Oscar: Military and Authority Figures–Generals, Officers, Soldiers, Sheriffs, Cops

The Oscar-winning men have been concentrated in authority positions that are in charge of maintaining law and order. The most frequent occupations among the male roles are soldiers, sheriffs, policemen, and politicians.

Sixteen men have won the Oscar for portraying a military figure:

Best Actor Winners:

Emil Jannings as an ex-General in The Last Command

Gary Cooper in Sergeant York

Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives

William Holden in Stalag 17

Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai

George C. Scott in Patton

Jon Voight in Coming Home

Russell Crowe in Gladiator.


Supporting Actor Oscar Winners:

Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives
Dean Jagger in Twelve O’Clock High
Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity
Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts
Red Buttons in Sayonara
Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter
Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman
Denzel Washington in Glory.

The number of soldiers roles among the male Oscar nominees is even more substantial:

Montgomery Clift

Clift specialized in playing various military roles, for which he was rewarded by the Academy voters.

In The Search, Clift’s first nomination, he played a sensitive American soldier stationed in postwar Germany, where he rescues and reunites a young boy separated from his family with his mother. Clift received his third Best Actor nomination (the second was for A Place in the Sun) for From Here to Eternity, also directed by Zinnemann, in which he played Private Prewitt, a stubborn soldier who, having once blinded a man in the ring, refuses to join the boxing team.

Law Enforcers (sheriffs, detectives, cops) have also been dominant among the males:

Gary Cooper in High Noon, Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, John Wayne in True Grit, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, and Sean Connery as the veteran Irish cop who takes Elliot Ness under his wing in The Untouchables.

In 1992, the two male Oscars went to Al Pacino’s acerbic, blind lieutenant colonel in Scent of a Woman, and Gene Hackman’s sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven. In the following year, Tommy Lee Jones won Supporting Oscar for The Fugitive, in which he played the relentless Federal Marshal Sam Gerard.

In 2000, Benecio Del Toro won a well-deserved Supporting Oscar for Traffic as a mostly Spanish-speaking Tijuana cop. And last year, deviating from his estbalished screen image, Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for playing a corrupt, decadent cop in Training Day. His co-star, Ethan Hawke, won supporting nomination for the naive rookie-trainee.

If all the male parts dealing with law and order are combined, their proportion will amount to over 40 percent of all Oscar roles. Along with military figures and sheriffs, this group include kings (Yul Brynner in The King and I), politicians (Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth), governors (Charles Durning in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), freedom fighters (Paul Lucas in Watch on the Rhine), judges andr lawyers (Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul, Walter Brennan in The Westerner, Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg, and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie).

Priests whose job is also relevant to maintaining the normative order have also prevailed. In Boys Town, Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan creates a school for tough and poor street children. And in Going My Way, Oscar-winners Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerlad help rehabilitate a group of juvenile delinquents by turning them into a choir.


The Academy has honored seven men with Best Actor or Supporting nomination for playing presidents, most of which were based on real-life office-holders, such as:
Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Alexander Knox in Wilson
James Whitmore as Truman in Give ‘Em Hell, Harry
Anthony Hopkins in Nixon.
Lee Tracy was nominated for Supporting Oscar as a pragmatic ex-president in The Best Man.

Jeff Bridges received a supporting nomination for The Contender, in which he played a president who’s more interested in gourmet food than in discussing national issues


Most male Oscar roles have depicted their protagonists as men totally committed to their careers, often at the expense of having any personal or domestic lives.

Rod Steiger’ Billie Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night is a thickwitted, bigoted sheriff, investigating a murder in his small Southern town. The film deals with Gillespie’s relationship with Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black homicide detective from the North who’s brought to help him resolve the mystery. In the course of the movie, their relationship transforms from initial suspicion and contempt to mutual respect and understanding. In the Heat of the Night illuminates its male protagonists in terms of occupation and race, which are exclusively explored in the contexts of their jobs; nothing of their private lives enters into the narrative. Now try to imagine a female version of In the Heat of the Night, made in 1967. Wouldn’t there be men and romantic affairs in the women’s lives

Patton focuses on the career of the arrogant and authoritarian General who is in love with war and is incapable of coping with peacetime. In fact, Patton deviates from the conventions of biopictures by not providing any information about its hero’s personal life.

When there’s conflict between job requirements and family duties, priority is always given to the job. Gary Cooper won a second Oscar for High Noon, as Will Kane, a marshal facing a dilemma on his wedding day: Leave town, as his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) urges him to do, or face the four outlaws by himself–nobody in this cowardly town is willing to help. Despite burdens of fear and isolation, the danger of losing his wife, and the fact that he has retired from the job, Kane decides to meet the challenge alone head on. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” is consistent motto of screen heroes in all Hollywood genres, not just Westerns or war movies.

It is revelatory that two out of the four male Oscar roles that are primarily dealing with private life are of elderly or retired men.

In Harry and Tonto, Art Carney’s Oscar-winning role, Harry is an aging widower who, having been dispossessed of his New York apartment, goes on a transcontinental tour with his cat Tonto.

Henry Fonda’s Norman Thayer, the protagonist of On Golden Pond, is an eighty-year-old retired university professor spending what seems to be his last summer with his spunky wife (Katharine Hepburn) of fifty years.