By Cody Dericks
Part of following the Oscar race year after year means that you must expect things to not always go the way you thought they would. It’s beyond difficult to get a perfect score on your predictions. Adding to the difficulty, something that is even beyond unpredictable must be taken into consideration: the dreaded tie. It would seem to be impossible that with thousands of Academy voters submitting ballots, two nominees would end up with both the same amount of votes and the most number of votes in their category. Shockingly, it has happened five times across the ninety-two Oscar ceremonies we’ve had so far (there was a sixth tie that wasn’t exactly a tie by the standard definition, but more on that later). While the ties happened in different categories, two things are true of each win: they were always surprising, and they usually elicited an unceremoniously unrehearsed reaction from the celebrity presenting the award.
The first tie at the Oscars was not even an actual tie, although two separate winners were announced. At the 5th Academy Awards, a tie was announced for Best Actor. The winners were Wallace Beery for “The Champ” and Fredric March for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” However, even though a tie was announced, the vote tallies for the two men were not exactly identical. According to the Academy Awards’ official database, “…Fredric March had one more vote than Wallace Beery, but rules at the time stated that if an achievement came within three votes of the winner, that achievement would also receive the award.” It’s quite an odd circumstance and the only time that the Academy has ever revealed how many more votes a nominee received over another. The rules were subsequently changed to specify that ties would only be legitimate when vote totals matched exactly. Because precursor awards were practically nonexistent this early in history, it’s hard to know for sure which of the two men were statistically expected to win. “The Champ” was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and won an additional Oscar for Best Original Story, so it is clear that a good number of voters had seen the film and enjoyed it. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, so it was also embraced by voters. Both of these men also had one previous nomination for Best Actor, and even a single prior nomination can indicate that the Academy has its eyes on you. Unfortunately, at this early Oscar ceremony, there were only three nominees in the acting categories which means that Alfred Lunt (a nominee for “The Guardsman”) left the ceremony as the only statue-less Best Actor nominee.
At the 22nd Academy Awards, which honored the films of 1949, the very first exact tie in the history of the Oscars occurred in the Best Documentary Short Subject category. Because the Shorts categories have fewer precursors than some of the subjectively bigger awards, it’s usually harder to trace how these categories are expected to go and therefore how much of a surprise the ultimate result is. That year, the winners were “A Chance to Live,” which captured a priest’s attempt to establish a Boys’ Home in Italy after World War II, and “So Much for So Little,” an animated short directed by the famed creative force behind the “Looney Tunes,” Chuck Jones, which shows the importance of health care in modern American life. Both of these films cover topics that were timely and relevant to Academy voters, which we know is a great way to succeed in this category even today. Actor and future U.S. Senator, George Murphy, presented the award. He was handed the envelope by an understandably nervous man who checked that the envelope belonged to the correct category no less than four times. After a lengthy pause wherein he clearly wanted to make sure he was reading the winners correctly, Murphy announced the winning films and then proclaimed in a steady but excited voice, “It was a tie, ladies and gentlemen.” Unfortunately, the recipients of this award were not permitted to give a speech and react to this historic moment while it was happening.
Perhaps the most famous tie in the history of the Academy Awards happened at the 41st ceremony, which awarded the films of 1968. Hollywood legend, Katharine Hepburn, and the hottest star of the day, Barbra Streisand, both won awards for Best Actress for their films “The Lion in Winter” and “Funny Girl,” respectively. It was a perfect realization of classic and contemporary Hollywood meeting at a crossroads. What makes this legendary tie so extraordinary is that two unique factors almost kept it from happening. First was the fact that Streisand was invited to the Academy earlier than was usually permitted. Typically, performers are only invited to be a voting member after they have amassed at least two acting credits. “Funny Girl” was Streisand’s debut film performance, but the rules were bent to allow her in early. Presumably, she voted for herself and thus secured the tie. The other factor is Hepburn’s legendarily consistent snubbing of the Academy Awards. Hepburn only attended one Academy Awards ceremony: the 46th ceremony where she presented the Irving G. Thalberg Award to producer Lawrence Weingarten. With such a clear disinterest in the Oscars, one must also assume that she didn’t vote for herself. If the usually unbending Academy weren’t flexible with their membership rules in this one instance or if Hepburn had suddenly and inexplicably decided to participate in these Oscars, Hepburn would have been the lone winner.
The legendary Ingrid Bergman presented this award. She opened the envelope and was charmingly flustered, haltingly declaring, “The winner…It’s a tie!” With a hand at her chest, she announced, “The winners are Katharine Hepburn in ‘Lion in the Winter’ [sic] and Barbra Streisand.” Streisand accepted the award without her co-winner, tripping up the stairs on her shimmery bell-bottom pants and cradling her Oscar, famously cooing, “Hello, gorgeous.” It’s the kind of moment we all hope could occur at every Academy Awards.
A second tie occurred for a Documentary category at the 1986 ceremony. This time in the Documentary Feature category. The winners were “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got,” a biographical documentary about the titular clarinetist, and “Down and Out in America,” an exploration of poverty and homelessness as a result of Reaganomics, directed by Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant. Musical documentaries have done well in this category, from previous winners like “Woodstock” and “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China” to more recent champions such as “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Amy,” so the victory of “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got” makes perfect sense; “Down and Out in America” is a classic winner that focuses on devastating current events. Oprah Winfrey announced this category, and she handled the surprise with expected grace. “And the winner is…it is a tie,” she announced without stumbling, before repeating with amusement, “A tie!” Unlike the Documentary Short winners of 1949, these winners were thankfully allowed to give a speech.
At the 1994 ceremony, there was yet another short film tie. The dual winners of Best Live Action Short Film were “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Trevor,” and the two films couldn’t be more different. The former is a comedic look at author Franz Kafka’s writing process, written and directed by actor Peter Capaldi, and the latter is the story of a gay thirteen-year-old who struggles with his burgeoning sexuality (it would later inspire the formation of The Trevor Project, an organization that seeks to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth). In what is a rare occasion for this category, these nominees were actually battling it out for the win as evidenced by the shocking number of precursor awards won by both films. “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” won Best Short Film at both the BAFTAs and the BAFTA Scotland Awards, and “Trevor” won Best Short Film at the Berlin International Film Festival and was awarded an Honorable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not common to see precursor awards so heavily factor into this category, but they seem to show exactly why a tie occurred. At the ceremony, Tim Allen was this category’s presenter. Upon opening the envelope, he raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise and said, “It’s a tie!” He then clutched his chest and proclaimed “Oh mon Dieu!” to the amusement of the audience, and proceeded to announce the pair of winners.
The most recent tie at the Academy Awards came during the 2012 ceremony in Best Sound Editing – the only tie in a craft category to date. The pair of winners were James Bond’s biggest success at the Oscars, “Skyfall,” and Best Picture nominee, “Zero Dark Thirty.” Prior to the ceremony, “Skyfall” received two nominations (Best Sound Editing – Dialogue & ADR and Best Sound Editing – Music) and one win (Best Sound Editing – Sound Effects and Foley) from the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ Golden Reel Awards. The award this organization gave the film is arguably the most telling precursor for the Best Sound Editing Oscar. “Zero Dark Thirty” received zero nominations from the Golden Reels. But just because it had more heat from the pre-Oscar awards does not mean that “Skyfall’s” win was easily predictable. Since the number of nominees for Best Picture was expanded, every single winner in both Sound categories up to this point had also been a Best Picture nominee. In fact, from the expansion of the Best Picture category at the 2009 ceremony to the present day, “Skyfall” is the only non-Best Picture nominee to win either of the Sound awards. To make matters even more complicated, it was the only film in its category to not be nominated for Best Picture (the other three nominees were “Argo,” “Django Unchained,” and “Life of Pi”). However, “Skyfall” was beloved by the Academy at this ceremony, receiving a total of five nominations and two wins. It was very likely the film that would have made it into a field of ten Best Picture nominees if the nominees weren’t determined by the then-current sliding scale nominating process which resulted in nine films being up for Best Picture. This adoration came right up against “Zero Dark Thirty’s” obvious technical prowess, resulting in the first and only tie of the 21st century.
At the awards ceremony, this category was presented by Mark Wahlberg. After an exhausting bit of banter with the titular CGI character from his movie “Ted,” he announced the nominees, opened the envelope, and declared, “We have a tie.” The audience reacted with appropriate shock, to which Wahlberg shrugged and characteristically said, “No BS, we have a tie.” Interestingly, he first announced “Zero Dark Thirty’s” win and Paul N.J. Ottosson gave his entire winning speech before Wahlberg announced the second winner as “Skyfall.” It was an inspired bit of theatricality to announce the winners separately.
Even though it may mess up our predictions, it’s undeniably fun seeing something as unprecedented as a tie at the Oscars. And maybe it’s the millennial in me, but there’s something nice about having more than one person at a time given a trophy. However you feel about them, seeing a tie announced brings an elevated level of excitement and unforeseeability to an award show that is already unpredictable.
What do you all think? Which has been your favorite tie in Oscar history? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91