They’re back! On March 4, the 90th Academy Awards are here to frustrate us again with undeserving winners.
I distinctly remember watching the Oscars in early 1983 and crying when Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s E.T. I was a sad, bitter 11-year-old. I had no Twitter to amplify my angst to an unsuspecting world about this obvious Oscar blunder, but the sour taste of defeat still resonates 35 years later.
Hollywood producers originally founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 1920s as a reaction to the cries for unionization in the age of 20-hour workdays. The producers thought at the time the Academy would function as kind of a house union, but it never worked out that way. Instead the Academy, while functioning as an important champion of film preservation, is known primarily for its annual awards ceremony.
And for 90 years, they’ve rewarded the wrong films and creators pretty consistently. To catalog all these Oscar blunders would require days. Most of the Best Picture winners alone for nearly a century have been the wrong ones, with long-forgotten films winning out over films that have become classics. Some examples would include the year 1933, when Cavalcade won over King Kong; the year 1941, when How Green Was My Valley won over Citizen Kane; 1959, when Ben-Hur defeated Some Like It Hot; and 1979, when Kramer vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now. It is only the exception when the best picture actually wins Best Picture.
Still, there are the lowest of the low, and here are some examples of when the Oscars got everything spectacularly wrong.
1. Best Actress: Mary Pickford in Coquette (1929)
One of the very first Oscar blunders was the award for Best Actress for 1929, which went to the legendary Mary Pickford for Coquette.
It had taken only until the second-ever Oscar ceremony for an undeserving winner to win. Pickford, the silent-screen legend who is perhaps the most important actor-producer figure in early American cinema, appeared in this, her first talking picture, and was terrible. Granted, most early talking pictures were terrible, as actors had to acclimate to the new sound technology, but poor Mary, trying so hard with her Southern accent to act — and act big — is a sad mess. Her later speaking roles would show improvement, but this award, the second-ever Best Actress prize, set a long-standing precedent for awarding an actor for their overall career achievements rather than the role for which the award was given.
2. Best Picture: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
One of the least-deserving Best Picture awards went to a film for the very reason mentioned above: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth beat out Singin’ in the Rain, universally recognized as the greatest American musical ever produced. DeMille’s epic circus movie, starring Charlton Heston, was characteristic of the veteran director’s penchant for creating overlong and dull movies with terrible dialogue that were somehow still entertaining because of their hokey sincerity and visual spectacle. DeMille, an old pro whose first movie was produced in 1914, clearly was given this award for career achievement, one that would have been better applied to his final film The Ten Commandments in 1956, a classic that still airs on network television every spring. Oscar was impatient to award the old man. It just can’t do anything right.
3. Best Actor: Art Carney in Harry and Tonto (1974)
Speaking of not getting anything right, often a split vote is the culprit. Art Carney won Best Actor for his role in the 1974 film Harry and Tonto.
Never heard of Harry and Tonto? Don’t worry. No one else has either. But I imagine you’ve probably heard of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, both made that same year? They represent two of the great performances of the 1970s that were beaten by Art Carney in this relatively forgettable film. It is one of the more notable cases of how a dark horse won an Oscar because the two favorites split the vote. Not to say anything terrible against Art Carney. He was a fine actor whose character Ed Norton in TV’s The Honeymooners was one of the great comedic performances, but this award was a dud.
4-5. Best Picture: Ordinary People (1980) and Dances with Wolves (1990)
In the later era, the two most notable Oscar blunders are Best Picture winners that have long been considered mistakes: Robert Redford’s 1980 film Ordinary People and Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances with Wolves.
Poor Martin Scorsese. These two films — while fine films by themselves — beat out Scorsese’s masterpieces Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively, which in hindsight seems outrageous. Both Scorsese films topped most critics’ polls for the greatest films produced in their decades and clearly represented a peak for the New York filmmaker. He would win the big award for 2006’s The Departed, but that award smacked of a rather weak apology.
6. Best Actor: Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992)
Speaking of apologies, one of the more transparently inept ones was the Best Actor award to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. First of all, the old cliché is that to win a Best Actor award, one has to portray someone with a disability. Here, the cliché’ seemed to work for Pacino, who portrayed a blind man. Unfortunately, Pacino won this after not previously winning any Oscars for far more deserving roles, such as Michael Corleone in The Godfather films and Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.
The Academy here, again, attempts to rectify past Oscar blunders, but this one is a supremely bad choice. Pacino’s role as Frank Slade is one in which he elects to shout most of the time, and it lacks the subtlety and power of his great performances in the 1970s. This was one of the more cynical awards the Academy has ever given as a kind of a career achievement award, but it’s for one of Pacino’s worst roles.
7. Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love (1998)
The last 20 years as well have seen some spectacularly poor choices, perhaps chief among them the 1998 Best Picture for Shakespeare in Love. One of the most historic unspoken Oscar rules is not to let a filmmaker win too often in too short a time span. That’s the only possible explanation for this pretty-looking period piece with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes topping Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary World War II film Saving Private Ryan. It was produced only five years after his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, though. Voters simply must have thought Spielberg didn’t deserve to win Best Picture twice in five years, because they couldn’t have actually seen both films and reasonably compared them. In fact, Spielberg did win Best Director, which seems doubly insulting. How can you be the best director when yours is not the best film?