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John Ford may have been the greatest director of westerns, but none of his four directing Oscars were for his sagebrush sagas. Only his classic 1939 "Stagecoach" and 1963's "How the West Was Won" — on which Ford was one of three directors — were nominated for the best picture Academy Award. Even his 1956 masterwork, "The Searchers," a complex story of a Civil War vet's obsessive quest for his niece captured by Indians, failed to receive an Oscar nomination.
"People at this time of year like to talk about Oscar snubs," said Richard Jewell, a film professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts who teaches a class on the western genre. "The fact that they gave the best picture award that year to 'Around the World in 80 Days,' a film that we can't watch anymore, and didn't give a single nomination or award to 'The Searchers' or a nomination to John Wayne for a performance which is one of the most powerful performances in the history of movies, it is just a travesty."
Only three traditional westerns, 1931's "Cimarron," 1990's "Dances With Wolves" and 1992's "Unforgiven" have won the best picture Oscar. And only a handful more have received best picture nominations, including 1952's "High Noon," 1953's "Shane," 1969's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and now Joel and Ethan Coen's revisionist "True Grit." (The Coens' 2007 best picture winner "No Country for Old Men" was set in the modern West.)
The original 1969 "True Grit" received two nominations — lead actor for John Wayne, who won the Oscar, and best song. Seminal westerns such as Howard Hawks' 1948 "Red River" and 1959's "Rio Bravo," Sam Peckinpah's 1969 "The Wild Bunch," as well as Ford flicks including 1946's "My Darling Clementine," 1948's "Fort Apache," 1949's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and 1950's "Rio Grande" didn't earn best picture nods.
"The thing is for so many years, westerns were primarily B pictures," explained Turner Classic Movies host and Oscar historian Robert Osborne.
"They were not terribly important. … Even in their time they were not that acknowledged or they weren't revered really until years later when we all started looking back on those films. In those days they were popular movies, but they weren't taken that seriously. It's like Orson Welles, he was never appreciated when he was doing his movies."
But it didn't start out that way. Jewell points out the genre was taken seriously in the silent era of the 1920s with the success of such epics as Ford's "The Iron Horse" and James Cruze's "The Covered Wagon." And that continued in the academy's infancy.
Though "Cimarron" took the best picture Oscar in 1931, it was a box-office failure, losing about half a million dollars — a huge amount during the Depression.
"They stopped making the big A westerns for a while," Jewell said, "though they continued an avalanche of these B pictures. There was a sense that these films were basically kiddie films. … I think the sense of the genre being unsophisticated that you don't give awards to coalesced during that time and continued for years after."
Jewell says perceptions about the genre began to change with the development of film studies at universities and the critical acclaim these movies received from New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. " I think all of a sudden when you get that kind of attention from filmmakers saying 'Hey, these are great movies! What is wrong with you people?' The ironic thing is by that time, the genre started to decline."
Though Jewell personally regarded the Coens' "True Grit" as just "OK," he said he wasn't surprised by its success. (It was nominated for a total of 10 Oscars and has made more than $160 million at the U.S. box office.) "There are so few westerns made that this kind of cloud of nostalgia has enveloped the genre," he said. "Whoever is brave enough to make a big western nowadays, they are going to get a lot of attention."