It’s not easy entering Oscar night as the lone nominee from your film. Just ask Glenn Close (The Wife) and Isabelle Huppert (Elle), both of who earned Best Actress nominations and fared quite well during precursor season, only to fall short on the big night to contenders from films that scored Best Picture noms, as well as recognition in many other categories.
This year, there are several Best Actress contenders who, should they make the cut, may very well prove their pictures’ sole nominations: Lupita Nyong’o (Us) and Alfre Woodard (Clemency), not to mention dark horses like Julianne Moore (Gloria Bell), Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell), Mary Kay Place (Diane) and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim). For Woodard, Moss and Place, they repeated their Gotham nominations with path with Spirit Award nominations this last Thursday.
But how often have lone nominees in this category emerged triumphant on Oscar night?
Over 91 years of the Academy Awards, on only 12 occasions has a Best Actress winner been the sole recognition for her film.
During the earliest years at the Oscars, it was actually quite common for a leading lady to score her picture’s only nomination and then prevail on the big night. Mary Pickford (Coquette), Marie Dressler (Min and Bill), Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet), Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory) and Bette Davis (Dangerous) all won as the lone recognition for their films. This can, of course, be largely chalked up to the vast majority of technical categories seen in later years being absent in this era.
After the Davis win, it would be 22 years before this phenomenon again happened, this time with Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve). She would be followed over the decades to come by Sophia Loren (Two Women), Jodie Foster (The Accused), Kathy Bates (Misery), Jessica Lange (Blue Sky), Charlize Theron (Monster) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice). So, while it does happen, it remains rather rare, and often with long gaps between the wins, like the 27 years between Loren and Foster.
There are a couple of common threads among these particular wins, including the classic overdue narrative.
On her fifth nomination without a victory at the time of Still Alice, there was a palpable urgency to finally give Moore a trophy. Likewise, though Lange won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Tootsie more than a decade prior, she’d fallen short on each of her four Best Actress bids prior to Blue Sky. Widely considered one of the finest actresses of her generation, it always seemed a question of when, not if, Lange would take Lead honors. On her fifth Best Actress nom with Blue Sky, and facing four contenders from films also not much embraced by the Academy, it was time.
Among this group we also see undeniable turns from the likes of Loren and Theron, two glamorous stars of the big screen who underwent dramatic physical transformations that left audiences (and Academy members) stunned. Theron, this year back in the Best Actress conversation for another striking real-life portrayal in Bombshell, could potentially be her film’s lone nom once again, though this seems less likely than the Theron-centric awards season run Monster saw.
These performances, and Woodward’s and Bates’, so dominate their pictures that it’s no wonder they garnered every ounce of attention come awards season.
Looking back at these winners’ competition, we also see a striking lack of nominees from Best Picture contenders. From Woodward on, a mere five of the 28 nominees who fell short to these winners hailed from films up for Best Picture. Considering a majority of Best Actress winners over Oscar history were seen in films nominated for the top prize, it is clear this particular batch of champions were helped by the competition they faced. This year, it appears exceedingly likely at least one or two Best Actress nominee swill come from a Best Picture contender.
With Nyong’o and Woodard, we see some of the awe-inspiring physical transformation in the former and overdue veteran narrative in the latter – and both loom large over their respective films. At this still-early stage in the Oscar season, the likes of Theron and Renee Zellweger (Judy) look like the best bets for victory but plenty can change over the months to come. Oscar winner Nyong’o and Oscar nominee Woodard, among others, are not to be counted out – even if history isn’t necessarily in their favor.
Andrew Carden is a contributing writer at Gold Derby and writes about all things Oscar on his blog, The Awards Connection. When he’s not on Twitter, lamenting Thelma Ritter’s 0-for-6 record in Best Supporting Actress, Andrew works in Massachusetts politics.