The great American western is widely considered a trend that ruled the silver screen from the silent era through the 50s. Over the decades, tales of bandits and outlaws dueling in the Wild West won the hearts of nostalgic crowds, and the movies doubled down on their fame each year when they dominated the Oscars.
As time passed, however, stories of the west largely fell by the wayside. In the 60s, audiences’ attentions shifted from westerns to action-packed spy thrillers and heart-wrenching dramas. At that point, the film world believed the genre had run its course.
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After decades in darkness, westerns are currently making a resurgence, thanks to stars like Kevin Costner and series like Yellowstone. As westerns enjoy a second day in the sun and Hollywood once again gears up to celebrate its biggest night of the year with the 95th annual Academy Awards ceremony, we dove into the past to explore all the cowboy stories that managed to reclaim glory at a time when the genre was otherwise dead.
‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969)
If you’re a fan of westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is probably already on your list of favorites. But if you’re just getting into the genre, the movie is a great place to start.
The story follows Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, two outlaws on the run after a train robbery goes awry. The film gives fans all the shootout action that made westerns a hit. It also keeps the quirky warm-hearted spirit of the era alive with the endearing misadventures of two best friends who, at heart, are the real heroes of the tale.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid impressively earned seven Oscar nods in 1970. And when all was said and done, it went home with four wins; Best Writing, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song.
Burt Bacharach was the star that year, with two of the wins. The decorated composer wrote the film’s score and the music for the original song, Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.
Bacharach passed away on February 8, 2023. He was 94. During his career, he earned one more Oscar win in 1982 for penning the music for Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do), which appeared in Arthur.
‘True Grit’ (1969)
Next on the list, True Grit, is the capstone project for John Wayne, who is arguably the greatest western star of all time.
The movie stars the Duke as the lead, Rooster Cogburn, a jaded U.S. Marshal who teams up with a Texas Ranger to help a teenager avenge his father’s death.
Wayne starred in 184 movies and series during his five decades in Hollywood. Before being nominated for Best Actor in True Grit, he had two unsuccessful nods from the Academy Awards. His portrayal of Cogburn finally gave him his well-deserved glory.
At the time, Wayne was confident he would lose out on Best Actor for a third time as he was under fire for supporting the Vietnam war. Because of his ailing health, he also believed it was his last chance at a win. So Wayne was prepared to leave his esteemed career without ever receiving the coveted award.
After Barbra Streisand read his name at the 1970 ceremony, Wayne wiped tears from his eyes. He then gave a profounding heartfelt thank you to everyone who supported him. The iconic speech rounded off his award-winning performance in the most endearing way possible.
As he suspected, Wayne never did earn a fourth nomination. And the remainder of his career was plagued by health issues as cancer spread from his lungs through his body. John Wayne passed away in 1979.
‘Dances With Wolves’ (1990)
Westerns didn’t make many appearances at the Oscars during the 70s and 80s. However, Kevin Costner brought them back in the 90s in a big way with Dances With Wolves.
The civil war-era film follows Costner as a Union Army lieutenant who is determined to discover his roots after he stations at a remote western post. While there, he befriends a Native American Sioux tribe and becomes an enemy in his ranks when he works to restore peace between the government and the indigenous people.
Dances With Wolves served as Costner’s directorial debut, and it came with enormous praise. In total, the film earned 12 Academy nominations, and it won in seven categories.
Kevin Costner took home the awards for Best Director and Best Picture (shared with Jim Wilson). The film also won Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Original Score.
Two years after Costner helped the genre make a resurgence, another legendary western star, Clint Eastwood, brought Unforgiven to the screen. The movie subsequently ruled the Oscars in 1993 by winning nearly all the most acclaimed awards.
Unforgiven is the ideal gritty, gunslinging story that follows retired outlaw Bill Munny as he gets back into the game one last time to help his old partner and a young gun take on a dirty sheriff and track down a villain for a hefty bounty.
The movie is one of the most famous modern westerns ever. And it currently maintains a 96% critic and 93% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Academy Awards celebrated the masterpiece by giving it 12 nominations and four wins.
Eastwood won Best Director and Best Picture. The awards were his first-ever Oscar nominations and wins. Gene Hackman also scored Best Supporting Actor, and the film took home another win for Best Editing.
Clint Eastwood dedicated his achievements to his longtime mentors, directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegal, who passed away shortly before Unforgiven’s release.
‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)
No Country for Old Men was the last overwhelmingly successful western to make it to the Oscars in recent years, and it was a decidedly darker twist on the genre.
The movie trades cowboys and gunslingers for the more modern lawlessness of the drug cartel. In this violent, psychological thriller, a hunter happens upon $2 million cash, which was left behind after a drug deal went south. Instead of calling the cops, he pockets the money and runs. The decision makes him the target of a cunning and psychotic killer.
At the 2008 ceremony, No Country for Old Men was in the running for eight awards, and it won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Directing, and Best Screenplay.