Oscar Veteran Actors and Directors

When Meryl Streep took home the Best Actress award for The Iron Lady last year, some commentators called it a “lifetime achievement award,” implying that she beat out the competition more due to her body of work than her performance in that film. Others have speculated that veterans are more likely to win Oscars because they are more talented than their peers – the reason they are veterans in the first place.

But does any of this actually correspond with the facts? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. Despite the beliefs that veteran actors win more awards for their talent or their career achievements, veterans actually win 17% less often than relative newcomers.

Here, we will define an Oscar veteran as an actor who has received more than five nominations either in the lead or supporting category. There are currently 33 members of this exclusive club, with the newest – Denzel Washington – just added this year thanks to his sixth acting nomination for his role in Flight.

In the 84 years of Oscars (excluding this year), there have been, coincidentally, 84 acting nominations for those I have defined as Oscar veterans, counting only nominations after their first five. In these nominations, only 14 times has a veteran emerged victorious, for a rate of 16.7%. The overall average for acting nominees is 20%, since one out of five wins each category. Technically, before 1936 the number of acting nominations varied each year, but the first Oscar veteran was Norma Shearer, who did not receive her sixth nomination until 1938 for Marie Antoinette.

This graph shows the success of Oscar veterans at each nomination number. For instance, the first column shows that 32 people have received a sixth nomination, and five have won on that nomination.


Impressively, the last five columns represent only Meryl Streep, the one actress who has received more than 12 nominations.

Percentage-wise, the most successful Oscar veterans are Jessica Lange and Kate Winslet, who each won upon her only nomination as a veteran, for Blue Sky (1994) and The Reader (2008), respectively. Katherine Hepburn has won the most awards as a veteran – three between her sixth and her twelfth nomination. Jack Nicholson is the only other multiple-Oscar winning veteran; he claimed two prizes after entering this prestigious group. The worst records belong to Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, who each went 0-for-5 as veterans.

Even among the nine actors who went 0-for-5 among their first five nominations on their paths to becoming Oscar veterans, the record is still only 4-for-19, or 21.1% – just a hair above 20%. So, if luckless veterans receive a boost out of sympathy or career recognition, it’s very slight. Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Geraldine Page, and Kate Winslet are the winners in this category, and none of them has won twice. Five Oscar veterans have never won a competitive award: Peter O’Toole (8 total nominations), Richard Burton (7), Glenn Close (6), Deborah Kerr (6), and Thelma Ritter (6).

Interestingly, the numbers do not paint the same picture for Best Director. If we define Oscar veteran in a similar manner – being nominated for Best Director more than five times – then Oscar veteran directors actually fare better than average, winning at a 25% rate. Only eight people belong to this group, representing five wins in 20 nominations. William Wyler won twice as a veteran, and Billy Wilder, Fred Zinneman, and Martin Scorsese each won once. The four members of the club who did not win after their sixth nomination are Woody Allen, Frank Capra, David Lean, and Steven Spielberg, who will have a chance to change that this year.

This means it’s possible that the Academy does award established directors more often than others for the reasons we discussed earlier – talent or overall career achievement – but the numbers do not say the same thing about acting recognition. There has never been a year in which a veteran director and a veteran actor, or two different veteran actors, both won an award.

The first veteran director to win was William Wyler for directing The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The first veteran actress to win was Katherine Hepburn for her role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Five years later, Marlon Brando became the first veteran actor to win for The Godfather (1972).

What does this mean for this year’s nominees? Two veteran actors are nominated: Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook and Denzel Washington for Flight. One veteran director is nominated: Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. While the sample size is quite small for directing, the math would indicate that we should not expect De Niro and Washington, despite their long and nomination-filled careers, to have any special advantage during the biggest night in Hollywood.


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