There are those who win a second lead acting Oscar, but it happens only occasionally — and not to many of those you might expect.
In the past 40 years, there have been 71 different lead actor/actress winners, highlighting how difficult it has been for anyone to return to the winner’s circle, even through a storied career.
In recent years, lead actor winners Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis have earned that Academy recognition a second time, for “Milk” and “There Will Be Blood,” respectively, and in the last decade, “Boys Don’t Cry” awardee Hilary Swank returned to the dais to accept lead actress Oscar No. 2 for “Million Dollar Baby.”
Yet Meryl Streep — often hailed as our finest living film actress — has but one lead actress win, for 1982’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and though she’s made 11 more trips to the nominees’ circle in that category, she hasn’t repeated. Last year, the talk surrounding her performance as Julia Child was enough to suggest a second Oscar was coming, but Sandra Bullock won for “The Blind Side,” her first Oscar nomination.
“I think every year Academy voters have to play the cards that are dealt them,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. “It all depends on the competition. I have a feeling that when it’s a choice between a well-recognized veteran and a bright newcomer who may not have a showcase role again, they tip the scales toward the newcomer. ‘It’s this person’s turn’ is one of the things that make up a result.”
Does choice of role make a difference? Nicole Kidman, who won her only lead actress Oscar playing Virginia Woolf in 2002’s “The Hours” but is in contention again as a grieving parent for “Rabbit Hole” this year, says she doesn’t choose a part based on what the Academy might like.
“That doesn’t hold artistically, in my body of work,” says Kidman. “I just think in terms of, when I’m an old woman, what I want to look back at.”
Michael Douglas, who won a lead actor Oscar for “Wall Street” and has an acclaimed portrayal of a disgraced businessman in “Solitary Man” up for consideration this year, has a blunt assessment of why it’s not easy to win a second Academy Award.
“It’s tough to get a good part!” he says laughing, adding that winning depends on “that rare combination of having a really good part, a good director and a great script. They don’t come along — all of them together — that often.”
Oscar winner Kevin Spacey says film actors should recognize that what winds up onscreen — no matter how great one’s performance was during filming — is out of their hands. “You are only one color in someone else’s painting,” says Spacey, a lead actor awardee for “American Beauty” 10 years ago and a contender this year for his perf as Jack Abramoff in “Casino Jack.” “Film is a director’s medium. Someone else shapes the performance, and if you’re lucky, they’ll have shaped it with your best work.”
There’s also the perception that can come with winning an Oscar. Says Spacey: “I think a bar gets set, and there is an expectation that everything you do after that is going to equal it, or you’re going to top it.”
Perhaps Streep is perceived as being so consistently good that it’s easy to overlook her. It’s a scenario that could be a problem for Robert Duvall, a reliably powerful actor whose turn as a mysterious, remorseful codger in “Get Low” this year has put him in the running for a second lead actor Oscar, 27 years after his win for 1983’s “Tender Mercies.”
Maybe just as important as consistently stellar perfs, says Vogue film critic John Powers, is a perception of being discerning, matched with a larger-than-life role.
“There probably has to be some mythic aspect to it,” says Powers of what can lead to a second lead win. “Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t make big studio movies usually, he doesn’t work very often, and he devotes himself to it. Then he makes ‘There Will Be Blood,’ and everybody thinks he’s great.
“Unless it’s the perfect role, and you just nail it, you probably don’t get the second one.”
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