Oscar: Instant Reward–for Feature Debut?

How long does it take to win the Oscar Award once actors make their on screen debut?

Women tend to receive faster recognition for their talent than men: About 20 percent of the actresses, but only 5 percent of the actors, have won the Oscar during the first year of their careers. And over half of the actresses, compared with one-third of the actors, receive the Oscar within a decade after their first film.

As with the nomination, the Oscar functions as an instant reward for the women but not for the men. Actresses experience a shorter period of time between their debut and their win. The average number of years between the first film and the first Oscar is seven for the women and fourteen for the men. Quite consistently, of the four groups, the Best Actresses receive the quickest Academy recognition. The average number of years between the first film and the first win is six for the Best Actresses, eight for the Supporting Actresses, twelve for the Best Actors, and fifteen for the Supporting Actors.

Six women have received the Best Actress Oscar for their debuts or during the first year of their careers: Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory), Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God). By contrast, only two Best Actors, Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) and Geoffrey Rush (Shine) have received the Oscar for their first major film.

Supporting players display one of two extremes patterns, winning either at a very early or at a very late phase. On the one hand, twice as many supporting as lead players win the Oscar during the first year of their careers, and, on the other, more supporting players had to wait for a longer period of time before winning.

The Academy is also more likely to bestow the Oscar for a debut or during the first year of one’s career on the female supporting players. Of the winners in this group, more than half are women, including: Gale Sondergaard (Anthony Adverse), Mercedes McCambridge (All the King’s Men), Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront), Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden), Goldie Hawn (Cactus Flower), Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer), and Anna Paquin (The Piano).

Instant Oscar recognition is often gained by players who repeated onscreen successful stage roles. At times, several members of the original stage cast are rehired for the big-screen version. When Lillian Hellman’s 1941 stage hit, Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play, was made into a movie two years later, two of its cast members, Paul Lukas, as the freedom fighter, and Lucille Watson, as the benevolent matriarch, were recast by director Herman Shumlin. Lukas won Best Actor for his stage to screen role, and Watson received a supporting nomination.

Three of the four principals in Tennessee Williams’s prizewinning play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter, were cast in the 1951 film version. This was determined by filmmaker Elia Kazan, who had staged the Broadway production with great mastery. Jessica Tandy, who had originated the role of Blanche DuBois, was not cast in the movie because the studio wanted a major star. Instead, they chose Vivien Leigh, the Gone With the Wind Oscar winner who had played the part in London under the direction of her husbandactor Laurence Olivier. At Oscar time, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter all won Oscars, and Brando earned his first nomination (the Best Actor that year was Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen).

Other stage players recruited for the screen versions of their work, for which they received nominations or awards, include: Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed, Paul Newman and Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass in Auntie Mame, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in The Great White Hope, and Richard Burton and Peter Firth in Equus.

Four Best Actresses have won the Oscar for an acclaimed stage role with which they were intimately connected: Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba), Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). Streisand established herself as a major Broadway star in Funny Girl, won for it a Tony Award nomination, and went on to become a movie star after the play was made into a movie. Director Herbert Ross (who later directed her in the sequel, Funny Lady) held that Streisand was extremely lucky to make her film debut in Funny Girl: “Having had the advantages of playing Fanny Brice for two years on Broadway, Streisand knew her role inside out. It was the perfect part for Streisand, ideally suited to her range as an actress and singer.”

The proportion of women nominated for recreating their stage roles onscreen is considerable, amounting to ten percent of all Best Actresses. Despite the fact that they appeared in other pictures, some of these women are still identified with these memorable roles. This group of women includes: Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman, Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, Julie Harris in The Member of the Wedding, Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue, and Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth. Stockard Channing, still best known for her New York theater career and recently a regular in the TV series The West Wing, was nominated for an Oscar for Six Degrees of Separation, for the same role that had earned her a Tony nomination.

Of the Best Actors too, no fewer than seven have received the Oscar for recreating a famous stage role, beginning with George Arliss, who played the British statesman in Disraeli on stage, then in both the silent and sound film versions. Yul Brynner made the part of the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I, so much his own, that it was unthinkable for anyone else to play it when the film was made. Brynner won for his royal turn a supporting Tony Award, an Oscar Award, and a lifetime lease on this role, which he played on Broadway and on the road in subsequent revivals. Brynner also starred as the Siamese monarch in the shortlived CBS series Anna and the King in 1972. This role offered Brynner his very last stage appearance in New York, just weeks before his death in 1985.

Rex Harrison scored such a huge triumph in the Lerner and Lowe’s musical My Fair Lady, on both sides of the Atlantic, that when the G.B. Shaw’s play was made into a movie, he was the natural choice for it. Like Brynner, Harrison became intimately identified with the role of Henry Higgins, arguably his very best in a long and distinguished career that was marked by many Shaw plays. The Academy could not deny the Oscar to other actors who excelled in transferring a stage role to the big screen, such as Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac and Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.

A large number of Best Actor nominees received recognition for playing the same popular role on stage as well as on screen: Walter Huston in Dodsworth, Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Anthony Franciosa in A Hatful of Rain, Ron Moody in Oliver!, Topol in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, James Whitmore in his oneman show, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, Tom Courtenay in The Dresser, Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George.