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How Could They Win an Oscar?

The Best of the Worst

A look at the worst films, performances and directors Oscar has rewarded

The only thing Americans love more than controversy is arguing ... and for movie fans, nothing gets us more riled up than the Oscars. Danny Perry, in his book "Alternate Oscars," wrote, "Second-guessing the Academy's Oscar selections has become the national sport of the dissatisfied and disenfranchised." We argue about who should host the awards. We argue about what or who was or wasn't nominated. But perhaps the biggest arguments come after the awards are handed out. "How could they give that film Best Picture?!" "She won Best Supporting Actress?"

When you look back at the 75 years of the Academy Awards, you have that reaction a lot. Simply put, the Academy has made some huge errors, and history has not been kind to their decisions. The most obvious example is "Citizen Kane." Though it's considered by critics and cinephiles alike to be the best film ever made, the Academy didn't even consider it the best film of that year (1941), giving the award instead to "How Green Was My Valley." And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So, what follows is our look at the Academy's biggest blunders. We're only covering the six main categories. Sorry, we can't do them all. I mean, if we covered the Best Song category, we could write an entire dissertation on the last 20 years alone.

Feel free to argue ...

Worst Supporting Actress

Since the supporting categories were started in 1937, the biggest number of Academy gaffes, by far, reside here. Look down the list of best supporting actress winners and you'll be scratching your head so many times, people may think you've contracted lice. It's so bad, in fact, that we have a tie. The old line goes age before beauty, so let's start with Helen Hayes' win as on old lady stowaway in the clichéd disaster film "Airport" (1970). In the supporting category the winners usually swing between really good newcomers and crusty "Lifetime Achievement Award" old timers; Hayes, who was 70 when she won this award, falls in the later category (she had already won Best Actress in 1932 for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet"). Though her performance is scene stealing, it's hardly Oscar-worthy (Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces" or Sally Kellerman in "M.A.S.H." were both stronger). On the other end of the spectrum, but equally as baffling, was Marisa Tomei's win for "My Cousin Vinny (1992). You could hear an audible gasp in the audience when Tomei's one-note performance as Joe Pesci's obnoxious, street-smart girlfriend was awarded gold. Twelve years later, it's just as puzzling ... especially to actresses like Judy Davis ("Husbands and Wives") and Vanessa Redgrave ("Howard's End") who were much more deserving.

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:
Beatrice Straight -- "Network" (1976)
Judi Dench -- "Shakespeare in Love" (1998)
Whoopi Goldberg -- "Ghost" (1990)
Angelina Jolie -- "Girl, Interrupted" (1999)
Mira Sorvino -- "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995)
Maggie Smith -- "California Suite" (1978)
Ingrid Bergman -- "Murder on the Orient Express" (1973)

Worst Supporting Actor

Unlike Supporting Actress, the Academy has generally redeemed itself when it comes to Supporting Actors. In fact, poring over the list of winners, the only one that sticks out is George Burns for "The Sunshine Boys" (1975). His win isn't offensive or awful as much as undeserving. He played one half of a vaudeville act (Walter Matthau is the other half) who reunites with his old partner late in life despite the fact that they hate each other. Burns' win definitely falls under the "Lifetime Achievement Award" category, as his competition that year blows his deadpan performance away. Jack Warden in "Shampoo," Brad Dourif in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Burgess Meredith for "The Day of the Locust," and especially Chris Sarandon for "Dog Day Afternoon" were all better choices, but apparently not sentimental enough for the Academy. Does anyone even remember "The Sunshine Boys"?

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:
Jack Palance -- "City Slickers" (1991)
Ed Begley Sr. -- "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962)
Peter Ustinov -- "Spartacus" (1960)
Red Buttons -- "Sayonara" (1957)
Don Ameche -- "Cocoon" (1985)

Worst Actress

Of all the major categories, Best Actress is the one where you don't find many mistakes by the Academy. For the most part, they got things right, or at least didn't embarrass themselves. There is always an exception, however, and here it is Elizabeth Taylor winning Best Actress for "Butterfield 8" (1960). Before the film -- a campy, nearly unwatchable drama about a prostitute (Taylor) who falls for a married lawyer (Laurence Harvey) -- was even made, there were problems. Taylor thought the script was offensive, saying, "This is the most pornographic script I've ever read. I've been [at MGM] for 17 years and I was never asked to play such a horrible role ... she's a sick nymphomaniac ..." The problem, however, was that Liz was under contract and obligated to make one more picture for MGM. After many concessions by the studio, Taylor finally agreed to make the film. Critics trashed it, but audiences ate it up, and the film was a hit. Taylor was nominated, but the odds were against a victory for her in her first Oscar race. However, weeks before the ceremony, Taylor fell sick with a mysterious illness, and her condition was considered grave after a doctor performed a tracheotomy. Despite her sudden illness, Taylor vowed she'd make the ceremony. In a feat of disgusting empathy, the Academy awarded Liz with her first Oscar (she made the ceremony, and fainted backstage after winning) for a role she never wanted in a film that no one remembers.

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:
Halle Berry -- "Monster's Ball" (2001)
Grace Kelly -- "The Country Girl" (1954)
Judy Holliday -- "Born Yesterday" (1950)
Cher -- "Moonstruck" (1987)
Glenda Jackson -- "A Touch of Class" (1973)

Worst Actor

Though the list of Academy mistakes in this category is long and impressive, we have to go with Roberto Benigni winning Best Actor for his Italian Holocaust comedy "Life is Beautiful" (1998). We'll spare you the details of why "Life is Beautiful" is one of the most offensive, callous, self-serving, sappy films to ever dupe both the nation and the Academy (it received more nominations than any foreign film in history), for that is another article. Instead, let's focus on Benigni's hyperactive, megalomaniacal "performance." He plays an imprisoned father in a Nazi death camp who tries to hide the reality of the Holocaust from his son by pretending the whole experience is a game. Benigni doesn't give a performance as much as celebrate himself and his "clever" idea. He wants to be Keaton or Chaplin, but we see his jokes coming from miles away. He's mugging and winking at the audience the whole way through and the result is nauseating. His shtick was good enough to fool the Academy, however, allowing Benigni to embarrass himself (again) on national TV by running around like a madman while gushing such drivel as "My body is in tumult ... I would like to be ... lying down and making love to everybody." Nick Nolte, who was nominated for his performance in "Affliction," was robbed.

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:
Art Carney -- "Harry and Tonto" (1974)
Paul Lukas -- "Watch on the Rhine" (1943)
Dustin Hoffman -- "Rain Man" (1988)
John Wayne -- "True Grit" (1970)
Peter Finch -- "Network" (1976)
Rex Harrison -- "My Fair Lady" (1964)

Worst Director

I still remember the moment as if it were yesterday. It was March 24, 2002, I was at an Oscar party and they were just about to announce Best Director. The field was brutal: America's premier maverick Robert Altman for "Gosford Park"; genius David Lynch for "Mulholland Drive," easily the best film of 2001; one-time filmmaking master Ridley Scott for "Black Hawk Down"; rising mastermind Peter Jackson for "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring;" and Ron Howard for "A Beautiful Mind." Ron Howard. The guy that made memorable cinema such as "Gung Ho." And "EdTV." Oh, and how could we forget "Far and Away" or "Backdraft"? I was pulling for Altman -- he had never won, was 77 years old, and "Gosford Park" was remarkable -- but a win by Lynch or Jackson would have been justified too. Even a Scott win I could swallow. But they gave it to Howard. Three of the best directors in film history (plus, Ridley Scott) lost to Opie. Howard is a director who makes safe, bland entertainment intended not to ruffle anyone's feathers. A more challenging director could have made "A Beautiful Mind," and they wouldn't have changed facts about the life of John Nash to make the film more mainstream. Howard signifies everything that is boring and wrong with Hollywood, and his reward was a statue that defines the system. So, maybe, it was warranted. Still, there have been a lot of Oscar blunders, but this one rises above them all.

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:

Robert Zemeckis -- "Forrest Gump" (1994)
Oliver Stone --"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989)
Leo McCarey -- "Going My Way" (1944)
Kevin Costner -- "Dances With Wolves" (1990)
Robert Redford -- "Ordinary People" (1980)
George Roy Hill -- "The Sting" (1973)

Toughest Call:
John Ford ("How Green Was My Valley") beat Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane") for Best Director in 1941. While Ford is easily one of the top five directors in film history, Welles deserved the award that year. Plus, Ford had already won an award (he went on to win four total). Meanwhile, Welles was never nominated again.

Worst Picture

In 1989, Spike Lee made his masterpiece, "Do the Right Thing," a volatile, edgy ensemble piece about deteriorating race relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. The film was a much-needed cinematic slap in the face: unblinking social commentary masked as entertainment. It was angry and funny and shocking, fueled by real humanity yet never yielding to cheap sentimentality. Oh, yeah, and it wasn't even nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. Instead, films like the conformity-embracing "Dead Poet's Society," the hyperbolic "Born on the Fourth of July," the schmaltzy "Field of Dreams," the biopic "My Left Foot" and, sigh, "Driving Miss Daisy" instead earned nominations. The same year that Spike Lee opened audience's eyes to the dangerously explosive nature of race relations in America, the Academy looked away, and instead retreated 30 or 40 years. They awarded "Driving Miss Daisy" the Best Picture trophy. That cozy, unthreatening exploration of a relationship between an aging Southern matriarch and her African-American driver was just the type of movie that critic David Thomson calls "feel-good liberalism" that the Academy eats up. It was nice and safe and told you exactly how to feel. The fact that Lee's film was snubbed when the nominations were announced was bad enough; that "Daisy" drove off with the Oscar for Best Picture just showed how out of touch the Academy was -- not only with cinema, but society. Irony has never been more bitter.

Dishonorable mentions that should never have won:

"The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952)
"Around the World in 80 Days" (1956)
"A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
"Titanic" (1997)
"Out of Africa" (1985)
"Kramer Vs. Kramer" (1979)
"Ordinary People" (1980)

Here are 10 films that received many nominations in various categories, but received no awards

Film (Year)
The Turning Point (1977)
The Color Purple (1985)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Little Foxes (1941)
Peyton Place (1957)
Quo Vadis? (1951)
The Nun's Story (1959)
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Ragtime (1981)
The Remains of the Day (1993)

Best Picture Genre Biases:

There are obvious biases in the selection of Best Picture winners by the Academy. (Biases related to acting roles or characters are discussed in the Best Actor and Best Actress sections.) Serious dramas or social-problem films with weighty themes, bio-pictures (inspired by real-life individuals or events), or films with literary pretensions are much more likely to be nominated than "popcorn" movies. Action-adventures, suspense-thrillers, Westerns, and comedies are mostly overlooked (although there are exceptions), as are independent productions and children's films. The glossy, large-scale epic productions with big budgets (of various genres) often win the Best Picture prize:

Horror/Thriller Films: Only one true 'horror' film has won Best Picture, The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Also, Hitchcock's first US film and Best Picture winner Rebecca (1940) may be counted as the only suspense-thriller. [Best Picture nominees in this suspense-thriller and horror genre have included Suspicion (1941), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945), and The Exorcist (1972).]

Comedy Films: It is rare that light comedy films win the Best Picture Oscar. The following are the only comedies that have won Best Picture: It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Going My Way (1944), The Apartment (1960), Tom Jones (1963), The Sting (1973), and Annie Hall (1977). There are other borderline comedies, including All About Eve (1950), Terms of Endearment (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and American Beauty (1999).

Western Films: Although by the end of the 20th century, there were eleven Westerns nominated for Best Picture, only three have won the highest honor - Cimarron (1930/31), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Unforgiven (1992). There have only been eight nominated Westerns (in addition to the winners): In Old Arizona (1928/29), Stagecoach (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), Giant (1956), How the West Was Won (1963), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Musicals: Musical Best Pictures are rare and include the following: Broadway Melody (1928/29), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), An American in Paris (1951), Gigi (1958), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968) and Chicago (2002). There were five musical Best Picture winners out of eight nominees between 1958 and 1969. Four of the ten Best Pictures in the 1960s were musicals (all based on previous Broadway hits).

Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) was the first (and only) fantasy film to win Best Picture. Fantasy-adventure and sci-fi films also rarely win the Best Picture award. (For example, nominees The Wizard of Oz (1939), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1943), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Dr. Strangelove, Or: (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), Heaven Can Wait (1978), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) have all lost.)

Action-Adventure: A very small number of purely action-adventure films has ever been voted Best Picture (e.g., Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and also two hybrids: The French Connection (1971) - both a crime film and action-thriller, and Titanic (1997) - a disaster film as well as a historical romance and action-adventure film). Conversely, losers in the Best Picture category include lots of action-adventure film nominees, including: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Airport (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), Jaws (1975), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Right Stuff (1983), and The Fugitive (1993).

Biopics: Films inspired by real-life individuals (especially when they face adversity) usually do very well in terms of nominations, and often win - especially if they are of epic proportion. Often they are combined with other genre categories: there are musical biopics, epic biopics, dramatic biopics, war biopics, etc. Winners have included: The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), Amadeus (1984), The Last Emperor (1987), and A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Epics/Blockbusters: Long (well over 120 minutes), historical epics with big budgets and grand, large-scale production values are normally chosen: e.g., Wings (1927), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Gone With the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Godfather (1972), and The Godfather Part II (1974), and the recent winners Gandhi (1982), Amadeus (1984), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), Dances With Wolves (1990), Schindler's List (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), and Gladiator (2000).

Epics/War Films: War films of epic proportion have done very well in Academy history, although there have been only a few of them among the Best Picture winners: Wings (1927/28), All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Patton (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Platoon (1986).

X-rated Films: The only X-rated film (later reduced to R, and might now rate PG-13) to win Best Picture was Midnight Cowboy (1969).

R-rated Films: The first R-rated film to win Best Picture was The French Connection (1971).

Animated Films: Before 2001, the only animated film nominated for Best Picture was Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991). Because of the creation of the Best Animated Feature category in 2001, Beauty and the Beast (1991) may ultimately be noted as the ONLY animated film ever nominated for Best Picture.

Children's Films: (not including any animated films) These are G-rated films specifically made for young kids (they are often appropriate for families and adults too). They are rarely taken seriously, and therefore not often nominated for Best Picture, with the following exceptions: The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Yearling (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), Doctor Dolittle (1967), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Babe (1995). Often, they are nominated (or win) for various music-related categories.
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