By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 22, 2012 at 2:47PM
You would think that an Oscar nomination would be a total career-changer once you get it. The top prize from your peers, even just a nomination can see you offered all kinds of new opportunities. But sometimes, that can be a short-term effect: looking over lists of past winners in the major categories, all but the most comprehensive film nerd or awards buffs will find more than a few films and performances that they never knew existed, let alone gone anywhere near the Academy Awards.
As part of our continuing countdown coverage to the Oscars on Sunday, we've run down the actors and actresses, along with the screenplays (a category that always throws up a few surprises), that you might well have forgotten were once Oscar-nominated. We've excluded Best Director nominees, because they tend to be better known (although if you remembered that Atom Egoyan was nominated for "The Sweet Hereafter," your memory is better than ours...) Are there other nominees that you can think of that fall into that "huh, who woulda thunk?" category? Read on for more.
Thanks to being split into two categories, Original and Adapted, the Screenplay branch has always been able to honor a wider range of films -- this year, for example, room is found for both the blockbuster comedy "Bridesmaids" and the Iranian drama "A Separation." Over the years, it's certainly proven welcoming, more so than any other category, to scribes from the foreign and independent worlds. Luis Buñuel, for instance, has two nominations, for "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "That Obscure Object Of Desire." Other arthouse-minded types with nods include François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Marguerite Duras and more recently, Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan") and Krystof Kieswlowski ("Three Colors: Red" -- it also earned him a directing nomination).
Indeed, in the 1960s, it was common for the majority of nominees in the original screenplay category to be from abroad, as in 1961 when "Ballad of a Soldier," "La Dolce Vita" and "General della Rovere" lost out to "Splendor In the Grass." But the category isn't above celebrating commercial success either. For instance, should they want to, Marvel could accurately market "The Avengers" as being from an Oscar-nominated director, what with Joss Whedon having been one of seven scribes, including Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, given the nod for "Toy Story" in 1995. The 1980s proved a less glorious time for the category, with films like "WarGames," "Crocodile Dundee" and even "Beverly Hills Cop" all finding nominations for their writers.
If you wanted to win an Oscar in the 1970s for Best Supporting Actress, there were few better ways of doing so than by being a veteran actress in a disaster movie: witness stage star Helen Hayes, who won for her elderly stowaway in "Airport" in 1970, or Shelley Winters, who picked up the prize for her tragic grandmother in "The Poseidon Adventure." Elsewhere in the same decade, comic genius Madeline Kahn was nominated twice in a row, firstly for "Paper Moon," then the year after in "Blazing Saddles." Indeed, comedy was a good way in: Jeannie Berlin, who only just made an impressive screen return in "Margaret," was nominated for her performance as Charles Grodin's awful bride in Neil Simon's "The Heartbreak Kid." And, it's a little known piece of trivia that until "The Color Purple" in 1986, the only person nominated for a performance in a Steven Spielberg film was Melinda Dillon in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Always a good way of getting a nomination: being super-old, like Ruby Dee in "American Gangster," or Anne Ramsey (Mama Fratelli herself) in "Throw Momma From The Train." Comediennes continued to do well: for instance, hands up, who remembers that Joan Cusack is a two-time Oscar nominee for "Working Girl" and the odd Kevin Kline vehicle "In & Out"? Other nominated performances you might have forgotten -- Rosemary Harris in "Tom & Viv," Mare Winningham in "Georgia," Barbara Hershey in "Portrait of a Lady," and Brenda Blethyn in "Little Voice."
Always an all-welcoming collection of oddball faces and character actors, the Best Supporting Actor category perhaps has the most colorful line-up of them all. Think of the 1960s: two nominations for Peter Falk in "A Pocketful of Miracles" and "Murder Inc.," one for Telly Savalas in "Birdman of Alcatraz," one for Bobby Darin in military drama "Captain Newman MD" and one for relatively unknown British actor Ian Bannen (who would later star in "Waking Ned") in "The Flight of the Phoenix." Indeed, we're not sure any other category could have nominated future-madman Randy Quaid ("The Last Detail"), veteran soft-shoe expert Fred Astaire (for "The Towering Inferno"), method acting teacher Lee Strasberg (for "The Godfather Part II"), voice of Chucky Brad Dourif (for "One Flew Over THe Cuckoo's Nest"), ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov ("The Turning Point"), pint-sized veteran Mickey Rooney ("The Black Stallion") and accidental bank-robber Rip Torn ("Cross Creek").
More recently, character actor types have managed to get nominated without it defining their career. Remember Dean Stockwell in "Married to the Mob?" David Paymer in "Mr. Saturday Night?" Michael Lerner in "Barton Fink?" Dan Aykroyd in "Driving Miss Daisy?" Charles Durning, nominated twice in a row for "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas" and "To Be Or Not To Be?" But leading men can get pushed into the category too: Ethan Hawke and Jamie Foxx were the nominal leads of thrillers "Training Day" and "Collateral," but somehow ended up with Best Supporting Actor nominations (Foxx is forgotten already perhaps because it was the same year he won for "Ray"). And sometimes actors are nominated just for turning up, like Al Pacino in "Dick Tracy."
When an actress gets an Oscar nomination that gets lost in the mists of time, it's sometimes because it was a genre-y picture, like Sissy Spacek in "Carrie" or Ann-Margret in "Tommy." But more usually, it's because the film around them wasn't particularly memorable. Think Miranda Richardson in "Tom & Viv," Mary McDonnell in "Passion Fish," Jessica Lange's winning performance in "Blue Sky" or Meryl Streep, nominated for "One True Thing" and "Music of the Heart," neither of which really stand with her most memorable.
Gary Busey: Oscar-nominee. That's not a joke, that's reality -- before he was a reality TV wash-out, Busey was a gifted actor, and got the nod for playing the titular rock'n'roller in "The Buddy Holly Story." A little later, the Oscars seemed to go through a period of loving nothing more than drunken Brits, with Dudley Moore nominated for "Arthur" and Tom Conti for "Reuben Reuben." Other actors around the same time that you might have forgotten were nominees: James Garner in rom-com "Murphy's Romance" and Edward James Olmos in inspirational school drama "Stand and Deliver."