Age and Achievement: Supporting Actors Oscar Winners

Part Three in a Series of Five Articles about Age of Winning the Oscar.

Part One dealt with the Best Actresses.

Part Two with the Best Actors.

Part Three with the Directors.

Part Five will deal with the Supporting Actresses.

Winning the Oscar Award is considered to be the ultimate achievement in the film world, the epitome of professional success. If actors strive to win the Oscar at an early phase of their work, it’s because they know that the award will have a vast impact on their future careers.

Winners’ Age

In theory, it is possible to win the Oscar at any age, and, indeed, there have been winners in every age group, young and old.

In practice, however, the best chances to win the Oscar are between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, with two-thirds of all winners in these age brackets.

As with first nomination, actresses are much younger than actors when they receive their first Oscar. The gap in winning age is significant in the lead categories: Over fifty percent of the Best Actresses but only a minority of the Best Actors are younger than thirty five at their first win.

Within each category, there’s a concentration of winners in one or two age groups. Among the Best Actresses, the largest group of winners is in their late twenties and early thirties. By contrast, the dominant group among the Best Actors is winners in their early forties.

There’s no dominant norm in the two supporting categories, in which the age range is wide, from winners in their early teens to those in their late seventies.

The likelihood of winning at a particular age is determined by the range of screen roles allotted to men and women and to leading versus supporting players. Cultural norms have prescribed these roles, and these prescriptions are more rigid and confining for women and lead players. Compared with the lead roles, there are no specific requirements that character roles be played by young or attractive players, hence the great age variability of supporting winners.

Younger than 20

No actor

20-29: 3

Timothy Hutton
George Chakiris
Cuba Gooding Jr.

30-39: 16

Van Heflin
Harold Russell
Karl Malden
Anthony Quinn (winner of 2 Oscars)
Frank Sinatra
Edmond O’Brien
Jack Lemmon
Red Buttons
Peter Ustinov
Robert De Niro
Christopher Walken
Hang S. Ngor
Denzel Washington
Kevin Spacey
Benicio Del Toro

Christian Bale

40-49: 23

Walter Brennan  (winner of 3 Oscars, all in this category)
Joseph Schildrkraut
Thomas Mitchell
James Dunn
Dean Jagger
George Sanders
Burl Ives
High Griffith
Martin Balsam
Walter Matthau
George Kennedy
Joel Grey
Louis Gossett Jr.
Jack Nicholson
Kevin Kline
Joe Pesci
Tommy Lee Jones
Robin Williams
Tim Robbins
George Clooney

Jared Leto, 43

Mahershala Ali, 42

Sam Rockwell, 48

50-59: 9

Barry Fitzgerald
Gig Young
Ben Johnson
Jason Robards (winner of 2 Oscars)
Michael Caine (winner of 2 Oscars)
Sean Connery
Jim Broadbent
Chris Cooper

Christoph Waltz (winner of 2 Oscars)

60-69: 11

Donald Crisp
Charles Coburn
Walter Huston
Ed Begley
Melvyn Douglas
Jack Albertson
John Mills
Gene Hackman
Martin Landau
Morgan Freeman

J.K. Simmons, 60

Older than 70: 8

Edmund Gwenn, 72
John Houseman, 71
George Burns, 79
John Gielgud, 77
Don Ameche, 77
Jack Palance, 72
James Coburn, 71

Christopher Plummer, 82 (oldest winner in this category)

Conclusions

Of all four acting categories, the Supporting Actor is the most democratic or egalitarian in terms of age. Over the past 90 years, there have been winners in every age category, ranging from 20 to 82.

Summary

 

No Child Actors

Unlike their female counterparts, no child actors have won the Oscar, though child actors have been nominated

Youngest Winner

The youngest winner in the Academy annals is still Tim Hutton, 20, who won for his very first nomination, playing a troubled youngster in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, which won Best Picture of 1980

Next to Hutton, the youngest winners are George Chakiris, 28, for the musical “West Side Story” in 1961, and Cuba Gooding Jr, also 28, for “Jerry Maguire” (“Show Me the Money”) in 1996.

Oldest Winners

The oldest winners in Oscar history are Christopher Plummer, who was 82, and George Burns, who was 79, when winning for “The Sunshine Boys.”¬† Other old winners (in their 70s) include John Gielgud and Don Ameche, each 77.

Best Age to Win

The best age to win seems to be middle-age: About one third of winners (23 out of 71) have been in their 40s; the latest to join this age group is last year’s recipient, Sam Rockwell, for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

British Winners

The British winners are older than their American counterparts for several reasons. Several, like Michael Caine, began their careers and were nominated for Best Actor at a young age. Others, like Sean Connery, appeared mostly in James Bond or commercial fare. Still others, like John Gielgud, began his career on stage and had made very few motion pictures.

Not to Despair

Quite a large proportion (17 out of 63 winners) have won the Supporting Oscar while in their 60s and 70s.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to two grants from Wellesley College, where I was a professor, I was able to conduct several statistical and sociological studies about the Academy Awards, which resulted in my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.

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