Oscar Best Actress winner from the year you were born
In the over 90-year history of the Academy Awards, the Best Actress category has illuminated the finest examples of the acting craft, as well as the charge and challenge of nominating just a few women in an industry that offers unequal opportunities.
This year, those inequalities—among other industry indoctrinated problems—will likely make their way to the stage in monologues and speeches as we’ve witnessed in this year’s other awards shows.
In 2018, nominees Sally Hawkins for “The Shape of Water”, the eventual winner Frances McDormand for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, Margot Robbie for “I, Tonya”, Saoirse Ronan for “Lady Bird”, and Meryl Streep for “The Post” made statements about the female experience in the worlds they entered in the films and the world in which they live off-screen. Nominees for the 2020 awards haven’t been released yet, but frontrunners include Renee Zellweger in "Judy," Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story,” Saoirse Ronan from “Little Women,” Charlize Theron in “Bombshell,” and Alfre Woodard’s turn in “Clemency.”
Not coincidentally, the roles for which actresses are nominated are reflective of social movements, deep emotional experiences, remarkable personalities, and occasionally a universal sense of humor.
Before the next woman is added to this prestigious list on Feb. 9, 2020, here’s a look back at all the Best Actress winners since the first Academy Awards ceremony.
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1928: Janet Gaynor
- Movie: "7th Heaven," "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans," and "Street Angel"
Not only was Janet Gaynor the first actress to win this award, she was also the only actress to win a single Oscar for multiple roles. As one of the biggest silent films stars of the time, Gaynor's Best Actress win recognized her work in "7th Heaven," “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” and “Street Angel.” Gaynor was able to successfully transition her career to "talkies," and retired at the height of her success at age 33 to start a family.
1929: Mary Pickford
- Movie: "Coquette"
America’s Sweetheart was a Canadian theater actress who took the silent film industry firmly in hand from the minute she landed in Hollywood. Mary Pickford co-produced “Coquette”—her first talkie—which was distributed through United Artists, a company she founded with other power players Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. Out of the 36 co-founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pickford was the only female.
1930: Norma Shearer
- Movie: "The Divorcee"
Norma Shearer was a spitfire, taking roles that portrayed liberated, outspoken women. Before the censorship rules were enacted in Hollywood—the Pre-Code era—she explored sexual agency and messy relationships in “The Divorcee.” For her film work, and her examples off-screen, Shearer is considered an early feminist.
1931: Marie Dressler
- Movie: "Min and Bill"
Marie Dressler was a comedian and improviser who starred in the first-ever comedy film. Her career took a downturn in the 1920s, but she stayed active in theater until her career got a second wind. At the age of 63, she earned the gold statuette for the comedy-drama “Min and Bill.”
1932: Helen Hayes
- Movie: "The Sin of Madelon Claudet"
“The first lady of American theater” and EGOT achiever—a term coined for people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award—Helen Hayes made her sound film debut as the title character in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet.” It was was a melodramatic role; Madelon was a prisoner, prostitute, and single mom. Hayes spent more time back on the stage after leaving this substantive mark on film.
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1933: Katharine Hepburn
- Movie: "Morning Glory"
For her first of four Oscar wins, Katharine Hepburn plays an actress whose self-confidence is tested at every turn. Showing early signs of the style and assuredness that would anchor her legacy, Hepburn brought her stagecraft to the screen for this dramatic, true-to-life role. The part was initially meant for another actress but Hepburn lobbied and won it for herself.
1934: Claudette Colbert
- Movie: "It Happened One Night"
One of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses, Claudette Colbert was also one of its best paid. She negotiated her own high fee for “It Happened One Night” and assured that filming would be completed in time for her scheduled vacation. The movie dominated the Academy Awards in 1935 with five wins and is preserved in the National Film Registry.
1935: Bette Davis
- Movie: "Dangerous"
Roles for actresses playing actresses were the norm in Pre-Code films, and Bette Davis played one of the most damaged and redeemed in “Dangerous.” Her willingness to spend time in grit before the glamorous final act reflected in the daringness she showed throughout her celebrated career.
1936: Luise Rainer
- Movie: "The Great Ziegfeld"
“The Great Ziegfeld” was a glitter-costumed, highly soundtracked extravaganza. Though by today’s standards her role would have been considered for the Supporting Actress category, Luise Rainer’s heartfelt performance in just one standout dramatic scene won her the statuette. Exceeding everyone’s expectations turned out to be her thing.
1937: Luise Rainer
- Movie: "The Good Earth"
Luise Rainer returned to the winners’ podium for a second consecutive year for playing a Chinese servant in “The Good Earth.”
Discriminatory film code at the time opened up the role for Rainer, as race mixing prevented casting a Chinese actress to play opposite Paul Muni, the white actor cast as the husband.
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