Trivial Matters #30 – Oscar Siblings

If the Internet is to be believed, today is Sibling(s) Day (a.k.a. Parents’ Poor Financial Decisions Day). Coming from a family of four, this is a particularly meaningful day for me, and also for my three sisters; when I called my oldest sister and told her about this article, before hanging up she allowed me to post the photo below, albeit begrudgingly and with the caveat that I do not use her name.

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My youngest sister, R., responded with “How did you get this number?”, so at least she’s interested in hearing about my life.

So in further honor of this occasion, I thought I’d take the time to consider the achievements of brothers and sisters at the Academy Awards through the years. Lately Joel and Ethan Coen have held the spotlight in this regard, winning for producing, directing, writing Best Picture No Country for Old Men in 2007, and writing Fargo in 1996, but siblings have been vying for and winning Oscars almost since the beginning.

It only took until 1929/1930, the 3rd Academy Awards, for the first set of siblings to take home Oscars (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that there were only about 25 people in the Academy at that time). That year, Norma Shearer won Best Actress for The Divorcee, and her brother, sound pioneer Douglas Shearer, took home the inaugural award for Best Sound Recording for The Big House, the first of his fourteen Oscars.

features-02bBy 1940 he was using them to fix wobbly tables.

These two were, to my mind, the most successful sibling pair at the Oscars, with Douglas being the first person to win consecutive Oscars (for Naughty Marietta in 1935 and San Francisco in 1936), and Norma getting to play Leslie Howard‘s romantic partner three timesBut they were only the beginning.

Probably the most famous sibling rivalry at the Oscars was between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, intensely competitive actresses who are, to date, the only siblings to each win Oscars for acting in leading categories. Their disparate surnames neatly sum up the sisters’ troubled relationship: elder sister Olivia was the first to pursue an acting career, and when Joan tried to follow her lead, their mother Lilian wouldn’t allow her to use the family name, for fear it would detract from Olivia’s career.

abcwalter61She was used to it, though, after trying to break into professional Go after her father.

Between the two of them, they won three Best Actress statuettes in the 1940s–the first was Fontaine for Suspicion (1941), with de Havilland also nominated for her role in the hard-to-find melodrama Hold Back the Dawn. According to legend, de Havilland refused to congratulate Fontaine, and their mother’s manipulation was so extreme that Fontaine actually felt guilty for winning over her sister. De Havilland, of course, went on to win two Oscars herself, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), but their relationship continued to deteriorate and they allegedly did not speak to one another from 1975 until Fontaine’s death in late 2013.

Aside from them, the only sister duo to be nominated for Best Actress in the same year are Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave (in 1966, both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

As far as brother-sister teams go, the only other acting duo were Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, who respectively won Best Supporting Actress for None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Best Actor for A Free Soul (1931). Years later, Shirley MacLaine won Best Actress in 1983 for Terms of Endearment, two years after her younger brother Warren Beatty was named Best Director for Reds (1981), for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.

Other, less well known sibling winners include:

  • Twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who won for their screenplay for Casablanca (1943).
  • James Goldman won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lion in Winter (1968); the next year, younger brother William Goldman took Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and would later win Adapted Screenplay himself for All the President’s Men [1976]).
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz got his own back for elder brother Herman J.’s Best Original Screenplay win for Citizen Kane (1941) by winning Best Screenplay and Best Director two years in a row (A Letter to Three Wives [1949] and All About Eve [1950]).
  • Composers Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman between them received 56 nominations and 10 Oscars for their film music (though I’m sure Alfred, who won 9 of them from 45 nominations, always qualified that statement at parties).

Finally, the Coppolas, one of only two families with three generations of Oscar winners, have two sets of Oscar-winning/nominated siblings:

  • Francis Ford Coppola (multiple wins, including three for Best Screenplay) and sister Talia Shire (nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Godfather Part II [1974] and Best Actress for Rocky [1976]).
  • Francis’ children Sofia Coppola (winner of Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation [2003]) and Roman Coppola (nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom [2012]).
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