A brief history of the “legacy Oscar” and its winners

The big headline from last night’s Academy Awards would have to trumpet the sweeping success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, which rode a groundswell of support to a whopping seven statuettes for the unlikely indie production. So great was the tide of favour that it lifted all related boats, including that of Jamie Lee Curtis, who picked up Best Supporting Actress for her role as demonically possessed tax auditor Deirdre Beaubeirdre.

Even before her speech enumerating the various people who have vicariously “won an Oscar” through her victory, Curtis seemed an odd pick for the category, honoured for a less-than-meaty tertiary role that commanded little of the praise heaped upon the film. But her win makes slightly more sense as a career-long salute to a beloved actress who doesn’t often appear in the type of film up for awards-season glory, her work more rooted in the genre movies like Halloween that first made her a star.

There’s a long and storied history of Academy Awards going to the wrong performance by the right performer, due in part to voters taking a broader view of their recognition as a cumulative distinction. Whether making right a past injustice or using one year’s nomination as an informal career-long acknowledgement, the Academy doesn’t get bogged down in the particulars as they rechristen an actor worthy on the whole into an Oscar winner.

The so-called “makeup Oscar,” an award bestowed as an unspoken mea culpa for a past tour de force that didn’t make its way to the podium, dates back nearly to the inception of the Academy Awards themselves. Bette Davis caused a stir in 1934, when her widely adored yet officially ignored turn in Of Human Bondage compelled the Academy to allow write-in votes just to avoid a riot; she got the nomination but not the award, picking up the Best Actress prize next year for Dangerous.

Davis resented that what she considered a lesser film would be next to her name in the record books, doubly so in a year that saw Katharine Hepburn give a superior showing in the romance Alice Adams. Davis said: “This nagged at me. It was true that even if the honour had been earned, it had been earned last year. There was no doubt that Hepburn’s performance deserved the award. These mistakes compound each other like the original lie that breeds like a bunny. Now she should get it next year when someone else may deserve it.”

The “makeup Oscar” (not to be confused with the Oscar they give for makeup) soon became a bashful tradition, repeated a few years later when Jimmy Stewart was passed over for people’s pick Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, then awarded for The Philadelphia Story. There’s an argument to be made that Leonardo DiCaprio did the same not so long ago, his citation for The Revenant in 2016 a correction to his snub two years prior, when his era-defining take on Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street lost out to Matthew McConaughey‘s more by-the-book, Oscar-friendly work in the AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club.

The case of DiCaprio in particular speaks to the separate yet related phenomenon of the legacy Oscar, in which an award implicitly doubles as a lifetime achievement prize for a richer body of work without the gold to match. Curtis falls into this category, as would her main competition Angela Bassett, her potential win for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever a tacit salute to decades of indelible acting in films farther from the Academy radar.

Scanning the recent slates of winners, the legacy Oscar appears more and more frequently; even the most dedicated Jessica Chastain fans (also known as “Chastainiacs”) would have a hard time calling The Eyes of Tammy Faye her finest hour, but she’d accrued a reputation as an altogether deserving thespian by that point in her career, and that was enough. Same goes for Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, and Julianne Moore for Still Alice.

And so one starts to see where conventional Academy wisdom like “it’s their time,’ or, “an actor always wins for their worst performance,” comes from. In a paltry category without an odds-on favourite, voters default to the option with the clearest air of prestige, a respectable choice in general rather than in specific. In other words: just keep punching that clock, Amy Adams. Your time will come, right when you least expect it.

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