Seven is a prime number, and in several sports (notably baseball, basketball and hockey), the seventh game is the pivotal one to end a series that leads to a spot in a championship – or the title itself. It is also the key number in a 1995 Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman thriller that effectively launched David Fincher as a filmmaker (forget Alien 3 as his starting point, he did); Ingmar Bergman had a Seventh Seal, and Akira Kurosawa needed seven for his legendary Samurai.
At the Academy Awards, seven nominations can be a good showing – regardless of the critical and/or commercial success a film can achieve. While it may not be a leading number (with films usually going into ten or more territory making them favorites to win it all), having seven bids doesn’t automatically mean total victory at Hollywood’s biggest night won’t be assured. Since the first ceremony in 1929, eleven films needed only seven bids at the Oscars to waltz their way to the Best Picture trophy.
The first Best Picture winner of this special “seven club” was the 1931 Western Cimarron, an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel about a big-city lawyer who takes their family West to settle in the Oklahoma territory. It would also win for its screenplay and art direction. Five years later, the ambitious MGM biopic The Great Ziegfeld (with William Powell in the title role of the famed showman producer) waltzed its way to the Best Picture prize along with its seven chances. In 1938, director Frank Capra only needed the same number of bids for his hit adaptation of the Kaufman-Hart comedy You Can’t Take It with You. Working alongside James Stewart as the stockbroker who falls for the daughter of an eccentric family, Capra won the Best Picture and Director statuettes for his efforts.
The 1940s would see three more seven-time Best Picture nominees managing to score the victory, with the decade seeing it happen back-to-back at one point. 1945 saw Billy Wilder tackle the difficulties of surviving alcoholism with The Lost Weekend, and its four wins including the top prize cemented the writer-director’s reputation. Laurence Olivier also had the lucky nod number on his side for his scaled-down but still ambitious treatment of Hamlet, released in 1948. While he missed out on Best Director (losing to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the British actor scored the picture and lead acting trophies. The following year, the Southern political drama All the King’s Men also had a seven-bid year that culminated in a Best Picture win – along with a lead actor victory for Broderick Crawford.
There were no seven-bid Best Picture winners in the 1950s, but the following decade would boast two. 1967 saw the Rod Steiger/Sidney Poitier crime drama In the Heat of the Night pull off this feat, defeating seminal classics Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate to achieve the ceremony’s top prize. Two years later, the then X-rated road drama Midnight Cowboy would carry its seven nominations to the Best Picture crown – besides having two lead acting nominees in Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight (both would lose). While the 1970s would not have any seven-nodded winners in the top category, there was one in the decade after. The 1981 track-and-field drama Chariots of Fire pulled off one of the Academy Awards’ biggest upsets by earning the Best Picture prize – defeating Warren Beatty’s Reds and the blockbuster adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After a lack of seven-bid winners in the 1990s, the 21st century would see two films join the rare club. Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film Million Dollar Baby was a late entry into the competition, but the powerful drama about a female boxer (played by Hilary Swank) was too hard for Academy voters to resist. It scored four statuettes including the big prize, along with wins for Swank, co-star Morgan Freeman, and for Eastwood’s directing. The most recent seven-time nominee to carry the night is also the most recent winner at the Oscars: Ben Affleck’s 2012 docudrama Argo, about an unusual but true mission between government agents and Hollywood moviemakers to rescue hostages in Iran. While Affleck was given the snubbing treatment for the Best Director prize, he would get the last laugh in claiming Hollywood’s top prize.
Usually at the Academy Awards, a Best Picture nominee with seven total bids would not stand a chance against any films that have their nod totals in the double digits (think Titanic and All About Eve‘s record-tying 14 bids – the double of seven – during their winning runs). Yet this trend has not always maintained – out of the 85 Best Picture winners, eleven films didn’t have to score ten or more bids to reach the summit of Hollywood’s biggest night. Their critical and/or commercial merits may have been enough for these movies to win the Academy Awards’ most coveted prize – proving an old time-tested theory that less can sometimes be more after all.