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Best, first, most: Oscar trivia from the Golden Age of Hollywood

The 2023 Academy Awards are Sunday, March 12, but the first decades of Oscar honors were fertile ground for history-making movies. 

Take a look at a few of the best, some of the firsts and a couple of the mosts when it comes to the Academy Awards' golden statuette and the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

The first best picture nominees

The first Academy Awards took place in 1929, honoring movies made from mid-1927 to 1928. 

It was also the only year that two categories for "best" picture were included: One was for "Unique and Artistic Picture" and the other for "Outstanding Picture." The Artistic Picture category was dropped the following year, and the Outstanding Picture would evolve into the Best Picture category today.

The movies nominated in each of the categories included:

Outstanding Picture:

  • "Wings" ** Won
  • "The Racket"
  • "7th Heaven"

Unique and Artistic Picture:

So, some still debate whether the movies in the latter category count as "best picture" nominees, but -- at least according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- "Wings" remains the first official Best Picture.

The first to win "The Big 5"

"It Happened One Night" (1934) swept the major categories at the Oscars, the only movie to do so for 41 years, and to this day, only one of three movies with this distinction. 

The 1934 Clark Gable-Claudette rom-com wouldn't get company until 1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and 1991's "Silence of the Lambs."

"It Happened One Night" won in these five categories:

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director: Frank Capra
  • Best Actor: Clark Gable
  • Best Actress: Claudette Colbert
  • Best Adapted Screenplay

Many think 1939's "Gone With the Wind" also achieved this, but it was shut out of the "The Big 5" honor after an upset win by Robert Donat ("Goodbye, Mr. Chips") over Clark Gable's Rhett Butler performance in the Best Actor category. 

1939: The greatest year in movies 

Speaking of 1939 ... Many consider that year to be the apex of the Golden Age of Hollywood, so dense with greatest classic movie hits, it would make whole decades later in the century weep with envy. 

The Best Picture Oscar nominees that year offer just a small taste on what was on tap in that seminal year:

  • "Dark Victory"
  • "Gone with the Wind" ** Won
  • "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"
  • "Love Affair"
  • "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
  • "Ninotchka"
  • "Of Mice and Men" 
  • "Stagecoach"
  • "The Wizard of Oz"
  • "Wuthering Heights"

The most nominations and wins for an actress

Meryl Streep leads the overall pack for most Oscar nominations as Best Actress with 17 (and four additional for Best Supporting Actress). But the rest of the list is dominated by actresses from Old Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn was nominated 12 times for Best Actress, winning a record four times -- a feat yet to be beaten -- including a shared win with Barbra Streisand.

Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress for her performances in:

  • "Morning Glory" (1933). ** Won
  • "Alice "Adams" (1935)
  • "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)
  • "Woman of the Year" (1942)
  • "The African Queen" (1951)
  • "Summertime" (1955)
  • "The Rainmaker" (1956)
  • "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959)
  • "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962)
  • "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967)  ** Won
  • "The Lion in Winter" (1968). ** Won. Shared with Streisand when they tied.
  • "On Golden Pond" (1981) ** Won

Bette Davis is the other heavyweight in this field, holding multiple records for decades. She was nominated a total of 10 or 11 times -- according to what you count. She was a write-in nominee for her work in "Of Human Bondage" (1934) back when that was allowed, and she came in third!

She dominated Oscars firsts and mosts during the Golden Age of Hollywood, becoming the first person to earn five consecutive Oscar nominations. Greer Garson would match that in the 1940s. She was also the first actor or actress to snag 10 nominations. This has only been matched in Oscar history four other times: later by Katharine Hepburn (see above), Laurence Olivier, Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

Davis was nominated for Best Actress for her performances in:

  • "Of Human Bondage" (1934) write-in candidate
  • "Dangerous" (1935) ** Won
  • "Jezebel" (1938) ** Won
  • "Dark Victory" (1939)
  • "The Letter" (1940)
  • "The Little Foxes" (1941)
  • "Now, Voyager" (1942)
  • "Mr. Skeffinton" (1944)
  • "All About Eve" (1950)
  • "The Star" (1952)
  • "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)

The most nominations and wins for Best Director

Directors from Old Hollywood dominate lists of most Oscar nominations and wins. 

When it comes to Best Director victories, John Ford takes the top spot, earning four wins in his long career (but only five total nominations). Frank Capra and William Wyler both took home three Oscars, tying them for second place of most wins. After that, more than a dozen directors over the years rank for two wins. 

For number of nominations, more modern directors are in the mix, but the Golden Age is still golden for directors. William Wyler tops them all with 12 nominations, with Martin Scorses and Steven Spielberg tied at second with nine nominations each. 

John Ford's Best Director wins are for:

  • "The Informer" (1935)
  • "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)
  • "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
  • "The Quiet Man" (1952)

Note: He was nominated but didn't win for "Stagecoach" (1939).

More: Timeless Oscar red carpet fashion

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