The EGOT is great. There’s no denying that. It’s the American entertainment grand slam, and the rarity with which it’s earned (12 people) only adds to its elite status. Tracy Jordan was right.
But there’s another award mash-up that’s so elite only one person has ever done it. That award combo is the ONK, and that person is George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw is the only person to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize, and he was offered a Knighthood for good measure.
Shaw earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925 for – as is the case with many recipients – his overall body of work up to that point, which included a healthy amount of vibrant novels and plays that explored the human capacity for hope within a twisting satirical viewpoint of social norms. The award came on the heels of his “Saint Joan,” a moving play based on the life of Joan of Arc – a popular figure who would be part of another masterpiece only a few years later in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1929 Passion of Joan of Arc. There was also the sprawling “Back to Methuselah” – which may have played as a 1920s version of The Fountain – and the play he may be most known for, “Pygmalion.”
It’s that play which he’d adapt for a 1938 Leslie Howard-starring film that earned Shaw the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, making him the only Nobel Laureate to win an Academy Award.
What’s maybe most interesting about the distinction is that Shaw wasn’t merely a dabbler in Hollywood. He’d appeared as an actor in several short films in the 1910s, and Pygmalion wasn’t his only foray into screenwriting. Simply put, Shaw wasn’t a Nobel Laureate coming down off his pedestal to grace moving pictures with his big, playwright mind. A humanist who was devastatingly funny for everyone with the right dent in their brain, he was also an aging writer willing to experiment in a new form of storytelling. Several of his plays, including “Saint Joan,” made it to the big screen , and he wrote three of the accompanying screenplays. That includes Caesar and Cleopatra, his last, written when he was 89 years old. For a man born 8 years before the Civil War started, he had an excellent movie career.
Part of what makes the Oscar/Nobel match-up so amazing is that we don’t typically think of those worlds colliding. There have been plenty of movies made from the work of Nobel Laureates (think Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Grazia Deledda, Ernest Hemingway), but it’s rare for those writers, even in the modern era, to write their own adaptations, or to work in movies at all. Plus, Nobel winners in physics haven’t been nearly as prolific as screenwriters as you’d hope.
There is one man that has an earnest challenge to Shaw’s status as a singular ON holder: Al Gore. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on climate change, the same year An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for Best Documentary. It’s a nice bit of symmetry, but the Oscar naturally goes to the filmmaker (Davis Guggenheim in this case), and not the subject of the doc. Still, Gore is the closest person to scratching at Shaw’s coattails on this front.
Regarding the K part of the ONK, Shaw was offered a knighthood but rejected it (not a big fan of kneeling, maybe?), so you can drop the K element if you’re a stickler, but Shaw still remains the only human to combo a Nobel and an Academy Award. Plus, rejecting a knighthood is a mic drop move if there ever were one.
I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more Nobel Laureates working in film, if only because cinema is over a century old now. Also because there are a lot of important filmmakers telling vital stories that embody the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s award. Maybe one day it’ll be expanded to include filmmaking as its own category of consideration. Stranger things have happened. Hopefully Alice Munro writes the next Transformers movie and takes her shot at ON glory. Bonus points if she makes it a musical.
One last thought about this monumental bit of trivia – George Bernard Shaw died 9 years before the first Grammy ceremony, 1 year after the first Emmy ceremony and 3 years after the first Tony ceremony. If he’d had just a few more years with a pen in hand, he could have made a genuine push for the EGONT.