Turns out the legal community does have a dog in this year's Oscar hunt."Michael Clayton" nabbed seven nominations, among them, best picture, best director (Tony Gilroy), best actor (George Clooney, as a law firm's fixer), best supporting actress (Tilda Swinton, as a stressed-out general counsel), best supporting actor Tom Wilkinson (as a far-more-stressed-out senior litigator) and Gilroy again, this time for best original screenplay.When Gilroy came through town a few months ago to pump his film, I asked him about the Oscar buzz already building for his legal thriller."I don't know," he demurred at the time. "The best thing is to be natural about it. You know, gee, that's exciting, but. ... "I guess I'm flopping around trying to think about how to think about it. You don't want to be so pretentious you say you don't want to think about it. But I've seen people ruin their careers trying to chase after it."However, now that Oscar is chasing him (fingers crossed), what are his chances? For some perspective, here's how matters of jurisprudence fared at the Academy Awards.Well, for starters, Gregory Peck won Best Actor in 1962 for playing Atticus Finch, the Most Heroic Lawyer in History (movies or otherwise) in "To Kill a Mockingbird."Almost 40 years later, Julia Roberts won Best Actress as Albert Finney's (a best supporting actor nominee) feisty legal assistant in "Erin Brockovich."Sometime in between, Tom Hanks won the first of back-to-back Oscars as an AIDS-infected lawyer dismissed by his conservative firm. Set, of course, in "Philadelphia," the city of brotherly love.There are a handful of others but if the Academy voters were a jury, actors going anywhere near a courtroom would probably be facing jail time. In 80 years, only 10 legal movies or actors playing members of the legal community have taken home gold. That's, um, approximately one a decade, out of, um, approximately 1,420 nominees (the supporting categories didn't kick in until 1936).Here's a decade-by-decade breakdown.2000sTwo nominations, one winner (Roberts).1990sFour nominations, one winner (Hanks).The others included: Susan Sarandon as a Memphis lawyer in "The Client" (Best Actress); Anthony Hopkins as ex-President John Quincy Adams, returning to his legal roots to defend the rebellious Africans in "Amistad" (Best Supporting); Robert Duvall as a Boston corporate lawyer who opposes a crusading John Travolta in "A Civil Action" (Best Supporting).1980sFour nominations, no winner.The nominees were Paul Newman and James Mason for "The Verdict," with Newman getting a nod for a washed-up lawyer and Mason for Newman's scheming opponent (Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively); Jessica Lange gamely defending her father, an accused Nazi war criminal, in "Music Box" (Best Actress); Marlon Brando in what amounts to an extended cameo as a South African barrister fighting apartheid in "A Dry White Season" (Best Supporting).1970sFive nominations, two winners -- John Houseman named Best Supporting Actor for his turn as a legendary Harvard Law contracts professor in "The Paper Chase," and "Kramer vs. Kramer," which won Best Picture (Best Actor Dustin Hoffman and Best Supporting Actress Meryl Streep were not lawyers -- but clients in the title divorce.)The nominees were: Ryan O'Neal as a preppie Harvard law student (is that redundant?) in "Love Story" (Best Actor); Robert Duvall as the Corleone family's cucumber-cool attorney in "The Godfather" (Best Supporting); Al Pacino as an earnest and, um, histrionic lawyer in " ... And Justice For All" (Best Actor).1960s Seven nominees, four winners -- (Along with Peck, there were lawyer-turned-Lord Chancellor Paul Scofield (Best Actor) in "A Man for All Seasons"; Walter Matthau (Best Supporting) as the ambulance-chasing bottom feeder in " The Fortune Cookie"; and Maximilian Schell (Best Actor) defending Nazi officers in "Judgment at Nuremberg."Among the nominees, Spencer Tracy as the Clarence Darrow figure in "Inherit the Wind" (Best Actor); Tracy again, as a judge, in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (Best Actor); and Jack Nicholson in his breakthrough role as the easy-going Southern lawyer in "Easy Rider" (Best Supporting). 1950sEight nominations, no winners. The nominees included: Rod Steiger as Brando's union-bought brother in "On the Waterfront" (Best Supporting); Arthur Kennedy as a self-aggrandizing Commie attorney in "Trial" (Best Supporting); Charles Laughton as a bulldog-tenacious barrister in "Witness for the Prosecution" (Best Actor); Louis Calhern as the celebrated Oliver Wendell Holmes in "The Magnificent Yankee" (Best Actor); a trio of counselors, Jimmy Stewart (Best Actor) and George C. Scott and Arthur O'Connell (Best Supporting) in "Anatomy of a Murder" and "12 Angry Men" (Best Picture), which starred a dozen actors playing that twelve-headed monster, The Jury.1940sThree nominations, one winner -- (Walter Brennan as the infamous Hanging Judge Roy Bean in "The Westerner" (Best Supporting).The nominees were: Raymond Massey as a legal eagle pre-Presidential "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (Best Actor); and James Stephenson, given the unwelcome task of defending a murderous Bette Davis in "The Letter" (Best Supporting Actor).1930sOne nominee, one winner (George Arliss as lawyer/Prime Minister "Disraeli" (Best Actor).
Film Critic Eleanor Ringel Cater can be reached at email@example.com