Oscar 2005: Keira Knightley–the Youngest Winner Ever?

If British actress Keira Knightley, who is only 20, wins the 2005 Best Actress Oscar for the literary adaptation, “Pride & Prejudice,” she will become the youngest woman to ever win a lead Oscar.

Winning the Oscar Award is considered to be the ultimate achievement in the film world, the epitome of professional success. If filmmakers 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.

The 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.

Patterns of Winning

As with first nomination, actresses are much younger than actors when they receive their first Oscar. About forty percent of the women, compared with five percent of the men, won the Oscar prior to the age of thirty. And two-thirds of the women, but only one-third of the men, win the Oscar by the time they reach forty. 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.

The Impact of Gender

The impact of gender on the winners’ age is paramount. The average age at first win is 34 for the actresses (lead and supporting) and 40 for actors (in both leagues). More specifically, the average winning age is 31 for the Best Actresses, 38 for the Supporting Actresses, 41 for the Best Actors, and 46 for the Supporting Actors.

In response to the question, “Is the Oscar a young artists’ game” the answer is no, but it’s a qualified no. Only one-fifth of all winners have received the award prior to the age of thirty. Even so, the Oscar is more of a young women’s than a young men’s race: 15 percent of the Best Actresses, but no Best Actors, are in their twenties. Middle-age seems to be the norm for the male winners: Most Best Actors are between 35 and 50 when they first win the Oscar.

Some actors were particularly lucky to win the Oscar at a young age. The youngest winners in each category are:

-Tatum O’Neal: 10, Supp. Actress, Paper Moon
-Timothy Hutton: 19, Supp. Actor, Ordinary People
-Marlee Matlin: 21, Best Actress, Children of a Lesser God
-Richard Dreyfuss: 29, Best Actor, The Goodbye Girl

Several players had to wait until old age before winning. The oldest winners in each category are:

-Jessica Tandy: 81, Best Actress. Driving Miss Daisy
-Henry Fonda: 77, Best Actor, On Golden Pond
-Peggy Ashcroft: 77, Supp. Actress, A Passage To India
-George Burns: 79, Supp. Actor, The Sunshine Boys

Jessica Tandy and Marie Dressler (who was sixty-two when she won) are the exceptions. Few women in Oscar’s history have received their award after the age of 60.

However, older actresses have been more prominent over the last generation: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) was forty’three, Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment) fifty, and Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) sixty-one.

By contrast, elderly supporting winners have prevailed in each decade: Helen Hayes (Airport), John Houseman (The Paper Chase), Don Ameche (Cocoon), Jack Palance (City Slickers), and James Coburn (Affliction) were all over seventy when they won the Oscars.