Sunday, October 2, 2022

American Politics At The Oscars

By Will Mavity 

Election season is well underway. Every day there are new polls and headlines. As we move closer to the election, we can guarantee we will see dozens of articles about “the best political movies of all time.” There is no shortage of impressive films involving politics. They range from the awful (“The Campaign”) to the bland (“Swing Vote”) to the stone-cold classics. The question is, how does Oscar feel about movies involving American politics?


Before we examine which categories have been most friendly to films involving American politics, it is worth noting that everyone has their own definition of “involving politics.” For example, “Forrest Gump” briefly features two presidents, but to me, the film feels sufficiently disconnected from politics. “Gangs of New York” does feature historical political wheeler-dealer Boss Tweed briefly, as well as an election for Sheriff. However, these are but blips on the radar of a film that is first and foremost not concerned with the literal mechanics of American politics. On the other hand, “The Aviator,” first and foremost, focuses on Hollywood and the aviation industry, but earned Alan Alda an Oscar nomination for playing a senator. If the film received an Oscar nomination for portraying a politician, it would seem wrong not to include it. 

Many films feature presidents in major roles. “Independence Day” is an obvious one, but few would say the film is about politics. On the other hand, ‘90s actioners like “Air Force One” and “In the Line of Fire” are so utterly entrenched in the world of campaigns and office holding that, to me, they fit this definition. 

Additionally, there are many Oscar-contending films like “Z” that focus on non-American politics, but those are not the focus of this article. Finally, there is the argument that “all art is political.” There are too many films to count that have contended for Oscars and could be described as “political,” but for the sake of this article, I am not counting them as being about American politics.

So what do we learn from the films about politics that contended at the Oscars?

​For starters, although the only film about American politics to win Best Picture did so in 1949 (“All the King’s Men), these sorts of films became far more successful in achieving Best Picture nominations after Watergate. There were only six Best Picture Nominated films about American politics prior to Watergate, and there have been 13 since then. Of those 13, a number are cynical in nature or focus on corruption within high office. Meanwhile, pre-Watergate Best Picture nominated films about politics are largely optimistic in their view of politics like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Wilson.” 

The absence of Best Picture wins among those films may have to do with the general cynicism of successful films about politics. “All the President’s Men” won acting, writing, and technical awards, but the upbeat “Rocky” took Best Picture instead. In 2012, both “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” were considered threats to win Best Picture at various points, but the lighter “Argo” won instead. 

Best Director Nominations for films about American politics largely overlapped with Best Picture Nominations. Unlike Best Picture, however, no film about American politics has ever won Best Director. 

Films about politics have proved fertile ground for Acting nominations. Fifty-four performances in films about American politics have been nominated. The “magic touch” of performances in films about politics has seemed to favor male performances thus far, as 35 of those nominated performances were for men.

Of the performances nominated, 12 were nominated for portraying American presidents, eight were nominated for portraying members of congress, five were nominated for portraying first or second ladies. Others have been nominated for portraying political journalists, political staffers, governors, or political assassins. All four acting categories have produced at least one Oscar winner.


​Due to the presence of snappy dialogue and tight plotting, films about politics have often performed well in the writing categories. The screenplay categories have generated a total of 24 nominations including four wins for these sorts of films. Often, these films are “lone screenplay” nominations a la “In the Loop” and “The Ides of March.” In 1972, Robert Redford’s “The Candidate” even snagged a win for screenplay based on its witty satire and fast pace with nothing more than a sound nomination to its name. 

Among the below-the-line categories, Best Film Editing has featured the most films about American politics. Not surprising given films of that subject tend to favor snappy pacing. 

Every feature category has featured at least one of these films. Additionally, the documentary category has seen a number of such films nominated.

What we can be certain of is that the current era of politics will lead to a massive onslaught of films about it. As to whether or not any will be Oscar players, we can only wait and see.

See a full list of every film about American politics nominated for an Oscar by category below. Those who won their respective categories are highlighted in bold.

Best Picture
Vice
The Post
Selma
“Lincoln”
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Frost/Nixon “
“Milk”
Good Night, and Good Luck
“The Aviator”
“JFK”
“All the President’s Men”
Taxi Driver
“Nashville”
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
“Born Yesterday”
“All the King’s Men”
“Wilson”
“Citizen Kane”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Director
Adam McKay – “Vice
Steven Spielberg – “Lincoln”
Ron Howard – “Frost/Nixon”
Gus Van Sant – “Milk”
George Clooney – “Good Night, and Good Luck
Martin Scorsese – “The Aviator”
Oliver Stone – “JFK”
Alan J. Pakula – “All the President’s Men”
Robert Altman – “Nashville”
Stanley Kubrick – “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
Robert Rossen – “All The King’s Men”
George Cukor – “Born Yesterday”
Henry King – “Wilson”
Orson Welles – “Citizen Kane”
Frank Capra – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Actress
Meryl Streep – “The Post
Natalie Portman – “Jackie
Jessica Chastain – “Zero Dark Thirty”
Joan Allen – “The Contender”
Greer Garson – “Sunrise at Campobello”
Judy Holliday – “Born Yesterday”
Loretta Young – “Farmer’s Daughter”

Best Actor
Christian Bale – “Vice
Daniel Day-Lewis – “Lincoln”
Frank Langella – “Frost/Nixon”
Sean Penn – “Milk”
David Strathairn – “Good Night, and Good Luck
Leonardo DiCaprio – “The Aviator”
Dustin Hoffman – “Wag the Dog”
Anthony Hopkins – “Nixon”
Peter Sellers – “Being There”
Robert De Niro – “Taxi Driver
James Whitmore – “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!”
Peter Sellers – “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
Louis Calhern – “The Magnificent Yankee”
Broderick Crawford – “All the King’s Men”
Alexander Knox – “Wilson”
Orson Welles – “Citizen Kane”
Raymond Massey – “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”
James Stewart – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”


Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – “Vice
Sally Field – “Lincoln”
Cate Blanchett – “The Aviator”
Kathy Bates – “Primary Colors”
Joan Allen – “Nixon”
Jane Alexander – “All the President’s Men”
Jodie Foster – “Taxi Driver
Ronee Blakley – “Nashville”
Lily Tomlin – “Nashville”
Angela Lansbury – “The Manchurian Candidate”
Mercedes McCambridge – “All The King’s Men”
Beulah Bondi – “The Gorgeous Hussy”

Best Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell – “Vice
Tommy Lee Jones – “Lincoln”
Josh Brolin – “Milk”
Philip Seymour Hoffman – “Charlie Wilson’s War”
Alan Alda – “The Aviator”
Jeff Bridges – “The Contender”
Anthony Hopkins – “Amistad”
John Malkovich – “In the Line of Fire”
Tommy Lee Jones – “JFK”
Melvyn Douglas – “Being There”
Jason Robards – “All the President’s Men”

Edmond O’Brien – “Seven Days in May”
Lee Tracy – “The Best Man”
John Ireland – “All the King’s Men”
Charles Bickford – “The Farmer’s Daughter”
Harry Carey – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
Claude Rains – “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“Lincoln”
“The Ides of March”
“In the Loop”
“Frost/Nixon”
“Primary Colors”
“Wag the Dog”
“JFK”
“All the President’s Men”
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
“All the King’s Men”
“Born Yesterday”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Original Screenplay
Vice
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Milk”
Good Night, and Good Luck
“The Aviator”
“Bulworth”
“Nixon”
“Dave”
“In the Line of Fire”
“The Candidate”
“Wilson”
“Citizen Kane”

Best Cinematography
“Lincoln”
Good Night, and Good Luck
“The Aviator”
“Amistad”
“JFK”
“Blaze”
“1776”
“Strangers on a Train”
“Wilson”
“Citizen Kane”
“The Gorgeous Hussy”

Best Costume Design
Jackie
“Lincoln”
“Milk”
“The Aviator”
“Amistad”
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
“Sunrise at Campobello”
“The President’s Lady”
“The Magnificent Yankee”
“Born Yesterday”

Best Film Editing
Vice
“Lincoln”
“Zero Dark Thirty”
“Frost/Nixon”
“Milk”
“The Aviator”
“Air Force One”
“In the Line of Fire”
“JFK”
“All the President’s Men”
“Wild in the Streets”
“The Manchurian Candidate”
“All the King’s Men”
“Wilson”
“Citizen Kane”
“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Vice

Best Original Score
Jackie
“Lincoln”
“Milk”
“Amistad”
“Nixon”
“The American President”
“JFK”
Taxi Driver
“Wilson”
“Citizen Kane”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”


Best Original Song
Glory – “Selma
I’m Easy – “Nashville”

Best Production Design
“Lincoln”
“The Good Shepherd”
Good Night, and Good Luck
“The Aviator”
“All the President’s Men”

“Seven Days in May”
“Sunrise at Campobello”
“The President’s Lady”
“Wilson”
“Mission to Moscow”
“Citizen Kane”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Sound Mixing
“Lincoln”
“The Aviator”
“Air Force One”
“JFK”
“All the President’s Men”
“The Candidate”
“Wilson”
“So This Is Washington”
“Citizen Kane”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

Best Sound Editing
“Zero Dark Thirty”

Best Visual Effects
“Wilson”

What sticks out to you about American Political films at the Oscars? Is there a particular film you wish had won Best Picture? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Will and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @mavericksmovies

Will Mavity
Will Mavityhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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