The original 1968 film version of The Producers makes its Blu-ray debut today, and it’s as funny, outrageous, and tasteless as it was 45 years ago. But while we all know it was Mel Brooks’ feature filmmaking debut and the basis for the Broadway smash, most have forgotten that it also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay — a shockingly contrary prize from a body that doesn’t tend to hand out statues to comedies, and has thus created a general perception of an “Oscar movie” (i.e., serious drama, preferably with a message of stern social commentary; a period setting and/or a physically or mentally challenged character never hurts). But here are a few movies that fly in the face of that notion.
The Producers Best Original Screenplay, 1968
Mel Brooks famously responded to the charges that his film was vulgar thus: “my film rises below vulgarity.” But it is hard to comprehend exactly how shocking this win must’ve been back in ’68 (particularly since it was up against such serious fare as 2001, Faces, and The Battle of Algiers); it would be like There’s Something About Mary taking Best Screenplay 30 years later, but only if The Producers had never been made and there’d never been a movie quite as vulgar as Mary.
A Fish Called Wanda Best Supporting Actor, 1988
For a wacky R-rated heist comedy with a Monty Python influence, the sleeper hit Wanda did surprisingly well at the Oscars (which were dominated that year by the likes of Rain Man and The Accused). Charles Crichton was nominated for Best Director, he and star John Cleese were up for Best Screenplay (Rain Man won in both categories), and Kevin Kline took home the Supporting Actor prize for his portrayal of the spectacularly stupid Otto. It’s the kind of broadly comic performance that doesn’t usually get Academy love, though there was a period in which Oscars went to comedic work in the Supporting category — Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Jack Palance in City Slickers, Dianne Weist in Bullets Over Broadway, and…
My Cousin Vinny Best Supporting Actress, 1992
Marisa Tomei was the comic sparkplug of Jonathan Lynne’s courtroom comedy with her terrific turn as Mona Lisa Vito, the gum-snapping Brooklyn girl with a helpful knowledge of automotive rear axles. But because it was a lightweight comic turn, and since she was up against a quartet of heavy dramatic hitters (Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, and Judy Davis), her win was a big shock — so much so that king of class Rex Reed started a rumor several years later that presenter Jack Palance had read her name in error, and a “massive cover-up” had followed.
Death Becomes Her Best Visual Effects, 1992
Robert Zemekis directed this slapstick satire of Hollywood’s obsession with plastic surgery, featuring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis (in a return to his comic roots). It was a pleasant enough diversion, but again, not the kind of thing you think of as “Oscar worthy.” Yet its impressive visual effects, which aged and contorted all three actors, picked up an Oscar that year (over such competition as Batman Returns and Alien 3).
Harry and the Hendersons Best Makeup, 1987
Remember Harry and the Hendersons? The JV E.T. where a Bigfoot goes to live with John Lithgow and Melinda Dillon and their kids? No? Well, the Academy voters remembered it (for a few months, anyway), giving it the Oscar — in a kinda weak year, admittedly — for Rick Baker’s impressive Sasquatch makeup job. (He would, however, lose the following year for his remarkable Coming to America work — to another unlikely Oscar recipient, Beetlejuice.)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas Best Makeup, 2000
The tricky thing about the technical categories is that, often, in the process of honoring impressive achievements of craft, they end up giving awards to films that are utterly terrible. Exhibit A: Ron Howard’s unnecessary, unloved, and generally unwatchable feature-length live-action version of Dr. Seuss’ beloved holiday classic, which had already been beautifully adapted into a television cartoon, thank you very much.
Earthquake Best Sound Mixing, Special Achievement for Visual Effects, 1974
When we think of the ‘70s and cinema, we tend to think of either the intensely personal films of the “New Hollywood” or Spielberg, Lucas, and the birth of the blockbuster. But let’s not forget: this was also the era of the disaster movie, when any possible scene of mass death — skyscraper on fire, sinking ocean liner, doomed airliner — could be loaded up with an ensemble cast of rising stars and has-beens, picked off one by one. Earthquake was just one of many, and was dismissed by most critics as such (Leonard Maltin gives it his rare “BOMB” rating) — but it picked up a pair of Oscars, for both its visual effects and its much ballyhooed “Sensurround” sound.
Pearl Harbor Best Sound Editing, 2001
But no nose-holding technical win may be more painful than the statue handed to Michael Bay’s tepid, corny, repugnant love-triangle-at-the-dawn-of-WWII, Pearl Harbor. It was up for four prizes, winning one for Best Sound Editing — which, yes, was impressive. But good Jesus is it an awful movie, and since it was up against the equally proficient (and also good) Monsters, Inc., the fact that this pile of swill has won an Oscar is particularly galling.
Shaft Best Original Song, 1971
The Best Original Song category is a real mess, too often going to schmaltzy ballads or whatever song was in a Disney movie that year (or whatever schmaltzy ballad was in a Disney movie that year). Because it’s awarded by the notoriously, erm, aged Oscar voters, the prize rarely goes to anything remotely close to the pulse of popular culture — which is why it’s so shocking not only that the blaxpoitation private eye classic Shaft won an Oscar, but that its iconic theme song by Isaac Hayes was the recipient.
Flashdance Best Original Song, 1983
And, in all fairness, “Flashdance… What a Feeling” was about as ubiquitous in ’83 as “Theme from Shaft” had been a decade or so earlier. Shame about that movie, though.
Let It Be Best Original Song Score, 1970
The Oscars dropped the ball big-time when The Beatles appeared, failing to nominate any of the marvelous songs from A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 or Help! the following year. In either a reflection of critical acceptance of the band or an attempt to make things right, the Academy gave the group an Oscar in the now defunct “Best Original Song Score” category (basically, honoring all of the new songs in a film) for Let It Be — the perpetually unavailable documentary of the group’s unraveling, a process so complete by the time of the ceremony that none of the formerly Fab Four bothered to show up.
“Der Fuehrer’s Face” Best Animated Short Film, 1942
Have a seat, kids, I’ve got a cartoon to show you! It’s got Donald Duck — he’s your favorite, right? Well, I’ll bet you haven’t seen this one before; the folks at Disney don’t show it all that much anymore, even thought it won an Oscar in 1942. Why? Well, have you ever heard of a “propaganda film”? No? How about a “Nazi,” do you know what that is? Well, Donald is one in this cartoon — but don’t worry, he doesn’t want to be one, so it’s not at all disturbing and weird that they not only made this movie but gave it an Oscar. Promise!