Oscar: Best Picture–Winners and Nominees, Western Genre

I don’t think a lot about honors, but I think it’s demeaning to the Westerns that I have received honors for other films and none for my Westerns–John Ford

For decades, the Western, arguably the most uniquely American film genre, was regarded as the “bread and butter” of the industry. Year after year, numerous “B-level” Westerns, which often functioned as the bottom of the double feature bill, were made.

In the 1950s, the best decade for “A-Grade” Westerns in the genre’s history, the production of Westerns amounted to one-third of Hollywood’s entire output.

Yet, only four or five of the 93 Oscar-winning films have been Westerns: Cimarron (1933), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Unforgiven (1992), No Country for Old Men (2007), and Nomadland (2020), which is a borderline case.

Cimarron

Based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel about the opening of the Oklahoma frontier, Cimarron cover three decades in the Cravat family, beginning with the gold rush in the 1890s. Directed by Wesley Ruggles, the sprawling saga provided good roles for Richard Dix, as a dashing, adventurously romantic hero, and Irene Dunne, as his indomitable wife Sabra, who starts out as fragile and dependent but later becomes the editor of a newspaper and then a congresswoman. Cimarron, which also won writing adaptation and art direction, was a blockbuster with the public.

Dances With Wolves

Actor-director Kevin Costner proved his critics wrong, when Dances With Wolves, his epic ode to a West long gone, won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Dances With Wolves became the first Western since Cimarron to win the top prize. Costner directed himself as an idealistic officer whose solitary life at a frontier outpost is interrupted and then forever changed upon encountering the Lakota Sioux tribe.

When Costner was looking for finance, there was not much interest in a marathon-length Western featuring unknown actors speaking in a subtitled Lakota Sioux dialect. Hollywood skeptics, convinced that Costner had a flop the size of Heaven’s Gate on his hands, had tagged his three-hour directorial debut, “Kevin’s Gate.” But by Oscar night, Dances With Wolves had accumulated more than $130 million in ticket sales. Michael Blake, who just a few years ago was washing dishes and sleeping on friends’ sofas, won an Oscar for his script, based on his novel, which Costner had encouraged him to write.

The success of Dances With Wolves, which was Costner’s first directing project, washed forgiveness over the much-scrutinized film. Despite his status as first-time helmer, the past shows that actors who direct stand a chance at grabbing the Oscar. Costner, in fact, became Hollywood’s new Golden Boy. One studio head rationalized the effects that Dances With Wolves had in breaking every conceivable Hollywood rule: “When pictures like that explode-and they’re rare–they do something to us: all of our notions have to be reconceived. Forget the success of the flick or the problems Costner had or his achievement. We’re all thinking differently now. About Westerns. About subtitles. About the length a picture can be. About movies with quills.”

Costner’s main competition was Martin Scorsese and his crime gangster film, GoodFellas, which swept all the critics awards: Los Angeles, New York, and the National Society of Critics. The same year also saw the release of the third, eagerly awaited film of Coppola’s 1970s crime saga, The Godfather, Part III. The other nominees were Awakenings, a psychological drama with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, which received multiple nominations but denied a nomination for its woman director, Penny Marshall, and the romantic blockbuster, Ghost.

The great divide in 1990 was based as much on geography as on film sensibility. A New Yorker at heart, Scorsese was a graduate of NYU, setting most of his films in New York. GoodFellas, like most of Scorsese’s films, feels New York too: It’s sharp, tough, and bloody. Costner hailed from California, and Dances With Wolves was a romantic epic about the West. Consensus held that GoodFellas was brilliantly crafted, but that the gore and blood turned off the Academy voters, who are old and live in Los Angeles. An Academy voter reflected the opinion of many when he said: “If the whole Oscar show was done at Radio City, I think GoodFellas would win.”

Unforgiven

Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s chef d’oeuvre, swept the major awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics before winning the Best Picture. A classic Western that is at once realistic and mythical, it boasted Eastwood’s best work as an actor and director in a genre often regarded disreputable in Hollywood. Watching the film was particularly rewarding for those familiar with Eastwood’s screen persona–Unforgiven deconstructs the myths of manhood and violence in the Old West. Eastwood set out consciously to humanize his superhero image in films that are not explicitly Westerns but have used elements of the genre, such as the Dirty Harry films, which are basically urban Westerns.

As the nameless gunslinger in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, Eastwood established himself as a tightlipped, steely eyed icon. Now in the director’s saddle, he turned that image on its ear with Unforgiven, in which he portrays William Munny, an aging pig farmer haunted by his blood-soaked desperado past, who emerges from retirement for one final bounty hunt–to avenge the villains who cut a prostitute’s face with a Bowie knife. A widower raising two children, Munny is doing it for the money he desperately needs for his farm.

Based on David Webb Peoples’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, Unforgiven is a debunking meditation on the irredeemable savagery of the West. A critical and box-office smash (one of the few Westerns to have grossed over a hundred million dollars domestically), the film earned four Oscars, including Best Picture and Director.

Oscar-Nominated Westerns

Of all genres, the Western has been the most peripheral in the Oscar contest. In addition to the three winning films, only eight Westerns have been nominated: In Old Arizona (1928-29), Stagecoach (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), How the West Was Won (1963), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Django Unchained (2012).

With the exception of John Ford (Stagecoach), the other nominated Westerns were directed by filmmakers who didn’t specialize in the genre, which may have had something to do with their gaining nominations. “Prestige” filmmakers, such as Fred Zinnemann (High Noon) and George Stevens (Shane), were rewarded for making one impressive Western in their careers. (Stevens would later direct Giant.)