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Oscars theory No. 1: Best picture must win an acting award

February 20, 2008 | 10:53 am

Most Oscarologists believe this theory: best picture takes an acting award.

Usually, that's true. Think Hilary Swank winning for "Million Dollar Baby," Russell Crowe for "Gladiator," Kevin Spacey for "American Beauty," Gwyneth Paltrow for "Shakespeare in Love." Lead acting awards seem to go logically with the top win or sometimes just an accompanying supporting prize like Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven" when no gold gets doled out in the top slot.


Many gurus theorize that the reason Juliette Binoche pulled off that jawdropper against Lauren Bacall ("The Mirror Has Two Faces") was because voters just had to give an acting trophy to best pic champ "The English Patient." Other gurus believe that upset had more to do with Bacall and what Hollywooders think privately of the grand New York-based screen icon.

The last two best picture winners, "The Departed" and "Crash," defied the odds by taking the top Oscar without having won at least one acting prize. Of the first 79 best pictures, 33 of them went without a win among the acting categories (and of those 10 did not even have an acting nomination). And that surprisingly high historical loss rate of 41% is reflected almost exactly in recent times with seven of the last 17 best picture winners going without an acting award.

While all five of this year's best picture nominees have at least one acting nomination, only "No Country for Old Men" looks like it has an absolute lock on an acting win –- Javier Bardem for supporting actor. Of the other nominees, "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" all boast Oscar contending performances. And that may just be enough to take home the top prize.

For the first 16 years of the Academy Awards, the number of best-picture nominees ranged from three to an even dozen. While the first six best pictures did not have an acting winner (and only three of them even had actors nominated), 6 of the next 10 did while the other four had at least a nominee.

Beginning in 1944, the field was narrowed to 5 nominees and for the rest of the 1940s, the best picture had at least one acting winner. In the 1950s, six best pictures had acting winners while the other four ("An American in Paris," "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Around the World in Eighty Days," and "Gigi") did not even have an acting nomination.

While there were six best picture winners in the 1960s that went without acting wins, all of them had at least two acting nominations. In the 1970s, only "The Sting" and "Rocky" won without an acting win (though they had one and four acting nods respectively). And in the 1980s, "The Last Emperor" was the first film in almost three decades to take the top prize without at least one acting nod. "Chariots of Fire," "Out of Africa," and "Platoon" won that decade despite their actors losing their bids.

In the 1990s, "Braveheart" was the only movie to win best picture without any acting nominations, while three other best pictures –- "Dances With Wolves," "Schindler's List," and "Titatnic" –- had acting nods but no winners. And since the turn of the century, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won without competing in the acting races while "Crash" and "The Departed" had only one losing acting nod apiece.

(Photo: Warner Bros.)