Oscar: Career Oscars–John Wayne–How and Why He Won?

When the Oscars honor veteran film artists who have been nominated several times, it is impossible to tell whether the award is given for a specific accomplishment or for an entire career of achievements.

This is yet another corrective device, known as the “Career Oscar.”  In such cases, the official reason and particular performance for which artists win serves as an excuse to reward them for careers full of contributions. The career Oscar is not well respected, as recipients can never be sure if their win was based on sentimental or meritorious considerations. As one critic observed, the gesture has been dismissed as “more of a back scratching symptom of the film capital” love of saying thanks for past services than a genuine tribute for current achievements.”

Mary Pickford

The first player to have received a career Oscar was Mary Pickford, who officially won for Coquette, her first talking movie (and the first acting award for a sound film). In actuality, the honor paid Pickford a tribute for having been the first international movie star. Critics believe that the Oscar was “doubtless as much for past performances and for her service to, and eminence in, the industry, as for Coquette,” particularly since the latter was not a very good performance.

Marie Dressler’s Best Actress for Min and Bill can also be considered a career Oscar: she had been a famous screen (and stage) actress for decades. Winning at sixty’two, Dressler was the oldest female winner until Jessica Tandy won Best Actress when she was eightyone. Both Pickford and Dressler retired from the screen shortly after; Pickford made only three more films before quitting in 1933, and Dressler’s career was cut short by death in 1934.

Ronald Colman

had been an exemplary British actor in Hollywood for three decades, with fifty pictures to his credit, before winning for A Double Life. Colman had been one of the few players who became even more popular with the advent of sound, due to his marvelous voice and impeccable diction, both of which added immensely to his appeal. Colman was possibly rewarded for his enduring popularity in a medium marked by ephemeral success. And he may have also been compensated for previous nominations, in Bulldog Drummond, Condemned, and Random Harvest.

His belated Oscar, at the age of fifty six, was for a career in the silent and sound eras and for boxoffice popularity. After the Oscar, however, Colman’s screen record was poor, making only a few films before his death in 1958, at the age of 67.

John Wayne

The 1969 Oscar vote for John Wayne’s performance in True Grit was based on sentimental as well as on career-long achievements, though his work in this film was acclaimed by most critics. Wayne had been making films for over forty years, and had been a top star for twenty. With this Oscar, Wayne’s colleagues essentially admitted that they had underestimated his acting skills. Wayne had been nominated once before, for his heroic role in Sands of Iwo Jima, which he lost to Broderick Crawford. Winning the Oscar at the age of 62 had no pragmatic affect on Wayne’s career. But it was of great symbolic and prestige value to him.

Henry Fonda

Fonda, of John Wayne’s generation, was the only major star without an Oscar. Fonda’s first and only nomination was for his portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. In the late 1970s, the Academy and the American Film Institute realized that Fonda’s achievements had never received their due recognition–and that he was not very healthy.

Consequently, Fonda was showered with life achievement awards, from the American Film Institute in 1978, the Golden Globe in 1980, and an Honorary Oscar “for his lifelong contributions to the art of filmmaking,” in 1981. “It’s been a very rewarding 46 years for me and this has got to be the climax,” Fonda said.

It was not the climax, though neither Fonda nor the Academy could have anticipated that a year later he would be named Best Actor for On Golden Pond. The Academy restored justice with the more prestigious legitimate Oscar at almost the very last minute. Daughter Jane Fonda received the Oscar for him in a lengthy and emotional speech. The cameras later followed Jane as she drove to her father’s house to present the statuette in person. Henry Fonda died few months later.

Geraldine Page

Geraldine Page had been nominated eight times, five for Best Actress and three for Supporting. Her winning turn in The Trip to Bountiful was decent, though certainly not her best.  Some of her previous nominations, particularly for Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and Woody Allen’s Interiors, were far more impressive.

Like Katharine Hepburn, Page did not win for her best work.