Awards analysis is provided by Sean from @MathTeacherMovies.
There’s no greater icon than Katharine Hepburn. She holds the record for the most Oscar wins for performances and has held that lead throughout much of Hollywood history. Winning four Oscars in this day and age seems quite impossible, but today I wanted to introduce you to a few actors who have the best chances of breaking Hepburn’s record.
The main difficulty in winning four performance Oscars is not just giving a knock-out performance, but avoiding the narrative of “don’t give it to him/her again” if an actor had recently won an Oscar for a performance. Hepburn either was so good that she surpassed this narrative, or that narrative didn’t exist at the time. It’s probably a bit of both.
So who is the closest to catching Hepburn? There are a few candidates who are older, legendary actors who have amassed awards over decades-long careers as well as a few newcomers yet are not strangers to holding an Oscar on stage.
Jack Nicholson’s third Oscar should have been for A Few Good Men in 1993, but he eventually gets it years later in As Good As It Gets in 1997. Nicholson came very close to his fourth Oscar win in 2001 with About Schmidt. Does Nicholson have a chance of tying or breaking Hepburn’s record? Probably not. He is essentially in retirement and while he has come out of that before, he doesn’t seem charged enough to get back out there at this time.
Daniel Day Lewis is another actor who is in retirement with three Oscars but had a much different journey. He wowed the audiences in My Left Foot in 1989 and then didn’t win his second until There Will Be Blood in 2007. Stunning cinephiles, Day-Lewis received his third win the very next time he was nominated for Lincoln. While Day-Lewis has the momentum to reach this goal, his current retirement puts him at a standstill.
The most obvious choice for who will catch Katharine is Meryl Streep. Her first and second Oscars came quickly in the seventies and eighties for Kramer vs Kramer in 1979 and Sophie’s Choice in 1982 but then it took quite a while for her to get her third Oscar and it was given for the very misguided performance of The Iron Lady in 2011. Notably, Streep has the most nominations of any actor (and most of them were quite deserved). While this raises her chances of grabbing a fourth Oscars, public opinion feels she gets too much praise, making the likelihood of a fourth Oscar unclear.
Having just won her third Oscar, Frances McDormand is the most likely candidate to win her fourth Oscar. She won her first for Fargo back in the nineties for Fargo in 1996 and won the next two in the past three years for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri in 2017 and Nomadland this year. McDormand is only gaining momentum: she has two upcoming projects, The French Dispatch and The Tragedy of Macbeth, which have the potential for great performances, especially with the latter being directed by Joel Coen. McDormand also has the love and respect of Hollywood, but she also rebels against the typical Hollywood norms much like Hepburn. The two rebellions are a bit different. McDormand howled during her speech and Hepburn wore pants and yet still they defied convention. Typically, it would be very unlikely for an actor to win another Oscar in such quick succession, but if anyone could do it, it’s Frances.
There are some actors with only two Oscars but have gone through a journey trying to get that third Oscar. Tom Hanks accomplished the rare achievement of back to back Oscars in 1992 and 1993 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. After this, he achieved movie star status, but was not able to grab that third Oscar which was most likely because of his recent past successes. Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away were both tough losses. Hanks wasn’t nominated again until 2019 for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Still, he continues to give performances that are powerful and impactful, giving him a solid chance of winning more awards.
Another absolute movie star with two Oscars is Denzel Washington. He won his first Oscar right out of the gate and was immediately saddled with a ton of talent for his performance in Glory. About a decade later, he won his second Oscar for Training Day. Since then, he has achieved the delicate balance of auteur and movie star all the way up to 2016’s Fences. Washington was probably mere votes away from winning his third Oscar for that role.
This exercise has been a rather silly endeavour. Who but me cares if an actor gets more than four performance Oscars? Whether or not a movie star can provide the work that receives recognition through multiple awards is an interesting topic. It’s always great to honor the greatest performance but it’s also important to remember sometimes the greatest work comes from the most famous person. Hepburn deserves the record of four performance Oscars, but it will be fun to watch the chase to eclipse her.