Oscar: Age Over Youth

The sentimentality factor is often reflected in the Academy’s favoring older actors over younger and inexperienced ones, at times ignoring the performance’s quality. Accused of erring on the side of conservatism at the expense of daring, the Academy has sometimes used the award as a compensation for survival in a volatile industry rather than as a merit award.

There’s some validity to this claim in the male acting categories. Of the sixty-six Best Actor winners, about eight were the youngest nominees in their respective years, like Marlon Brando (thirty) in 1954, or William Hurt (thirty-six) in 1985. But even Brando and Hurt were experienced performers, having previously done notable work in the theater.

Best Actor Winners

Of all the Best Actors, only Ernest Borgnine and Maximilian Schell were both young and unestablished. In most years, the award was bestowed on older, at times the oldest, nominees. In the 1970s, the Oscar was conferred on older players, such as John Wayne at sixty-two; Art Carney at fifty-four; Peter Finch at sixty; Henry Fonda at seventy-six. The preeminence of age over youth is consistent with other findings: Best Actors are older than Best Actresses at their film debuts, first nomination, and first win.

Best Actress Winners

A totally different picture prevails among the Best Actresses, half of whom have been the youngest nominees in their respective years. For example, Janet Gaynor was twenty-two, Katharine Hepburn twenty-seven, Claudette Colbert twenty-nine, Bette Davis twenty-seven.

Only a few Best Actresses have been the oldest, like Marie Dressler, Katharine Hepburn at her second win, Shirley MacLaine, and Jessica Tandy. A larger number of Best Actresses–Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Hilary Swank–had only brief film experience before winning.

Male Supporting Winners

The Supporting Oscar winners, unlike the leads, have been either young and inexperienced or old and established. For each young winner, there’s a counterexample of an older player. For instance, George Chakiris was twenty-nine in 1961, but Ed Begley was sixty-one in 1962, and Melvyn Douglas sixty-two in 1963. Overall, Timothy Hutton, the youngest ever supporting nominee (twenty), and Cuba Gooding Jr. (twentyeight) are the exceptions.

As with the Best Actors, the predominant pattern is to select old and established actors:

In 1968, Jack Albertson (58) won over Gene Wilder In 1969, Gig Young (56) over Elliott Gould In 1970, John Mills (62) over Richard Castellano In 1973, John Houseman (70) over Randy Quaid In 1975, George Burns (80) over Brad Dourif In 1976, Jason Robards (57) over Ned Beatty In 1981, John Gielgud (77) over Howard S. Rollins In 1985, Don Ameche (77) over Klaus Maria Brandauer In 1987, Sean Connery (57) over Albert Brooks In 1991, Jack Palance over (72) over Michael Lerner In 1992, Gene Hackman (62) over Jaye Davidson In 1994, Martin Landau (66) over Samuel Jackson In 1998, James Coburn (71) over Billy Bob Thornton In 1999, Michael Caine (66) over Tom Cruise

Female Supporting Winners

Almost the same pattern describes the Supporting Actresses, who have been either very old or very young. However, there have been more inexperienced and younger winners among the supporting women than in any other category. Teresa Wright and Anne Baxter were each twenty-three, Patty Duke sixteen. But for each young recipient, there is an older counterpart. Jane Darwell won at sixty, Ethel Barrymore at sixty-five, Josephine Hull at sixty-six, Margaret Rutherford at seventy-two.

This conservative trend of honoring age over youth continued into the 1980s: In 1968, Ruth Gordon (72) over Lynn Carlin In 1970, Helen Hayes (70) over Karen Black and Sally Kellerman In 1972, Eileen Heckart (53) over Jeannie Berlin and Susan Tyrrell In 1975, Lee Grant (46) over Ronnee Blakely and Lily Tomlin In 1976, Beatrice Straight (60) over Jodie Foster In 1981, Maureen Stapleton (56) over Elizabeth McGovern In 1984, Peggy Ashcroft (77) over Christine Lahti In 1989, Brenda Fricker (55) over Lena Olin

Inexperienced winners like Goldie Hawn, who was twentyfour, and Mary Steenburgen, who was twenty-seven, were a rarity in the past. In the 1990s, younger winners such as Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Juliette Binoche, and Angelina Jolie (who was twenty-four when she won for Girl, Interrupted) have prevailed, perhaps reflecting the Academy’s new demographics.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar (Continuum International, paperback 2004)