Michael Stuhlbarg Is About to Enter a Very Exclusive Oscar Club

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Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me by Your Name. Photo: Sony Picture Classics

One of the most fun things about Steven Spielberg’s The Post is how almost everybody in it was also in another Oscar movie this year. There’s Get Out’s Bradley Whitford playing a pompous board member! And that’s Lady Bird’s Tracy Letts as Meryl Streep’s trusted adviser! Even Streep’s daughter is played by Alison Brie of The Disaster Artist, though maybe that’s more of a Golden Globes movie. But nothing compares to the thrill of seeing Michael Stuhlbarg pop up as a New York Times editor, not just because Stuhlbarg has an enjoyably wry screen presence, but also because the actor was already in two of this year’s Oscar contenders, earning Best Supporting Actor buzz as an understanding father in Call Me by Your Name, and making the most of his scenes as a scientist in The Shape of Water. It’s like he died and went to character-actor heaven.

In fact, it’s looking pretty likely that when the Oscar nominations come out January 23, all three of those Stuhlbarg films will be on the Best Picture slate. That’s an achievement so rare it feels like it deserves its own name, and so I’m tempted to call the feat of appearing in three separate Best Picture nominees in a single year “Stuhlbarging.” But how rare is it? Has anyone else Stuhlbarged before? Let’s look into Oscar history and see.

Now, the list of actors who have appeared in two Best Picture nominees in the same year is a long one. It occurs pretty regularly: Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae both did it last year (coincidentally for the same two films, Hidden Figures and Moonlight), and Tom Hardy did it the year before with Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant. It’s easier to do now that the Best Picture field has been expanded — it also happened thrice in 2013, and a whopping four times in 2011 — but it was common in the old days, too. Geoffrey Rush and Emma Thompson did it in the ’90s. In the ’70s, John Cazale and Robert Duvall both did it. Yul Brynner, Spencer Tracy, and Olivia de Havilland all did it. The list goes on. You get it. It happens a lot.

But according to my research, only a small handful of actors have ever managed to make it into three Best Picture nominees in a single year. Here they are:

John C. Reilly (2002): This is probably the closest analogue to Stuhlbarg, as both are versatile supporting players with a nose for quality films. It felt like O’Reilly was in everything this year, as the future Steve Brule played a goon in Gangs of New York, and husbands to unfulfilled wives in both The Hours and eventual Best Picture winner Chicago. He also nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in the latter, but lost to Chris Cooper, a hunk.

Thomas Mitchell (1939): After Reilly, we’ve got to go all the way back to the 1930s to find the other actors to nab a threepeat of Best Picture noms. Of these, Thomas Mitchell was the most recent, with 1939 seeing the comic actor pop up as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind, a reporter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a doctor in Stagecoach. Still, this pales in comparison to Mitchell’s other three-themed acting achievement: He was the first man to win acting’s triple crown, taking home an Oscar for Stagecoach, an Emmy for The Doctor, and a Tony for Hazel Flagg. Unfortunately, the Grammy would elude him.

Bess Flowers (1936 and 1937): Flowers’s inclusion here might be a little controversial: She was a famously prolific extra who holds the record for most appearances in Best Picture nominees, even though she was never credited in most of them. Still, we’re including her for thoroughness’s sake, and for the fact that she apparently managed to Stuhlbarg two years in a row, playing characters like “Party Guest” in Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936 and The Awful Truth, In Old Chicago, and One Hundred Men and a Girl in 1937. And if that wasn’t enough, Flowers was instrumental in forming the Screen Extras Guild, a union for Hollywood extras. What a lady!

Charles Laughton (1935): Laughton was already a British stage legend when he became one of the biggest screen stars of the 20th century, and 1935 was the height of his fame. He played the implacable Captain Bligh against Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty, he was Javert to Fredric March’s Valjean in Les Misérables, and he also played the titular butler in the fish-out-of-water tale Ruggles of Red Gap. Bounty took home Best Picture, and also earned Laughton a Best Actor nod.

Claudette Colbert (1934): Like Laughton, Colbert was one of the brightest stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. (The pair would co-star in 1932’s Sign of the Cross.) In the seventh Oscars ever, she became the first person to ever Stuhlbarg, playing the title character in Cleopatra, a frustrated widow in Imitation of Life, and a lovelorn heiress in eventual winner It Happened One Night. Even more impressive, Colbert is the only actor on this list to be top-billed in each of their Best Picture contenders. Even Stuhlbarg didn’t Colbert this year!

Haters will point out that Stuhlbarg benefits from the expanded Best Picture field, which the Academy opened up in 2009, and that’s true. But it’s also true that the Oscars didn’t stick firmly to the only-five-nominees rules before that; as you might be able to tell from the names above, the 1930s saw an expanded Best Picture category as well. (1934 and 1935, for instance, each had a whopping 12 nominees.) If anything, we should pay more attention to John C. Reilly’s achievement: He’s the only guy to Stuhlbarg in a year when only five movies were nominated for Best Picture. That’s 60 percent of the field!

So, it’s probably more appropriate to use “C. Reilly–ing” for this particular honor. But just between us, I think I’m still going to call this feat by Michael Stuhlbarg’s name.

Michael Stuhlbarg Is About to Enter a Very Exclusive Club