This year, Cynthia Erivo has been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award® for her stirring performance in Kasi Lemmons’ historical drama Harriet. Bringing to the big screen for the first time the achievement of Harriet Tubman, the heroic 19th century freedom fighter, was an enormous task for Erivo, and one that she handled with exceptional grace and distinction. “The truth of Tubman’s life,” notes The Los Angeles Times, “continues to astonish, as does the performance of the woman who brings her to life.”
Every year, men and women give equally astonishing performances in roles that get recognized by nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Award®. A select few even take home the golden statuette. With Cynthia Erivo now up for Hollywood’s greatest honor, we look back at other actresses and actors whom the Oscars® have celebrated. Over the years, eighteen different people have received Best Actor or Actress nominations in Focus films, with five winning. Here are just a few of the honorees.
Gary Oldman | Darkest Hour and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Rolling Stone starts their review of Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour with the observation, “Gary Oldman is one of the greatest actors on the planet—and he proves it again as Winston Churchill.” The question for many during award season that year was not whether Oldman would win an Academy Award® for Best Actor, but why it hadn’t happened before. Oldman had made a career delivering exceptional performances, bringing to life well-known figures from Joe Orton to Jim Gordon. But his only previous recognition by the Academy Awards® was in 2012 when he was nominated for Best Actor for playing George Smiley, the stony-faced intelligence agent in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s spy classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Playing Smiley as “someone you underestimate at your peril…Oldman’s quietly commanding performance fully understands the power inherent in restraint,” praised The Los Angeles Times.
Ruth Negga | Loving
In Loving, Jeff Nichols provides an intimate look at the couple, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving, whose unwavering belief in the dignity of their marriage changed American history. Arrested in 1958 for breaking Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, the two were forced to leave the state. But Mildred, who yearned to raise her children where she grew up, fought back, agreeing to let her case go to the Supreme Court to challenge, and finally overturn, states’ ability to prohibit interracial marriage. For many, Negga’s performance was at the heart of the story. “Just as she holds the family together, so Negga possesses the film, and you can’t stop looking at her eyes,” exclaimed The New Yorker. While Negga did not eventually win the Best Actress Academy Award® for which she was nominated, it was clear to everyone who saw her performance how much she had won our hearts.
Felicity Jones | The Theory of Everything
In 2016, both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were up for Academy Awards® for their performances in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything. The inspiring true story that dramatized the story of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Jones) was a cinematic tour de force that revealed just how strong the force of love is in the universe. While Redmayne won Best Actor that year, there was no doubt how essential and moving Jones’ performance was as well. “Jones proves that behind this Great Man movie is a woman—an actress—who’s every bit her man’s equal,” explained Time Magazine.
Matthew McConaughey | Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodroof, the part-time cowboy electrician who became a full-time AIDS activist in Jean-Marc Vallée’s real-life tale Dallas Buyers Club proved a revelation. “His performance here is breathtaking,” noted USA Today, marking Dallas Buyers Club as the film that proved how McConaughey had “evolved from a handsome lightweight to one of the most talented, risk-taking actors in Hollywood.” At the 2014 Academy Awards®, McConaughey's hard work paid off when he was presented the Best Actor prize. All the better, his achievement was shared by his co-star Jared Leto, who won Best Supporting Actor.
Kate Winslet | Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
At the 2005 Academy Awards, Kate Winslet was up for Best Actress for her mesmerizing role as Clementine Kruczynski in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Winslet transformed the role of Jim Carrey’s impulsive love interest, the woman he can never quite forget, no matter how much he tries, into an utterly original creation. Having already been nominated for an Academy Award® three times before, Winslet had clearly proven her talent. With this role, she showed off her remarkable range. As Clementine, Rolling Stone notes, “Winslet, one of the best actresses anywhere, is electrifying and bruisingly vulnerable.” While Winslet did not win, she later told Entertainment Weekly that the role “is one I’d love to play again because it was just so much fun.”
Julianne Moore | Far From Heaven
In 2002, Julianne Moore demonstrated a new depth in Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ lush homage to filmmaker Douglas Sirk. As Cathy Whitaker, a woman striving to maintain the image of domestic bliss in Hartford, Connecticut, during the fifties, Moore excels in a sort of dramatic high-wire act. Playing the stock figure of the repressed housewife typical of fifites melodrama, Moore brings Haynes’ sophisticated cinematic vision to the screen. At the same time, she imbues her character with such soulfulness that her Cathy feels utterly real and contemporary. As Newsweek noted, “Moore's stunning, subtle performance as a woman trapped in the conventions of her time encapsulates the film's brave, double-edged beauty.” While Moore did not win, she showed just how remarkable of an actress she was—and continues to be.