This Hath Oscar Buzz: Shakespeare and the Academy Awards Part I

Two of my cinematic catnips are Shakespeare adaptations and the Academy Awards. I’ve written about both subjects, including here on The Curb—the former in this piece on Shakespeare adaptations of the late 2010s, the latter in this piece on Chariots of Fire (1981)—but until recently had never considered the parallel histories of Shakespeare on film and the Oscars. Both institutions have pervaded the history of cinema: Shakespeare adaptations have been around since the silent era, and contributed in part to legitimising the film industry, as did the subsequent creation of the Academy Awards. Moreover, one Shakespeare film—Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet—and two Shakespeare-related films—West Side Story (OG) and Shakespeare in Love—have won Best Picture Oscars. Despite this, and despite the stereotypical signifiers of “Oscar bait” seemingly aligning with the prestige signifiers of Shakespeare on screen, collectively very few Shakespeare films have been awarded or nominated for Oscars, be it in major, performing, or craft categories.  

This is the first of two articles on this subject. Here, I sketch the parallel histories of Shakespeare on screen and the Oscars and where these histories intersect, providing a snapshot of all Shakespeare films that received Oscars and/or nominations—from 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—and highlighting some of the factors behind their recognition, i.e. their Oscar-baiting aesthetics. The second article will dig deeper into some of the Shakespeare films nominated and/or snubbed by the Academy, shining a light on the myriad historical and industrial factors beyond purported quality that impact a film’s Oscar “buzz” and awards season trajectory, factors that even Shakespeare adaptations, despite their built-in pedigree, are beholden to.

Shakespeare on Film

As noted above, Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted to film since the silent era. Among the very first actors to perform Shakespeare on film were Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sarah Bernhardt, playing the title roles in 1899’s King John and 1900’s Hamlet respectively. An estimated 400 silent Shakespeare films were produced, and according to Russell Jackson “conferred respectability on their makers and distributors”. Lisa S. Starks echoes this sentiment, suggesting that “To be taken seriously as art, motion pictures needed to be associated with the stage. Shakespeare thus became the primary vehicle through which film could legitimate itself”.

With the arrival of sound pictures, Shakespeare became less important, but remained a constant presence in movies, offering public domain source material of substance to filmmakers and meaty and challenging roles for actors. Most notable among Shakespeare’s adapters, actor-directors Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles extended the actor-manager tradition of the theatre into the cinema mid-twentieth century, Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh further popularised Shakespeare for mass audiences in the later twentieth century, and Welles and Akira Kurosawa imposed their auteur signatures upon Shakespeare. The 1990s saw a commercial renaissance in Shakespeare on film, with myriad offshoots including teen films adapting The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You), Othello (O), and Twelfth Night (She’s the Man) and Lloyd Kaufman’s schlocky Tromeo and Juliet, heralded for showcasing “Body piercing, kinky sex, dismemberment: The things that make Shakespeare great”. Recent years have produced Ophelia, a feminist reimagining of Hamlet; The King, Netflix’s adaptation of the Henriad; All is True, directed by and starring Branagh as the Bard in his retirement years; and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth starring Denzel Washington. At the time of writing, IMDb lists 1793 projects derived from Shakespeare. This figure is imperfect as a measure of the exact number of feature films originating from Shakespeare’s work: it omits silent films that no longer survive, as well as features on which Shakespeare is uncredited, such as the 1948 Western Yellow Sky, based on The Tempest. It also includes television adaptations, short films, and other filmed media. Nonetheless, it points to the sizeable volume of film adaptations of Shakespeare.

The Academy Awards

Like adaptations of Shakespeare, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was another means to legitimate film as an industry and art form. Founded in 1927 to manage, among other things, labor disputes, censorship, and the repute of Hollywood, this institution also sought, as noted by Osborne, to “encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of the profession … by awards of merit for distinctive achievement”. The first Academy Awards followed in 1929, awarding the cream of 1927–28 productions, with Wings the inaugural Best Picture winner (then Outstanding Picture), Sunrise receiving the first and last Unique and Artistic Picture award, and special awards to The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, and Charlie Chaplin as multi-hyphenate star, writer, director, and producer of The Circus.

If Hollywood is, as suggested by commentator provocateur Camille Paglia, “America’s greatest modern contribution to world culture … a business, a religion, an art form, and a state of mind”, then the Oscars are a means for Hollywood to applaud this accomplishment, for peers to bestow recognition upon peers, and for the industry to promote and fashion itself as an art form. The Academy remains a wholly industry-based voting body, unlike the similarly televised, more disreputable Golden Globes or non-televised critics, audience, festival, or guild-based awards. However, the Oscar competition is far from a meritocracy or level playing field: studios strategically release films in the months leading up to Oscar season to create topical bias (see this piece by David Poland looking to 2024), mount expensive campaigns for their productions, and are supported and/or thwarted in their endeavours by a satellite industry of Oscar attaché, including journalists, commentators, bloggers, prognosticators, and podcasters. Much of this accompanying discourse focuses on the circus of the Oscars—the celebrities, the fashion, the scandals, and the bloopers—drowning out the films themselves. To illustrate, I struggle to recall the last two Best Picture winners—for the record, Coda and Everything Everywhere All at Once—but recall with ease the furore surrounding Will Smith slapping Chris Rock and Andrea Riseborough’s controversial nomination from those same years. I remember Moonlight winning Best Picture of 2016, largely because co-presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway erroneously read the wrong title.

What types of films does the Academy bestow its highest honours upon? Emanuel Levy suggests that context is more important than quality, noting “historical and political factors have always influenced the types of films and performances winning the Oscars. In other words, the social context, zeitgeist, and message are far more influential than the artistic quality in determining the winners”. A scene from True Romance is less delicate in addressing this question. Movie fan Clarence Whorley (Christian Slater) praises producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) for his Oscar-winning war film Coming Home in a Body Bag and, in the process, bags other Oscar-winning films: “You know, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand them. They’re all safe, geriatric coffee-table dogshit … Mad Max, that’s a movie! The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that’s a movie! Rio Bravo, that’s a movie!” Clarence’s monologue perpetuates the cliché of Oscar-winning and/or nominated films as middlebrow, politically correct fare. These declarations were not entirely true at the time: the most recent Best Picture winners were The Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven, with tough war movie Platoon winning seven years prior. True Romance writer Quentin Tarantino would himself win Best Original Screenplay the following year for Pulp Fiction, and later for Django Unchained. A Mad Max sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, would earn six Oscars over two decades later, while the sequel to True Romance director Tony Scott’s own Top Gun, Top Gun: Maverick, was nominated in six categories. The expansion of the Best Picture category to up to 10 nominees in the 2010s, along with recent initiatives to increase gender, racial, and cultural diversity among Academy members and nominees, have further increased the breadth of consideration and representation.

However, the cliché of “Oscar bait” is far from fallacious, and continues to be reinforced by films nominated for & snaring Oscars and by commentators. At the more distinguished end, Mark Harris’s very fine book Pictures at a Revolution examines the five films competing for Best Picture of 1967, contrasting four ground-breaking titles—The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—with the elephantine failure Doctor Doolittle. At the less distinguished end are the annual listicles accompanying Oscar season rehashing the biggest Oscar “mistakes”. To illustrate, in recent listicles published on Screen Crush, The AV Club, and The Independent, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Out of Africa, Crash, and Green Brook appear across all three lists, with Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, Marty, Gigi, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, and American Beauty appearing twice. Many of these titles are, broadly speaking, “Oscar bait”—large-scale historical epics and/or intimate liberal humanist dramas—with their victories often at the expense of films deemed worthier, whether nominated or not, e.g. Dances with Wolves’ victory over Scorsese classic Goodfellas, or Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book’s victories over major works by Spike Lee. Setting aside my own longstanding affection for several of these titles—Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, Out of Africa—I’m perhaps most offended by the laziness, predictability, and groupthink around these so-called Oscar “fails”. I haven’t undertaken the experiment, but I wager typing the prompt “What are the worst films to win Oscars?” into ChatGPT would produce a similarly banal and un-insightful list.

Shakespeare at the Oscars

If Shakespeare’s import to cinema receded with the introduction of sound and later colour—new novelties expanding the possibilities and strengthening the permanence of the medium—and the concurrent establishment of the Academy Awards, adaptations of Shakespeare were nonetheless recognised by the Academy within its first decade of existence, and would continue to be nominated in subsequent decades. With their (typically) historical settings and literary pedigrees, Shakespeare films are, ostensibly, ripe for Oscar recognition.  

The table below lists all Shakespeare adaptations that have received Oscar nominations and/or wins, along with the Shakespeare-focused films Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous. For comprehensiveness, I’ve included Kiss Me Kate, which adapts The Taming of the Shrew; Forbidden Planet, adapting The Tempest; Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Verdi’s opera Otello; and both versions of West Side Story (1961 and 2021) and The Lion King (1994 and 2019), the former derived from Romeo and Juliet, the latter for its loose parallels to Hamlet. The table presents the year of cinema being commemorated—the Oscar ceremony itself typically falls two to three months into the following year—and details of the Shakespeare-related winners and nominees. Data up until 2013 was drawn from Osborne, and beyond that from IMDb.

Three caveats for the nit-pickers: (1) I haven’t included the many Oscar-nominated and/or winning films alluding to Shakespeare within their stories, such as A Double Life featuring Ronald Colman’s Oscar-winning performance as an actor playing Othello onstage who experiences his own murderous jealousy offstage; The Goodbye Girl featuring Richard Dreyfuss’s Oscar-winning performance as an actor starring as Richard III; or Dead Poets Society, an Oscar winner for Best Screenplay in which a student headlines a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to his dictatorial father’s chagrin. (2) The titles of some categories have changed over time, e.g. Outstanding Production in the early years of the Oscars later evolved into Best Motion Picture and eventually Best Picture; I’ve used “Best Picture” throughout for consistency. (3) Olivier’s Henry V was released in the United Kingdom in 1944, but was not screened in the US until 1946. Without further much ado…

1935A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Dieterle & Max Reinhardt)Cinematography (won)
Editing (won)
Picture (nom)
1936Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor)Picture (nom)
Actress – Norma Shearer (nom)
Supporting Actor – Basil Rathbone (nom)
Art Direction (nom)
1946Henry V (Laurence Olivier)Honorary Award – Laurence Olivier
Picture (nom)
Actor – Laurence Olivier (nom)
Art direction – Interior Decoration, Colour (nom)
Score – Drama or Comedy (nom)
1948Hamlet (Laurence Olivier)Picture (won)
Actor – Laurence Olivier (won)
Art Direction – Set Decoration, Black & White (won)
Costume Design (won)
Supporting Actress – Jean Simmons (nom)
Director – Laurence Olivier (nom)
Score – Drama or Comedy (nom)
1953  Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)Art Direction – Set Decoration, Black & White (won)
Picture (nom)
Actor – Marlon Brando (nom)
Cinematography – Black & White (nom)
Score – Drama or Comedy (nom)
Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney)Score – Musical (nom)
1956Richard III (Laurence Olivier)Actor – Laurence Olivier (nom)
Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox)Special Effects (nom)
1961West Side Story (Robert Wise)Picture (won)
Director – Robert Wise (won)
Supporting Actor – George Chakiris (won)
Supporting Actress – Rita Moreno (won)
Cinematography – Colour (won)
Art Direction – Set Decoration, Colour (won)
Costume Design – Colour (won)
Sound (won)
Editing (won)
Score – Musical (won)
Adapted Screenplay (nom)
1965Othello (Stuart Burge)Actor – Laurence Olivier (nom)
Supporting Actor – Frank Finlay (nom)
Supporting Actress x 2 – Maggie Smith, Joyce Redman (noms)
1967Taming of the Shrew (Franco Zeffirelli)Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)
Costume Design (nom)
1968Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli)Cinematography (won)
Costume Design (won)
Picture (nom)
Director – Franco Zeffirelli (nom)
1985Ran (Akira Kurosawa)Costume Design (won)
Director – Akira Kurosawa (nom)
Cinematography (nom)
Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)
1986Otello (Franco Zeffirelli)Costume Design (nom)
1989Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)Costume Design (won)
Actor – Kenneth Branagh (nom)
Director – Kenneth Branagh (nom)
1990Hamlet (Franco Zeffirelli)Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)
Costume Design (nom)
1994The Lion King (Rob Minkoff)Score (won)
Song – “Can you feel the love tonight?” (won)
Song x 2 – “Hakuna Matata”, “Circle of Life” (noms)
1995Richard III (Richard Loncraine)Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)  
Costume Design (nom)
1996  Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)Adapted Screenplay (nom)
Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)
Costume Design (nom)
Music (nom)
Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann)Art Direction – Set Decoration (nom)
1998Shakespeare in Love (John Madden)Picture (won)
Actress – Gwyneth Paltrow (won)
Supporting Actress  – Judi Dench (won)
Original Screenplay (won)
Art Direction-Set Decoration (won)
Costume Design (won)
Music (won)
Director – John Madden (nom)
Supporting Actor – Geoffrey Rush (nom)
Cinematography (nom)
Sound (nom)
Editing (nom)
Makeup (nom)
1999Titus (Julie Taymor)Costume Design (nom)
2010The Tempest (Julie Taymor)Costume Design (nom)
2011Anonymous (Roland Emmerich)Costume Design (nom)
2019The Lion King (Jon Favreau)Visual Effects (nom)
2021The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen)Actor – Denzel Washington (nom)
Production Design (nom)
Cinematography (nom)
West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)Supporting Actress – Ariana De Bose (won)
Picture (nom)
Director – Steven Spielberg (nom)
Production Design (nom)
Sound (nom)
Costume Design (nom)
Cinematography (nom)

This means something…

Let’s start with the main event. Three Best Picture winners are linked to Shakespeare, but only the first, Olivier’s Hamlet, is a traditional play-to-film adaptation. Olivier was awarded an Honorary Oscar two years earlier, for “his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen”, though Henry V itself lost Best Picture to The Best Years of Our Lives: a wartime morale-stirrer losing to a film wrestling with the war’s aftermath. Hamlet was not only the first Shakespeare-related Best Picture winner, but the first overseas (i.e. non-American) production to win, unlocking this prize for other international (albeit mostly British) winners in the decades to come, most recently Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

Whilst the earlier success of Henry V and pedigree of Shakespeare created favourable conditions for Hamlet’s Oscar victory, West Side Story brought different Oscar-baiting aesthetics. Like Hamlet, its director Robert Wise was a former Oscar nominee, for I Want to Live! (a film worth seeing for its haunting final scene); however, its adaptation of Shakespeare was secondhand, via adapting an innovative Tony Award-winning musical, granting West Side Story not only Shakespearean but musical theatre pedigree. Moreover, its teen rebel progenitors Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause had received nominations in the previous decade, further paving the way for West Side Story. Additionally, five musicals had previously won Best Picture Oscars—Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, Going My Way, An American in Paris, and Gigi—and a further three won this prize over the 1960s—My Fair Lady, Oliver!, and Wise’s own The Sound of Music—indicating voters’ disposition towards this genre.

The third Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love, is neither firsthand nor secondhand adaptation, but similarly uses Romeo and Juliet as an intertext and integrates both it and Shakespeare himself into the screen story. A number of factors created favourable conditions for Shakespeare in Love’s Oscar success, well-probed in an article by Sarah Martindale. First and foremost, the film was propelled by the machinations of the now infamous Miramax, the company which guided the likes of The Crying Game, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Il Postino, The English Patient, and Good Will Hunting to Oscar success in previous years. Shakespeare in Love also fitted a long tradition of films about showbiz itself generating nominations and/or wins, including The Great Ziegfeld, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, Cabaret, Amadeus, and multiple versions of A Star is Born (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018). Finally, I argue Shakespeare in Love was advantaged over other Best Picture nominees by two competing war films—Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line—cancelling each other out, by Italian-language Best Picture nominee Life is Beautiful also competing in—and winning—the Best Foreign Film category, and by another Elizabethan era-set nominee, Elizabeth, being more downbeat.

Curiously, of the three Shakespeare-related Best Picture victors, only Wise won Best Director for West Side Story. Olivier and Madden were nominated for direction (and Olivier won Best Actor), but both lost to quintessentially American auteurs helming quintessentially American stories: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan).

Overall, the 95 nominations listed in the table above yielded 31 Oscar wins, plus Olivier’s honorary Oscar for Henry V. Some stats:

  • Of the 31 competitive wins, the most-awarded titles are OG West Side Story (10) and Shakespeare in Love (7), and the most recent winner is Ariana De Bose for her supporting role in Spielberg’s West Side Story remake. The 13 remaining awards are for, in chronological order, 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2), Olivier’s Hamlet (4), 1953’s Julius Caesar (1), 1968’s Romeo and Juliet (2), 1985’s Ran, Kurosawa’s stunning adaptation of King Lear (1), 1989’s barnstorming Henry V (1), and OG The Lion King (2).
  • The categories that have netted the most awards for Shakespeare-related films are, in descending order, acting (6 Oscars between OG West Side Story [x 2], Shakespeare in Love [x 2], Hamlet, and the West Side story remake), costume design (6 Oscars for Hamlet, OG West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, Ran, Henry V, and Shakespeare in Love), art direction (4 Oscars for Hamlet, Julius Caesar, OG West Side Story, and Shakespeare in Love), Picture (3 Oscars for Hamlet, OG West Side Story, and Shakespeare in Love), cinematography (3 Oscars for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, OG West Side Story, and Romeo and Juliet), and score (3 Oscars for OG West Side Story, The Lion King, and Shakespeare in Love).

The opportunities that Shakespeare’s work presents for large-scale period costuming and décor contribute to the success of the abovementioned titles in the costume design, art direction, and cinematography categories. However, it is notable that the other most-awarded categories—Picture, acting, and scoring—are dominated by works that de-emphasise or eliminate Shakespeare’s original play-text. Indeed, of the 95 nominations, there is only one Adapted Screenplay nomination for a film preserving the entirety of the play, namely Branagh’s Hamlet.

The above breakdown indicates the archetypal possibilities presented by Shakespeare’s work—and accompanying technical and craft opportunities—are more important considerations for the Academy than faithful translation from play to screen. These are not the only considerations. Levy identifies biopics, serious-problem pictures, women’s pictures, message and social problem movies, and historical epics as among the genres most frequently awarded by the Academy. For actors, Levy identifies accents, physical transformations, de-glamorisation, disability, and transvestism as features conducive to Oscar success, as well as favouritism towards past nominees, ingénue breakthroughs, and opportunities to compensate for past omissions and reward career achievements. These trends are reflected in the above list of Shakespeare-related Oscar winners and nominees. Historical epics are represented by traditional adaptations of Hamlet (1948, 1990, 1996), Romeo and Juliet (1936, 1968, 1996), Henry V (1946, 1989), Richard III (1956, 1995), Julius Caesar, and Kurosawa’s Ran. Biopics (very loosely speaking) are represented by Henry V, Richard III, Shakespeare in Love, and Anonymous. There is physical transformation by Olivier in Richard III, ingénue breakthroughs by Branagh in Henry V and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, and career recognition for Judi Dench’s tiny role in Shakespeare in Love. Finally, favouritism in the form of nominations or wins is extended to previous nominees or winners, including Olivier, Wise, Branagh, Spielberg, Dench, Marlon Brando for Julius Caesar, Geoffrey Rush for Shakespeare in Love, and Coen and Washington for The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Given the Academy’s disposition to recognise previous nominees and winners, there are notable absences and omissions. The Shakespeare films of Olivier and Zeffirelli were acknowledged by the Academy, but not Orson Welles’s three Shakespeare adaptations. Only two of Branagh’s five Shakespeare adaptations were nominated for Oscars: his Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It are absent, as is Oliver Parker’s Othello featuring Branagh as Iago and other Shakespeare adaptations of the 1990s enabled by Branagh’s success, notably Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night and Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The fact that blackface versions of Othello and Otello were nominated for Oscars, but not an Othello featuring an actual (and previously Oscar-nominated) black actor in Laurence Fishburne, is likely a thorn in the increasingly diverse Academy’s side. While Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar earned multiple nominations, Oscar-winning actor (and star of Oscar-winning epics) Charlton Heston’s Roman Shakespeare ventures—1970’s Julius Caesar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra, also directed by Heston—did not. Finally, Roman Polanski was nominated for Best Director Oscars for 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby and 1974’s Chinatown, and won three decades later for The Pianist, but his 1971 Macbeth received no Oscar recognition.

In some cases, the reason for omission is simple: the film is not good enough. To illustrate, review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes calculates a 40% critics’ score and 36% audience score (the latter based on 2500+ reviews) for Heston’s Julius Caesar, in contrast to Mankiewicz’s film’s higher critics’ (96%) and audience (81%) scores. In other cases, omissions may be due to awards season survival of the fittest, or other political or practical factors. Orson Welles’ firebrand persona, liberal politics, and reputation as a difficult creative likely impacted consideration of his films, along with the haphazard productions and releases of his post-Citizen Kane work and unfavourable comparisons to Olivier’s films: of the critical reception to Macbeth, Welles grumbled that “Larry Olivier’s big-budgeted Henry V and Hamlet didn’t do us any good … I’d imagined, in my innocence, that allowances would be made for the modest size of our canvas. I should have known better”. Finally, in many cases so-called “snubs” may not be snubs per se—a fallacy implying pre-meditated decisions made in unison by an 8000+ member organisation to specific snub a film or creative—but simply not enough votes for a film to attain a nomination in an eligible category against dozens of competing films, actors, and technicians.

In my next article, I’ll dig into three Shakespeare films nominated and/or snubbed by the Academy, speculating on potential historical and industrial factors influencing their nominations or lack thereof, and provide some closing thoughts on Shakespeare’s place (if any) at the Oscars today. To be continued …  

BD Kooyman

Ben Kooyman lives, works, and writes in Canberra. Most of his collected writings can be found at

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