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Best Actor Oscar winners: Who won for a performance that clocked in at under 24 minutes?

Gold Derby logo Gold Derby 12/29/2020 Matthew Stewart
Oscars-Logo-Statue © AMPAS Oscars-Logo-Statue

The creation of the supporting Oscar categories in 1937 clarified the intention that the lead acting categories are meant to honor true star turns. While most Best Actor wins have aligned with that idea, there have been more than a few whose placement has been called into question due to low screen time. Here is a look at the 10 shortest winners in the category:

10. Gary Cooper (“High Noon”)

40 minutes, 57 seconds (48.35% of the film)

Five-time Best Actor Oscar nominee Cooper earned his second win in 1953 for playing morally conflicted Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon.” By appearing in less than half of the 85-minute film, Cooper made history by holding two screen time records at once. At the time, his one-hour, 30-minute, 55-second performance in 1941’s “Sergeant York” was the longest to have won in the Best Actor category. His second win broke a 21-year record for shortest, which was previously held by Lionel Barrymore for his 43-minute, 20-second role in “A Free Soul.”

9. Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”)

40 minutes, 25 seconds (32.18% of the film)

Douglas’s only Oscar nomination and win for acting came in 1988 for his villainous portrayal of greedy financier Gordon Gekko. Over three decades later, it remains one of nine performances with less than 45 minutes of screen time to be nominated for Best Actor, the most recent being Viggo Mortensen’s 44-minute, 58-second performance in 2007’s “Eastern Promises.”

8. Marlon Brando (“The Godfather”)

40 minutes, 10 seconds (22.91% of the film)

In 1973, Brando followed in Cooper’s footsteps by earning a second Best Actor Oscar for a performance much shorter than the one that brought him his first. His amount of screen time in 1954’s “On the Waterfront” (one hour, five minutes, 58 seconds) is not particularly high, but seems so compared to the fact that his now iconic portrayal of Don Vito Corleone only takes up less than one quarter of “The Godfather.” He even has noticeably less screen time than his Best Supporting Actor-nominated co-star, Al Pacino, who clocks in at one hour, six minutes, and 22 seconds.

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7. Maximilian Schell (“Judgment at Nuremberg”)

39 minutes, 20 seconds (21.95% of the film)

Schell garnered his first of three Oscar nominations and only win for his role as impassioned defense attorney Hans Rolfe. Also included in the 1962 Best Actor lineup was Schell’s co-star, Spencer Tracy, whose screen time in the film is significantly higher (one hour, eight minutes, five seconds). This marked the second of five times that an actor defeated another actor nominated against them for the same film. In all but one of the cases (Bing Crosby vs. Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way”), the shorter of the two performances has prevailed.

6. William Holden (“Stalag 17”)

37 minutes, 38 seconds (31.26% of the film)

In 1954, just one year after Cooper set the record for lowest screen time among Best Actor winners, Holden set a new one with his performance as prisoner of war J. J. Sefton. His co-star, Robert Strauss, was nominated in the supporting male category with a higher screen time of 56 minutes and 40 seconds. This marked the third time that a performance nominated in a supporting category had more screen time than one nominated in a lead category from the same film. There have now been 21 such cases in Oscar history.

5. Peter Finch (“Network”)

33 minutes, 20 seconds (27.47% of the film)

Finch made history in 1977 as the first of only two people to win a posthumous Oscar for acting. His performance as prophetic newscaster Howard Beale brought him close to another record, as it became the fifth shortest to win in either lead category at the time. With 41 minutes and 39 seconds of screen time, his co-star and category competitor William Holden was not far ahead, and the two of them stood out among the other nominees, most notably Sylvester Stallone, who delivered a one-hour, 39-minute performance in “Rocky.”

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4. Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”)

31 minutes, 27 seconds (29.80% of the film)

As mentally traumatized pianist David Helfgott, Rush scored a win from his first of four Oscar nominations. He stood apart from his fellow nominees in 1997, all of whom’s screen time totals surpass 70 minutes. His low screen time is attributed to the fact that he only played the adult version of Helfgott, with Alex Rafalowicz and Noah Taylor each playing younger versions. Rush’s second lead nomination came for his 37-minute, 25-second performance in “Quills,” making his supporting performance in “The King’s Speech” the longest for which he has been nominated, at 40 minutes and 48 seconds.

3. Lee Marvin (“Cat Ballou”)

31 minutes, 6 seconds (32.40% of the film)

After over a decade of building a resume as a go-to tough guy, Marvin ventured into comedy with 1965’s “Cat Ballou,” which ended up bringing him his only Oscar nomination and win. Marvin played the dual roles of drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and villain Tim Strawn and proved that taking on multiple roles does not guarantee a high amount of screen time. Indeed, one year earlier, Peter Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his three roles in “Dr. Strangelove” that totalled only 43 minutes and one second of screen time, or less than half of the film.

2. Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”)

24 minutes, 52 seconds (21.00% of the film)

Over three decades into his career, Emmy winner Hopkins earned his first Oscar nomination and win in 1992 for his portrayal of cannibalistic psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Voters overlooked the brevity of his role and he was placed in the lead category based on the brilliance and instantly iconic nature of his performance. His screen time total of just under 25 minutes (which is often wrongly reported to be even shorter) is not record-breaking, but does make his performance the shortest to win Best Actor in terms of percentage.

1. David Niven (“Separate Tables”)

23 minutes, 39 seconds (23.67% of the film)

In 1959, the well-established English actor won an Oscar for a performance nearly 14 minutes shorter than Holden’s in “Stalag 17,” setting a new and still intact record for lowest screen time among Best Actor winners. The storyline of his character, Major Pollock, is one of several that receive equal attention in “Separate Tables.” Wendy Hiller, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for the same film, only falls behind Niven’s screen time by less than two minutes. Every Best Actor-nominated performance of the 21st century has clocked in at over 37 minutes, indicating that Niven’s record will not soon be broken.

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