Where do Oscar-winning actors and actresses 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?

February 24 2017

The winners of the 2017 Oscars have been revealed and as the red 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 the University of California system and Yale (four winners each) produced the highest number of Oscar winners.

The relatively high number of University of California alumni winning Oscars, which include Nicholas Cage (for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996) and Michael Douglas (Wall Street, 1988), 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 two of the Best Actor winners (Sean Penn and Dustin Hoffman) and one Best Actress (Hilary Swank) attending Santa Monica Community College.

Yale University also produced four winners with both Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, 2012) and Frances McDormand (Fargo, 1997) receiving a master of fine arts from the university, and Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs, 1992) choosing to study an English literature degree there. Paul Newman (The Colour of Money, 1987) also attended Yale University's school of drama for a year.

The University of Cambridge was responsible for producing two winners, Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, 2015) and Emma Thompson (Howard’s End, 1993). Interestingly, neither chose to study drama opting instead for history of art and English literature degrees respectively.

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, 11 actors and eight actresses across the last 30 years chose to forgo university altogether. Instead, many stepped into the spotlight early on, and graced the stages of renowned theatre schools 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 Melbourne, Georgia 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 University, Yale University and Stanford University all producing winners in this category. In comparison, only Eddie Redmayne and Paul Newman attended universities ranked in the THE top 20 (The University of Cambridge and Yale 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 2018 winners will have taken to win the top awards at next years' 90th Academy Awards. 

The winners and their colleges

Best Actors: 

Year Winner/film Higher education?
2017 Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea George Washington University and 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, 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 Jess 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 California State Polytechnic University, Pomon & 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 & Queen’s College 
2002  Denzel Washington for Training Day Fordham university
2001 Russell Crowe for Gladiator None
2000 Kevin Spacey for American Beauty Juilliard School New York 
1999 Robert Benigni for Life is Beautiful None
1998 Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets None
1997 Geoffrey Rush for Shine University of Queensland
1996 Nicholas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas  University of California, Los Angeles
1995  Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump Chabot College & California State University 
1994 Tom Hanks for Philadelphia Chabot College & California State University
1993 Al Pacino for Scent Of A Woman None
1992 Anthony Hopkins for Silence Of The Lambs   Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama & Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
1991 Jeremy Irons for Reversal Of Fortune  Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
1990 Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot   Bristol Old Vic Theatre School 
1989 Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man Santa Monica Community College
1988 Michael Douglas for Wall Street   University of California, Santa Barbara
1987 Paul Newman for The Colour of Mone Kenyon college & Yale University

Best Actresses:  

Year Winner/film Higher education?
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 Vassar College & Yale University
2011 Natalie Portman for Black Swan  Harvard University
2010 Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side  East 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 West Virginia & 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
1993 Emma Thompson for Howard’s End University of Cambridge
1992 Jodie Foster for The Silence Of The Lambs  Yale University
1991 Kathy Bates for Misery  Southern Methodist University
1990 Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy None
1989 Jodie Foster for The Accused  Yale University
1988 Cher for Moonstruck None
1987 Marlee Matlin for Children Of A Lesser Point William Rainey Harper College 

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 treated as a single institution. Individual university information is available in the two tables above

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