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Australian Oscar success

A brief history of the Oscars

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science was established in 1927 and the Academy Awards or Oscars ceremonies commenced in 1929. The Academy is a professional honorary organisation with over 6,000 motion picture artists and crafts members. Essentially the awards and ceremony are just one component of the organisation's endeavours. In striving to advance the arts and sciences of film, the Academy provides a range of services, coordination, representation and education for its members and the industry.

The first awards ceremony, held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, was a little different to the ceremonies of recent times. Guests were able to find out who had won the coveted awards by checking in the evening's paper en route to the ceremony, and a ticket to the event cost $5.

Since 1941 the winner's names have been highly protected using a sealed envelope system. Aside from the ceremony auditors, everyone must wait until the sealed envelopes are opened on the night. Even the statuettes are not engraved with the winner's names until after the evening and, as a sign of the popularity and importance of the Oscars, a ticket to the ceremony is now by invitation only.

The Academy's statuette 'Oscar' weights 8.5 pounds and stands 13.5 inches tall. Interestingly, Oscar stands on a film reel that has five spokes, signifying the Academy's original branches of Writers, Directors, Producers, Technicians and Actors.

A photo of Terence Stamp in

Terence Stamp dressed as frilled neck lizard in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994. Image courtesy of Latent Image Productions Pty Ltd and National Film & Sound Archive.

Australians and the Oscars

Australians have been walking down the red carpets in Hollywood for quite a while. Our first nomination and award was in 1942 when Australians Ken Hall and Damien Parer (posthumously) received an Oscar for their documentary Kokoda Front Line. Their Oscar Statuette is on display at National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

Over the past 60 years Australians and Australian films have continued to receive recognition from the Academy for their achievements in front of and behind the camera. 2001 saw a record 13 Australians nominated, and three awards won (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design for Moulin Rouge, and Best Cinematography for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring).


Orry Kelly was a very successful Australian at the Oscars. Orry Kelly was born in Sydney in 1897. After studying art in Australia, he headed to America to pursue a career in acting. While struggling with acting in New York he fell back on his art skills which led to his involvement with costume design, and off he went to Hollywood. Over the years he designed outfits for Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis. He was nominated four times for an Academy Award and was successful on three occasions for his costume design in An American in Paris (with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff in 1951), Les Girls (1957) and Some Like it Hot (1959).


In 1967 John Truscott received two nods from the Academy for costume design (individually) and art direction in Camelot (in conjunction with Edward Carrere and John W Brown).


In the 1970s, the advent of government support and funding for the arts signaled the rebirth of the Australian film industry. Initiatives included the establishment of the Experimental Film Fund, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC - a federal film funding body).

Many talented Australians who have found success at home and abroad were trained through national arts training organisations such as the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and the AFTRS.

In 1976 Leisure, produced by Australian Suzanne Baker, won Best Short Film (Animated) and Peter Finch won the award for Actor in a Leading Role for his role as the crazed television anchorman, Howard Beale, in Network.


Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens and Bruce Beresford were nominated in 1980 for the screenplay of Breaker Morant, based on the stage play by Kenneth G. Ross.

In 1981 Peter Allen (alongside Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Christopher Cross) received the Oscar for Best Music (Original Song) for Arthur's Theme from Arthur.

During the 1980s Judy Davis received a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role for A Passage to India. Peter Weir was nominated for directing Witness and Dead Poets Society. John Seale received cinematography nominations for Witness and Rain Man. He went on to win the 1996 Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar for The English Patient.


Once again Peter Weir was successful in being nominated for the screenplay of a Green Card in 1990, while Judy Davis received yet another nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role for Husband and Wives in 1992.

1993 was a successful year for The Piano . The Australian co-production picked up five nominations and three wins. The Piano is the story of Ada, who with her daughter Flora moves from Scotland to the harsh but achingly beautiful New Zealand wilderness to, through an arranged marriage, establish a new home. In this unsettled environment Ada is comforted by her passion for her piano, but undertakes considerable sacrifices to find happiness and love. In this remote community her fortune is interwoven with her music.

A photo of Hugo Weaving in

Hugo Weaving standing on top of a desert mound in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994. Image courtesy of Latent Image Productions Pty Ltd and the National Film & Sound Archive.

In 1994 Lizzie Gardiner with fellow Australian Tim Chapple won Best Costume Design for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Priscilla is an epic adventure of two drag queens and a transsexual who trek across the Australian outback to perform their cabaret act in the middle of Australia. Their journey is resplendent with sequined costumes, disco balls, ABBA classics, the trials of friendship and the incredible Australian outback. Lizzie herself made a memorable mark in Oscar history wearing her Gold Amex' credit card dress to the ceremony. A Priscilla costume is also on display at the National Film & Sound Archive.

In 1995 Babe, the comic fable of a pig who tackled the politics of farm life and found a place among the sheep dog trial champions, received six nominations and a win for John Cox (together with Scott E Anderson, Charles Gibson and Neal Scanlon), for his visual effects work. In the same year Braveheart won several Academy Awards including Best Achievement in Makeup for Peter Frampton and Paul Pattison (with Lois Burwell) and Best Director for Mel Gibson, a NIDA graduate.

In 1996 Geoffrey Rush won the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Australian piano virtuoso David Helfgott in Shine and subsequently has been nominated for his performance in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Quills (2000).

Australians have also been honoured by the Technical/Scientific Academy Awards including Jim Frazier in 1997 along with Iain Neil and Rick Gelbard for their design of the Panavision/Frazier Lens System for motion picture photography.

Australians have been well placed sharing Oscar success for the Matrix (1999) and Star Wars (1999).

A photo of Cate Blanchett, 2002.

Cate Blanchett, 2002. Photo by Karin Catt, Karin Catt. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

As the 90s drew to a close Australian actors, including Cate Blanchett, Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette, began making regular appearances in the Oscar nominations.


With the dawn of a new millennium Australian talent continues to shine in the super-competitive environment that is the film industry.

Australians continued to share in the success of Oscar wins with Star Wars (2000) and Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002 and 2003).

Moulin Rouge (2001), received a swag of nominations for the musical tale of a struggling writer and a cabaret performer's immense love affair and the great tragedy that befalls them. Catherine Martin created a lush, rich vision of Paris and the Montmartre cabaret club and took home two Oscars alongside fellow Aussie Angus Strathie for Best Achievement in Costume Design and with Brigitte Broch for Art Direction.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe have received numerous nominations and awards, with Russell winning Best Actor in a Leading Role for Gladiator in 2000, and Nicole winning Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2002 for The Hours .

Adam Elliott won Best Animated Short Film for Harvey Krumpett in 2003.

At the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, Cate Blanchett received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator.

Heath Ledger was nominated for Best Actor in 2006 for his role as Ennis Del Mar in the cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain .

In 2008, Cate Blanchett was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actress for Elizabeth: The Golden Age ; and Best Supporting Actress for playing Bob Dylan in I'm Not There .

Heath Ledger received a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award in 2009 for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

Local film industry

As Australian talent is lured towards the lights of Hollywood and international collaboration, many Australians have displayed a commitment to returning to Australia and the local film community. For example, Rachel Griffith and Geoffrey Rush regularly work in both local theatre and film productions and Phillip Noyce returned to Australia to shoot the acclaimed Rabbit Proof Fence.

Useful links

The Oscars

Australian film

Last updated: 22 October 2009
Creators: Shevaun O'Neill, Kathryn Wells