BEST ACTOR WINNER 1998: Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) WON OVER: Edward Norton (American History X), Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters), Nick Nolte (Affliction)
Good God in heaven, where do we even start with Life is Beautiful? It was bad enough that writer/director/star Roberto Benigni’s soppy attempt to make his own Day the Clown Cried rode the unstoppable Miramax Oscar-buying machine to statues for Best Foreign Film and Best Score; Benigni’s insufferable, mug-tastic performance winning Best Actor was a bridge too far. Going home empty-handed that evening were Edward Norton, whose fierce and unforgettable turn in American History X is one of his best; Sir Ian McKellen, who was subtle, understated, and unforgettable as closeted Hollywood director James Whale in Gods and Monsters; and Nick Nolte, burying his customary tics and affectations in the complex portrayal of a wounded son in Affliction.
BEST PICTURE/DIRECTOR WINNER 1990: Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) WON OVER: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese)
When discussing the Academy’s countless snubs of Martin Scorsese (who never won Best Director or directed a Best Picture winner until 2006’s The Departed), most tend to point to first-time director Robert Redford winning Best Director and Best Picture for Ordinary People in 1980 over Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull. And while that was certainly an injustice, Ordinary People was at least a reasonably good movie — something that can’t be said for 1990’s Dances with Wolves, another film by a first-time actor-turned-director (Kevin Costner this time) that won both prizes over Scorsese’s best film of the 1990s, the electrifying gangster epic Goodfellas. But this is the problem: the Academy will often reward the movies it thinks it should like, instead of the ones that are actually entertaining or well-made; the Oscars for Dances were less about the actual quality of the stilted picture, or Costner’s pedestrian direction, than they were about Hollywood (which cranked out literally thousands of Westerns demonizing the Native American) making a film that was sympathetic to America’s indigenous people. Commendable? Definitely. Worthy of swipin’ Marty’s Oscars? Hardly.
BEST ACTRESS WINNER 1967: Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) WON OVER: Anne Bancroft (The Graduate), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde)
Look, no one’s hating on Katharine Hepburn here; she was one of our finest actors, period, point blank, the end. But look, she won four Oscars, and the second, for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was not for an especially brilliant performance — particularly when you realize that she was up against two of the most iconic female performances of the late 1960s: Mrs. Robinson and Bonnie Parker. The 1967 Oscars (as rivetingly described by Mark Harris in his indispensable book Pictures at a Revolution) found the motion picture industry at a crossroads, with the young Turks of the New Hollywood banging at the door, and the mainstays of the industry trying valiantly to keep up with the times. Unsurprisingly, that year’s Oscars went to the veterans instead of the upstarts, with race-potboiler In the Heat of the Night taking Best Picture honors over The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, while Hepburn beat Bancroft and Dunaway for her performance in the interracial romance drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Baby steps, baby steps.
BEST ACTOR WINNER 1965: Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou) WON OVER: Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker)
At that same 1967 ceremony, Rod Steiger won the Best Actor award for his work in In the Heat of the Night — a fine comic burlesque of the Southern racist, and quite effective, though its superiority to some of the other nominees (including Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, Dustin Hoffman as The Graduate, and Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke) is debatable. But this is a trend you’ll see often in the awards: the Academy makes the wrong call rather frequently, and will often try to make amends by giving an actor an award for a later, often less impressive performance. Elizabeth Taylor won for Butterfield 8 after losing for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman after losing for the Godfather movies, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and others; Denzel Washington won for Training Day after losing (to Pacino) for Malcolm X. And in 1965, Steiger was nominated for one of the most harrowing and powerful performances in all of cinema, as concentration camp survivor Sol Nazerman in Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Pawnbroker — and he lost to Lee Marvin’s double act in the comic Western Cat Ballou. Look, I’m as big a Cat Ballou fan as the next Cat Ballou fan, and Marvin is wonderful (as always) in the role. But what Steiger is doing in The Pawnbroker isn’t even in the same universe as Marvin and the other nominees.
BEST PICTURE WINNER 1994: Forrest Gump WON OVER: Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption
Every now and again, a big blockbuster charms the critics, rakes in the cash, and rides its initial success all the way to the Best Picture trophy — only to provoke, within a few scant years, regret and confusion among movie fans akin to the morning after an absinthe bender. Some feel that way about Titanic (which beat L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting in 1997); some have Best Picture buyer’s remorse for Rocky (which bested All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver in 1976). For this filmgoer, though, there’s no equal for 1994 — and it’s not because I think Forrest Gump is a terrible movie, even. Sure, it’s maudlin, and its politics are (in retrospect) awfully troublesome, and that run-across-America sequence pretty much grinds the whole thing to a halt. But it got to me; I’m not made of wood, people. Yet even allowing it that slack, there’s no reasonable explanation for its win over three superior films: Robert Redford’s subtly brilliant look at the loss of innocence in a new medium, Quiz Show; Frank Darabont’s tear-jerking future TNT favorite, The Shawshank Redemption; and, most of all, Quentin Tarantino’s ground-breaking and wickedly entertaining Pulp Fiction, which all but transformed how films were seen (and made) for the rest of the decade.
BEST PICTURE WINNER 1941: How Green Was My Valley WON OVER: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, Sergeant York
Every film poll worth its salt will tell you that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, and they may very well be right; Welles’ film debut was innovative both narratively and technically, and maintains its considerable punch over 70 years after its release. But the Academy didn’t even think Kane was the best film of its year — that honor went to How Green Was My Valley, directed by John Ford in one of his pastoral moods. It’s a fine film, an honorable and well-made literary adaptation, brought to the screen by Daryl F. Zanuck with his customary professionalism and class. It’s also utterly forgettable — in stark contrast to not only Kane, but the other films it beat: John Huston’s quintessential detective picture, The Maltese Falcon; Hitchcock’s tense domestic thriller Suspicion; and Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, starring Best Actor winner Gary Cooper.
BEST ACTOR WINNER 1973: Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger) WON OVER: Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Al Pacino (Serpico)
Who doesn’t love Jack Lemmon? Not us. But he was up against three of the most astonishing male performances of the decade in 1973, when his somewhat award-courting serious turn as a busted-out businessman in Save the Tiger won the Best Actor prize over Al Pacino’s brilliant turn as honest cop Frank Serpico, Jack Nicholson’s charged performance as sailor “Badass” Buddusky, and Marlon Brando’s tortured widower Paul in Last Tango. Of the later, Pauline Kael memorably wrote: “The excitement of Brando’s performance here is in the revelation of how creative screen acting can be.” But Brando was still Hollywood’s enfant terrible, and there was no way, deserving or not, that he was going to win another Best Actor award after the previous year’s Sacheen Littlefeather debacle. Nicholson and Pacino, meanwhile, were the Sons of Brando, young Method actors on the rise; the inclination of the Academy’s older voting bloc was to go with the old pro, the sentimental favorite, so Lemmon won. Intriguingly, the exact same scenario played itself out in the category the very next year — with some of the same players, even — as Art Carney won for Harry and Tonto over Pacino (for Godfather II), Nicholson (for Chinatown), and Dustin Hoffman (for Lenny).
BEST ACTRESS WINNER 1985: Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful) WON OVER: Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple)
Oscar loves to award the talented newcomer who makes a big splash in their debut performance: witness the wins for Jennifer Hudson, Anna Paquin, and Marlee Matlin. Most assumed that stand-up-comedienne-turned-actress Whoopi Goldberg would do the same; Steven Spielberg spotted her in her acclaimed one-woman Broadway show and offered her the leading role of Celie in his adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. Critics were bowled over by her nuanced, heart-wrenching performance, and when that year’s Oscar nominations were announced, one of the film’s 11 was Goldberg’s, for Best Actress. She was the presumed front-runner for the trophy, but here’s the catch: the only thing Oscar voters like more than honoring the impressive newcomer is honoring the hard-working lifer. Geraldine Page had been nominated seven previous times for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress; The Trip to Bountiful was a film considerably further under the radar than The Color Purple, but enough Academy voters saw it to hand Page what was probably more of a Lifetime Achievement Award than a Best Actress prize.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS 1970: Helen Hayes (Airport) WON OVER: Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces), Sally Kellerman (MASH)
And the same goes double for Hayes, a longtime star of the stage and screen who had been making movies for nearly 40 years when she won the Oscar for her supporting work in the asinine but astonishingly successful Airport. To be sure, Hayes is the best thing in this boilerplate disaster movie (“Miss Hayes milks her role of a little-old-lady stowaway for all it’s conceivably worth, and I have a suspicion she wrote some of her own dialogue,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time. “It’s warmer and more humorous than the stiff lines everyone else has to recite”), but that’s not hard to be; moreover, she provided a much safer choice to Academy voters than the complicated roles — and films surrounding them — of Karen Black as the mistreated girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces, or Sally Kellerman as the object of derision in MASH.
BEST PICTURE WINNER 2005: Crash WON OVER: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich
Every true film lover can pinpoint the moment when they “broke up” with the Oscars, when the Academy made a choice so illogical, so upsetting, and so numb-skulled as to blow their credibility forevermore. When you’re young, the Oscars are a big deal, the movie geek equivalent of the Super Bowl; then they blow it, and while you may watch in the years that follow, it’s never with the same enthusiasm or gusto. For some, that moment came in 1971, when The French Connection beat out A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show; for some, it was Gandhi’s 1982 win over E.T., Tootsie, and The Verdict; for others, it was Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line in 1998. But this writer made it all the way to age 30 before giving up on Oscar, when the biggest award of the night went to Paul Haggis’ pedantic, contrived, and utterly artless Crash. In going with this simple-minded “racism is bad” tale, Oscar voters passed over Ang Lee’s revisionist cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain, Bennett Miller’s masterful biopic Capote, George Clooney’s enthralling Murrow vs. McCarthy tale Good Night and Good Luck, and Steven Spielberg’s difficult but rewarding Munich. It’s not just that the less-deserving nominee won; at the 78th Academy Awards, the worst nominee (by leaps and bounds) won. Me and Oscar still hang out every once and while, but we haven’t been the same since.
So those are our picks for Oscar’s most inexplicable choices — what are yours? Let us know in the comments.