The Academy and Public Opinion: Will Leo Finally Win an Oscar?

With the Oscars ceremony just two days away, it is nearly impossible to escape the media buzz around the potential winners.  Many commentators believe that the Oscar for the best actor in a leading role should go to Leonardo DiCaprio.  Analysis of data from the Academy’s database shows that, even for the superstars, nothing is written in stone.  A little bit of background reading, aided by New York Times Article API, revealed a history of intricate balancing between the Academy, the studios, and the public.

Why should Leo DiCaprio receive an Oscar?  There are several reasons offered for this.  One, he has been nominated four times and, supposedly, the Academy is influenced by such factors.  Two, his current film, The Revenant, is popular with the critics and the public.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences maintains a database with all nominations and awards.  Its output is a text file, which can be parsed using simple software tools (R or Python).  Let’s look at some tabulations.  The results are humbling:

In the history of the Academy awards, 22 actors have been in the same position and ended up without an award for acting. Among the notable cases, Richard Burton (of the Cleopatra fame) went on to receive seven nominations. Peter O’Toole received eight. Among the living actors, Glenn Close received 6, Amy Adams – 5, and Annette Benning – 4. If we go down the list, the number of actors continues to grow. Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Edward Norton, and Bradley Cooper were all nominated 3 times, but have never won an award for acting. Sigourney Weaver was nominated in two categories in one year (as a best and a supporting actress in 1988) but was passed over in both.


Among those who ultimately received their Oscar, Al Pacino offers a humbling story. He was nominated six times (in 1972, 73, 74, 75, 79, and 1990) before finally receiving his award in 1992. Kate Winslet left the ceremonies empty handed five times before she was recognized. Both were extremely popular in the public eye, but this seemed to have no affect on the Academy’s decision.  The chart below shows the histogram of the number of actors and nominations.  The counts are for the first award only.


(As a caveat, these results are only for the awards for acting; quite a few actors were recognized for their writing, or directing first.  Matt Damon was nominated for the acting Oscar three times but his only Oscar is from the screenplay for Good Will Hunting.)

What about the second reason — that The Revenant is a popular film? If we forget about the Academy for a minute, this kind of argument is present everywhere in our life: are courts, politicians, or administrators in tune with the public opinion?  Do they follow our cues or not?  How much impact do we really have?

Walt Hickey of the data blog in his predictions of the 2015 Oscars (Does Leonardo DiCaprio deserve an Oscar? An interrogation) uses a film’s popularity score on Rotten Tomatoes as a predictor of which film (and actor) should have received an Oscar.  The normative implication of this approach is that the Academy must heed the public opinion and the voices of various guilds of movie critics.

The history, at least as it is reflected in the headlines of the New York Times articles going all the way back to 1930s, suggests a different interpretation.  From its very beginning, the Academy has been set up as a very exclusive club.  In order to be accepted, an applicant must be vouched for by two current members.  Members are organized into branches, based on their area of specialization.  Except for Best Film and Best Animated Film, which the entire Academy votes on, decisions are made within those branches. On the one hand, this guarantees that the assessments are made by experts; on the other – this makes the process extremely insular. Until recently, membership was life-long.  Due to recent criticism, in January 2016 the Academy announced that members will need to prove their eligibility every ten years (after they do so three times, their membership becomes life-long).   Currently, members of the academy are 94% white, 77% male, and 88% over the age of 50, which can give us some insight into the seeming lack of evolution of diversity in the kinds of decisions that are made.  If we consider this along with the feeling that the members are besieged by advertisement from studios, popularity ratings could easily start to be viewed with suspicion.

This brings us back to the original question: even if the public thinks that The Revenant is a truly great film and that Leo DiCaprio should receive an Oscar for it, we may be surprised, even taken aback, by the Academy’s decisions.