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15 Best Oscars Lineups of All Time

Looking back at the Academy Awards’ most rock-solid ‘Murderers’ Row’ nominee rosters

Best Oscars Line-up

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Arguing about the Academy Awards is as much an American passion as watching the movies they honor, and there’s not a single film fanatic out there that won’t argue about why X should not have won over Y, or moan over how their personal pick for the year’s real Best Picture (or Actor, or Actress, or … ) of the year wasn’t even able to score a nomination. We still get into knock-down, drag-out fights over Dances With Wolves winning over GoodFellas back in 1991. For real.

But some years, Oscar gets it very, very right. We’ve gone through nine decades of history and selected the finest “Murderers’ Row” lineups of nominees for each of the six major categories — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. Consider this the Oscar for Best Oscars.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

GONE WITH THE WIND, (from left): Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, 1939.

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Best Picture, 1939

Dark Victory, Gone With the Wind (winner), Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights

At the height of Hollywood's Golden Age, no year glittered more than 1939. Its Best Picture slate is wall-to-wall masterpieces of the studio system, two of which — the beloved musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz and the Oscar-winning epic of Lost-Cause revisionism Gone With the Wind — continue to embody the whole idea of old-school movie magic. Other entrants provided career-highlight showcases for their stars (see Bette Davis in Dark Victory), helped define the heroic ideal for public servants (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington's courageous politician and Goodbye, Mr. Chips' kindly British schoolteacher), elevated a genre to an art form (Stagecoach), and showed that literary adaptations could do justice to their source material (Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights). Put it all together and it's an argument for why movies mattered so much to so many.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

DARK VICTORY, from left, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, 1939

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Best Actress, 1939

Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Irene Dunne (Love Affair), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Greer Garson (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind – winner)

Okay, so Judy Garland was robbed for Oz. That glaring oversight aside, it's hard to argue with the sheer star power involved in this Best Actress slate, involving the leads in fully five of the 10 Best Picture nominees. Iconic actresses like Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and especially Gone With the Wind's winner Vivien Leigh ("As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!") showed how indispensable they were to the success of their films. Leigh's GWtW castmate Hattie McDaniel proved a similar point — and made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar — when she earned Best Supporting Actress that same year.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

THE GREAT DICTATOR, right: Charlie Chaplin, 1940.

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Best Actor, 1940

Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story – winner)

Remember the titans. Between the great Shakesperean's turn as a mysterious widower in an early Hitchcock classic, an emblematic everyman in a fantastic Steinbeck adaptation, a comic icon's most affecting role in his anti-Nazi satire, and the lanky legend's delightful romcom romping with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, 1940 was an abundance of riches. (Even Raymond Massey's image-defining turn as the future Great Emancipator is worth honoring.) In the end the award went to Stewart, though with 75 years of historical hindsight it's all but impossible to watch Chaplin's astonishing climactic cri de coeur and not pull for him in retrospect.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, 1951

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Best Actor, 1951

Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen – winner), Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun), Arthur Kennedy (Bright Victory), Fredric March (Death of a Salesman)

Brando and Bogart would compete for the gold again, but this first meeting feels like the changing of the guard. Though the grizzled Golden-Age star took home the trophy (his first and only win) for his romantic adventure with Katharine Hepburn, the Method actor's indelible, animalistic turn as Stanley Kowalski marked the moment a star (or perhaps a "Stella!!!!") was born. Brando would be nominated again in 1952 and 1953 before winning for On the Waterfront in 1954, a hot streak that only Al Pacino would equal among actors (though Bette Davis and Greer Garson topped him with five straight nods).

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

THE GRADUATE, Dustin Hoffman, 1967

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Best Actor, 1967

Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night – winner), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?)

Meet the New Hollywood — most definitely not the same as the Old Hollywood. With Warren Beatty's nomination for a celebrity criminal and Dustin Hoffman's arrival as a new kind of leading man, the kids were taking over. Even Paul Newman's nod came for playing a consummate rebel. Of course, the nominations for Tracy (posthumously; he died days after completing the role) and eventual winner Steiger, both portraying fiery but ultimately wise patriarchs in movies about the hot-button issue of race, were the dream factory's way of showing the olds were alright. (Note that their mutual costar, Sidney Poitier, went shamefully unacknowledged even in the Supporting Actor category.)

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

THE GODFATHER: PART II, John Cazale, Al Pacino, 1974

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Best Director, 1973-1975

1973: Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers), Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), George Roy Hill (The Sting – winner), George Lucas (American Graffiti)

1974: John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part II – winner), Bob Fosse (Lenny), Roman Polanski (Chinatown), François Truffaut (Day for Night)

1975: Robert Altman (Nashville), Federico Fellini (Amarcord), Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – winner), Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon), Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon)

Look on their works, ye film buffs, and despair. Never before or since has Oscar honored such an incredible array of all-time greats as it did during this jaw-dropping three-year run at the height of New Hollywood. The Best Director slates from these years mixed American enfant terribles and European legends, Broadway stars and indie upstarts, experienced directors still making best-of-career work and newcomers reinventing the rules around them. Quibble with the winners if you want — and with George Roy Hill beating Bergman and Friedkin, or Forman's admittedly fine work in Cuckoo's Nest topping Altman's magnum opus in Nashville, you probably should — but this is as good as it gets. Coppola's win in 1974, a year he had two movies in Best Picture contention, is the jewel in the crown.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

CHINATOWN, Jack Nicholson, 1975

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Best Picture, 1974

Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (winner), Lenny, The Towering Inferno

The first three films on this list weren't merely contenders for the best film of the year; they're on any reasonable list of the best films ever made. That two of them, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, were both made by Francis Ford Coppola is a Beatles/Bowie/Wu-Tang miracle of genius-level productivity. Chinatown is, well … it's Chinatown, Jake. And don't overlook Lenny, an uncompromising portrait of a the uncompromising comedian Lenny Bruce featuring memorable work from director Bob Fosse and star Dustin Hoffman. Only The Towering Inferno is left to demonstrate that even in one of Hollywood's most creatively fertile periods, nothing succeeds like excess.

Best Picture WInners; 10 Surprises; Oscars

JAWS, 1975

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Best Picture, 1975

Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (winner)

We looked hard. We really did. But pound for pound, film for film, we couldn't come up with a stronger Best Picture slate than this one. That's five stone classics from five essential directors. Elsewhere you have career-highlight-reel work from Al Pacino, John Cazale, Jack Nicholson, and Louise Fletcher, among others. And while Jaws may have marked the dawn of the blockbuster era, don't hold that against it — it's still as smart, subtle, and scary as any box-office smash has ever been. If you wanna beat this lineup, you're gonna need a bigger boat.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

TAXI DRIVER, Robert De Niro, 1976

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Best Actor, 1976

Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Peter Finch (Network – winner), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)

"You talkin' to me?" "Adriaaaaaan!" "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" If your standard is catchphrase quality, this is the best Best Actor lineup by a longshot. But all the nominees did nuanced, worthy work, in a variety of styles. You had your lions in winter (Finch and Holden), your physical sculptures (De Niro and Stallone), your edge-of-sanity prophets of doom (Finch and De Niro). Even Giannini, the least famous of the five here in the States, blazed trails with a rare foreign-language acting nod for an even rarer woman-directed film (Lina Wertmüller became the first woman nominated for Best Director that year).

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

ON GOLDEN POND, Katharine Hepburn, 1981.

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Best Actress, 1981

Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond – winner), Diane Keaton (Reds), Marsha Mason (Only When I Laugh), Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City), Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant's Woman)

Talk about the passing of the torch. 1981 saw Katharine Hepburn earn the last of her 12 Best Actress Oscar nominations, and her fourth and final win (more than any other actress), just as Meryl Streep captured the first of her 15 (and counting!) nods. Sandwiched between these two for-the-ages actors were vital talents Mason, Keaton, and Sarandon, who've been nominated for Best Actress four, four, and five times respectively themselves. Golden Pond indeed.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

Glory (1989) Directed by Edward Zwick Shown: Denzel Washington


Best Supporting Actor, 1989

Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Marlon Brando (A Dry White Season), Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Denzel Washington (Glory – winner)

Icon-in-the-making Denzel Washington winning his first Academy Award (this was his second nomination). Actors of a certain age Danny Aiello and Martin Landau handing in searing performances in arguably the best movies from two of the best directors New York ever produced. (Feel free to slap an asterisk on Woody Allen, of course.) Throw in a nod for SNL veteran Aykroyd and star-turned-supernova Brando and you have one of the widest-ranging slates in Oscar history.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

THE GRIFTERS, Annette Bening, 1990. ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

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Best Supporting Actress, 1990

Annette Bening (The Grifters), Lorraine Bracco (GoodFellas), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost – winner), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart), Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves)

Between Bening's con woman, Bracco's mob wife, and Ladd's wicked witch, the roles involved in this year's Best Supporting Actress slate top the "characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley" competition. While they laid it all on the line in films involving criminality that ranged from the sordid to the surreal, Goldberg gave up her defining performance as a Patrick Swayze – possessed medium (no, really!), while McDonnell made an impression despite the limitations of the inexplicably acclaimed Kevin Costner epic Dances With Wolves. (Chalk it up to experience that paved the way for Battlestar Galactica's President Laura Roslin and you're good to go.)

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

CAPOTE, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2005, © Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection

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Best Actor, 2005

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote – winner), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)

It's impossible to look at this year's Best Actor slate and not wonder what might have been. Hoffman and Ledger are now lost to us, and for a while it seemed like Howard and Phoenix might have been headed that way as well, though by very different paths. Here, each of them turned in top-notch work (though Hoffman and Phoenix would hurdle over that high bar together in The Master a few years later), leaving the always watchable Strathairn to play straight-man to a top-notch tortured-artist quartet.