Actors, Oscars, and Afflictions: A Nomination and Award Timeline


This morning, Julianne Moore received an Academy Award nomination for Still Alice, which (in an amazing bit of great timing!) goes into official release tomorrow. It’s her fifth Academy Award nomination, but this time she’s the odds-on favorite, for two reasons: because she’s been nominated five times but hasn’t yet won and thus is “due,” and because she’s playing a woman battling a crippling affliction (in this case, early-onset Alzhemier’s). Meanwhile, Eddie Redmayne nabbed a very predictable nomination for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The fact that Everything is a boilerplate biopic and Still Alice is a rotten movie and desperately transparent play for that statue don’t enter into it; as history has proven, if you want to win an Oscar, find a character with a disease, a physical hardship, a mental challenge, or a psychological disorder, and let it rip. Don’t believe me? Here’s your timeline!

1947: Harold Russell’s turn in The Best Years of Our Lives as Homer Parrish, who lost both hands in World WWII, won two Oscars in the same night (Best Supporting Actor and a special honorary award) — the only actor ever to do so. But, contrary to modern Oscar history, this was no case of an actor using research and effects to play such a role; Russell was a non-actor and veteran who actually lost both hands while making a training film.

1952: Arthur Kennedy is nominated for Best Actor for playing a blind veteran in Bright Victory.

1958: Joanne Woodward wins Best Actress for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve as a woman with multiple personalities.

1963: Patty Duke plays deaf/mute Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and wins Best Supporting Actress.

1966: Elizabeth Hartman is nominated for Best Actress for her turn in A Patch of Blue, playing a young blind woman. She loses to Julie Christie.

1968: Blind is big again in the Best Actress race, as Audrey Hepburn is nominated for her performance as Susy in Wait Until Dark.

1969: Cliff Robertson is the surprise winner for Best Actor, playing the title role of a mentally challenged man who is (briefly) made a genius in Charly. Among his competition is Alan Arkin, playing a deaf mute in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

1971: Sir John Mills wins Best Supporting Actor for playing the mute “village idiot” in Ryan’s Daughter.

1979: The Oscars’ modern obsession with affliction begins quietly, as Jon Voight wins Best Actor for Coming Home, playing a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran. His competition is formidable — including Robert De Niro, Laurence Olivier, and Warren Beatty — but it takes a few years for the pattern to really take hold.

1981: Though not technically part of the tradition, Robert De Niro’s Best Actor win for Raging Bull is legendary among actors, for years to come, for his willingness to undergo radical physical transformation for a role (in this case, gaining 60 pounds mid-production to play Jake La Motta in his later, overweight years). That kind of physical dedication is duly noted; its value will only increase among Oscar voters and hopefuls.

1983: Jessica Lange is nominated as Best Actress for Frances, playing actress Frances Farmer, institutionalized for over five years against her will for alleged mental illness. She loses to Meryl Streep.

1984: Debra Winger is nominated as Best Actress for her work as young cancer victim Emma Greenway Horton in Terms of Endearment. She loses to Shirley MacLaine, who plays her mother.

1985: John Malkovich is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, playing a blind man in Places in the Heart.

1988: Marlee Matlin wins Best Actress for playing a deaf woman in Children of a Lesser God, but mark it down for the Russell Exception: Matlin is herself deaf. (It’s also easy to read this award, like Russell’s, as the Academy awarding an actor they presume won’t get many more roles; if that was true, in Matlin’s case they were happily proven wrong.)

1989: Dustin Hoffman ushers in the Golden Age of Affliction-Based Academy Awards by winning Best Actor for playing autistic poker whiz Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man.

1990: Daniel Day-Lewis, with the help of scrappy upstart indie distributor Miramax, is the surprise winner for his performance as Irish writer and painter Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy, in My Left Foot. Among his competition: Tom Cruise, as paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. And in Best Supporting Actress, Julia Roberts nets her first nomination for Steel Magnolias, as a young mother battling type one diabetes.

1991: Robert De Niro is nominated for Awakenings, playing the catatonic victim of an obscure neurological disorder. Alas, he loses to Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune, playing Claus von Bulow, who (as Roger Ebert memorably put it) “only maybe murdered his wife.”

1992: Robin Williams’ is nominated for playing schizophrenic “Parry” in The Fisher King, but loses to Anthony Hopkins, as criminally insane cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

1993: Al Pacino finally breaks a seven-nomination losing streak, winning Best Actor for playing blind Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.

1994: Holly Hunter wins Best Actress for her turn as a mute piano player in The Piano; also nominated is Debra Winger, again a casualty of cancer in Shadowlands. Leonardo DiCaprio is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, playing developmentally disabled brother Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Tom Hanks wins the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Oscars, playing AIDS patient Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia.

1995: Hanks again, for playing the title role of lovable simpleton Forrest Gump. His co-star Gary Sinise is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work as double amputee Lieutenant Dan, but he loses to Martin Landau. Jodie Foster is nominated for playing a seemingly feral backwoods woman who can barely communicate with others in Nell, but the role is seen as a naked a play for an Oscar, and she loses to Jessica Lange — who plays a manic-depressive military wife in Blue Sky.

1996: I dunno, does Kevin Spacey count for The Usual Suspects? Anyway, he won Best Supporting Actor — over Brad Pitt, as a mental patient in 12 Monkeys.

1997: Geoffrey Rush wins Best Actor for playing schizophrenic pianist David Helfgott in Shine. This year may have marked the peak of this particular trend: Rush beats Ralph Fiennes (as the critically burned title character in The English Patient), Woody Harrelson (as the paralyzed pornographer of The People vs. Larry Flynt), and Billy Bob Thornton (as a man who, in his own words, “wasn’t right in the head” in Sling Blade), and, well, Tom Cruise (as Jerry Maguire). And in the Best Supporting Actor category, Edward Norton is nominated for playing an altar boy with multiple-personality disorder (or worse).

1998: Meryl Streep (as a cancer victim in One True Thing) and Emily Watson (multiple sclerosis victim in Hillary and Jackie) are both nominated for Best Actress, but lose to Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love. Jack Nicholson wins Best Actor, playing a novelist with OCD in As Good As It Gets.

2000: Angelina Jolie wins Best Supporting Actress for playing a troubled mental patient in Girl, Interrupted. Also nominated: Samantha Morton, as a mute woman in Sweet and Lowdown.

2001: Ellen Burstyn is nominated for her harrowing turn as a widow driven to madness by her reliance on pills in Requiem for a Dream.

2002: Judi Dench is nominated for her title turn in Iris, as a novelist suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. And after years of subtlety in the Best Actor category, Sean Penn stars in I Am Sam, as a man with a developmental disability. The role is seen as a shameless play for an Oscar — which he doesn’t win — and is subsequently referenced in perhaps the most notorious scene in Tropic Thunder.

2003: Nicole Kidman wins Best Actress for playing suicidal author Virginal Woolf, battling mental illness on the last day of her life in The Hours.

2005: Jamie Foxx wins Best Actor for playing blind music legend Ray Charles in Ray — beating, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio as legendarily eccentric OCD sufferer Howard Hughes in The Aviator. And Hillary Swank wins her second Best Actress Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, as a boxer rendered quadriplegic in the ring.

2007: Rinko Kikuchi is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as a deaf teenager in Babel.

2008: Julie Christie is nominated for Best Actress for her performance as a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease in Away From Her. Tom Wilkinson is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a lawyer who goes off his meds in Michael Clayton.

2009: Michael Shannon is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing an insane family friend in Revolutionary Road.

2011: Colin Firth wins Best Actor for his performance in The King’s Speech as King George VI, whose stutter provides the motor for the story. His competition includes Javier Badem as a man battling terminal prostate cancer in Biutiful.

2013: Bradley Cooper is nominated for Best Actor for playing bipolar disorder sufferer “Pat” Soliatno in Silver Linings Playbook, while Emmanuelle Riva is nominated for Best Actress for her role as a wheelchair-bound stroke victim in Amour.

2014: Matthew McConaughey loses nearly 50 pounds to play AIDS patient Ron Woodruff, and wins Best Actor for his trouble; Jared Leto loses 30 pounds to play AIDS patient Rayon, and wins Best Supporting.

2015: The aforementioned nominations for Moore and Redmayne — as well as Rosamund Pike, Steve Carell, and Michael Keaton, all playing varying degrees of mental instability. Not nominated: Jennifer Aniston, whose de-glammed turn as a woman with chronic pain got her a Golden Globe nomination and, for a time, some buzz in the Oscar conversation. And with Moore and Redmayne winning Best Actor and Actress at the Globes, there’s a pretty decent chance that the trend will continue — this year and beyond.