10 Times Oscar Got It (Unexpectedly) Right

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The Academy Awards telecast is one week away, and we’re already cynical about it. Maybe it’s just the prolonged nomination season, extended by a couple of weeks due to the Winter Olympics; maybe it’s our annual memories of the organization’s voluminous poor choices, snubs, and awkward ceremonies; maybe it’s that recent, horrifying peek into the voting process. At times like this, it’s worth remembering that for all the times they got it wrong, the Oscars occasionally get it very right — even when it’s least expected. And in that spirit, we’ve collected ten occasions when the Academy Award went, surprisingly and delightfully, the right way.

Best Picture: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

The Best Picture nominee slates in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s offer up a fascinating thumbnail portrait of an industry in turnabout, with edgy films of the increasingly exciting “New Hollywood” movement vying against the clanging leftovers of the dying studio system. 1970 saw MASH and Five Easy Pieces going up against Airport and Love Story; in 1971, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, and The Last Picture Show took on Fiddler on the Roof. But the 1969 race is particularly interesting: it featured the crowd-pleasing yet slyly subversive Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the big-budget megaflop adaptation of Hello Dolly!, the British costume drama Anne of a Thousand Days, and Costa-Garvas’ brilliant French political thriller Z. But the big winner, surprisingly enough, was Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesinger’s gritty New York drama, considered a less than likely winner not only for its raw style and grim storytelling, but for its X rating. Yet it won — deservedly, as it’s a tough, uncompromising movie filled with memorable sequences, iconic dialogue (“I’m walkin’ here!”), and superb performances by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight — and it remains the only Best Picture winner to carry the X rating.

Best Director: Mike Nichols, The Graduate (1967)

Here’s another interesting line-up: In 1967, Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate competed against the carefully semi-controversial In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the clumsy, money-hemorrhaging disaster Doctor Doolittle (and seriously, if you haven’t, drop everything and go read Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the state of the industry via that year’s five nominees). The Best Picture prize went to the socially relevant if formally safe In the Heat of the Night, but the voters got a little more daring with the Best Director statue, bypassing Heat’s Jewison for nightclub-comic-turned-director Nichols. It was only his second film (after the stunning debut of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but in it, he established much of the style, voice, tone, and aesthetic of the remarkable cinematic era to come.

Best Picture: Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood so dominated the Oscars for the decade-plus that followed Unforgiven, it’s easy to forget that before that film, he’d never seen a single nomination — in spite of the two decades he’d spent crafting a distinctive directorial style. He was thrice nominated for this bleak, powerful 1992 Western, for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, and the latter prize could have gone to any number of easily digestible picks: Rob Reiner’s much-quoted courtroom drama A Few Good Men, Martin Brest’s Pacino-rific Scent of a Woman, Merchant-Ivory’s verrry respectable British period drama Howard’s End. But both the Director and Picture prizes went to Eastwood, whose late-period oater offered up a muted take on the genre and some timely themes on the destructiveness of casual violence (on screen, and in the real world).

Best Actress: Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

The story goes that Elizabeth Taylor’s first Oscar win (after three losses) for the 1960 drama Butterfield 8 was less about the performance or the film — of which she famously said, “It stinks!” — than about the actress herself (if you can imagine the Oscars being so shallow). Taylor came down with a “grave” case of pneumonia during that year’s Oscar derby, and her breathlessly reported brush with death earned her what most agreed was a sympathy vote. With that statue in hand, it seemed less probable that she could win again, only six years later — but her breathtakingly brilliant turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was simply too good to ignore, and remains her crowning achievement onscreen.

Best Actor: Gene Hackman, The French Connection (1971)

It was a sure sign of the changing tides in Hollywood that a hard-edged, rough-and-tumble cop picture like The French Connection could not only get nominated for Best Picture, but win. Yet it did, and so did star Gene Hackman, for his electrifying turn as obsessive New York cop “Popeye” Doyle. Hackman, too, was a symbol — for a new kind of leading man, the kind of presence (regular-guy looks, intense style, etc.) that was normally consigned to character roles. But in the decade to come, unconventional stars like Hackman would dominate the acting profession (and the acting awards).

Best Supporting Actor: Jason Robards, All the President’s Men (1976)

Robards’ exquisite turn as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee is everything a supporting performance should be: he strolls into the movie every few scenes and absolutely owns it, all but making us forget that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (whose deference to him is in character — he’s their boss — but also seems a case of actor respect) are in the movie too. It’s perhaps the finest performance by one of our greatest screen actors, but the competition for the prize was no cakewalk: he was up against both Burgess Meredith and Burt Young from the crowd-pleasing Best Picture winner, Rocky, as well as Ned Beatty’s brief but memorable turn in Network and Laurence Olivier’s chilling appearance in Marathon Man. But in this case, the best man did indeed win.

Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Ruth Gordon was a three-time nominee in the screenwriting categories and previous Supporting Actress nominee (for 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover) when she finally won the prize for her spirited yet scary turn in Roman Polanski’s terrifying Rosemary’s Baby. Her competition wasn’t all that stiff — the only other genuinely memorable performance in the bunch is Lynn Carlin’s in Faces — but her win was still a bit of a shocker, since horror films were (and, as a general rule, still are) given the cold shoulder by the Academy (and Rosemary’s Baby only got one other nomination, for Adapted Screenplay). But before we go nuts patting Oscar on the back for giving Ms. Gordon her props here, never forget: she wasn’t even nominated for Harold and Maude.

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, Pulp Fiction (1994)

In retrospect, considering what a bunch of fuddy-duddies Oscar voters are, it’s kind of amazing that Quentin Tarantino’s foulmouthed, blood-soaked masterpiece got the seven nominations it did. But it became clear early on that the far more “safe” and “traditional” Forrest Gump would be the favorite, and sure enough, in the four categories where the films faced off (Picture, Director, Actor, Editing), Gump was the winner. But they didn’t compete in the Best Original Screenplay race (Gump was up for Adapted Screenplay, which it won), and that’s where Pulp Fiction netted its single prize — as it should have, since Tarantino and Roger Avary’s innovative blend of pulp iconography, pop-culture dialogue, and circular storytelling would influence a generation of screenwriters.

Best Original Screenplay: Chinatown (1974)

Maybe the writers’ branch is just hipper than the general population, but the Best Original Screenplay winners are, in many instances, films that have aged better and proved more influential than their Best Picture counterparts (the winners include The Producers, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Melvin and Howard, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Usual Suspects, Fargo, Almost Famous, Lost in Translation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). In 1974, Polanski’s masterful Chinatown was in a bit of a Pulp Fiction/Forrest Gump conundrum, albeit with a better movie than Gump on the other side of the equation: The Godfather Part II, which beat Chinatown for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Art Direction. (Side note: Chinatown lost Best Cinematography to The Towering Inferno, and Godfather II wasn’t even nominated. What in the actual fuck?) But again, because its fiercest competitor was an adaptation, Chinatown took the much-deserved Original Screenplay prize — over several very fine nominees, including Coppola’s excellent The Conversation and Truffaut’s Day for Night. But Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown remains one of the finest ever produced, becoming something of a “here’s how to do it right” textbook for budding screenwriters.

Best Original Song: “Theme from Shaft” (1971)

If you’re under the weather and need to do one of those forced-vomiting situations, take a listen to a selection of the Academy Award winners for Best Original Song, aka the Playlist From Hell: “You Light Up My Life,” “We May Never Love Like This Again,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Say You, Say Me,” “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and, of course, “My Heart Will Go On.” This track list of shame only serves to further underline how totally astonishing it is that, somehow, someway (and you may insert your own “blind squirrel” or “broken clock” analogies if you’d like), they gave an Oscar to Isaac Hayes’s often-imitated, never-replicated slab of Blaxpoitation funk. It’s one of the great pieces of film music — yet also cool and hip and fun and all of the things you just don’t associate with Oscar’s music voters. But this is the kind of miracle that can occasionally happen on Oscar night, so maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll see a few more of them come Sunday.