So, you know what was a great movie? Blue Valentine. Yes, you walk out of it feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut, and it may be one of the worst first-date movies of all time, but good lord, the performances are crushing, the structure is masterful, and there’s just not a moment of it that you don’t believe. Oh, and you know what else is great? Rabbit Hole. Again, not exactly an upbeat, fizzy movie, but wow, it’s so subtle and restrained but it just absolutely breaks your heart. Now, these aren’t the kind of movies that do gangbuster business based on their loglines (“Enjoy this heartbreaking tale of a couple falling to pieces!”), but it’s a good thing they’ve been properly recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so they can promote all those Oscar nominations, right?
What’s that? They each got only one nomination? Oh dear. Well, still, even getting one Academy Award nomination is a big deal, right? A movie’s got to be pretty exemplary to even be considered for that kind of award recognition. Just take a look at the full list of nominees, and you’ll see some of the other movies that got nominated this year, like… Salt? The Wolfman? Country Strong? Wait, so, at least in terms of the number of nominations, Blue Valentine is somehow comparable to Country freaking Strong?
But wait, there’s more. Tim Burton’s awful Alice in Wonderland remake? Not one, not two, but three nominations. Yes, friends, Alice in Wonderland is three times as Oscar-worthy as Rabbit Hole.
We know, we know, those films are nominated in secondary categories, technical awards and “best original song,” and the like, slots which hone in on specific (rather than overall) qualities of the picture at hand. But still. If the phrase “Academy Award nominee Country Strong” doesn’t stick in your throat…
Then again, for all of its cachet as the last word on quality motion pictures, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is far from infallible. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first year that perfectly terrible movies have been nominated for Academy Awards. In fact, some of them have even won. Let’s take a look at some of the most egregious entries in Oscar’s Hall of Shame.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a bewildering, noisy, sloppy, cynical piece of work, a movie that sneers at the audience for 147 minutes and expects us to lap it up as entertainment — and be grateful.” So wrote Robert Wilonsky in The Village Voice, summing up the general tone of those critics unfortunate enough to draw the short straw and get sent off to review Michael Bay’s bombastic, mindless, endless sequel to his inexplicably successful 2006 effort, based on the cartoon series that was based on the toy line. (So it’s basically a sequel to a film version of a cartoon commercial.) But hey, how about that sound, eh? New York’s David Edelstein complained, “Much of the movie is computer-generated hash, weightless even with nonstop BOOMS and METAL GROANS and THUDS,” but somehow, the “film” (we use the term loosely) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Sound. (It lost to the year’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker). So, as we count the days until the next Transformers movie (there’s Transformers on the moon! Holy cow!), just remember to always note that it is the sequel to “Academy Award nominee Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”
The Lovely Bones
Hopes were high for Peter Jackson’s 2009 adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel; he was still riding high off the critical and financial success of the Lord of the Rings series and his King Kong remake, the source material was widely beloved, and his cast was impeccable (Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon). But the result was a muddled mess, poorly paced and overly precious. The difficult story of family heartbreak is told by a director who has clearly lost his grip on how human beings talk and interact, too busy playing with green-screens and CGI to bother with the performances of his ensemble. Paramount positioned it for Oscar season, with a limited December release for awards consideration before going wide in January, and it made it into several award previews. Then people started seeing the movie. “The miscalculation on almost every level is perversely thorough,” wrote Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. “It’s as if the filmmaker, faced with an endless series of daunting creative choices, proudly took the wrong road each and every time.” In the end, only Stanley Tucci was nominated (even Jackson’s precious effects went unrewarded), and while we’re all for Tucci getting his props, his twitchy, overdone performance is not among his best work. He ultimately lost the award to Christoph Waltz, and Peter Jackson decided that maybe he’d direct The Hobbit after all.
2006 saw the release of some pretty great movies: Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, Capote, The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence, Walk the Line. Crash was not one of those great movies. Paul Haggis’s multi-story portrait of race relations in Los Angeles was irritatingly hackneyed and simple-minded (racism is bad!), yet it somehow garnered mostly positive reviews and an astonishing six Academy Award nominations. It won three: for editing, for the contrived and jarringly heavy-handed screenplay, and most annoyingly, for Best Picture. Go back and take a look at the films it beat; not only did the Academy pick the wrong nominee, they picked the worst nominee of the bunch. That takes some doing.
Life Is Beautiful
Throughout the ‘90s, few studios were as consistently successful at campaigning for — and winning — Oscars than Miramax, the indie production-and-distribution house headed by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. They really stepped up their game in 1994, when the company was purchased by Disney, who provided the deep pockets necessary for the Weinsteins to make members aware of their many fine releases.
That’s about the only explanation, from this vantage point, for the seven nominations bestowed upon writer/director/star Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, the heartwarming tale of a Jewish Italian father who tries to shield his young son during their time at a Nazi concentration camp by pretending it’s all a big, fun game. Maudlin and in somewhat questionable taste, the film garnered mostly good reviews, though a few brave souls objected. In Time, Richard Schickel wrote: “Sentimentality is a kind of fascism too, robbing us of judgment and moral acuity, and it needs to be resisted. Life Is Beautiful is a good place to start.”
Nonetheless, the film won three of those seven awards, including Benigni’s Best Actor (over Edward Norton in American History X, Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Nick Nolte in Affliction, and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan). You could feel the backlash against precious Benigni begin before he even made it to the stage (he climbed over the seats and generally made an ass of himself). He took five years to make his follow-up, a costly live-action version of Pinocchio that garnered downright hostile notices (0% at Rotten Tomatoes). He tried to capture that old whimsy-in-wartime magic in 2005 with the Iraq War romance The Tiger and the Snow, but it flopped as well.
What Dreams May Come
Vincent Ward’s gooey afterlife drama suffers from a bad case of New Age goofiness, to say nothing of Robin Williams in full-on needy-dramatic-actor mode (he made this right around the same time as Patch Adams) and a screenplay with more surprise character reveals than an entire season of Scooby Doo (“I’m not your guide to heaven — I’m actually your high-school guidance counselor!”). Variety’s Todd McCarthy appraised it thus: “A heaping serving of metaphysical gobbledygook wrapped in a physically striking package.” But that striking package was what caught the Academy’s fancy; it was nominated for Art Direction and Visual Effects, winning the latter. And, in all fairness, it is an awfully pretty movie. But it’s an awfully goofy one, too.
Look, there’s nothing terrible about Peter Weir’s 1990 film Green Card (well, aside from the fact that Andie MacDowell is in it). It’s a perfectly charming and modestly amusing, if absolutely formulaic, romantic comedy. But why on earth was it nominated for Best Original Screenplay? Particularly if you take the word “original” literally? There are only two possible explanations: general goodwill towards Weir, writing his first screenplay in nearly a decade, but nominated twice in the interim (for Witness and Dead Poets Society), or a very weak field of possible nominees (Alice and Avalon are not among Woody Allen and Barry Levinson’s best scripts, and the eventual winner was the even-more-derivative-than-Green-Card hit Ghost).
Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution is a must-read for anyone serious about film. In it, he spins the page-turning yarn of the changing of the guard in Hollywood, and does it through the prism of the 1967 Best Picture nominees: The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (New Hollywood knocking down the door), In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Old Hollywood trying to tell current, socially relevant stories), and… Doctor Doolittle, which basically represents everything that was wrong and failing in Old Hollywood.
A bloated musical extravaganza, Doolittle was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to duplicate the phenomenal successes of their Sound of Music; it went three times over its $6 million budget but met with mixed-to-bad reviews and poor box office. Yet producer Arthur P. Jacobs got Fox to pony up big bucks for an Oscar campaign, mounting a series of mammoth dinners for Academy members and racking up an impressive nine nominations and two wins (for Special Effects and Original Song). The folks at Fox didn’t learn the lesson of Doolittle’s financial loss, though, and almost bankrupted the studio with the equally costly flop musicals Star and Hello, Dolly in the two years that followed.
Elizabeth Taylor played the leading role in Daniel Mann’s 1960 melodrama primarily as a political move: MGM offered to let her out of her three-year contract — leaving her free to take Fox’s million-dollar offer to star in Cleopatra — if she’d take on the role of Gloria Wandrous, a woman of rather ill repute. Taylor’s reputation wasn’t too sterling itself those days, having broken up the marriage of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, whose supporting role in Butterfield 8 was one of the many conditions Taylor placed upon her participation. According to Fisher, the pair hated the film (they called it Butterball 4); Taylor complained to studio bosses that it was “the most pornographic script I have ever read.” But audiences were enticed by the salacious subject matter (and its parallels to the star); it met with robust box office and nominations for Best Actress and Best Cinematography. “I still say it stinks,” Taylor famously remarked after the nomination. Taylor ended up taking the prize, though many called it a sympathy vote for the star, who had contracted a near-fatal case of pneumonia while in pre-production for Cleopatra.
Around the World in 80 Days
Michael Todd’s all-star, widescreen extravaganza was a huge hit when it was released in 1956, and garnered respectful to enthusiastic reviews, in addition to eight Oscar nominations. It won five, including Best Picture. It hasn’t aged particularly well, though; seen today, it’s an enjoyable little diversion, but certainly not Best Picture material — especially when compared to the films it beat out, like Giant and The Ten Commandments. More distressingly, the best film of 1956 wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture: John Ford’s complex, mesmerizing, morally ambiguous Western drama, The Searchers.
The Greatest Show on Earth
“The Academy Award for Best Picture has been bestowed on any number of unworthy candidates over the years,” writes PopMatters’ Jesse Hassenger, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one less deserving than The Greatest Show on Earth.” That seems to be the general consensus opinion of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus melodrama, a dull “extravaganza” that runs 152 long minutes. Again, though, the real infraction comes from what was passed over in the film’s favor: it beat out fellow nominees High Noon and The Quiet Man — and Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t even among those Best Picture nominees.
So what do you think? What other memorable mistakes has the Academy made over the years?