It seems Hollywood is just getting around to how amazing Cicely Tyson is: The actress and fashion icon won her first Tony just five years ago for her turn in The Trip to Bountiful, she’s garnered acclaim and three Emmy nominations for her recurring role as Viola Davis’s mother on How to Get Away with Murder, she was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015 and given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Now, the 93-year-old (she’ll be 94 this December) will become the first black woman to receive an honorary Oscar from the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.
Viola, for one, is excited:
But this isn’t Tyson’s first flirtation with Oscar.
Picture it, 1972. I know, I know—none of you were born yet, but bear with me. It’s a banner year for film: The Godfather, Cabaret, Pink Flamingos, Lady Sings the Blues, Super Fly, Deliverance, Sounder, The Poseidon Adventure. The following year at the Oscars, history is made when, for the first time, three black actors are nominated for lead acting Oscars—Diana Ross for her film debut in Lady Sings the Blues, and Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson for Sounder. This wouldn’t happen again until 2002, when Denzel Washington (Training Day) won Best Actor over Will Smith (Ali) and Halle Berry became the first and only black woman to win Best Actress for Monster’s Ball.
Dorothy Dandridge was the first black woman to be nominated in that category for 1954’s Carmen Jones, but to this day, Ross and Tyson are the only two black actresses to be nominated for Best Actress in the same year. It’s a testament to the quality of that year’s films that they were nominated for two very different films and two very different performances.
Lady Sings the Blues was a big, splashy musical biopic ostensibly about the life of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday but really designed as a star vehicle for Ross, who had just finished a super successful run as the lead singer of one of the most successful acts of the ’60s, the Supremes. The film coincided with a blockbuster soundtrack album, propelling Ross into another stratosphere of fame. In his review, Roger Ebert admitted to being dubious about Ross portraying Holiday, but his fears were assuaged within the first three or four minutes, with Ebert concluding, “This was one of the great performances of 1972.”
Sounder, on the other hand, was an adaptation of William H. Armstrong’s novel about a Louisiana sharecropping family struggling to survive the Depression. The late Paul Winfield (who, fun fact, was gay) starred as Nathan Lee Morgan with Tyson as his wife Rebecca. While Ross’s performance was big and melodramatic, Ebert commented that it was “a wonder to see the subtleties in [Tyson’s] performance.” At the peak of the Blaxploitation film movement (1971’s Shaft and the aforementioned Super Fly were the prototypes of the genre), Sounder was a surprise hit, becoming the 15th highest grossing film of the year.
Though Ross and Tyson garnered critical praise for their performances, they faced stiff competition from acting icon Liv Ullman for the Swedish drama The Emigrants; Maggie Smith, an Oscar-winner for 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for the comedy Travels with My Aunt, directed by the legendary gay director George Cukor; and of course, the eventual winner, Liza Minnelli for the musical Cabaret. Minnelli is almost inseparable from her role as Sally Bowles, the insouciant singer at the heart of the Kander and Ebb musical, based in part on gay author Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and directed by Bob Fosse.
According to some sources, Ross was the frontrunner that year, but an aggressive campaign mounted by Motown head Berry Gordy, who produced Lady Sings the Blues, may have worked against her. But Minnelli was also a force of nature in Cabaret, belting and high-kicking her way through Fosse’s elaborate staging, so who’s to know? Still, 1973 was one of the toughest years, and just based on personality alone, one of the fiercest years in Oscar history.
Ross only scored one Oscar nomination as her acting career took a backseat to her music, though she would pop up again in 1975’s Mahogany and 1978’s The Wiz. Minnelli would never recreate the success of Cabaret, but would have enough comebacks to make her mother, Judy Garland, proud. Tyson had been acting in plays, film, and on TV since the early-50s, but Sounder was a watershed moment in her career. She would go on to win accolades for the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974 and the miniseries Roots in 1978. And she is still working and raking in awards at 93—and let’s not forget, slaying the fashion game—so this honorary Oscar is not only much deserved but also long overdue.