Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role is one of the Academy Awards of Merit presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to recognize an actor who has delivered an outstanding performance while working within the film industry. Prior to the 49th Academy Awards ceremony (1977), this award was simply known as the Academy Award of Merit for Performance by an Actor. Since its inception, however, the award has commonly been referred to as the Oscar for Best Actor. While actors are nominated for this award by Academy members who are actors and actresses themselves, winners are selected by the Academy membership as a whole.
Throughout the past 81 years, accounting for ties and repeat winners, AMPAS has presented a total of 82 Best Actor awards to 73 different actors. Winners of this Academy Award of Merit receive the familiar Oscar statuette, depicting a gold-plated knight holding a crusader's sword and standing on a reel of film. The first recipient was Emil Jannings, who was honored at the 1st Academy Awards ceremony (1929) for his performances in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. The most recent recipient was Sean Penn, who was honored at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony (2009) for his performance as history-making politician Harvey Milk in Milk.
In the first three years of the Academy Awards, individuals such as actors and directors were nominated as the best in their categories. Then all of their work during the qualifying period (as many as three films, in some cases) was listed after the award. However, during the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony (1930), only one of those films was cited in each winner's final award, even though each of the acting winners had had two films following their names on the ballots. For the 4th Academy Awards ceremony (1931), this unwieldy and confusing system was replaced by the current system in which an actor is nominated for a specific performance in a single film. Such nominations are limited to five per year. Until the 8th Academy Awards ceremony (1936), nominations for the Best Actor award were intended to include all actors, whether the performance was in either a leading or supporting role. At the 9th Academy Awards ceremony (1937), however, the Best Supporting Actor category was specifically introduced as a distinct award following complaints that the single Best Actor category necessarily favored leading performers with the most screen time. Nonetheless, Lionel Barrymore had received a Best Actor award (A Free Soul, 1931) and Franchot Tone a Best Actor nomination (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1936) for their performances in clear supporting roles. Currently, Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, and Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role constitute the four Academy Awards of Merit for acting annually presented by AMPAS.
|Superlative||Best Actor||Best Supporting Actor||Overall|
|Actor with Most Awards||Spencer Tracy|
|2||Walter Brennan||3||Walter Brennan|
|Actor with Most Nominations||Spencer Tracy|
|Actor with Most Nominations without ever winning||Peter O'Toole||8||Claude Rains|
|Film with Most Nominations||Mutiny on the Bounty||3||On the Waterfront|
The Godfather Part II
|3||On the Waterfront|
The Godfather Part II
|Oldest Winner||Henry Fonda||76||George Burns||80||George Burns||80|
|Oldest Nominee||Richard Farnsworth||79||Hal Holbrook||82||Hal Holbrook||82|
|Youngest Winner||Adrien Brody||29||Timothy Hutton||20||Timothy Hutton||20|
|Youngest Nominee||Jackie Cooper||9||Justin Henry||8||Justin Henry||8|
Nine men have won the Best Actor award twice. In chronological order, they are: Spencer Tracy (1937, 1938), Fredric March (1932, 1946), Gary Cooper (1941, 1952), Marlon Brando (1954, 1972), Dustin Hoffman (1979, 1988), Tom Hanks (1993, 1994), Jack Nicholson (1975, 1997), Daniel Day-Lewis (1989, 2007), and Sean Penn (2003, 2008). Of these, all were Americans except for Daniel Day-Lewis. Tracy and Hanks were the only actors to win their awards in consecutive years. Furthermore, Tracy and Hanks were the same age at the time they received their Academy Awards: 37 for the first and 38 for the second.
The actors with the most nominations in this category are Spencer Tracy and Laurence Olivier, with nine each. Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, and Peter O'Toole tie for third place with eight nominations each. Nicholson won his awards a record 22 years apart. O'Toole holds the record for the longest time span between his first and last nominations (44 years), and he also holds the record for the greatest number of nominations without ever winning the award (eight).
Two actors have won the Academy Award (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor) for portraying the same character, that of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and The Godfather II respectively. The actors were Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.
There has only been one tie in the history of this category, and it wasn't an exact tie. In 1932, Fredric March received one more vote than Wallace Beery. Academy rules at that time considered such a close margin to be a tie, so both March and Beery received the award. Under the current Academy rules, however, dual awards are only given for exact ties. While that has never happened for the Best Actor award, it did happen for the Best Actress award in 1969.
Peter Finch is the only posthumous winner of the Best Actor Oscar (the only other posthumous winner in any acting category was another Australian, Heath Ledger, who was awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2009). The only other posthumously nominated performers in this category were James Dean, Spencer Tracy, and Massimo Troisi. Dean was posthumously nominated twice.
Three actors have been nominated for Best Actor more than once for the same character: Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's; Peter O'Toole as King Henry II in Becket and The Lion in Winter; and Paul Newman as "Fast Eddie" Felson in The Hustler and The Color of Money. (Al Pacino was nominated in 1975 for a role for which he had previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather Part II.)
Barry Fitzgerald is the only actor to be nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same character in the same year (as Father Fitzgibbon for Going My Way.) Afterwards, the rules were changed to disallow this.
Several pairs of actors have been nominated for playing the same character or historical figure: Fredric March and James Mason as Norman Maine in 1937's A Star Is Born and the 1954 version, Robert Donat and Peter O'Toole as Chipping in 1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the 1969 version, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh as Henry V in 1944's Henry V and the 1989 version (both of which were directed by their stars), Charles Laughton and Richard Burton as Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII and Anne of the Thousand Days, Leslie Howard and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, José Ferrer and Gerard Depardieu as Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950's Cyrano de Bergerac and the 1990 version, Robert Montgomery and Warren Beatty as Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait, Jason Robards and Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard and The Aviator, and Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Nixon and Frost/Nixon. Robert De Niro won Best Supporting Actor for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, the role for which Marlon Brando had previously won Best Actor.
Laurence Olivier is the only actor to have won an Oscar for a Shakespearean performance: Best Actor for Hamlet (1948). Olivier also received an Academy Honorary Award for Henry V (1944), which Olivier described as a "fub-off".
Two actors directed their own Oscar-winning performances: Laurence Olivier in Hamlet and Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful. To date, however, no individual has won both Best Actor and Best Director.
Two winners have declined the award: George C. Scott, who won for Patton in 1971 (he had also declined his 1962 nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Hustler); and Marlon Brando, upon winning his second Oscar for The Godfather in 1973.
A few early winning and nominated performances have subsequently been lost, including Emil Jannings in The Way of All Flesh (1928), Lewis Stone in The Patriot (1928), and Lawrence Tibbett in The Rogue Song (1930), of which only a short fragment and the soundtrack survives.
The earliest nominee in this category who is still alive is Jackie Cooper (1931) followed by Mickey Rooney (1940). The earliest winner in this category who is still alive is Ernest Borgnine (1956) followed by Maximilian Schell (1962) both won over Spencer Tracy. The few remaining living nominees from the 1940s-50s Hollywood era include Kirk Douglas (3 nominations), Tony Curtis and Richard Todd (1 each). Sidney Poitier also received his first nomination in 1958 with Curtis.
The distance of the two-time winners are Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks (1 year), Sean Penn (5 years), Dustin Hoffman (9 years), Gary Cooper (11 years), Fredric March (14 years), Marlon Brando and Daniel Day-Lewis (18 years), Jack Nicholson (22 years)
The following actors have received multiple Best Actor nominations. The list is sorted by the number of total awards (with the number of total nominations listed in parentheses).
"Winning an Academy Award was associated with a large gain in life expectancy for actors and actresses...Winning an Academy Award can increase a performer’s stature and may add to their longevity. The absolute difference in life expectancy is about equal to the societal consequence of curing all cancers in all people for all time (22, 23). Moreover, movie stars who have won multiple Academy Awards have a survival advantage of 6.0 years (CI, 0.7 to 11.3 years) over performers with multiple films but no victories. Formal education is not the only way to improve health, and strict poverty is not the only way to worsen health. The main implication is that higher status may be linked to lower mortality rates even at very impressive levels of achievement."The aforementioned authors did an update to 29 March 2006 in which they found 122 more individuals and 144 more deaths since their first publication. Their unadjusted analysis showed a smaller survival advantage of 3.6 years for winners compared to their fellow nominees and costars in the films in which their performance garnered them their award.However, in a 2006 published study by Marie-Pierre Sylvestre, MSc, Ella Husztl, MSc, and James A. Hanley, PhD, the authors found:
"The statistical method used to derive this statistically significant difference gave winners an unfair advantage because it credited an Oscar winner's years of life before winning toward survival subsequent to winning. When the authors of the current article reanalyzed the data using methods that avoided this "immortal time" bias, the survival advantage was closer to 1 year and was not statistically significant. The bias in Redelmeier and Singh's study is not limited to longevity comparisons of persons who reach different ranks within their profession."
Following the Academy's practice, the films below are listed by year of their Los Angeles qualifying run, which is usually (but not always) the film's year of release. For example, the Oscar for Best Actor of 1999 was announced during the award ceremony held in 2000. Winners are listed first in bold, followed by the other nominees.
As the Academy Awards are based in the United States and are centered on the Hollywood film industry, the majority of Academy Award nominees have been Americans. Nonetheless, there is significant international presence at the awards, as evidenced by the following list of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, Barry Fitzgerald, Daniel Day-Lewis (Day-Lewis holds dual citizenship of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and currently resides in County Wicklow.)
George Arliss, Ronald Colman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert Donat, Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley, Charles Laughton, Victor McLaglen, Ray Milland, John Mills, David Niven, Laurence Olivier, and Paul Scofield
At the 37th Academy Awards (1965), for the first time in history, all four of the top acting honors were awarded to non-Americans: Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Peter Ustinov, and Lila Kedrova. This occurred for the second time at the 80th Academy Awards (2008), when all four acting categories were similarly represented: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem, and Tilda Swinton.
Along the Academy Awards history, 73 actors have been nominated in the Lead Actor category for playing a real life character. Peter O'Toole and Warren Beatty have been nominated three times, and Charles Laughton, Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, José Ferrer, Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe, and Will Smith, twice for portraying real life characters. Also, 21 actors have won the Academy Award for portraying a real life character: George Arliss, Charles Laughton, Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, José Ferrer, Yul Brynner, Paul Scofield, George C. Scott, Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, F. Murray Abraham, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush, Adrien Brody, Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Forest Whitaker, and Sean Penn. The year that had most actors nominated for portraying real life characters, was 2004, when Jamie Foxx was nominated -and eventually won- for playing Ray Charles in Ray, Don Cheadle nominated for playing the Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, Johnny Depp nominated for playing the Scottish author J. M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, and Leonardo DiCaprio nominated for playing billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator.