The road to the Oscars: Analysing 90 years and 1,708 nominees' worth of Academy Awards data

Every year, as the Oscars approaches, there's a lot of talk around the road actors and actresses have taken to get to this point; from the rising stars who've been nominated for their first major role, to the household names who've received multiple nominations over the years but never secured a win. There are plenty of opinions shared about why certain nominees do or don't deserve their place, but very little evidence to back these claims up.

All of which left us thinking: what is the road to the Oscars truly like? What does it take for an actor or actress to gain one of the film industry's highest honours?

To find out, we combined two of our favourite things: films and data. We analysed 90 years' worth of Academy Awards nominations, looking at the following four categories:

  • Actor in a Leading Role
  • Actress in a Leading Role
  • Actor in a Supporting Role
  • Actress in a Supporting Role

With our list of 1,708 nominees ready, we cross referenced each actor and actress with their profile on The Movie Database to see how many films they had featured in prior to gaining their first nomination, and their first award.

Here's what we found.

How many films do you have to star in before receiving an Oscar nomination?

Looking at the data, it takes an average of 19.8 films before an actor or actress receives their first Oscar nomination. Over the awards' 90-year history, 72.6% of actresses have beaten this average, gaining their first nomination in fewer than 19.8 films, with 52.4% of actors doing the same.

On average, men star in 23.7 films prior to their first nomination, while women star in 15.8.

Stand out female stars include the likes of Oprah Winfrey, who was nominated for her first ever acting role in The Colour Purple back in 1985. On the male side are breakout stars like Barkhad Abdi, who received a nomination for his debut in 2013's Captain Phillips.

At the other end of the scale, you've got stars like Christopher Plummer, who featured in 132 films before gaining his first nomination for The Last Station in 2009. However, it was Mary Pickford who had the longest road to travel, starring in 220 films before she received her first nomination for Coquette in 1929.

How many films do you have to star in before winning your first Oscar?

We found that the average number of films an actor or actress stars in before winning their first Oscar is 26.6.

When we filtered our results by gender again, we found that 74.5% of actresses won their first Oscar in less than 26.6 roles, with the female average being 21.2. Looking at actors, we found that 52.1% won their first Oscar in less than the 26.6 film benchmark. However, the overall male average was 32.1 roles.

There are a small handful of stars who've beaten the odds, winning an Oscar for their first ever film role. Haing S. Ngor won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his turn in 1984's The Killing Field, while Anna Paquin was awarded Best Actress in a Supporting Role for 1993's The Piano.

The most recent star to achieve this feat was Jennifer Hudson, who won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in 2006's Dreamgirls.

Here's the full list of all 12 actors and actresses who've made it to this exclusive club:

  • Gale Sondergaard, Actress in a Supporting Role (Anthony Adverse, 1936)
  • Katina Paxinou, Actress in a Supporting Role (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1943)
  • Harold Russell, Actor in a Supporting Role (The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946)
  • Mercedes McCambridge, Actress in a Supporting Role (All the King's Men, 1949)
  • Shirley Booth, Actress in a Leading Role (Come Back, Little Sheba, 1952)
  • Eve Marie Saint, Actress in a Supporting Role (On the Waterfront, 1954)
  • Miyoshi Umeki, Actress in a Supporting Role (Sayonara, 1957)
  • Tatum O'Neal, Actress in a Supporting Role (Paper Moon, 1973)
  • Haing S. Ngor, Actor in a Supporting Role (The Killing Fields, 1984)
  • Marlee Matlin, Actress in a Leading Role (Children of a Lesser God, 1986)
  • Anna Paquin, Actress in a Supporting Role (The Piano, 1993)
  • Jennifer Hudson, Actress in a Supporting Role (Dreamgirls, 2006)

Taking a slightly longer path to victory are household names like Helen Mirren, who finally took home a trophy for her 82nd role in 2006's The Queen and John Wayne, who starred in 157 films before winning Best Actor for 1969's True Grit. Again, it was Mary Pickford who had the longest journey, winning Best Actress for her 220th film, Coquette (which was also her first nomination).

Despite what his legions of loyal fans may believe, Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't had an unusually long road to Oscar glory, receiving his first nomination for his fourth film, 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape. While he may have had to wait 22 years until he took home his award for 2015's The Revenant, this was only his 37th role.

Rising stars: first time nominees and early winners

As we mentioned previously, there are a number of stars who've bucked the trend, achieving Oscar success in a much shorter timeframe than the average actor or actress.

Since the first Academy Awards in 1929, there have been 66 people who have received an Oscar nomination for their first ever role: 44 actresses and 22 actors.

While there's an increasing list of names who are regularly nominated but never seem to win, there have been 185 stars who have won with their very first nomination. The gender divide here is a smaller one, with 96 actresses and 89 actors taking home a trophy on their first try.

This year, 7 of the acting nominees are up for their first Oscar:

Actor in a Leading Role:

  • Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out (12th role)
  • Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name (14th role)

Actress in a Leading Role:

  • Margot Robbie, I, Tonya (16th role)

Actor in a Supporting Role:

  • Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (70th role)

Actress in a Supporting Role:

  • Mary J. Blige, Mudbound (19th role)
  • Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird (32nd role)
  • Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread (47th role)
  • Allison Janney, I, Tonya (67th role)

Click here to download the data.

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Data correct as of February 2018