On Sunday 28th February the 88th Academy Awards ceremony will be held to honour the best films and acting performances from the past year.

For any actor or actress winning an Oscar is career defining. Many claim that being nominated is recognition enough. However, imagine the disappointment when the lights dim, the envelope is opened but someone else’s name is read out. At this point they have to deliver the ultimate performance – looking magnanimous in defeat as the camera zooms in for a close up.  

With four acting nominations but no wins to his name, Leonardo DiCaprio has experienced his fair share of Oscar heartbreak. Many are speculating that surely this has to be Leonardo’s year with his nomination for The Revenant.

But will Oscar success this year be influenced by Leonardo’s previous disappointments? Is there such a thing as a ‘sympathy’ Oscar? And does the data support this hypothesis?

First, let’s look at all of the ‘first-time’ winners of either the Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress from the last 81 Oscars (some of the early Oscar awards had slightly different award formats so they have been excluded for  simplicity). How many previous nominations had all these ‘first time’ winners (277 individuals) received before they won their first Oscar?

The graph shows that if DiCaprio is to win his first Oscar this time around he will join a select group of 7 other actors and actresses who had to wait until their 5th nomination.  In fact 62% of ‘first time’ Oscar winners, in the main acting categories, had never been previously nominated.

How sympathetic should we feel for Leonardo DiCaprio? Is his ‘0 for 4’ record the cruellest Oscar scorecard? Far from it:

Spare a thought for the actor Peter O’Toole who was nominated on eight occasions but never won an Oscar. The actor Richard Burton was nominated on seven occasions but never won. Mr DiCaprio take note – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts has been far crueller to some of your contemporaries.

But are these exceptions? Is there such a thing as a ‘sympathy’ Oscar? Are you more likely to win an Oscar having been nominated before? To answer this let’s again look at the Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress data from the last 81 Oscars. The following graph presents the ‘win proportion’ for first time Oscar winners and their number of unsuccessful previous nominations:

For example, there have been 35 actors or actresses who were nominated for an Oscar having had 4 or more previous unsuccessful Oscar nominations – 11 of these (31%) won with this record. The win rate broadly increases if you have a greater number of previous failed nominations, shown by the linear regression line in red. Though simplistic, this analysis suggests that you are more likely to win your first Oscar the more you’ve been disappointed in the past. A large health warning with this analysis is that the sample size gets very small by the time you get into 6+ territory. Nevertheless this is the trend within the data.

So perhaps the concept of the ‘sympathy’ Oscar does really exist. Good news Leonardo – your previous heartbreak means you’re more likely to win this time around.