On May 16, 1929, the best entertainers in the biz filed into the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California, for what would be the inaugural Academy Awards ceremony. At the time, the industry was rapidly changing — sound had just been introduced to film, and “talkies” weren’t even allowed to compete.
Over the years, as the industry has evolved, the Oscars have seen many historic changes. However, only in recent years has the Academy become more diverse in both gender and race. Accordingly, certain wins punctuate the Oscars’ history as particularly poignant.
So, today, we celebrate these trailblazers and the women since who’ve made us smile and laugh and cry with their on-screen performances — the women who’ve told our stories and shared their own in the process. To honor them, let’s take a look at the history-making Oscar wins for women through the years.
1929: Janet Gaynor
Janet Gaynor made history as the first women to ever win the Best Actress award at the very first Academy Awards. Gaynor, who won for 7th Heaven, wasn’t fazed by the gravity of the moment, telling The Telegraph, “Nobody felt there was any historical significance. I was pleased to win the award, and it was a thrill because I got to meet Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks for the first time.”
1935: Shirley Temple
Temple was a tender 6 years old when she made history by being the youngest person to ever win an Oscar. The special award was non-competitive, being presented “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contributions to entertainment.”
1938: Luise Rainer
Luise Rainer passed away in 2014 at the age of 104, but rest assured that the German-American actress lived an amazing life. After leaving Nazi Germany to pursue a career in acting, she quickly made her mark on Hollywood, becoming the first person, male or female, to win two consecutive acting awards: for The Great Ziegfeld in 1937 and The Good Earth in 1938.
1939: Hattie McDaniel
Even if you don’t recognize Hattie McDaniel’s name, you likely know her face — McDaniel played the memorable role of Mammy in the Southern classic Gone with the Wind. It was a role that made history, as McDaniel became the first black woman ever to win an acting Oscar for it. In fact, she was also the first black person, male or female, to be nominated in any category. A child of freed slaves who was also one of the first black women to be on the radio, McDaniel is deservedly getting her own biopic in 2019.
1957: Miyoshi Umeki
Known as humble and delicate yet assertive enough to steal scenes, Miyoshi Umeki made history in 1957 when she snagged a Best Supporting Actress award for her work in the post-WWII drama Sayonara. She was the first Japanese-American actress — and first Asian entertainer, male or female — to win an acting Oscar.
1974: Tatum O’Neal
Although Shirley Temple was the youngest entertainer to win any Oscar, Tatum O’Neal claimed the honor of being the youngest entertainer to ever win one in a competitive category. The actress, who was 10 at the time, took home a Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role in 1973’s Paper Moon.
1983: Linda Hunt
Many people don’t realize that NCIS: Los Angeles star Linda Hunt actually made movie history in 1983. Tragically under-recognized for her work, Hunt was the first performer to win an award for playing the opposite sex. She secured the Best Actress Oscar for her role as the (male) Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously.
1987: Marlee Matlin
At the 59th annual Academy Awards in 1987, Marlee Matlin won the Best Actress award for her riveting performance in Children of a Lesser God. What made the win historic was that Matlin was the first deaf performer to ever win an acting Oscar — and it was her first big role to boot! The actress, who lost her hearing at 18 months old, admitted to Slate in 2017 that representation in Hollywood still has a long way to go since her historic win. “Twenty percent of our population has a disability, and it is not reflected in film or television. Only 5 percent of roles in TV are played with characters that have a disability, and of that 5 percent, only 5 percent are played by people who actually have a disability. So, 95 percent of people who play roles with disabilities are not disabled,” Matlin said.
2002: Halle Berry
In what is arguably the best-known historic Oscar win, Halle Berry took home an Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball, becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress award. Her win also made history because Denzel Washington won Best Actor, making the pair the first black actor and black actress to win at the same Academy Awards. Berry admitted to Teen Vogue in 2017 that she feels “profoundly hurt” and “saddened” that more black women haven’t been given the opportunity to win the award since but that it has inspired her to become more involved behind the camera.
2010: Kathryn Bigelow
A low-budget film, The Hurt Locker focused on a bomb disposal team in Iraq. Considering its humble production value compared to its competition that year (which included James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar), it was quite a coup for the film to snag six awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and, yep, Best Director — which made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to win that category.
2017: Viola Davis
It was a truly touching moment in 2017 when Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role in Fences. Along with Mahershala Ali, who won for his role in Moonlight, the win marked the first time since 2007 that more than one black entertainer won in a competitive category on the same night. The Academy Awards of 2017 was historic in more ways than one, though — the evening also boasted the most wins for black actors to date.
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