When we think of home-grown Australian talent at the Oscars, some pretty familiar names come to mind. Whether it’s Geoffrey Rush’s breakthrough performance in Shine, or Cate Blanchette’s stunning turn in Blue Jasmine, or even Peter “mad as hell” Finch in Network, Aussies have been regular winners throughout Oscar history.
Given their prominence, it’s not surprising that we typically picture actors (Finch, Rush, and also Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger) and actresses (Blanchette and Nicole Kidman) holding the famous gold statue. But Aussies have actually picked up nominations in every category except Best Live Action Short and have taken home the big prize in 20 of the 24 categories, with 43 wins from 154 nominations (as of 2016)! Not too shabby.
From design flair to technical brilliance, here are five Aussie Oscar winners you mightn’t have heard much about.
Ok, so maybe you have heard of Catherine Martin. And if you haven’t, you should have: she tops the Aussie Oscar count with a handy four statues on her shelf … so far! Martin won in two categories – Production Design and Costume Design for Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby.
A Sydney native, Martin designed sets and costumes in 1984 for a little one-act play at NIDA. The play was called Strictly Ballroom and the director was her fellow student Baz Luhrmann. Martin went on to work on all of Luhrmann’s films, including Romeo + Juliet and Australia (both gaining her Oscar nominations), and – of course – she’s married to Luhrmann too. Awww.
Before Catherine Martin stormed the Oscar barricades in 2001 and 2013, Australia’s most successful Oscar winner was Orry-Kelly, winning three awards – also for Costume Design – in the 1950s. Born in Kiama, just south of Sydney, Orry-Kelly (born Orry George Kelly) moved to New York to become an actor (he even shared an apartment with Cary Grant), but would up in L.A. at age 25 designing costumes for Warner Bros.
Orry-Kelly’s Oscar wins were for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like it Hot; he worked on some of the great films of the period, including The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Gypsy, which he also received a nomination for. In all, he designed costume for more than 300 films!
Ken G. Hall
Ken Hall was the first Australian to win an Oscar. And he was also the first Aussie light to shine in international cinema. With 19 feature films to his name, he is still our most prolific internationally- known director and producer.
Born in 1901, Hall grew up watching movies projected onto a giant sheet at North Sydney Oval. By his late 20s, having been a reporter and a film publicist, and having visited Hollywood, he created the landmark ‘Dad and Dave’ series of films. They were huge. Through the Depression in the early 1930s, Hall is credited with saving the local film industry almost single-handedly with his string of money- making movies.
When WWII started, local film production shifted from features to documentaries and newsreels. It was Hall’s documentary feature Kokoda Front Line! in 1942 (filmed by famed war correspondent and photographer Damien Parer) that earned him his only Oscar nomination … and win!
While Hall himself professed not to be an artist – his films weren’t exactly ground-breaking or challenging – he still towers over every other Aussie filmmaker in terms of popularity, output and success.
Queenslander John Seale’s list of credits as a cinematographer is a roll call of some of the most beautiful and dreamy films of the past 40 years. After a 15-year career in TV, Seale won AFI awards and accolades for early 80s films like BMX Bandits and Careful He Might Hear You. He then followed fellow Aussie, director Peter Weir, to the USA where he shot Witness, starring Harrison Ford, and pocketed an Oscar nomination for his troubles.
Over the next couple of decades, Seale was nominated for Rain Man, Cold Mountain and Mad Max: Fury Road, and scored the golden statuette (and pretty much every other cinematography award around the world) with his sumptuous work on The English Patient in 1996. Other films of note: The Mosquito Coast, Gorillas in the Mist, Dead Poets Society, The Talented Mr Ripley, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Handy.
We’ll put it out front: May Robson didn’t win an Oscar … although she was nominated. Born in 1858 in the Murray River town of Moama, Robson moved with her family to London when she was 12.
Aged 17, Robson ran away from home, got married and moved to a Texas ranch. As you do. Three years and three children later, her husband died. Three years after that, two of her children had also died from illness. So far so bad.
At 25 years of age, Robson took to the stage, and commenced an almost 30-year career as a successful stage actress. She had a couple of small parts in films in 1915 and 1916, but made a permanent move to Hollywood in 1927. Not many Hollywood stars try to make it big aged 69, but Robson cornered the market on sweet old ladies, and for the next 15 years acted in hits like Bringing Up Baby and A Star is Born. In 1933 at the 6 th annual Oscar awards, Robson became the first Australian nominated – Best Actress for Lady for a Day. She lost out to Katherine Hepburn, so no big shame there.
Main Image: Photo by Jakob Owens