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Meryl Streep Led a Strong Decade for Actresses But an Older Paul Newman Provided His Own Compelling Story

In the decade from 1977 to 1986, Meryl Streep made her entrance onto the Oscar stage and hasn’t left it since. Because I covered her career extensively in my article comparing her career with Tom Hanks, I thought I’d touch on an interesting pattern I’ve noticed in my analysis of the first six decades of Academy Award acting recognition.

Top Actresses of the Decade
1977 to 1986
Actress Lead Actress Nominations Lead Actress Wins Supporting Actress Nominations Supporting Actress Wins Total Academy Award Points
Meryl Streep 4 1 2 1 18
Jane Fonda 4 1 1 0 16
Sissy Spacek 4 1 0 0 15
Sally Field 2 2 0 0 12
Jessica Lange 3 0 1 1 11
Geraldine Page 2 1 1 0 10

From 1977 to 1986, six different actresses earned at least ten Academy Award points. The only other decade that had as many actresses with ten points or more was  from 1937 to 1946, which also had six. No decade has had more than three actors with at least ten points in the same decade. In fact, of the 41 actors I’ve listed in my Actors of the Decade lists, only 10 have more than ten points in any single decade, 24.4% of the total. Of the 40 actresses listed, 19 had more than ten points in a decade, 47.5% of the total. This means that acting awards for actresses were more concentrated in fewer actresses. Why? Is it because there were fewer good actresses in the acting pool for moviemakers to choose from? Or, is it the more likely option, there were fewer good roles for actresses and they went to the most bankable actresses? In early 2017, I plan on studying this question further.

Let’s turn to the Actors of the Decade.

Top Actors of the Decade
1977 to 1986
Actor Lead Actor Nominations Lead Actor Wins Supporting Actor Nominations Supporting Actor Wins Total Academy Award Points
Paul Newman 3 1 0 0 12
Robert Duvall 2 1 1 0 10
Jack Lemmon 3 0 0 0 9
Dustin Hoffman 2 1 0 0 9
Jon Voight 2 1 0 0 9
Robert DeNiro 2 1 0 0 9
William Hurt 2 1 0 0 9

From 1958’s Cat on a  Hot Tin Roof to 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman and his trademark bright blue eyes earned four Academy Award acting nominations. After so much early success, Oscar recognition eluded him for the next fifteen years. Tragedy intervened in 1978 when Newman’s only son, Scott, died of a drug overdose. Before 1978, Paul Newman averaged almost two movies a year. He wasn’t neglectful of his children over this time but he wasn’t always there for them either. He blamed himself for Scott’s death and it produced a cathartic change in him, both personally and professionally. Personally, he reoriented his life and dedicated much of his time to philanthropic ventures such as his Newman’s Own brand which raised more than $100 million dollars for charity. He also established his Hole in the Wall Camps for terminally ill children. Professionally, Newman turned away from the matinee idol roles that launched his career and took on portrayals of more human, more damaged, characters. In fact, the three nominated roles from 1977 to 1986, Absence of Malice, The Verdict, and The Color of Money, all involve characters seeking redemption, an emotion he could readily relate to from his personal life. Newman went on to earn a total of five nominations after the age of 56.

Streep beginning and Newman re-beginning their careers are the stories of the decade.

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