The Academy Awards theoretically celebrate the best of movies and television in any given year. Still, it’s easy to forget that “best” is a completely subjective term, and at the end of the day, Oscar winners will still depend on the tastes, biases, and sensibilities of the 9000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences.
As such, the Academy has made some controversial choices throughout its 94-year history. In some cases, the winners might’ve made sense at the time but have become divisive over the years dueto audiences’ ever-changing susceptibilities. Then again, there are those winners that were widely panned at the time and have only become more disliked in the years since.
How Green Was My Valley dominates – 14th Academy Awards (1942)
Audiences best remember the 14th Academy Awards for being the ceremony in which Citizen Kane lost Best Picture against How Green Was My Valley. In all fairness, How Green Was My Valley is far from a bad movie, even if it often veers dangerously close to melodrama. However, it beat Citizen Kanea film often considered one of, if not the, best movie of all time.
How Green Was My Valley also prevailed upon another widely beloved classic, The Maltese Falconregarded by many as one of the best film noirs in history. So while it is well-meaning and above average, How Green Was My Valley can’t quite compare with those two far superior films.
Grace Kelly wins over Judy Garland – 27th Academy Awards (1955)
Groucho Marx once declared Judy Garland’s Oscar loss for A Star is Born as “the greatest robbery since Brinks.” Indeed, Garland’s performance in the film has gone down in history as one of the best and fiercest ever, encapsulating a rainbow of emotions that few actors could display. Garland earned rave reviews, with Time magazine stating that she gave “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.”
So how did she lose the 1955 Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl? For starters, Kelly was Hollywood’s “it girl” at the time, coming off two massively successful Alfred Hitchcock films, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Secondly, the Academy might’ve seen Kelly as a more promising performer than Garland, whose on-set antics and substance addiction were infamous. Still, Garland’s loss stings, especially considering what we now know about her tragic life under Hollywood’s studio system.
Tom Jones wins Best Picture – 36th Academy Awards (1964)
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Tom Jones might be one of the most bizarre Best Picture winners ever. A massive critical and commercial success, the film earned a whopping 10 Oscar nominations at the 1964 ceremony, eventually winning four.
Time hasn’t exactly been kind to this movie. Mainstream audiences might not even be aware of it, while critics and film lovers disqualify it as a frantic and excessive picture that never knows when to stop. Still, Tom Jones remains one of the Academy’s most out-of-the-box choices, even if its victory against classics like Fellini’s 81/2 and Hitchcock’s The Birds remains puzzling.
Driving Miss Daisy comes out on top – 62nd Academy Awards (1990)
Driving Miss Daisy‘s win is very much a product of its time. With its overt wholesomeness and uplifting message — it was a PG film, for crying out loud — Driving Miss Daisy dared even the most cynical to dislike it, winning over critics and audiences alike.
The benefit of hindsight allows critics to see this win for what it is: A shameless and oblivious attempt at inclusiveness, a metaphorical pat on the back from an organization that has to this day only rewarded one Black woman in the Best Actress category. Driving Miss Daisy is nowadays used as an unfavorable metric to measure all other Best Picture winners — at least now that Green Book won, it doesn’t have to be alone in the annals of mediocrity.
Shakespeare in Love (almost) sweeps – 71st Academy Awards (1999)
Let’s make something clear: Shakespeare in Love isn’t a bad movie; on the contrary, it’s a lovely and beautiful-to-look-at story featuring warm and unforgettable turns from stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. The movie is indeed one of the best of 1998 and a worthy Oscar contender in every category it competed in at the 1999 ceremony.
So why is its reputation so tarnished? For starters, the name “Weinstein” will forever soil Shakespeare in Love‘s legacy. The infamous producer’s aggressive campaigning resulted in the film overperforming on Oscar night, so even if the movie is deserving of praise, its victories will forever be associated with the since-disgraced mogul’s shameless shenanigans. Secondly, it prevailed over Saving Private Ryanoften considered one of the all-time best pictures. And while Shakespeare in Love is an undeniably charming, feel-good movie, it can’t quite compare to Spielberg’s wartime masterpiece.
Crash steals Brokeback’s thunder – 78th Academy Awards (2006)
Perhaps the Academy’s most egregious mistake in recent memory was awarding Crash Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Ang Lee’s tender, heartbreaking story of impossible love wowed critics, who praised the director’s empathetic approach to the subject and the film’s subversion of the usually confining Western genre. On the other hand, while a well-meaning and serviceable film, Crash failed to achieve the same degree of acclaim, with many critics considering its approach to race relations simplistic.
Brokeback went into the Oscars with BAFTA and Golden Globe wins under its belt, seemingly cementing its place as the frontrunner. Yet, jaws dropped when Crash won Best Picture, and even presenter Jack Nicholson seemed aghast. In the years since the ceremony, Brokeback‘s standing has only increased, with many considering it one of the most genuinely affecting films of the 21st century and a landmark in queer cinema. The same cannot be said about Crashwhose reputation worsens every year.
The King’s Speech charms Oscar voters – 83rd Academy Awards (2011)
The Social Network might be the ultimate film from the 2000s. Topical, riveting, and unforgettable, the movie captures the essence of the new millennium, accurately capturing an entire generation with its razor-sharp screenplay, the finest of Aaron Sorkin’s career. The Social Network won numerous Best Picture awards, most notably at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards. However, the crowd-pleasing, by-the-numbers biopic The King’s Speech prevailed in one of the biggest Oscar surprises of all time.
In hindsight, the Academy was always going to crown The King’s Speech; it’s a perfectly serviceable movie that tells an inspiring real-life story and is led by a never-better Colin Firth. However, by refusing to recognize The Social Network as the modern masterpiece it was, the Academy confirmed itself as an overtly safe organization that, in many ways, remains firmly stuck in the past.
Rami Malek wins Best Actor – 91st Academy Awards (2019)
Never have a set of fake teeth looked more unconvincing. Yet, audiences and voters fell head over heels for Rami Malek’s take on legendary singer Freddie Mercury in 2018’s inconsistent biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Despite polarizing nearly everyone, the movie was a massive box-office success, eventually grossing $911.1 million worldwide.
Going into Oscar night, Malek had the perfect narrative. To the eyes of many voters, by honoring him, they were honoring Mercury himself, and who among the other nominees could ignore that? Malek’s win made sense in 2019, but time hasn’t been kind to it, especially when comparing his erratic and almost inane performance to Bradley Cooper’s heartbreaking tour-de-force in A Star is Born.
Green Book claims Best Picture – 91st Academy Awards (2019)
Green Book is one of the most divisive movies in recent years. Many praised it as a sweet and uplifting story featuring fine performances from two of cinema’s most accomplished actors, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. However, others reviled it, accusing it of perpetuating the white-savior trope and trivializing the racism that Black people experience to this day.
In many ways, Best Picture in 2019 was a two-way race between Green Book and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. In the end, true to itself, the Academy went for the easiest and most “accessible” option, a choice that will haunt it for years to come. Indeed, Roma might be polarizing, but Green Book is outright loathed, and its reputation will only worsen.
All the unrecognized talent
With only five slots per category, there will always be actors who don’t make the cut every year. However, certain snubs are more egregious than others, especially when considering some actors spend their entire prolific careers without ever getting an Oscar nomination.
Character actors like John Turturro, Margo Martindale, Ann Dowd, Steve Buscemi, Delroy Lindo, John Goodman, and Catherine O’Hara have never received an Oscar nomination despite continuously delivering worthy performances. Genuinely brilliant performers like Donald Sutherland, Steve Martin, Eli Wallach, and Myrna Loy never received an Oscar nomination, an egregious mistake the Academy rectified by granting them Honorary Oscars. However, some actors, like Marilyn Monroe, Alan Rickman, Mae West, Rita Hayworth, and Jean Harlow passed away without receiving the acknowledgment they deserve.