Our friend Michael Grei told me after seeing Bohemian Rhapsody that he thought Rami Malek was winning the Oscar for Best Actor. Now, this is a common thing. People often proclaim a winner after being greatly moved by a film or a performance. Sometimes the gut instinct is right. Sometimes it ain’t. My thoughts immediately went to what I know from covering the race for so many years. And what I know more than anything is the marriage between Best Picture and Best Actor is real. Is it iron clad? No. But Jeff Bridges remains the only actor to win without a Best Picture nomination in the modern era of the expanded Best Picture ballot.
When these actors without a BP nomination do win, it tends to be in years where a veteran is up for the award, as opposed to someone relatively new who knocked it out of the park and is, thus, undeniable. I suspect that it happened a lot more in the past, before the expanded ballot days. Before we head backwards in time to figure this out, we must also consider the reverse possibility: that Bohemian Rhapsody could earn a surprise Best Picture nomination just on the sheer power of Rami Malek’s performance. I say surprising because the reviews have not been good. Lately, reviews matter.
The last time we can recall a film that earned a Best Picture nomination with a Metacritic score lower than 70 was Inglourious Basterds. That’s quite an exception, for a number of reasons. Likewise, Bryan Singer is not Quentin Tarantino, for a number of reasons. And there’s a big difference between a score of 69 and and a score of 49.
Given those cold hard facts, most are assuming Rami Malek could win, or be nominated, without that key Best Picture nod.
But let’s look back in time to see how many Best Actor winners starred in Best Picture nominees — and how many didn’t — in the era before the preferential/expanded ballot, which was implemented in 2009. Instead of going all the way to an era when there were too many other variables, let’s start with 1960.
light font = Best Actor w/o Best Picture
bold * = also nominated for Best Picture
bold + = also won Best Picture
1960 — Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry*
1961 — Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg*
1962 — Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird*
1963 — Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field*
1964 — Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady+
1965 — Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou (Note: this was a Best Actress heavy year, with The Sound of Music winning and being nominated alongside Darling and Dr. Zhivago)
1966 — Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons+
1967 — Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night+
1968 — Cliff Robertson, Charly (Note: Oliver! was the Best Picture winner)
1969 — John Wayne, True Grit (Note: Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture — both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were nominated for Best Actor, which likely split their vote. Wayne was a beloved veteran who had never won)
1970 — George C. Scott, Patton+
1971 — Gene Hackman, The French Connection+
1972 — Marlon Brando, The Godfather+
1973 — Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger (Note: beloved veteran who had never won for Best Actor, though had previously won for supporting. Was up against Al Pacino for Serpico, Robert Redford for The Sting+, Marlon Brando for Last Tango in Paris, and Jack Nicholson for The Last Detail — wow)
1974 — Art Carney, Harry and Tonto (Note: beloved veteran, up against Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, Al Pacino for Godfather II*, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny)
1975 — Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest+
1976 — Peter Finch, Network*
1977 — Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl*
1978 — Jon Voight, Coming Home*
1979 — Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer+
1980 — Robert De Niro, Raging Bull*
1981 — Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond*
1982 — Ben Kingsley, Gandhi+
1983 — Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies*
1984 — F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus+
1985 — William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman*
1986 — Paul Newman, The Color of Money (Note: beloved veteran who had never won, and a female-heavy Best Picture race)
1987 — Michael Douglas, Wall Street (Note: beloved veteran who had never won, and a female-heavy Best Picture race)
1988 — Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man+
1989 — Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot*
1990 — Jeremy Irons, Reversal of Fortune (Note: this is your best parallel for Rami Malek winning)
1991 — Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs+
1992 — Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman*
1993 — Tom Hanks, Philadelphia
1994 — Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump+
1995 — Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
1996 — Geoffrey Rush, Shine*
1997 — Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets*
1998 — Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful*
1999 — Kevin Spacey, American Beauty+
2000 — Russell Crowe, Gladiator+
2001 — Denzel Washington, Training Day ((Note: beloved veteran who had never won Best Actor, although he had won supporting before)
2002 — Adrien Brody, The Pianist*
2003 — Sean Penn, Mystic River*
2004 — Jamie Foxx, Ray*
2005 — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote*
2006 — Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland (Note: beloved veteran who had never won)
2007 — Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood*
2008 — Sean Penn, Milk*
2009 — Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
2010 — Colin Firth, The King’s Speech+
2011 — Jean DuJardin, The Artist+
2012 — Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln*
2013 — Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club*
2014 — Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything*
2015 — Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant*
2016 — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea*
2017 — Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour*
A few random thoughts while compiling this list: three times in Oscar history since 1960, there were two Best Actor winners back-to-back without Best Picture nominations. That tells me that there was something to it, maybe an inclination to reward veterans career Oscars. Or there was an upward trend towards female-driven films.
The norm is clearly that a Best Picture nomination is often a natural result of liking the lead performance. That’s because actors have such a strong hold on the Academy membership overall. If they like an actor and he’s given a strong role, there’s a decent chance they’ll like the movie too. If the entire Academy nominates a film for Best Picture, there is a good chance they, too, like the leading male performance.
Does this mean Rami Malek has a chance? Sure. But a slim one. He would win under the two conditions we’ve noted. The first is if the Best Picture race is dominated by actress driven movies. The second is if his performance is undeniable. If he were a veteran, instead of an up-and-comer, his path to the win would be easier. If the film shows up as a surprise Best Picture nominee, however? Then, by all means, put your chips behind him. Or do it anyway. Academy history only tells us what happened before, not what might happen now.
At the moment, Malek’s main competition appears to be Viggo Mortensen for Green Book, Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born, and the unseen Christian Bale for Vice.