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For Westerns Seeking Oscars, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

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The doings of cowboys have never interested the Academy Awards gang: over the ceremony’s 81-year history, only three Westerns have won for Best Picture: Cimarron , in 1931; Dances With Wolves , in 1990; and Unforgiven , in 1992.

Granted, a fellow named Oscar would probably get his teeth punched in and head dunked in a horse trough if he showed up on the range — but what gives? Doesn’t the Academy want to honor one of America’s homegrown contributions to culture? It has a rather depressing record of eschewing forms with too thick an aroma of proletariat entertainment about them (see this year’s snubbing of The Dark Knight).

The generic roots of Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven were laid by John Ford, with The Searchers, and Sergio Leone, with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Neither predecessor was nominated in its day in any category, and as explorations of violence and racism, both were far more subtle than any later, “social issue” Westerns.

Critical appreciation for those earlier films did eventually arrive — if in unexpected ways. Last year, composer Ennio Morricone won an honorary Oscar (his only) for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly‘s trumpet howls, shuffles, and wah-wah. John Wayne had to wait for the prize until 1968, when he won Best Actor for True Grit , albeit playing a hammy part that largely made light of the Western persona. Even when Oscar honors the Western, he doesn’t necessarily get it right!

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