Oscar: Winning Actors in Westerns

A typically masculine genre, the Western movie genre has always offered better roles for men. This fact was acknowledged by the Academy: In Oscar’s history, only eight men (four lead and four supporting), but no women, have won an acting award for a Western role.

Best Actors

The first was Warner Baxter, who played the legendary Mexican bandit the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona. Gary Cooper gave one of his finest performances as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Lee Marvin played a dual part in Cat Ballou: Kid Shellen, a whiskey-soaked gunfighter, and Shellen’s antagonist, Tim Straun, a villain with silver nose. True Grit provided John Wayne with one of the richest roles of his career, as the fat, aging, eyepatched marshal Rooster Cogburn, who helps a teenager to avenge her father’s death.

Supporting Actors

Four Supporting Oscars were given for roles in Western films, beginning with Thomas Mitchell as the drunken Doc Boone in Stagecoach. Walter Brennan won his third supporting Oscar for playing Judge Roy Bean in William Wyler’s The Westerner. Burl Ives won for his patriarch landowner in The Big Country, another Wyler Western, and Gene Hackman won a second Oscar as the sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven.

Few players have been nominated for a Western, not for lack of distinguished performances, but due to genre’s low prestige. Actors identified with some of the best Westerns failed to get recognition, including Henry Fonda, James Stewart, William Holden, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster. Moreover, those few who received recognition were nominated because of their status as players, not necessarily for a specific Western.

Supporting Actress Nominees

Geraldine Page was nominated for a supporting role in a John Wayne Western, Hondo, because it was her first in Hollywood as Broadway’s brightest star after Summer and Smoke.

Jennifer Jones and Lillian Gish were nominated for King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (an erotic but silly Western) because it was a blockbuster.

Julie Christie received her second nomination for playing the frizzy-haired, opium-smoking whore in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller because she was then in vogue.

Spoofing the Form

Ironically, only when the Western became self-conscious, it began to win some respect. Lee Marvin won Best Actor for a Western spoof, Cat Ballou, which caricatured the traditional Western hero and was sold to the public as a “put-on” Western.

John Wayne won acclaim only when he poked fun at his own screen image, wearing an eye-patch in True Grit.

Madeline Kahn received a supporting nomination for Mel Brooks’s spoof, Blazing Saddles, which pokes fun at every convention of the genre. As Lily von Shtupp, Kahn paid tribute to the numerous cabaret singers played by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again and other films.