Is Will Smith Right, is there a Pattern to Best Actor Winners at the Oscars?

In a recent, slightly bizarre interview in New York magazine, Will and Jaden Smith were quoted as saying the following:

I’ve read that you believe life can be understood through patterns.
Will: I’m a student of patterns. At heart, I’m a physicist. I look at everything in my life as trying to find the single equation, the theory of everything.

Do you think there is a single theory to everything?
Jaden: There’s definitely a theory to everything.
Will: When you find things that are tried and true for millennia, you can bet that it’s going to happen tomorrow.
Jaden: The sun coming up?
Will: The sun coming up, but even a little more. Like for Best Actor Oscars. Almost 90 percent of the time, it’s mental illness and historical figures, right? So, you can be pretty certain of that if you want to win—as a man; it’s very different for women. The patterns are all over the place, but for whatever reason, it’s really difficult to find the patterns in Best Actress.

Having read this quote I was interested to see how much truth there was in Will’s assertion. He makes two claims here, the first is that for the Best Actor category at the Oscars, the person who wins it normally plays a historical figure or someone with a mental illness. The second is that this is significantly different to the Best Actress category where there is no such pattern.

However, is he correct, or has he simply fallen victim to another case of confirmation bias?

To find the answer, I decided to look at the winners of the Best Actor and Actress categories over the past twenty-five years, and count up how many portrayed a “historical figure” (for simplicity’s sake I just took that to a portrayal of a non-fictional person); and anyone with a mental illness (I found this quite difficult to do having not seen every single film, so if there’s any obvious mistakes do let me know). You can see the table I produced at the bottom of this article.

Having tallied up these two categories I came up with the following graph:


The first thing to note is that Smith is correct in asserting that historical figures do get a lot of plaudits come oscar night. “Mental Illness” at 20% for males and 28% for females fares less well. However, again there is some truth to Smith’s statement.

Where he fails pretty spectacularly is his estimation of how many of the Best Actor winners fall into one of these two camps. He says “almost 90%”, the reality is it’s 52%. Clearly Smith has forgotten performances like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood; Russell Crowe in Gladiator; or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart before making a statement like this.

Where he failed even more spectacularly, and what might surprise some readers, is in respect to the Best Actress category. Here his “pattern” exists even more than for the male equivalent. 60% fall into one of Smith’s two camps. Clearly Smith has forgotten the last six or seven years when we’ve seen Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman win for very different portrayals of characters with mental illnesses, as well as Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren win for portrayals of two very different real-life Brits.

What can we learn from this? I think it highlights the way we can often see patterns in things, but use and use these to over-estimate the extent to which said pattern exists. This is the type of thinking that can lead one to becoming a conspiracy theorist. It is unfortunate that reading the full interview, this is exactly what Smith ends up sounding like. If he wanted my advice, it would be that he should simply stick to doing what he does best:



One response to “Is Will Smith Right, is there a Pattern to Best Actor Winners at the Oscars?

  1. I’d put Gladiator and There WIll Be Blood into a historical collection in the sense that “it’s films people think of as historical” – trying to understand where Will’s bias came from. I thought, perhaps, the False/False are just less memorable? But that includes Hannibal Lector. Who you think is … sane?

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