A brief history of Canadian actors at the Oscars

This Sunday night, Rachel McAdams has an opportunity to join a very exclusive club. If the London, Ont.-born actress happens to win the best supporting actress Oscar, she would become only the eighth Canadian actor to do so.

From Mary Pickford to Rachel McAdams, 88 years of thespian Canucks going for gold

Mary Pickford (L) and Rachel McAdams, the first and most recent Canadians nominated for acting Oscars. (Canadas Walk of Fame/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - Invision, Evan Agostini (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS))

This Sunday night, Rachel McAdams has an opportunity to join a very exclusive club. If the London, Ont.-born actress happens to overcome some considerable odds and win the best supporting actress Oscar for Spotlight over frontrunners Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), she would become only the eighth Canadian actor to win a competitive acting Oscar, and only the third since 1950. 

Canadians haven't quite been the regular fixtures in the Oscar acting categories one might expect given the sheer volume of us that seem to head south for acting work — at least not recently. Take the obvious comparison to Australia, a country with roughly 12 million fewer inhabitants (and a lot farther from Hollywood). In the last 20 years, Australians have received a stunning 27 Oscar nominations for acting, six of which resulted in wins (Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and two for that greedy Cate Blanchett). Canadians? Five nominations (including McAdams' this year) and one win (for Christopher Plummer).

If you go back further, however, Canadians more than make up for that discrepancy. In fact, we dominated the first few decades of acting Oscars. From 1929 (the year of the first ceremony) to 1949, thespian Canucks received 18 nominations and took home 5 statuettes. Over the same time period, only two Aussies actors — Judith Anderson and May Robson — were nominated, and neither of them won.

So with our fingers firmly crossed for McAdams to up our numbers this weekend (her hometown might be something of a good luck charm, as you'll quickly see), let's take a quick look back at the 19 Canadian-born actors that came before her.

Mary Pickford

The first Canadian to ever win an Oscar was also the second ever to win best actress and the first for a role in a film with sound. "America's Sweetheart," aka Toronto-born Mary Pickford, won for 1929's Coquette, in which she plays reckless socialite Norma Besant. Her win arguably remains the most controversial for any Canadian, with many in the industry accusing Pickford — who was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group that hands out the Oscars) — of using her clout in the organization to lobby for the award (she reportedly even invited judges over for tea!). If that's true, Pickford was a pioneer in yet another regard: these days, that kind of campaigning is the norm. Either way, it didn't stop the Academy from giving Pickford a second Oscar — this time an hononary one — in 1976.

Norma Shearer

A year after Pickford's first win, Montreal's Norma Shearer managed to beat herself to win the third Oscar for best actress. It's now against Academy rules for an actor to receive two nominations in the same category, but back in 1931 Shearer did just that for her roles in The Divorcee and Their Own Desire. She'd win for the former, a role her then husband Irving Thalberg — who was also the head of MGM, the studio that produced the film — had originally wanted Joan Crawford for. It wouldn't be Shearer's first trip to the Oscars, either. She went on to receive four more nominations, for A Free Soul (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938). That makes Shearer the most Oscar-nominated Canadian actor of all-time, and gives her a higher count than the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Leonardo DiCaprio (each of those folks have a mere five nominations to Shearer's six).

Marie Dressler and Lionel Barrymore pose with their Oscar statuettes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards in Los Angeles, Ca. on Nov. 13, 1931. (Canadian Press)






Marie Dressler

In Canada's greatest non-hockey hat trick, Marie Dressler became our third straight winner in the best actress Oscar category in 1931. The Cobourg, Ont.-born Dressler's work as an innkeeper in Min and Bill beat out Shearer's aforementioned work in A Free Soul, marking the first and only time two Canadian actors competed against each other in the same category. It also was part of a remarkable comeback story for Dressler, who turned 61 years old the day before the Oscar ceremony (compared to Shearer and Pickford, who were 28 and 37 when they won). Dressler had risen to fame on Broadway in the 1890s, and starred opposite Charlie Chaplin in 1914's Tillie's Punctured Romance — the first feature length comedy film. But by the 1920s her career had declined to the point that she had to live on her savings in a shared apartment. However, she rose to become ranked as the top film star of 1932 and 1933, and received an additional Oscar nomination a year after her win for Emma. 

Walter Huston

Behind Norma Shearer, the most Oscar-nominated Canadian actor is Toronto-born Walter Huston, who was nominated for best actor in 1936 (for Dodsworth) and 1941 (for The Devil and Daniel Webster), and best supporting actor in 1942 (for Yankee Doodle Dandy) and 1948 (for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). He'd finally win for Sierra Madre, a film directed by his son John Huston (who also won Oscars that year for best director and best adapted screenplay). Though Walter would pass away two years later in 1950, his family's Oscar legacy lived on as his son John would go on to direct Walter's granddaughter Anjelica Huston to an Oscar for 1985's Prizzi's Honor. They are the only family to have three generations of Oscar winners, and it all started when John was born into a family of Ontario farmers in 1883.


Raymond Massey

​Grandson of Hart Massey (the man behind Toronto cultural landmark Massey Hall), Raymond Massey rose to fame for playing, oddly enough, archetypal U.S. historical figures. In fact, he portrayed President Abraham Lincoln in two films, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and a television anthology series (take that, Daniel Day-Lewis), and won an Oscar nomination in the process. In 1940, his work in the film Abe Lincoln In Illinois got him nominated alongside the remarkable likes of James Stewart, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Fonda and Laurence Olivier. He didn't win, but if there's ever four people you want to lose an Oscar to...


​Walter Pidgeon

​Saint John, NB's own Walter Pidgeon is the only Canadian to be nominated for back-to-back best actor Oscars, for 1942's Mrs. Miniver and 1943's Madame Curie. Both of the films co-starred Greer Garson, who was also nominated on each occasion. While Garson would win for Miniver, Pidgeon lost both times. But he would still go on to find thirty more years of consistent film, stage and television work, receiving a Tony Award nomination for the 1959 musical Take Me Along.

Hume Cronyn

​Like this year's nominee Rachel McAdams, Hume Crowyn hailed from London, Ont., where his father was an Member of Parliament and his mother the heiress to the Labatt Brewing Company. But it would be their son who would become the family's most famed member. This was made clear in 1944, when he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for The Seventh Cross, in which he starred alongside his wife Jessica Tandy. The two had married two years earlier and would go on to co-star in several films together. Tandy wouldn't receive her first Oscar nomination until 1989 for Driving Miss Daisy. Unlike Cronyn, she won.

Spencer Tracy, Jessica Tandy, and Hume Cronyn in "The Seventh Cross" (prettycleverfilms)

​Alexander Knox

The same year Cronyn was nominated for The Seventh Cross, Alexander Knox received a best actor Oscar nod for playing Woodrow Wilson in Henry King's Wilson. And that wasn't all they had in common.Three years older than the 1911-born Cronyn, Knox was born a few miles down the road from London in Strathroy, Ont., and at one point worked as a reporter for Cronyn's hometown paper The London Advertiser. His big break came in the 1940 Broadway production Jupiter Laughs where he starred opposite — wait for it — Jessica Tandy. Also of note: Knox is the second Canadian to be nominated for an Oscar for playing an American president.

Harold Russell

Beating Walter Huston by two years, Harold Russell became the first Canadian male to win an acting Oscar for 1947's The Best Years of Our Lives. The thing is, though, that Russell wasn't really an actor. Born in North Sydney, NS, Russell lost both his hands serving in World War II, and while recovering was featured in an Army film called Diary of a Sergeant about rehabilitating war veterans. Best Years director William Wyler saw the film and decided to cast Russell as Navy sailor Homer Parrish. As a result, he is one of only two non-professional actors to win a statue (the other being Haing S. Ngor) and the only person who won two Oscars for the same role (the Academy also gave him an honorary award). 

John Ireland

Robert Rossen's 1949 film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The Kings Men (the first of many) found Vancouver-born John Ireland winning his first and only Oscar nomination. He'd lose, but for what it's worth he would notably go on to star and co-direct in the original The Fast and the Furious, written by the great Roger Corman and bearing very little resemblance to the Vin Diesel-led blockbuster series that shares its name.

Geneviève Bujold​ in "Anne of a Thousand Days"

Geneviève Bujold​ 

The legendary Geneviève Bujold​ has a remarkable filmography that spans seven decades and includes everything from Alain Resnais' The War Is Over (1966), Brian De Palma's Obsession (1976), David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988) and Don McKellar's Last Night (1998). But her only Oscar nomination — which is shockingly also the only one ever received by a French-Canadian actress — was for her first English-speaking performance as Anne Boelyn in the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days. She'd lose to another legend, Maggie Smith, who her won her first of two Oscars that year for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.



Chief Dan George

The band chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia from 1951 to 1963, Chief Dan George also has the considerable distinction of becoming the first First Nations actor to be nominated for an Oscar. After starting his acting career on the CBC Television series Cariboo County, he starred alongside Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway in Arthur Penn's 1970 film Little Big Man. He was awarded a National Society of Film Critics Award, New York Film Critics Circle Award, and nominations from both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. A year later, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.



Dan Aykroyd​

How easy is it to forget that Dan Aykroyd was a) in Driving Miss Daisy and b) was nominated for an Oscar for it. After a serious drought — 20 years — of Canada-born acting nominees, Ottawa-born Aykroyd led a mini-resurgence as he made his way to Oscar's good graces for his performance as Canada's favourite co-star Jessica Tandy's son in the 1989 film. The film would go on to win best picture. Aykroyd, meanwhile, lost to Denzel Washington for Glory.

Graham Greene with Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves"

Graham Greene

A year after Aykroyd, Graham Greene would also lose the best supporting actor Oscar for a best picture-winning film. As Kicking Bird in Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, Greene — born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario — followed Chief Dan George as the second First Nations Oscar acting nominee. Greene lost to Joe Pesci for Goodfellas, but three years later would get something of a consolation prize: he won a Gemini Award for best performance in a children's or youth program or series for The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon.

Kate Nelligan

​Guess where this nominee was born? That's right, London, Ont. — birthplace of more acting Oscar nominees than any other Canadian city. In 1991, Kate Nelligan was nominated for her role as Lila Newbury in Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's novel The Prince of Tides (which Streisand herself was infamously snubbed for). And while she might have lost to Mercedes Rheul (for The Fisher King), she was in company: None other than Jessica Tandy was nominated in the best supporting actress category too, for Fried Green Tomatoes.

Anna Paquin

​The first Canadian-born actress to win an Oscar in over 60 years, Anna Paquin is actually an arguable inclusion here. While born in Winnipeg, her family moved to New Zealand when she was four and she is generally associated with the latter as a nationality. But that aside, she technically qualifies and notably was the second-youngest Oscar winner in history when she won best supporting actress for The Piano in 1993. She also gave a Jacob Tremblay-level adorable speech:


Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling portrays an as an inspiring teacher struggling with a drug habit in the film "Half Nelson." (CP Photo/ThinkFilm) (The Canadian Press)

It's hard to feel sorry for Ryan Gosling, but one could easily argue he deserved nominations for Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine and Drive. But Gosling only has one Oscar nod to his name for his incredible work as a drug addicted middle school teacher in the 2006 film Half Nelson. Still, the 35-year-old actor remains the only Canadian nominated for best actor in the past 64 years and, yes, he was born in London, Ont.

Elliot Page

Halifax's Elliot Page was only 20 years old when he was nominated for for Jason Reitman's Juno, at the time making him the fourth-youngest nominee ever in the best actress category (and retroactively the first trans man nominated in the category). While Juno wasn't a Canadian production — even though its star, director and shooting location might make you think otherwise — Page was nominated alongside British-born Julie Christie for his role in Sarah Polley's Ontario-set Away From Her. Both lost to Marion Cotillard, who we hear once had dinner in London, Ont. 

Christopher Plummer

​Remember what I was saying about age distinctions? After receiving his first nomination two years prior, Canadian film, theater and television icon Christopher Plummer finally took home a little gold man in 2012 for Beginners. As a result, he became the oldest winner in any acting category. Which female actress holds that record? Jessica Tandy.







Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2020s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.


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