10 Times The Oscars Got It Wrong In The Last 30 Years
By Kevin Wong on
And the Academy Award goes to…
The Oscars are "Hollywood's Biggest Night," the occasion when we should be celebrating the best, most ambitious motion pictures of the past year. But it rarely works out that way. Oftentimes, the best, most groundbreaking picture of the year does not win Best Picture; the Academy gives its biggest award to the most "Oscar-y" movie, that deals with important issues in a sweeping, yet safe manner. Genres like fantasy and science fiction are also at an extreme disadvantage on Oscar night.
As for the acting Academy Awards, they do not reward subtlety and rarely reward comedy. You need to chew some scenery to get into the final five. And sometimes, the Oscar is awarded to right a wrong--a past performance that was overlooked or otherwise snubbed in prior years. Thus, the current crop of deserving stars is overlooked. And the cycle is doomed to repeat itself.
The 91st Academy Awards air Sunday, February 24. In recognition of this landmark, we're counting down the 10 most undeserved Oscar wins from the past 30 years. Yes, we all know that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1942. But that's all most people know about the John Ford film these days. The Oscar wins in this gallery are recent enough to still sting.
1. A Beautiful Mind Wins Best Picture (2002)
Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind was a biopic about mathematical genius John Nash, but it created some events out of whole cloth to push its narrative forward. The climactic Nobel acceptance speech where Nash proclaimed his love for his wife? It never happened, although the screenwriters defended it as an example of artistic license.
The film won for Best Picture the same year that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive were up for consideration. Both of these movies would have been far better choices for Best Picture than A Beautiful Mind; Mulholland didn't even get a Best Picture nomination.
2. Shakespeare in Love Wins Best Picture (1999)
Shakespeare in Love was a sweet, ditzy romance about The Bard as a young man; he is inspired to write Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love with a woman above his station.
Today, the film is largely remembered for Gwyneth Paltrow, who won an Oscar for her performance as Shakespeare's love interest. But back in 1999, it upset Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in the Best Picture race—a rare moment when light whimsy defeated sobering realism at the Academy Awards.
3. Julia Roberts Wins Best Actress (2001)
America's sweetheart won an Oscar when Julia Roberts played Erin Brockovich, a tough-talking environmental activist who took on corporate corruption. It's a solid performance, magnified by Roberts playing against type.
But Ellen Burstyn, nominated the same year in Best Actress, had a career-defining performance in Requiem for a Dream, as an aging, insecure woman addicted to diet pills. Today, her portrayal and the film that contains it are modern classics. But at the time, Burstyn got a fraction of the recognition that Roberts did.
4. Al Pacino Wins Best Actor (1993)
Al Pacino's Best Actor win for Scent of a Woman came after he lost several prior, deserving nominations for Academy Awards: The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, and Dog Day Afternoon, to name a few.
If this was a recognition for years of excellence, it unfortunately happened the same year that Denzel Washington played Malcolm X in Spike Lee's massive biopic. Washington would have to wait nearly ten more years, finally getting his Best Actor Oscar for playing against type in Training Day.
5. The King's Speech Wins Best Picture (2011)
In 2011, two biopics duked it out for the top spot: The King's Speech, about King George Vi's struggle with his stutter, and The Social Network, about Mark Zuckerberg's founding of Facebook.
But even though Social Network had interesting things to say about modern communication, creative ownership, and toxic Silicon Valley culture in general, The King's Speech got the nod for Best Picture. Perhaps, it's easier to award a biopic when we know the full-extent of the person's legacy. In Zuckerberg's case, he's still shaping that legacy, every day.
6. Driving Miss Daisy Wins Best Picture (1990)
This film, which won Best Picture in 1990, was sentimental take on race relations, about the blossoming friendship between an old Jewish woman and her black chauffeur, and the unlikely ways that they identify with one another.
But this was the same year that Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing came out. And Lee had lots of things to say about his dominant competition:
“When Driving Miss Motherf***ing Daisy won Best Picture, that hurt,” said Lee in an interview with New York Magazine in 2008. “No one’s talking about Driving Miss Daisy now.”
7. Chicago Wins Best Picture (2003)
Chicago is a movie musical, and it's a good one; director Rob Marshall cleverly framed the musical sequences as products of Roxy's imagination rather than "real" events. But this was the same year that Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out; the strongest of what would become an acclaimed film trilogy.
The following year, Return of the King swept its award categories, tying both Ben Hur and Titanic with 11 wins; it was as though the Academy was rewarding the entire body of work rather than a single film.
8. Adrien Brody Wins Best Actor (2003)
Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor in The Pianist, and Polanski won the Oscar for Best Director for the same movie in 2003. These were decisions that, given what we know about Polanski, would never fly in today's climate.
Brody was nominated the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis, whose Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York was instantly iconic. Gossip about his over-the-top Method acting ran rampant; he only responded to Bill on set, and insisted on wearing only period-appropriate clothing. It still didn't win him an Oscar though.
9. The English Patient Wins Best Picture (1997)
Anthony Minghella's romantic drama was deliberately slow--the movie clocked in at 2 hours and 42 minutes--and was a tragic, mostly humorless affair. It contrasted sharply with direct competitor Fargo, the Coen Brothers' pitch black comedy about a kidnapping, a woodchipper, and a pregnant cop in the snowy flats of Minnesota and North Dakota.
Fargo may have lost the Best Picture race to The English Patient, but it won the war. The Coen Brothers are in the same conversation as other great, genre-defining filmmakers. And Fargo has only grown in stature, and most recently was turned into a critically acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning television drama.
10. Crash Wins Best Picture (2006)
The same year that Ang Lee released the subtle, tragic Brokeback Mountain--about two cowboys who fall in love and spend years working through their repressed emotions--Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a massive upset; Jack Nicholson had a look of shock on his face when he read the results.
Crash is an emotionally-driven treatise on race relations in Los Angeles. It reveals its narrative as a series of plot twists; the racist white cop saves the life of the black woman he previously targeted and sexually assaulted. The black carjackers complain about being stereotyped before stealing Sandra Bullock's car. The Hispanic locksmith, who is suspected to be a criminal, is actually a devoted family man. And so on and so forth.
It's watchable--the film equivalent of a page turner. But it is less so once you know all the tricks.