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Oscar in the utility belt: 9 actors who won Academy Awards after playing comic-book characters

X-Men: Days Of Future Awards
X-Men: Days Of Future Awards

1. Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: First Class (2011) (Oscar in 2013)
For many actors, superpowers come after superstardom: Comic-book film adaptations have become big business, and these days studios are less likely to hand a potential franchise over to the unproven likes of a Christopher Reeve or a Brandon Routh. There remain modern-day exceptions to the rule, however: Take Jennifer Lawrence, whose induction into the X-Men’s cinematic ranks preceded bigger starring roles and future acting accolades. The actress first appeared as the shape-shifting Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme after her Academy Award nomination for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, but it was her starring role in The Hunger Games and her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook that made Lawrence a household name. Accordingly, Mystique is a much larger presence in the promotions for the upcoming sequel X-Men: Days Of Future Past: The theatrical poster has her standing tall above the Oscar-nominated likes of Ian McKellen, Ellen Page, and Michael Fassbender. But only Lawrence and one other co-star have converted those nominations to wins—and both did so after their time among the mutants.  

2. Halle Berry, X-Men (2000) (Oscar in 2002)
Apparently there’s one sure way to catch the attention of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences: Play a Marvel mutant. In addition to Lawrence, McKellen, Page, and Fassbender, the X-Men franchise’s Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) have received Oscar nominations following their work with Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters—a trend originated by the nod Berry received for her searing performance in 2001’s Monster’s Ball. Coincidentally, the year that Berry won her Oscar, the ceremony was going through a bit of superhero phase itself: Heralding the Academy Awards’ return to Hollywood—following three decades in which the awards were hosted in Downtown Los Angeles—Kingdom Come artist Alex Ross was commissioned to paint a Batman-inspired poster promoting the event. Berry’s next crossover with the Batman universe—2004’s Catwoman—wouldn’t turn out so positively.  

3. George Clooney, Batman & Robin (1997) (Oscar in 2006)
Batman & Robin could’ve been the beginning and the end of George Clooney’s time as a cinematic leading man. When he took the keys to the Batmobile following Val Kilmer’s exit from the Batman franchise, Clooney was still best known for his role on TV’s biggest drama, ER. But in the summer of 1997, he became the Batman with nipples, stiffly saving Gotham City from an overly punny Mr. Freeze, a wilted Poison Ivy, and an inflatable Bane in a film that captured all of the camp of the 1960s Batman TV show—but none of the fun. After the film went bust at the box office, Clooney retained a sense of humor about the role: “If Batman had to wear the suit that you have to wear, everyone would die,” he told DigitalSpy in 2012. That attitude could easily be traced to the upturn his film career took thanks to the four starring roles that followed his Batman bomb: Out Of Sight and The Thin Red Line in 1998, Three Kings in 1999, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000. Clooney’s political interests allowed him to put even more distance between himself and his superhero-as-fetish-model days, leading to projects like Syriana. He executive-produced as well as starred in that film—a performance that netted him a Best Supporting Actor trophy at the 78th Academy Awards.  

4. Jane Fonda, Barbarella (1968) (Oscar in 1972)
Jane Fonda’s never been afraid of a challenge. After some early breakout roles, her career seemed on the rocks after 1968’s Barbarella, adapted from the French cult comics in which an astronaut travels the universe helping people solve problems that turn out to be almost universally solvable with sex. Fonda’s acting abilities had been the subject of debate; getting through Barbarella’s camp with a straight face should have put the question to rest (rarely has so much been conveyed with such lack of affect as Barbarella deducing, “A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming”), but the jury was still out. Her turn in 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? changed some minds and garnered her an Oscar nomination. Then in 1971, she delivered a sharply honest and rough-edged performance as the prostitute Bree in Klute, and removed all doubt. Four years after donning a white leather monokini in a pink spaceship, Fonda took home an Oscar for the role that made her a different kind of icon.  

5. Eli Wallach, Batman (1967) (Oscar in 2011)
Sometimes a guy just wants to have fun. Eli Wallach made a name for himself in movies as a fantastic character actor equally comfortable with comedy (How To Steal A Million) and drama (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). With his star steadily rising, it seemed like a change of pace to sub in as the televised Batman’s third Mr. Freeze when the prior incantation, Otto Preminger, was unavailable. But Wallach wasn’t worried about his reputation—he’d return to TV throughout his career, and this time he was out to score a few cool points (sorry) with his kids, who were Batman fans. Wallach attacked the two-parter with gusto, whether facing off against Batman or chatting with a seal, resulting in a wildly popular take, one he says got him more fan mail than his other roles combined. That cumulative contribution to cinema wouldn’t go unnoticed; in 2011, after a career spanning nearly 50 years, the Academy awarded Wallach an Honorary Oscar “for a lifetime’s worth of indelible screen characters.”  

6. Gene Hackman, Superman (1978) (Oscars in 1972 and 1993)
7. Jack Nicholson, Batman (1989) (Oscars in 1976, 1984, and 1998)
Back when your grandparents were young, popcorn cost a nickel, people wore onions on their belts (which was the style at the time), and tentpole superhero movie series came out once a decade instead of once a month. When Tim Burton was tapped to bring Batman to the big screen, he looked back 10 years to the template set by Richard Donner’s Superman. Both films cast an acting heavyweight as the villain to balance out a relatively inexperienced lead. Christopher Reeve was an unknown before he wore the red S, and fans were initially horrified when Michael Keaton, best known as a comedic actor, was brought in to play the Dark Knight. The presence of Gene Hackman (who had already won an Oscar for The French Connection) as Lex Luthor, and Jack Nicholson (who had statues for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms Of Endearment, not to mention seven other acting nominations) as the Joker sent a message to audiences: Yes, this movie was based on a kids’ comic book, but the directors were taking this shit seriously. The message worked, and audiences came out in droves. Nicholson even netted a Golden Globe nomination for playing the Clown Prince Of Crime, and both actors got BAFTA nominations for their respective supervillains. The two remained acting giants long after their comic-book roles were behind them, each returning to the Oscar podium one more time: Hackman for Unforgiven, and Nicholson for As Good As It Gets.  

8. Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises (2012) (Oscar in 2013)
Everyone on this list was able to move from a superhero role to an Oscar win, but Anne Hathaway is the only one had both at the same time. In 2012, Hathaway secured a nomination and a win for her performance in Les Misérables as the factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine, the same year she also played Selina Kyle/Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Hathaway pulled off two entirely different performances in the same year, one tortured and melodramatic and the other sultry and conniving, and her ability to switch between the two in such proximity likely worked in her favor when award season rolled around. It certainly didn’t hurt her chances that Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight four years earlier, striking a decisive blow against the Academy’s superhero film prejudice in relation to that particular franchise.

9. Christian Bale, Batman Begins (2005)/The Dark Knight (2008) (Oscar in 2011)
After being unfairly snubbed by the Academy for Newsies, Christian Bale wasn’t thought of as an actor who wins awards. While he did interesting work in small films like Velvet Goldmine and The Machinist, his specialty seemed to be playing preening, entitled rich guys with a sadistic streak, which he did to great effect in American PsychoShaft, and three Batman movies. (What else is Bruce Wayne but Patrick Bateman with a moral code, and a much better, bat-shaped, metal, throwable business card?) While donning the cape led to roles in other blockbusters, it also led to some far more downmarket violent tendencies in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. Bale took home an Oscar for his turn as the drug-addicted, washed-up half-brother who trains Mark Wahlberg’s aspiring boxer. Three years later, Russell cast Bale in American Hustle, giving the actor his second nomination. With a Terence Malick film on the horizon, Bale could end up with a reputation as a capital-A actor, and not just a good-looking rich guy who can put on a really growly voice.