Oscar Flashback: The 11 films that won one of the Big Five, including ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ ‘Chinatown’

This article marks Part 2 of the Gold Derby series reflecting on films that contended for the Big Five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted). With “A Star Is Born” this year on the cusp of joining this exclusive group of Oscar favorites, join us as we look back at the 43 extraordinary pictures that earned Academy Awards nominations in each of the Big Five categories, including the following 11 films that scored a single prize among the top races.

More than eight decades prior to Bradley Cooper’s take on the timeless tale, the first “A Star Is Born” (1937), headlined by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, became the third motion picture, following “Cimarron” (1931) and “It Happened One Night” (1934), to earn nominations in the Big Five Oscar categories.

At the 10th Academy Awards ceremony, however, neither March nor Gaynor emerged triumphant, losing in their Best Actor and Best Actress bids to Spencer Tracy (“Captains Courageous”) and Luise Rainer (“The Good Earth”). “The Life of Emile Zola” prevailed in Best Picture, while Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth”) topped William Wellman (“A Star Is Born”) for Best Director. The film’s lone victory arrived in Best Original Screenplay, with scribes Wellman and Robert Carson going home with golden statues.

Big Five contenders earning a single top prize became a commonplace event over the following years.

Just two years after “A Star Is Born,” it was “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939) garnering one win on its total of seven nominations. The champion was leading man Robert Donat, earning his lone career Best Actor Oscar in the title role. Otherwise, the film found itself obliterated by juggernaut “Gone with the Wind,” which earned Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming over Sam Wood), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh over Greer Garson) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Sidney Howard over Eric Maschwitz, R.C. Sherriff and Claudine West).

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The following year, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) pulled off a feat which, to date, has not been accomplished by another motion picture. It marked the first Big Five contender to win Best Picture as its lone victory among the top categories. The film took home the top prize despite Hitchcock losing Best Director to John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”) and leads Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine falling short to James Stewart (“The Philadelphia Story”) and Ginger Rogers (“Kitty Foyle”). “Rebecca” was also unsuccessful in its Best Adapted Screenplay bid, with writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood losing to Donald Ogden Stewart (“The Philadelphia Story”). Besides Best Picture, “Rebecca” also prevailed in Best Cinematography.

With 12 nominations, the most of any film that year, “Johnny Belinda” (1948) appeared poised for a grand evening at the 21st Academy Awards ceremony. Alas, such did not prove the case, as leading lady Jane Wyman marked the picture’s sole victory. Instead, the big winners were Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which scored Best Picture and Best Actor (Olivier) and John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the champion in Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, both awards going to Huston. “Johnny Belinda” director Jean Negulesco, leading man Lew Ayres and screenwriters Irma von Cube and Allen Vincent were not successful.

At the start of the new decade, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) charged into Oscar night with 11 total nominations, including bids in the Big Five. The event, however, proved a more fruitful affair for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” the recipient of 14 nominations, including half a dozen victories, two of which came in Best Picture and Best Director. “Sunset Boulevard” leads William Holden and Gloria Swanson came up short to Jose Ferrer (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) and Judy Holliday (“Born Yesterday”), while scribes Wilder, Charles Bracket and D.M. Marshman Jr. had the good fortune of not facing “All About Eve” in Best Original Screenplay, winning there. A pair of additional “Sunset Boulevard” victories arrived in Best Art Direction and Best Original Score.

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Like “Johnny Belinda,” Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) earned the most Oscar nominations (12) of any contender in its year, yet ultimately had to settle for one lone win among the Big Five. That champion was Vivien Leigh, earning the Best Actress trophy for her iconic portrayal of Blanche DuBois. Though co-stars Karl Malden and Kim Hunter prevailed in Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, leading man Marlon Brando was not so lucky in Best Actor, defeated by Humphrey Bogart (“The African Queen”). While “An American in Paris” took Best Picture, George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun”) topped Kazan for Best Director and Harry Brown and Michael Wilson (“A Place in the Sun”) took Best Adapted Screenplay honors over Tennessee Williams. A fourth win for “A Streetcar Named Desire” arrived in Best Art Direction.

With a mammoth 13 nominations, by far the most of any film in 1966, Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” seemed well-positioned for plenty of Oscar love. While a healthy five victories did come to fruition, only one was among the top categories – Best Actress for leading lady Elizabeth Taylor. The film, director Nichols, leading man Richard Burton and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were all topped by “A Man for All Seasons” and its director Fred Zinnemann, leading man Paul Scofield and scribe Robert Bolt. Sandy Dennis took Best Supporting Actress honors for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which also scored Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design.

The following year, another Nichols picture, “The Graduate” (1967), scored one victory among its Big Five bids. This time around, it was Nichols himself prevailing for Best Director honors. Otherwise, Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” was the evening’s big winner, trumping “The Graduate” in Best Picture, Best Actor (Rod Steiger over Dustin Hoffman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant over Buck Henry and Calder Willingham). For the Best Actress trophy, Katharine Hepburn (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) edged out Mrs. Robinson herself, Anne Bancroft.

SEE Oscar Flashback: The eight films that struck out in the Big Five, including ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ ‘American Hustle’

At the 47th Academy Awards ceremony, both Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” (1974) entered the evening with 11 nominations a piece, the most of any pictures that year. While Coppola’s film steamrolled the competition with half a dozen victories, the Polanski picture was decidedly less successful, only winning one prize, in Best Original Screenplay (Robert Towne). “The Godfather Part II” was victorious in Best Picture and Best Director, while “Chinatown” leads Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway were no match for Art Carney (“Harry and Tonto”) and Ellen Burstyn (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) in their respective categories.

Once again, this time in 1981, the leader in nominations was met with a surprisingly cool reception at the ceremony. Warren Beatty’s “Reds” was the recipient of 12 nominations, yet on awards night triumphed in just one of the Big Five categories, Best Director. “Chariots of Fire” pulled the upset in Best Picture, while Beatty and leading lady Diane Keaton were topped in Best Actor and Best Actress by silver screen legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn (“On Golden Pond”). Beatty and co-writer Trevor Griffiths also stumbled in Best Original Screenplay, that prize going to Colin Weiland (“Chariots of Fire”). Additional wins for “Reds” came in Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton) and Best Cinematography.

Most recently, it was David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” landing a single Big Five victory, this one coming in Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence. The film was no match for “Argo” in Best Picture, nor Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”) for Best Director. Leading man Bradley Cooper lost, as expected, to Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”), while O. Russell lost to Chris Terrio (“Argo”) in Best Adapted Screenplay.

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