State of the Art

Shaw, Steinbeck and other unlikely Oscar nominees

Yes, this man has won an Academy Award.
Yes, this man has won an Academy Award.

As I contemplate political choices made by Americans this year, I am reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous observation in the play “No Exit”: Hell is other people.

Or should I say, in keeping with the season, “Oscar nominee Jean-Paul Sartre”?

Yes, the bespectacled French philosopher, one of the key figures in existentialism, got an Oscar nomination for “best writing, motion picture story” in 1953 for “The Proud and the Beautiful.” (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences used to give separate awards for story and screenplay.) He didn’t win but probably would have turned down the award; a decade later, he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature, saying, “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

Thinking about Sartre made me wonder about other unlikely nominees, people who achieved greatness in other fields before a brush with cinematic fame. I don’t include songwriters or performers; any category that has given an Oscar to Three 6 Mafia and Cedric Coleman for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” has had more than its share of strange entries.

So here, in alphabetic order, are a dozen folks you might never have expected to get a nomination from the Academy. An asterisk denotes a winner.

The Beatles* – The Fab Four shared an Oscar for best original song score for “Let It Be,” which was released as both an album and a film as they were breaking up in 1970. Paul McCartney was later nominated for the title songs of “Live and Let Die” and “Vanilla Sky.”

Leonard Bernstein – He wrote just one instrumental film score in his life, the grittily beautiful music for “On the Waterfront.” The movie won best picture, but he lost to Dmitri Tiomkin for “The High and the Mighty.”

Judy Collins – A great folk singer, to be sure. But she made just one foray into film producing, and “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman” earned a documentary nomination in 1974. It profiled Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

Aaron Copland* – Before he became the elder statesman of American classical music, Copland wrote six film scores between 1939 and 1949. Four of them – “Of Mice and Men,” “Our Town,” “The Red Pony” and “The Heiress” – were nominated. “Heiress” won.

Jacques Cousteau* – The great oceanographer recorded his voyages on and beneath the sea, and he won for the documentaries “The Silent World” and “World Without Sun.” He also produced the Oscar-winning live short “The Golden Fish.”

Duke Ellington – The incomparable jazzman also packed his four scores into a decade, from 1959 to 1969. Alas, his underrated, Oscar-nominated “Paris Blues” of 1961 went up against the “West Side Story” juggernaut. Check out his music for “Anatomy of a Murder,” though.

Graham Greene – Long known as a great novelist (“The Power and the Glory,” “The End of the Affair”), Greene began as an insightful film critic in the 1930s. He adapted his short story “The Fallen Idol” for film in 1948, earning a best screenplay nomination.

Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler – The two fathers of modern American detective fiction had three Oscar nominations between them. Hammett adapted “Watch on the Rhine,” a play by lover Lillian Hellman. Chandler did “Double Indemnity” and “The Blue Dahlia.”

Dorothy Parker – The short story writer, poet and acerbic critic for The New Yorker helped shape the 1947 “Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman” and the 1937 “A Star Is Born.” The latter probably had the most illustrious array of writers, credited or otherwise, in Hollywood history: Parker, Ben Hecht, David O. Selznick, William Wellman, Adela Rogers St. John, Ring Lardner Jr., Budd Schulberg, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson and John Lee Mahin. All 10 won or were nominated for Oscars during their careers.

George Bernard Shaw* – The only writer to win a Nobel Prize and a screenplay Oscar (shared with three men for “Pygmalion”) allegedly parted from producer Samuel Goldwyn this way: “Mr. Goldwyn, there is not much use in going on....You are only interested in art, and I am only interested in money.”

John Steinbeck – Another Nobel-winner got three Oscar nominations for films not adapted from his own books: “Lifeboat,” “A Medal for Benny,” “Viva Zapata!” He didn’t contribute to the scripts for “East of Eden,” “The Grapes of Wrath” or “Of Mice and Men,” though they came from his novels.