “Mutiny’s” newcomer Franchot Tone or bidders-for-repeat-trophies Gable and Charles Laughton?
None of the above, actually, because an action movie veteran had managed to score a juicy part — in a primo art film.
That night’s winner — Victor McLaglen, star of “The Informer” — copped his statuette, as did many an action star in the years that followed, by making the leap from popcorn pic to A-list fare.
Gangster star Jimmy Cagney donned tap shoes to dance off with the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” Oscar. Light comic Ray Milland turned drunkard and won for “The Lost Weekend.” Swashbucklers Ronald Colman and David Niven only came by their Oscars when they played sexually twisted figures in “A Double Life” and “Separate Tables,” respectively.
A perf in an actioner would occasionally get a nod, but to walk off with a trophy it’d have to be for a film with more heft than the usual oater (Gary Cooper in “High Noon”; John Wayne in “True Grit”), war movie (Cooper in “Sgt. York”) or adventure (Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen.”)
More often, a solid action perf like Wayne’s in “Sands of Iwo Jima” would be easily outpolled by a movie that smelled of art. That year it was Broderick Crawford — himself a veteran of countless B-melodramas — stepping up in class for “All the King’s Men.”
For 40 years or more, a nomination going to a performance in a straightforward popcorn picture — such as Bette Davis’ in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — was exceptionally rare.
A victory for such a perf would really raise eyebrows, none higher than those of Rod Steiger, who saw his expected Oscar for “The Pawnbroker” swept off by Lee Marvin for his dual roles in the comedy Western “Cat Ballou.”
The late ’80s saw a brief flare-up of respect for action stars, especially women. Sigourney Weaver (“Aliens”) and Glenn Close (“Fatal Attraction”) won noms, and an award even went to a Stephen King chiller, Kathy Bates in “Misery.” And in 1991, of course, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster both brought home the bacon in surprise picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Interestingly, action movies have been a consistent source of both nominations and awards in the supporting categories. Dozens of actors and actresses have copped nods for Westerns, war films and thrillers, and awards have been given for secondary popcorn perfs, from Walter Brennan’s three to Helen Hayes in “Airport,” Don Ameche in “Cocoon” and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive.”
For Oscar’s view of stars, ask Harrison Ford, the No. 1 action star of all time who has had a single nomination. Yes, he carried a gun in the actioner “Witness,” but his character came with baggage, and the movie had a serious theme, the clash between Amish values and city sophistication.
Though most moviegoers would give every award going to Han Solo or Indiana Jones, the Academy begs to differ.