Now that one of Hollywood’s great studios, 20th Century Fox, has merged into another named Disney, let’s reflect, as a form of final tribute to a proud former stand-alone major, on one of Fox’s great legacies: its Oscars. Its track record with the Academy is far better than the studio that just swallowed it up.
Since 1937, when the fabled Pico Boulevard studio got its first-ever Best Picture nomination for In Old Chicago (a movie that also won Alice Brady only the second Best Supporting Actress Oscar ever given), there have been a remarkable 78 Best Picture nominations overall (by my count) and 12 wins beginning with the studio’s first Best Picture triumph in 1941 for How Green Was My Valley, a decision that still causes controversy even today since that venerable John Ford classic beat Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, considered now by many to be the greatest movie of all time.
That number of Best Picture winners also includes an impressive four from 20th’s specialty division Fox Searchlight, which only started in 1995, and managed to win all four Best Pictures (Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, The Shape of Water) in a remarkable nine-year span between 2008-2017, accounting for one third of all the Fox Best Picture champs. There are also two asterisks among the dozen BP winners because both 1995’s Braveheart and 1997’s Titanic were shared with Paramount, which had domestic rights, while Fox took international — in the case of Titanic as a way to hedge a big financial bet.
The other Best Pictures were the landmark film about anti-Semitism from 1947, Gentlemen’s Agreement; the splendid and acidly funny All About Eve, which in 1950 received a then-record 14 nominations, a distinction it still holds, albeit now joined by Titanic and La La Land; 1965’s The Sound of Music which represented Fox’s first win in 15 years and pretty much saved the studio after the financial disaster of Cleopatra (a 1963 Best Pic nominee) two years earlier forced them to sell off the back lot that is now known as Century City; and finally the one-two punch of 1970’s Patton and 1971’s The French Connection.
To glance at the list of all those 78 Best Picture nominations is to really look at the history of this storied studio which won recognition on a number of fronts, early on in the ’40s for such socially conscious nominees like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and The Snake Pit (1948). Best Picture contenders in the ’50s reflected 20th’s specialty in bigger, glossier presentations such as the soapy wonders of 1954’s Three Coins In the Fountain; 1955’s Love Is a Many Splendored Thing; and 1957’s Peyton Place, the latter two both eventually turned into TV serials, with Peyton Place becoming TV’s first nighttime soap as it were.
Then there were those glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein widescreen musicals, launched by 1956 nominee The King and I. CinemaScope and the widest screens possible were the studios’ mantra all through the ’50s in an effort to combat the emerging threat of television, and those above-named nominated films all were examples of why you had to keep going out to the movies.
In the early ’60s however, smaller black-and-white pictures like Sons and Lovers (1960) and Paul Newman in The Hustler (1961) brought Fox Best Picture nominations by going in a different direction, toward intimate human drama. But it wouldn’t last long after another black-and-white nominee that decade (1964’s Zorba The Greek) as Fox got Best Picture nominations for big musical swings including that ’65 winner Sound of Music and two less successful attempts in the genre: 1967’s Doctor Dolittle and Hello Dolly! with Barbra Streisand to round out the decade in 1969.
Dolly’s famous New York Street is still there as you drive onto the Fox lot, but despite its nine nominations and three crafts wins, it never gained the critical love that warranted the big investment in it. Streisand was great, but the dust-up over bypassing original Broadway star Carol Channing hung over the movie. Both Dolittle and Dolly were big, expensive Christmas releases, and Fox mounted lavish campaigns to get them major nominations in order to boost the grosses. Fox would later do non-musical versions of the Doctor Dolittle tales with Eddie Murphy that proved just the ticket for family audiences, if not Oscar voters.
More admired than Dolly in ’69 was the studio’s other Best Picture nominee that year, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was a giant hit for Newman and Robert Redford, and skirted the thin line between old Hollywood production values and changing tastes in combustible times. An X-rated movie, UA’s Midnight Cowboy was the ultimate winner that year, signaling a major shift in the industry.
That “change” was never more apparent than in beginning of the ’70s, when two very different wartime movies both landed Best Picture nominations for Fox. Robert Altman’s MASH was an out-of-the-box hit, defying all the rules up until then, an acerbic comedic story of Korean War medics. It led to one of 20th’s biggest TV series hits ever as well. Then there was Patton, the film about the WWII generalfor which George C. Scott won, and famously rejected, the Best Actor Oscar. The movie itself, which had opened way back in February as a reserved seat attraction, went all the way to win seven Oscars and Best Picture. It was remarkable as a character study even more than a typical Hollywood WWII picture, largely due to the emerging Francis Ford Coppola who shared an Oscar for his original screenplay. MASH took the Adapted Screenplay for once-blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jr, another sign of changing times for Hollywood.
The studio’s dance with the Academy in the ’70s was significant for Fox since it started off the decade with back-to-back winners (The French Connection won in ’71) and had great success in producing other nominees, gaining three of five Best Picture nominations in both 1977 and 1979, no easy feat not accomplished often.
The year 1977 saw a studio triple play in the Best Picture race with Star Wars, Julia and The Turning Point, while 1979’s trio of nominees consisted of Norma Rae, Breaking Away and All That Jazz. Even though none of them won, landing three BP noms in a single year in the era of just five films was impressive. The Star Wars franchise, now ironically a key component of new Fox home Disney’s box office success, has thus far landed only one Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and that was in the 20th Century Fox column for the first one which took seven Oscars overall that year, more than any other movie including eventual Best Picture winner Annie Hall.
Big 20th’s Oscar pictures from the ’80s until now had variety but were notable particularly for the James Cameron box office juggernauts — 1997’s Titanic (tying Ben-Hur and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with 11 wins each), and 2009’s Avatar. Both remain at the top of heap as the two highest-grossing films of all time, proving, at least for Fox, that dollars and Oscars do match sometimes. Ironically, Avatar lost to the lowest-grossing winner ever, The Hurt Locker, directed by Cameron’s ex, Kathryn Bigelow.
It should be noted again that so many of the victories that the Fox lot has had in terms of Academy Awards, certainly in the past quarter century, rests in large part on the creation of its specialty division Fox Searchlight, now run by Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula and sure to provide Disney with more kudos in this area. Since being founded in 1995 it has had an astounding 17 Best Picture Oscar nominations and, as previously noted, four wins. It started in 1997 with The Full Monty (a co-production with big Fox), and has gone all way in the pre-Disney era to 2018’s The Favourite which nabbed a co-leading 10 nominations and won Best Actress for Olivia Colman. The journey for the mother studio has been just as impressive since that first taste of Best Picture love 82 years ago for In Old Chicago, right up to this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which cashed in four of its five nominations to lead Oscar totals with four wins including Best Actor for Rami Malek. It lost only Best Picture and ended the pre-Disney Oscar legacy on a high note for Fox.
Of course there have been many acting wins for the studio before Malek, and the list is a long one. Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette was the first for Fox in the 1943 Best Actress race. It wouldn’t be until 1956, however, when the studio won a Best Actor Oscar, for Yul Brynner in The King and I, the same year Ingrid Bergman was welcomed back into Hollywood’s good graces after a personal scandal derailed her career, winning for Best Actress in Fox’s Anastasia. That year, by the way, was the only one in which Fox took both top acting awards — until this year when Malek and Colman won. Over the years, 20th/Searchlight’s Best Actor and Actress winners included Joanne Woodward, Maggie Smith, George C. Scott, Gene Hackman, Art Carney, Sally Field, Hilary Swank, Reese Witherspoon, Forest Whitaker, Jeff Bridges, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Frances McDormand.
There’s one more shining legacy for the late, great 20th Century Fox as a stand-alone studio. Its famous leader Darryl F. Zanuck holds the distinction of being the only person ever to win the Academy’s coveted Irving Thalberg Memorial Award not once, not twice, but three times — in 1937, 1944 and 1950 — an accomplishment you can bet will never be duplicated. Added to that, his son, Richard D. Zanuck, who also headed the studio for a time, won it in 1990.
As Fox becomes immersed in all things Disney, it is important to remember what an Oscar-worthy ride it has all been since 1935. For Disney, maybe it will change their luck at the Academy Awards; it remains the only major studio not to have won Best Picture on its own. Disney’s only claim to Best Picture glory was their relatively brief time owning Miramax when Harvey Weinstein delivered them The English Patient (ironically one time set up at Fox), Shakespeare In Love and Chicago victories. On its own, the closest Disney ever came was in 1964 for Mary Poppins which got 13 nominations and five wins but lost Best Picture to My Fair Lady.
Disney made history this year with a Best Picture nod for Marvel’s Black Panther, the first ever for a comic book superhero film, but despite winning three Oscars it lost the big race to Universal’s Green Book. To quote Fox’s Oscar-winning song from Norma Rae: “It Goes Like It Goes.”
Here is a complete list of all of the studio’s Best Picture nominees (winners in bold):