If you have a Top 20 list you’d like to contribute, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Below is a text exchange between contributor Warren Cantrell from 10rant and myself that explains his Top 10 list (which follows) better than I could:
Eric: What’s up, man?
Warren: Hey. Nothing much, been drunk for about three straight days.
Eric: Wow! Any special reason, or just enjoying your week?
Warren: Oscars, dude. They just finished about an hour ago.
Eric: What did you think?
Warren: You kidding me? I wouldn’t lower myself to watch such filth. I’ve just been whiskey-purging in anticipation of the horror.
Eric: Oh, never mind, then.
Eric:There was a last minute emergency, and I was going to ask you if you wanted to write an Oscar-related list for Tuesday.
Warren: Why didn’t you say so? I do my best when bourbon-drunk and filled with rage! You caught me in my sweet spot.
Eric: Um, cool…I think. So you’ll do it?
Warren: Just give me three hours…
The Oscars are upon us again, just in time for most of us to remember why we couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about what the Academy thinks. True, they’ve gotten a few right over the years, and rewarded well-deserved artists for their efforts, but with every misstep, with every statue handed to a hack not worthy to watch the telecast let alone be featured somewhere in it, prestige and respect is lost. Sometimes the winner is a foregone conclusion, a performance or film so breathtakingly awesome that the presence of other nominees is nothing but a polite formality. Most of the time, these people or pictures get their just reward, but every once in a while, as if to make sure everybody is paying attention, it goes the other way.
This list celebrates the most forehead-slappingly curious decisions in Oscar history, ranking the most questionable victories in the order of their “what the hell?”–ness. Understand that this isn’t a list ranking odd or curious moments during the ceremonies, but rather a critique of the decisions made in bestowing the highest Hollywood honor. I don’t watch the Oscars any more, but I do read the results after the fact, and this has always been justification enough to continue my boycott. A bunch of options sprung up when considering choices, Tatum O’Neal’s victory in “Paper Moon,” Redford and “Ordinary People” over Scorcese and “Raging Bull,” everything related to the craptasterpiece known as “The English Patient,” and Timothy Hutton’s 1981 Best Actor victory were all considered, but failed to strike the same astonishing cord as what is in contention here today. Though some movies and performances had the admiration of the world when victorious, time is a cruel taskmaster, and what was once considered outstanding can wither when compared to overlooked performances and films that only get full recognition once out of the shadow of others. To take this into account would seriously inflate the field, so, to be fair, only Oscar victories that were as surprising at the time (if not more so) as they are today were considered. There was one exception to this, however: success in retrospect covered only in the #10 entrant, a victory that should be remembered as an outright theft, despite the admiration the Zemeckis fairytale still receives…
10. “Forrest Gump” wins Best Picture (1995)
I didn’t watch the Oscars this year, and haven’t since the mid-90s because of what transpired during the 1995 ceremony. Letterman hosted in ’95, and that should have been the first clear omen that things were going to go off the rails. But, despite the fact that one of the least funny men in America helmed the broadcast, it took the presentation of statues to really push this particular ceremony into cinematic infamy. Many would argue that “Gump’s” victory in 1995 was hardly insulting, even at the time, when Hanks’ seminal role was crushing the box office and year-end critics polls. When “Forrest Gump” won Best Picture, it was essentially a foregone conclusion: yet should it have been? In 1994, Quentin Tarantino dick-slapped the movie industry with a film so slick, violent, well-cut, and crisp that the man literally invented his own film sub-genre. A trickle of independent films turned into a veritable flood after “Pulp Fiction,” and how movies would be financed and developed would never again be the same. In “Quiz Show,” the world got a true gem, a well-acted, superbly written, and majestically directed picture that had a lot to say about America. It spoke volumes about our incessant love affair with wealth and celebrity, and what some of us will do to get it, keep it, and once gone, get it back. Finally, in “The Shawshank Redemption,” we were given the best film of the last 20 years, nay, some might even argue of all time. Brutally honest while somehow remaining blindingly optimistic, the movie is a testament to the purity of the human spirit and what is possible in even the darkest, most desperate circumstances. “Forrest Gump” is a very good movie, filled with a lot of the same themes that made the aforementioned Oscar losers poignant and relevant (the 20th century American experience, unfailing hope, personal and spiritual growth, etc). Yet the film is an overloaded buffet compared to the measured, skilled filmmaking involved in the other options, which are more akin to personal entrees at a high-end restaurant. Though the Academy and the world at large was busy cramming walnuts up their asses rather than paying attention to all the films in contention for Best Picture that year, there were some at the time who saw the error, and many more today who recognize the egregious misstep, so let’s give shameful credit where due.
9. Marisa Tomei wins Best Supporting Actress for “My Cousin Vinny” (1993)
We’ll make this one brief, as poor Marisa has seen her fair share of criticism for doing nothing more than showing up to work for a few weeks in a New York accent and tight clothes. Normally, I’d be a willing cheerleader for such behavior, the stock of strong female leads in tight clothes with sharp tongues frightfully deficient in the cinema market. Thing is, Tomei’s character was about as appealing as a leaf blower at 6am. Her role was hackneyed, the performance cookie-cutter, and the film which showcased it about as believable as a Presidential promise. The thing is, if she had beat out a stable of nobodies that year, I’d be willing to give it a pass, for Marisa has redeemed herself in subsequent years, turning in outstanding performances in “The Wrestler,” “In the Bedroom,” and “The Paper,” just to name a few. Yet when she won for “Vinny,” she wasn’t exactly a sure-fire bet. That year, the competition was fierce! Ms. Tomei won out over a few women you may have heard of: Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. Again, though Marisa has proven herself worthy in the 17 years that have passed since her victory, even now, it’s hard to look at that list of nominees and pick the wise-cracking ‘Mona Lisa Vito’ as the ultimate victor. And speaking of head-scratching victories that puzzled audiences almost as much then as they still do now, how could I pass up a shot at…
8. “Chariots of Fire” wins Best Picture (1981)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and throw down the gauntlet. Has anybody under 25 ever seen “Chariots of Fire”? Seriously! I mean, okay, there’s a healthy sub-section of society that takes pride in being up to date on the most important cinematic developments, both past and present. Because of this, I’m sure there are actually a handful of you out there that were born after this movie came out, and curiously took the time to glue eyelids open for the entire breadth of this picture’s soul-crushing 124 minutes. Indeed, there are probably a handful of dedicated film buffs and sadists out there that have taken the time to go back to this movie and give it a shot. It is to you that I direct this next question. Was it better than “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? Let’s be fair about this, because I am one of those film buffs/sadists who went ahead and rented this festering sore of a movie, and can say with personal certainty that this protracted yawn isn’t a fraction the picture “Raiders” is. But would anybody actually argue this with me? Though a somewhat interesting story, does the tale of a Jew and a Gentile running for honor in the early 20th century really stand up against an archeologist bare-knuckle-brawling Nazis for God, country, and glory? And this is all aside from the fact that “Chariots” also beat out another titan from the early 80s, Warren Beatty’s masterpiece “Reds.” Granted, the Academy has never been a benefactor of action cinema, but at the very least it could have given the big award that year to Beatty’s opus, a film that could boast not only a riveting story but also an all-star cast in its prime. Reds featured Beatty, Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino, and Jack Nicholson in a film (also set in the early 20th century) that was both exciting and a fascinating study in the radicalization of world politics after World War I. While I’m sure a bunch of you will come out of the woodwork to argue this, and will moan and bray like thirsty mules in defense of “Chariots,” I dare you to go out and do the same in public, and to see what awaits so poor an opinion.
7. Robert Donat wins Best Actor for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1940)
I never met the man, but from what I’ve read about him, I gotta figure Clark Gable just about beat somebody into a fever after he lost out on this one. Though he won Best Actor in 1935 for “It Happened One Night,” he lost out in ’36 to Victor McLaglen. Since it takes at least two Oscars to really start bragging around the Hollywood watercooler, you have to figure he was keen to wrap his hands around the statue for easily the most bad-ass role in an otherwise ridiculous film. His performance as Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” was about the only watchable thing in that movie, his bad-assery unquestioned throughout most of the film. And poor Jimmy Stewart. The guy went ahead and gave the world one of his best performances, and told the story of politics in America in all its corrupt, twisted glory (and that was in 1939). This was the first of five nominations for Best Actor that he would receive during the course of his life, each of them, like this, concluded without a statue for Jimmy. He’d finally get an honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar near the end of his life, an insulting parting gift for a man who gave so much to his profession. Such a gesture wouldn’t have been necessary had the Academy got it right the first time, and handed him his proper reward for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Instead, Best Actor went to Robert Donat for his performance in a wispy, sentimental recollection piece that makes “Forrest Gump” look like “Evil Dead.” The story of a well-meaning, introverted schoolteacher at the end of the 19th century, the role had about as much weight as a thong. Yet the Oscar still went to him. Stewart, Gable, and even Lawrence Olivier (for “Wuthering Heights”) were watching and wondering just what in the hell they’d gotten into when deciding to play dress up for a living.
6. Bob Fosse wins Best Director for “Cabaret” (1973)
My disdain for films that toy with World War II Nazi themes yet fail to appropriately follow up with awesome Nazi deaths is well documented (see “The Sound of Music” entry here). Indeed, it’s hard for me to enjoy a movie with Nazis in it if a healthy percentage of them aren’t dead or otherwise in agony by the end of the picture. That some of these films further ruined the potential of their project by inserting musical numbers and dance routines is where I draw the line, however, and get the pen out for some sharp criticism. Still, though, “Cabaret” wasn’t a total disaster, and as far as musicals go, it could have been a whole hell of a lot worse. Hell, I’d be willing to give “Cabaret” a pass had it not stepped on the toes of probably the greatest movie of the 1970s (again, arguably, of all time). “The Godfather” got a healthy dose of recognition from the Oscars in 1972, and that’s a good thing, for if the Academy had shut Coppola’s epic out, they might as well have cancelled the ceremony going forward. When it comes to pure directing skill, though, it’s hard to see how Coppola missed out on the statue that year, for if there was a more daunting task than fighting a studio that’s trying to get you and your lead fired on top of working with Marlon fucking Brando, I’d like to hear about it. “The Godfather” wove an intensely intricate story through the lives of a somewhat recognizable American family, lacing political intrigue and back-alley underworld deals with the most genuine aspects of the American experience. Coppola created a fictional universe that was so identifiable to its audience that people on every level of the social ladder associated with it in some way. To the average viewer, it gave them a glimpse of a world rarely considered and certainly never seen. For the gangsters watching, the petty thugs looking on with anxious longing, it redefined what it meant to be a criminal, and gave credence to a lifestyle that had never before been given so beautiful a voice. Though the film was properly recognized as the Best Picture that year, Coppola’s loss to a director who shot a cheeky musical about pre-WWII Germany is almost sickening, especially considering the cultural impact of each, and the labors involved in Coppola’s defining American achievement.
5. “Shakespeare in Love” wins Best Picture (1999)
I’m still pretty angry about this one, not so much because of the victory itself, but for the repercussions still resonating as a result. You see, back in 1998, Spielberg still made movies that could brag about having a pair, and when going to see one of the man’s pictures, you could still count on getting your money’s worth. That all changed after the loss in ’99, when “Shakespeare in Love” and the Miramax press department robbed “Saving Private Ryan” of its deserved Best Picture distinction. Although the Academy properly bestowed a directing Oscar to Spielberg, they could never have imagined the terror they unleashed upon the world when they convinced what was once the world’s best director that people wanted happy endings. “Saving Private Ryan” was just about the last time Spielberg challenged his audience, and whatever edge remained in the man got buffed out to make way for far less risky fare. Though he would approach the same provocative territory in later films like “A.I.” and “Minority Report,” he was never able to pull the trigger and deliver the hard-as-shit ending his films had so desperately angled for. In “A.I.,” though he could have ended the picture by pulling back to reveal a lonely, ill-advised robot boy at the bottom of the sea, he opted for a heart-warming wrap-up that gave the desperate little cyborg urchin a final moment’s peace. With “Minority Report” he had a chance to really stick it to fate, and tell a story about how no man or woman has the power to change what is in their future, yet again he pulled back and allowed his main character a justified ending. What happened, Steve? Was this loss really that bad? Okay, strike that: I submit, that’s a stupid question. This one had to burn, especially since “Saving Private Ryan” was such a daring endeavor that succeeded so brilliantly. In “Shakespeare in Love,” the world got another decent film with cute scenes and a familiar flavor, yet by naming the throwaway rom-om Best Picture of the year over one of a legendary filmmaker’s defining achievements, the Academy did more than it could ever have known. With the exception of “Munich” (a refreshing, albeit temporary, return to form), Spielberg has mostly stopped challenging us, which is a shame, for nobody did so whilst still entertaining better than that guy.
4. “Crash” wins Best Picture (2006)
And speaking of “Munich,” we may as well haul this elephant out of the room, as I know a lot of you have been waiting for this. As mentioned a bit ago, “Munich” was a refreshing return to form for a director who was finally able to marry unsettling, difficult themes with an ending that did not neatly wrap everything up for the audience. It’s a shame that this didn’t get the statue for Best Picture that night, for it might have meant a return to the proper fare we’ve come to expect from Mr. Spielberg, yet had it lost to its primary competition, at least that would have been palatable. “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” were both dark horses, but still were worthy cinematic adversaries deserving of a spot in the same sentence as its competition. It was “Brokeback Mountain,” and its austere, minimalist approach to a volatile, controversial subject that was on everybody’s minds that night, however, and was widely thought to be a sure-bet for the Best Picture category. Career-defining performances, an exquisite script, beautiful cinematography, and the juxtaposition of homosexual themes against a classic heterosexual cowboy archetype all but assured the film Hollywood’s highest honor. Yet a funny thing happened: when the award went out, the Best Picture of the year turned out to be a jumbled “message picture” with recycled themes and forced intentions. “Crash” ran away with the Oscar that year in a manner that almost resembled posturing, the Academy flexing a little muscle and influence, as if to show the world who is actually in charge. Though “Good Night, and Good Luck” pushed its audience to examine the state of affairs within the U.S. by recalling a scarier (though frightfully similar) moment in its history, it lost to a picture that contented itself with themes centered primarily on luck and base racism. Though “Capote” and “Munich” might also have easily won depending on the mood of the voters, the award went instead to a picture nobody cared much about at the time, and has lost even more influence as the years pass on.
3. Pity Reward: Scorsese wins Best Director for “The Departed” (2007)
This one is a bit trickier, as we’re digesting a series of losses against one victory. Sometimes, the Academy realizes how badly they screwed up. Generally speaking, this is what Lifetime Achievement awards are for: that pity prize given to noble warriors who have endured years of dishonorable defeat at the hands of lesser thespians. Usually, this is the moment where the Oscars concede that mistakes were made in the past, and a person who probably deserved an award two or three times over gets a good sportsman prize, so to speak. This is embarrassing, though, and something the Academy generally tries to avoid wherever possible. They’d much rather present statues to actors and directors for pictures actually made rather than hand out hardware as veritable apologies for all the projects unrecognized. Even if that award isn’t exactly justified, it’s becoming more and more common for Oscars to go to perennial losers rather than run the risk that a career might tank and future opportunities vanish. This will almost certainly come to be known as The Scorsese Rule, for this guy got away with one in 2007. Though an alright movie, it’s definitely one of Scorsese’s lesser films, and certainly out of contention if you want to speak about the man’s top five pictures. “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Aviator,” and “The Age of Innocence” are all supremely better films than “The Departed,” four of the five netting the guy a directing nomination, yet it was this last one that got him his statue. Why? The film is a shoddy, somewhat rushed remake of the far better Hong Kong original “Infernal Affairs,” a movie that didn’t have a fraction of the A-List actors “The Departed” sported, yet still managed to out-class the American version in all regards. Though they share similar plots, it’s as if Scorsese simply ripped out all the best scenes, sped the editing up, and jammed an unnecessary soundtrack between scenes. The nuances of the characters are all lost in the Hollywood all-star team, and a plot that might have been carefully unraveled and delicately developed was instead set on fast-forward and never readjusted. Again, though a decent enough movie for a Sunday afternoon on TBS, it’s certainly not the director’s best work, and hardly the film any cinema lover would like to point to when explaining Mr. Scorsese’s impressive resume to a non-believer.
2. “In the Heat of the Night” wins Best Picture and Best Actor (1968)
You really have to wonder what in the hell the Academy was thinking sometimes (well, most of the time), and colossal miscues like this one are hard to miss. Though “In the Heat of the Night” proved to be a successful little picture about race relations in America during a volatile period in its history, its performances are dry and unsteady throughout. The picture is a well-meaning crime drama and little else. Though Sidney Poitier did a fine job with his role, this reality really just made Stieger’s half-assed approach to angry yell-acting all the more embarrassing. And that’s okay: there’s not a lot of actors (past or present) that can share the screen with Poitier, and in Stieger’s case, though the disparity in talent was evident, the former actor’s abilities brought the latter hack some undeserved credit. In a blinding case of insanity, the Oscars that went out that year rewarded the message-heavy crime-procedural with five statues, including two big boys, Best Actor and Best Picture. Perhaps more insulting than its Best Picture victory over groundbreaking moments in American cinema such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” was Stieger’s Best Actor victory for the film. Though once a decent actor, by the late-60s the guy was on the downward slope of his career, Stieger’s nomination that year the last he would ever receive in a career that would span another 34 years. The men he beat out that night would go on to collect a total of 14(!) nominations in the subsequent years, three of those nominations eventual victories. Yet Stieger won Best Actor in 1968, leaving Spencer Tracy (dead at the time of the awards), Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Paul Newman (for “Cool Hand Luke”) empty handed. That’s okay, though: I mean who ever heard of those other guys, anyway?
1. Art Carney wins Best Actor for “Harry and Tonto” (1975)
The 1975 Oscars were like the Murderer’s Row of Academy Awards: every other ceremony was wishing its was this friggin’ awesome. Hosting that year was Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley MacLaine, and Bob Hope. All the categories were stacked, and some huge names went home without a prize, among them Truffaut (“La Nuit Americaine”), Polanski (“Chinatown”), and Cassavetes (“A Woman Under the Influence”), who all lost out to Coppola for “The Godfather Part II.” De Niro got a statue for Best Supporting Actor over a stable of talented players, who included the legendary Lee Strasberg, Fred Astaire, and Jeff Bridges. To fall in defeat to such brilliance is somewhat easier to swallow than the travesty that took place in the Best Actor category, where Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Albert Finney all watched in stunned amazement along with the world as Art Carney went up to collect his prize. Pacino had just cemented his reputation as an industry powerhouse with his tour de force performance as Michael Corleone in the best sequel ever made. Nicholson and Hoffman had just come off career-making turns in “Chinatown” and “Lenny” respectively, and were also in brisk contention with Pacino and Albert Finney, who had himself turned in one of the high notes of an already impressive resume with “Murder On the Orient Express.” On a night when Hollywood was batting 1,000 and had dutifully divided recognition amongst an army of deserving talent, one gaping misfire stood out. Art Carney’s performance in “Harry and Tonto” was touching, and did give the audience a sense of a man strangely at peace with a life suddenly undone, and at the whim of hookers, hitchhikers, and old Native Americans. The role and the movie it was trapped within smacked of loud message-making, and pushed an agenda far too heavily for anything of substance to really come to the surface. In the end, it was a movie about a 72-year-old shut-in, his cat, and their boring-as-shit adventure across the Midwest. As far as character stretches, it wasn’t exactly the dynamic, history-of-cinema-changing performance that is associated with his peers, all of whom would go on to get recognition in their own rights, but had to wait for a time as Art Carney got his due.