The Academy is rather elitist when it comes to rewarding actors, but every once in a while, when given a passable enough excuse, it embraces someone who is known less for his or her body of film work than his or her popular appeal.
Often, these people are multi-hyphenates — people whose identity was forged in the popular imagination through some field other than moives, such as music (Bing Crosby), comedy (Robin Williams), or even war (Harold Russell). Sometimes, though, they’re just actors who have been working for years in the sorts of movies (often commercially popular) that the Academy doesn’t typically recognize (not coincidentally, musicals, comedies, and war films).
Regardless, when these sorts of people (the domestic variety are often called “America’s sweethearts”) have ventured even slightly into Oscar’s territory (dramas, period pieces, message films) over the 81 years that Oscars have been dished out, the Academy tends to notice and seize the opportunity to invite them into the club with impunity. This is precisely why Sandra Bullock — a longtime fan-favorite at the box-office for action-packed thrillers like “Speed” (1994) and romantic-comedies like “The Proposal” (2009) — has a lot of reason to be hopeful this year, even if she is going head-to-head with the mighty Meryl Streep.
“The Blind Side” is unlike any film Bullock has made since she became a star: it’s dramatic, inspirational, and a social conscience film with “important” messages to promote (be kind, be tolerant, stand up for what you believe in, etc.) — the Academy loves that kind of stuff! Moreover, Leigh Anne Tuohy is unlike any character Bullock has played since she became a star: a real person who couldn’t be more different from Bullock herself.
To play the part, Bullock transforms herself — her hair, her accent, her attitude — without compromising her screen persona that people have come to love. She may not look the same, but you know it’s still her under there, and you’re still rooting for her like you always do. That’s the trick. Julia Roberts did it a decade ago in “Erin Brokovich” (2000) and was rewarded with an Oscar over Ellen Burstyn, a revered actress with a lot of Oscar nominations and a best actress Oscar on her shelf like Streep. Now, unfortunately for Streep, it may be Bullock’s turn.
Following is a list that I have compiled of actors and actresses whose primary focus was/is something other than Oscar-fare but who were honored with an Oscar upon appearing in a film that could pass as it, probably as much out of affection for them personally as for their performance…
- Bing Crosby (“Going My Way,” 1944) — (first nomination)
- John Wayne (“True Grit,” 1969) — (third nomination)
- Joan Crawford (“Mildred Pierce,” 1945) — (first nomination)
- Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl,” 1968) — (first nomination)
- Liza Minnelli (“Cabaret,” 1972) for best actress — (second nomination)
- Cher (“Moonstruck,” 1987) for best actress — (second nomination)
- Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love,” 1998) — (first — and only — nomination)
- Julia Roberts (“Erin Brokovich,” 2000) — (third nomination)
- Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line,” 2005) — (first — and only — nomination)
Best supporting actor
- Harold Russell (“The Best Years of Our Lives,” 1946) — (first — and only — nomination)
- Frank Sinatra (“From Here to Eternity,” 1953) — (first nomination)
- George Burns (“The Sunshine Boys,” 1975) — (first — and only — nomination)
- Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting,” 1997) — (fourth nomination)
Best supporting actress
- Donna Reed (“From Here to Eternity,” 1953) — (first — and only — nomination)
- Goldie Hawn (“Cactus Flower,” 1969) — (first nomination)
- Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls,” 2006) — (first — and only — nomination)
NOTE: The glaring omission is Judy Garland, perhaps the ultimate “American sweetheart,” who — after a lifetime in the movies, and primarily in musicals — took on the lead role in the very Oscar-y drama “A Star Is Born” (1954), was nominated for best actress, but inexplicably lost. Well, maybe not so inexplicably — the person who vanquished her was another “American sweetheart,” Grace Kelly. Interestingly, she, too, was probably honored less for her specific performance in “The Country Girl” than for her body of work that year, which also included “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window.”
Photo: Sandra Bullock in her “other” 2009 film, “The Proposal.” Credit: Disney.