Wales at the Oscars

Photograph of Oscar winner Ray Milland

Last updated: 05 March 2010

It's ironic, but typical, that the biggest Oscar winning movie set in Wales was made in Hollywood. American John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) confounded many critics by snaffling five awards. Pretty remarkable - especially when you consider it was the year of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, the film that has topped most critics' polls since, and John Huston's The Maltese Falcon.

The Best Supporting Actor award that year went to Donald Crisp, a Scotsman who once directed Buster Keaton, and played Gwilym Morgan, the father in 20th Century Fox's version of Richard Llewellyn's novel. Crisp even beat Bogart's bête noir Sydney Greenstreet, a nominee for the prize.

The other How Green awards were for Best Film, Direction, photography (Arthur Miller, not to be confused with the playwright) and art direction (Richard Day and Nathan Juran). Thomas Little collected a Certificate of Merit citation for interior decoration.

The Citadel (1938), made by MGM in Britain and set and shot partly in Wales, won nominations for its director King Vidor and male star Robert Donat.

Some people might still believe Edmund Gwenn was the first Welshman to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his benign 'Father Christmas' role in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Not so. They've been consulting old record books. That claim has been discredited as Gwenn was an Englishman with no substantial Welsh family links - so the honour goes to Neath's Ray Milland - the most celebrated screen drunk of all, in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1946).

Perhaps the most bizarre (and certainly exotic) Welsh Oscar-winning performance was by Hugh Griffith, master of the bellicose cameo, as livewire Sheikh Ilderim in Ben Hur (1959). However, that film won the Oscar, according to many, chiefly for its spectacular chariot race sequences directed by Andrew Marton of the film's second unit, rather than the movie's overall director William Wyler.

Other Oscar nominations for performances in Welsh-set films were very close rivals for that "bizarre" description. John Dall was good, admittedly in Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and extremely good in Gun Crazy (1949), opposite Wales' Peggy Cummins.

However, both he and his fellow American Joan Lorring were hopelessly adrift with their attempts at the Welsh accent in The Corn is Green (1946) from north Walian Emlyn Williams' stage play. Yet both won Best Supporting nominations - reward, perhaps, for getting noticed at all with Bette Davis in the lead.

Llanelli's Rachel Roberts was desperately unlucky to miss Hollywood awards for Saturday Night to Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963) but landed the British Academy Best Actress prize for her roles as consolation.

South Walian Richard Burton gathered five Best Actor Oscar nominations without winning a bean - and some of us are still demanding a recount after his sublime performance in the screen version of Edward Albee's film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His co-star Elizabeth Taylor won the Best Actress accolade, thanks largely to Burton's timing and self-effacing performance. His only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was for My Cousin Rachel (1952).

The Rhondda's Stanley Baker, a great stalwart of British films, in particular, landed a knighthood but not even one Hollywood nomination despite his four films for Joseph Losey, including the much-acclaimed Accident (1967). He also made and starred in Zulu (1964), of course - still one of the most popular British films ever made.

Anthony Hopkins, another knight and, perhaps the greatest Welsh actor (until he took American citizenship), failed to win Oscars for his finest performances in The Remains of the Day (1993) and Shadowlands (1994), but salivated to success as cannibal Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1993), which ensured him a meal ticket for the follow-ups.

What Rachel Roberts failed to do, despite a crop of other awards (including a best supporting actress BAFTA for Yanks (1979), Catherine Zeta Jones accomplished. She landed an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the musical Chicago (2002) - far and away her best screen performance.

The only Welsh director to win an Oscar was Cardiff's Jack Howells in 1963 for his lyrical documentary Dylan Thomas, with Richard Burton as on and off screen narrator, but Cardiff-based animation director Joanna Quinn has been nominated twice for Famous Fred (1996) and her segment of Canterbury Tales - The Wife of Bath (1999). She's also won the Cartoon d'Or, Europe's equivalent of the Oscar, for Dreams and Desires - Family Ties (2008).

Paul Turner's feature Hedd Wyn, a tribute to Ellis Evans, posthumous winner of the Eisteddfod Chair for poetry, caused quite a stir in 1994 when it became the first Welsh language film nominated for a Hollywood Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.

That feat was equalled by Solomon and Gaenor, an intriguing 1999 film about racism and mining problems in south Wales around the time of the Tonypandy Riots.

Michael Sheen, of the current Welsh male actors, has landed awards prolifically in the last few years for film and television productions but he's come no closer to Oscars than a British BAFTA Supporting Actor nomination for his Tony Blair in The Queen. He's received a similar nomination for the same role from the Los Angeles and Kansas Critics Associations.


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