Academy Awards - Supporting Actress Category
I thought it might be appropriate to examine the history of the Supporting Actress category, which was first awarded in 1937 to recognize performances in films that were released in 1936. Gale Sondergaard was the first to receive this Oscar for her role as a wicked housekeeper that blackmails her way to a position of prominence as Claude Rains's wife with her knowledge of the illegitimate birth of Fredric March's title character in Anthony Adverse (1936). For what it's worth, Walter Brennan earned the first (of his three) Supporting Actor Oscar(s) for his role opposite Edward Arnold, Joel McCrea and Frances Farmer in Come and Get It (1936).
The Supporting Actor and Actress categories were established to recognize the contributions made by character actors, and Sondergaard & Brennan certainly filled the bill. Neither was known as a leading actor or actress, but some supporting nominees and award winners have been lead actors and actresses that were just starting out, "slumming" or could no longer find leading roles: Ingrid Bergman's win for Murder on the Orient Express (1974) comes to mind.
Additionally, there have been actresses whose performances probably should have been (submitted by their studios) in the lead versus supporting actress category: Tatum O'Neal's performance as an enterprising waif with her father (appropriately played by Ryan) during the Depression in Paper Moon (1973) and Angelina Jolie's cruel "crazy" fun friend of Winona Ryder's Girl, Interrupted (1999) to name just two. At ten years of age, O'Neal was (and is still recognized as) the youngest winner in any competitive category. For the record, seventy-seven year old Peggy Ashcroft was the oldest Supporting Actress to win (for A Passage to India (1984)). Of course, producers would rather have their actresses’ performances be nominated regardless for the publicity (hence, revenue) that such a nomination can generate for their films.
It's interesting to note that Sondergaard's Academy Award winning performance was also her film debut. Several other actresses can claim this same distinction: Mercedes McCambridge in the original All the King's Men (1949), Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront (1954), Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara (1957), and 10 year old O'Neal. Some actresses’ first performances received nominations: Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz (1938), Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge in The Little Foxes (1941), Angela Lansbury in Gaslight (1944), Lee Grant in Detective Story (1951), and Maureen Stapleton in Lonelyhearts (1958).
Shelley Winters became the first actress to win two Best Supporting Actress Oscars, for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). Dianne Wiest matched Winters’s total when she won for Bullets over Broadway (1994); she'd won her first in another Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Alas, Thelma Ritter was nominated in the category six times (the most by any actress) and never won.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog