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Where do Oscar-winning actors go to university?

Where did the world's best actors of the last 30 years go to college? And how many chose to forgo higher education altogether?

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Seeta Bhardwa's avatar

Seeta Bhardwa

Editor, THE Student
March 11 2024
oscar winners university


The winners of the 2024 Oscars have been revealed and as the red (champagne) carpet is being stored away for another year, Times Higher Education looked at the winners of the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards over the past 30 years to see where they went to university (perhaps to refine their Oscar winning talents?)

Looking back at the higher education paths of these Oscar winners reveals that University of California system, Yale University and the University of Cambridge produced the highest number of Oscar winners.

In 2023, Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian actress and the second woman of colour to win the Best Actress award. She didn't go to university, but began her career as a dancer which helped her to perform her own stunts in her first few roles. 

The relatively high number of University of California alumni winning Oscars, which include Nicholas Cage (for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996) and Helen Hunt (for As Good As It Gets in 1998) could suggest that studying in close proximity to Hollywood increases your chances of an Oscar win. Many Oscar winners also studied at community colleges across California, with one of the Best Actor winners (Sean Penn) and one Best Actress (Hilary Swank) attending Santa Monica Community College.

The University of Cambridge is the alma mater of Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, 2015), Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, 1993) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite, 2019). Interestingly, none of them chose to study drama opting instead for history of art, English literature and primary teaching respectively. Colman left Cambridge after one term and went on to study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. 

Yale University produced two winners with both Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, 2012) and Frances McDormand (Fargo, 1997, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2018, Nomadland, 2021) receiving a master of fine arts from the university. 

However, as would be expected the majority of these winners chose to study drama or theatre degrees. Of those who didn’t, English literature was a popular choice as were art, photography or music. Natalie Portman (Black Swan, 2011) was one of the few to buck the arts trend and chose a psychology degree. 

While many Oscar winners felt that university was the right course to theatrical success, eight actors and four actresses across the last 30 years chose to forgo university or theatre school altogether. Instead, many stepped into the spotlight early on or took up less glamorous jobs until they got their big break.

Best Actress winners were more likely to go to university than their male counterparts, but a greater number of them dropped out midway through their courses. These included Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, 2014), Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2001) and Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets, 1998), who dropped out of the University of MelbourneGeorgia State University and the University of California, Los Angeles respectively. 

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The Best Actress winners were also more likely to have attended a university featured in the Times Higher Education’s World University Ranking’s top 20, with Harvard UniversityYale UniversityStanford University and the University of Cambridge all producing winners in this category. In comparison, only Eddie Redmayne and Casey Affleck attended universities ranked in the THE top 20 (University of Cambridge and Columbia University respectively).

It seems that the route to stardom is multi-forked, and that little gold statue can be attained in many ways. Ivy League institutions, community colleges and drama schools (and choosing not to attend university at all) have all produced talented actors and actresses. It will be interesting to see which route the 2024 winners will have taken to win the top awards at next years' 96th Academy Awards. 

The winners and their colleges

Best Actors

Year Winner/film Higher education?
2024 Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer University College Cork
2023 Brendan Fraser for The Whale Cornish College of the Arts
2022 Will Smith for King Richard None
2021 Anthony Hopkins for The Father Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
2020 Joaquin Phoenix for Joker None
2019 Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody University of Evansville 
2018 Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour Rose Bruford College 
2017 Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea Columbia University 
2016 Leonardo Dicaprio for The Revenant None
2015 Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything University of Cambridge
2014 Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club  University of Texas at Austin
2013 Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln   Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
2012 Jean Dujardin for The Artist None
2011 Colin Firth for The King’s Speech  The Drama Centre London (part of the University of the Arts, London)
2010 Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart Herbert Berghof studio in New York
2009 Sean Penn for Milk Santa Monica Community College 
2008 Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
2007 Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland University of Southern California
2006 Philip Seymour Hoffmann for Capote  New York University
2005 Jamie Foxx for Ray  Alliant International University
2004 Sean Penn for Mystic River Santa Monica Community College
2003 Adrien Brody for The Pianist Stony Brook University and Queen’s College 
2002 Denzel Washington for Training Day Fordham University
2001 Russell Crowe for Gladiator None
2000 Kevin Spacey for American Beauty The Juilliard School  
1999 Robert Benigni for Life is Beautiful None
1998 Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets None
1997 Geoffrey Rush for Shine The University of Queensland
1996 Nicholas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas  University of California, Los Angeles
1995 Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump Chabot College and California State University 
1994 Tom Hanks for Philadelphia Chabot College and California State University

Best Actresses  

Year Winner/film Higher education?
2024 Emma Stone for Poor Things None
2023 Michelle Yeoh for Everything Everywhere All at Once Royal Academy of Dance 
2022 Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye Sacramento City College and American Academy of Dramatic Arts 
2021 Frances McDormand for Nomadland Bethany College and Yale University
2020 Renee Zellwegger for Judy University of Texas at Austin
2019 Olivia Colman for The Favourite  University of Cambridge and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School 
2018 Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Bethany College and Yale University
2017 Emma Stone for La La Land None
2016 Brie Larson for Room American Conservatory Theatre
2015 Julianne Moore for Still Alice Boston University 
2014 Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine  University of Melbourne
2013 Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook  None
2012 Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady Yale University
2011 Natalie Portman for Black Swan  Harvard University
2010 Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side  Carolina University
2009 Kate Winslet for The Reader Redroofs Theatre School
2008 Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose None
2007 Helen Mirren for The Queen National Youth Theatre
2006 Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line  Stanford University 
2005 Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby  Santa Monica Community College
2004 Charlize Theron for Monster  None
2003 Nicole Kidman for The Hours University of Melbourne Faculty of VCA and MCM
2002 Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball Cuyahoga Community College
2001 Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich  Georgia State University,
2000 Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry  Santa Monica Community College
1999 Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare In Love  University of California, Santa Barbara 
1998 Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets  University of California, Los Angeles
1997 Frances McDormand for Fargo Bethany College and Yale University
1996 Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking Catholic University of America
1995 Jessica Lange for Blue Sky University of Minnesota
1994 Holly Hunter for The Piano Carnegie Mellon University

Methodology: Actors did not have to graduate for their college to be included. For the purposes of the analysis, the University of California system has been treated as a single institution. Individual university information is available in the two tables above

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