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And the Oscar Goes to … an American

Both Academy Award and BAFTA voters tend to favor their own.

By Tom Jacobs


Leonardo DiCaprio in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony will no doubt include ridicule and denunciation of President Donald Trump’s nationalistic ideology. But if nationalism is defined as reflexively favoring one’s fellow countrymen, Oscar presenters shouldn’t press the point too hard.

Newly published research finds that basic human impulse plays a role in the choice of which actors get honored.

A study that looks at the Best Actor and Best Actress categories finds the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prefers to honor its own — that is to say, Americans — while the British Academy of Film and Television Arts is more likely to recognize performers from the United Kingdom.

This tendency, found for both nominations and actual awards, occurs in spite of the fact that voters — people working in the film industries of the two countries — are nominally voting for the best performance of the year, regardless of the actor’s nationality.

“A creation is most likely to be regarded as outstanding when artists are seen by perceivers to be ‘one of us,’” concludes a research team led by psychologist Niklas Steffens of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Its study is published in the British Journal of Psychology.

Steffens and his colleagues looked at the nominees and winners of Best Actor and Best Actress awards in both the British and American competitions from 1968 (when BAFTA first presented those honors) to 2015. Not surprisingly, given Hollywood’s dominance of the international film market, American artists were recognized with a majority of nominations and awards in both categories.

“A creation is most likely to be regarded as outstanding when artists are seen by perceivers to be ‘one of us.’”

Nevertheless, there were major differences between the two competitions. Sixty-seven percent of Oscar nominees in those categories were Americans, compared to 19 percent who were Brits (the others were from other nations). Among BAFTA nominees, 53 percent were Americans, and 31 percent were Brits.

This difference was magnified for actual winners. Seventy-eight percent of Best Actor or Actress Oscars went to Americans, compared to 14 percent for British thespians. The ratio was much closer for BAFTA awards: 46 percent went to Americans, and 42 percent to actors from the U.K.

Oscar voters also showed a preference for films set in their own society. “A U.S. actor in a movie about U.S. culture was 21 times more likely to have received an Oscar merit prize than a U.S. actor in a movie about a non-U.S. culture,” the researchers write. Similarly, British actors were 20 times more likely to receive a BAFTA award if their film was set at home.

This real-world evidence confirms the results of a 2008 study, which found individuals tend to consider works more creative if they were made by members of a group with which they identify. Together, the studies suggest “shared-identity concerns” play an important role as we decide which cultural achievements we choose to recognize and celebrate.

So, even if you thought French actress Isabelle Huppert gave the best performance of the year among actresses in Elle, you should think twice before writing her name on your office Oscar pool ballot. The odds are very strong that an American actress will win.

And in the Best Actor category, where Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Ryan Gosling, Viggo Mortensen, and Denzel Washington are nominated, they are 100 percent.