The very first Academy Awards ceremony, popularly referred to as the Oscars after the name of the statuette awarded to honorees, took place in 1929. In the 90 years since, many notable milestones and groundbreaking winners have been awarded. Here is a list of the 10 most groundbreaking winners in Oscar history.
In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, for her Iraq War epic The Hurt Locker. Just how groundbreaking is Kathryn Bigelow’s win? Only five women have been nominated for Best Director in the Academy’s entire 90-year history. Interestingly, Bigelow’s indie film The Hurt Locker competed for Best Picture against blockbuster titan Avatar, directed by none other than her ex-husband and previous Best Director winner James Cameron. The Hurt Locker’s Best Picture and Best Director awards were something of a coup, and one worth celebrating.
No screen presence can rival that of Sidney Poitier, and few careers are as iconic as his. That’s why it makes sense that the iconic Poitier was the first African-American to win Best Actor for his work in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. While it’s a shame that it took the Oscars almost 40 years to award an African-American actor for his work, Poitier was an essential progressive figure in his day, enough to garner a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009.
Thirty-eight years after Sidney Poitier broke through racial barriers in the Best Actor category in 1964, Halle Berry accomplished the feat in the Best Actress category, in 2002. In an emotional speech, she summarized the significance of her win, paying tribute to the trailblazing black actresses who came before her as well as her talented peers: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
While Moonlight‘s Best Picture win in 2017 caused controversy because its competitor La La Land had mistakenly been announced as the winner first, due to an envelope mixup, its win is groundbreaking for another reason. Never before had the Academy awarded its highest honor to a film with LGBTQ themes. In fact, the Academy had been criticized years earlier for snubbing the widely perceived frontrunner Brokeback Mountain in favor of Crash in 2006. A veritable mood piece, Moonlight is a uniquely art house take on a complicated and somber story, especially in the face of the usual Best Picture winners.
In 1958, Japanese-American actress Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian actor to win an Oscar. Umeki won in the category Best Supporting Actress, acting opposite Marlon Brando in the 1957 film Sayonara. The film told the tale of the intense racial divisions during the Korean War and prejudice against interracial marriages. To this day, no Asian performer has won for Best Actress.
The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs’ Best Picture victory in 1992 was a surprise for a myriad of reasons. It was released way back in February 1991, whereas most Oscar contenders come out in the last quarter of the year. But the main reason for why The Silence of the Lambs‘ win is groundbreaking is simple: only six horror films have ever been nominated for Best Picture (including Get Out in 2018). Not only does The Silence of the Lambs remain the only horror film to win Best Picture, it is one of only three movies to win all “Big Five” Oscars: Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, and Screenplay.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Academy has often been accused of genre bias, rarely nominating fantasy films for Best Picture. Audiences wondered if the third and final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy could achieve the Best Picture win its acclaimed predecessors had failed to garner. On Oscar night in 2004, Return of the King made history when it began sweeping every single category it was nominated in. Viewers were tense when Steven Spielberg opened the envelope to announce the Best Picture winner. They needn’t have worried. “It’s a clean sweep,” he said, and Return of the King became the first fantasy film to take the honor, opening the door for later winners like The Shape of Water.
In 1940, actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind. How groundbreaking was her win? She accepted her award at a segregated ceremony. While her role in Gone with the Wind has been maligned as a stereotype, McDaniel’s powerful acting helped elevate what could have been a rote role into a fascinating portrayal of racial inequality.
Will any actor be able to repeat the Oscar success of legendary actress Katherine Hepburn? Hepburn garnered a record-breaking four Best Actress Oscar wins in her 60-year career. With her first win in 1934 for Morning Glory and her fourth win in 1982 for On Golden Pond, Hepburn was a trailblazer of continued success and recognition. She remains the only actor, male or female, to receive four competitive Oscars for acting. Her only living rivals, with three Oscars apiece, are Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Speaking of winning four times over… there’s nobody in film quite like John Ford, and the Academy seems to agree. The director of classic films including Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and many, many more, he’s the only filmmaker to win four Best Director awards. Only William Wyler and Frank Capra come close with three apiece.