How ‘Belfast’ and Kenneth Branagh Could Set a New Record at the Oscars

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Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film “Belfast” is opening in theaters this week and has already attracted an immense amount of Oscar buzz, currently sitting as the frontrunner for best picture, director and several other categories. With honors and audience awards from various festivals, the Focus Features black-and-white drama has the famed filmmaker on a path to make Oscar history.

For “Belfast,” Branagh serves as one of the producers (along with Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas), which makes him eligible to be nominated for best picture, along with director and original screenplay. He’s received five nominations during his career, all across different categories – director, actor, supporting actor (“My Week with Marilyn”), adapted screenplay (“Hamlet”) and live action short (“Swan Song”).

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Pending any unforeseen catastrophe, Branagh is on track to add two new categories to his arsenal (picture and original screenplay). This possibility could set a couple of records for the Ireland native. First, he would tie George Clooney, Alfonso Cuarón and Walt Disney as the only ones to be nominated in six different categories, if he picks up one of the two. Second, capturing both would make Branagh the first person in Oscar history to pick up noms in seven individual categories, surpassing all of them.

In addition, Branagh would join the company of Clooney and Warren Beatty as the only people to have received noms in every eligible major category — picture, director, lead or supporting acting and either screenplay.

Warren Beatty

  • “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) – picture, actor

  • “Shampoo” (1976) – original screenplay

  • “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) – picture, director, actor, adapted screenplay

  • “Reds” (1981) – picture, director (won), actor, adapted screenplay

  • “Bugsy” (1991) – picture, actor

  • “Bulworth” (1998) – original screenplay

George Clooney

  • “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) – director, original screenplay

  • “Syriana” (2005) – supporting actor (won)

  • “Michael Clayton” (2007) – actor

  • “Up in the Air” (2009) – actor

  • “The Descendants” (2011) – actor

  • “The Ides of March” (2011) – adapted screenplay

  • “Argo” (2012) – picture (won)

It should be noted that this record comes with technicalities and asterisks as you factor in Walt Disney who, during his 59-nomination career run, garnered nominations and wins for some projects he didn’t personally produce. In the case of Cuarón, when “Roma” won international feature, the country (in this case Mexico) is the official Oscar nominee in the record books.

Branagh has been a respected actor and director for over three decades. After getting his start with more minor roles in “A Month in the Century” (1987) and “High Season” (1987), and an uncredited role as a Cambridge student in the best picture winner “Chariots of Fire” (1981), he took on the words of William Shakespeare for his directorial debut “Henry V” (1989), which he also adapted and starred in playing the titular role. Garnering universal acclaim, the film has long been beloved within the Shakespeare adaptation canon. The film won an Academy Award for costume design (Phyllis Dalton), with Branagh nominated for directing and acting. There have only been ten instances of a person being nominated for both acting as the lead in and directing the same feature film.

  • Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

  • Laurence Olivier, “Hamlet” (1948) – won for best actor

  • Woody Allen, “Annie Hall” (1977) – won for best director

  • Warren Beatty, “Heaven Can Wait” (1978)

  • Warren Beatty, “Reds” (1981) – won for best director

  • Kenneth Branagh, “Henry V” (1989)

  • Kevin Costner, “Dances with Wolves” (1990) – won for best director

  • Clint Eastwood, “Unforgiven” (1992) – won for best director

  • Roberto Benigni, “Life is Beautiful” (1998) – won for best actor

  • Clint Eastwood, “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) – won for best director

Belfast - Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Belfast - Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Branagh’s not the only filmmaker playing triple duty as a producer, director and screenwriter in heavy contention for Oscar glory this year. Current major contenders include Pedro Almodóvar (“Parallel Mothers“), Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog“), Joel Coen (“The Tragedy of Macbeth“), Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero“), Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”), Rebecca Hall (“Passing”), Adam McKay (“Don’t Look Up”), Jeymes Samuel (“The Harder They Fall”) and Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”).

In 93 years of Oscar ceremonies, only eight people have pulled off the “hat trick” of winning picture, director and screenplay in a single year:

  • Leo McCarey, “Going My Way” (1944)

  • Billy Wilder, “The Apartment” (1960)

  • Francis Ford Coppola, “The Godfather Part II” (1974)

  • James L. Brooks, “Terms of Endearment” (1983)

  • Peter Jackson, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

  • Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu, “Birdman” (2014)

  • Bong Joon-ho, “Parasite” (2019)

Can Branagh join the elite list?

Far from the season being locked for any contender, various factors can tilt an awards season in any direction. Support for the film will be dependent on actors, the largest branch of the Academy. Five cast members are seeking recognition, with young Jude Hill facing the most significant hurdle in a stacked best actor field. Jamie Dornan and Ciarán Hinds hope the trend for double-dipping for supporting men continues (as three of the last four years have shown). Caitríona Balfe and Oscar-winner Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”) are competing in the most competitive of the four acting races. If all four supporting roles are nominated, it would be just the third film in Academy history to receive an acting “double-double” – following “Peyton Place” (1957) and “The Last Picture Show” (1971). The latter won two acting prizes for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman.

We’re just waiting to see how it all shakes out. You can listen to the “Variety Awards Circuit Podcast” episodes with Balfe and Dornan.

“Belfast” opens in theaters on Nov. 12.

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