We critics love to give Oscar the razz. After all, they get it wrong so many times that, inherently, we view it as an out of touch, deeply political body whose process allows art to die at the hands of studio artifice. Recognizing that the voting membership is comprised of all previous nominees, along with occasional invited inductees, the insular nature of the beast is pretty darn obvious. But there are other instances where the Academy bungles its business so badly that you have to wonder if senility hasn’t set in, a kind of all encompassing lunacy that adversely affects the aesthetic of the constituency. It’s the bungles that burn our biscuits the most, slights and celebrations that mock the very nature of film.
While the list could go on forever, and accommodate everyone’s personal favorite and/or fiasco, the fact remains that the Academy Awards are one of the better bodies of recognition out there. After all, it could be a lot worse - it could be the Grammys. And don’t go harping about the old studio system. This overview is confining its critique to the ‘60s through ‘00s. As a result, this is far from definitive. Instead, it’s just an example of AMPAS’s fairly consistent brain farts. Let’s begin with:
Robin Williams beats Burt Reynolds and Robert Forster 1998 Best Supporting Actor
Having chalked up almost every pre-ceremony award between them, predictions had the Boogies Nights and Jackie Brown veterans in virtual tie for their first Oscar. On the night of the awards, both men looked confident, especially as the nominations were being announced. Then the former funny man, known for his hirsute hissy fits, rode Miramax’s Affleck and Damon express to a totally undeserving triumph. While Forrester mostly kept his composure, Reynolds will always be remembered for his now classic hurt puppy reaction.
Roberto Benigni beats Nick Nolte, Ian McKellan, and Tom Hanks 1999 Best Actor
Some slights are unconscionable. Others are apparently the work of Satan himself. And then there was this undeniable abomination, a clear case of mass hypnosis where seemingly sensible people went pie-eyed for a Mediterranean stereotype in badly broken English. And his Holocaust comedy was pretty awful, too. Still, something about this Italian scallion’s shuck and jive wooed the weak willed Oscar body, resulting in a devastating loss for real actors who gave actual performances. It remains one of the Academy’s dumbest decisions ever.
Ron Howard beats Peter Jackson and David Lynch 2002 Best Director
Rewarding a journeyman for transcending his workmanlike trappings is nothing new, but the Academy usually picks a better movie than the underwhelming A Beautiful Mind. After bestowing unwarranted golden kudos on the supreme hack of the screenplay, Akiva Goldsman, Oscar went one better and tossed former child star ‘Opie Cunningham’ a little mantle magic all his own. That Mind made mincemeat of Mulholland Dr. and the first of what would be three massive Tolkien treasures stands as proof that it was still business as usual, even in a new millennium.
Kevin Costner beats Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbet Schroeder, and Stephen Frears 1990 Best Director
The Academy has had a long history of giving first timers - especially actors - its directing love in comparison to established career filmmakers. Back in 1981, Robert Redford took home a statue for his work on Ordinary People. Nine years later, the Bull Durham star deconstructed the Western, and Academy voters went wonky. They ignored four other famous helmsmen to give the novice their notice. Dances with Wolves has its merits, but ‘89 was clearly the year of Goodfellas. Apparently, no one in AMPAS thought so.
Chariots of Fire beats Raiders of the Lost Ark 1982 Best Picture
In what many saw as a box office no-brainer, Steven Spielberg’s brilliant throwback to the Saturday matinee serials of the ‘40s was 1981’s clear fan favorite. By the time Oscar rolled around, the film racked up nine nominations, including Best Director and Picture nods. While his own personal fortunes were always suspect, there was no way Raiders would lose to Atlantic City, Reds, On Golden Pond, or some British film about runners. Thanks to a screenplay win early on, Chariots unseated the presumptive champion in typical underdog fashion.
Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz 1982 Best Picture
Back when divorce was still a hot button social issue (the ‘70s was strange like that), Robert Benton’s family in crisis drama managed to walk away with several of the year’s statues. It was five for nine, snagging two for acting, screenplay, director and picture. Looking back, the movie makes for a fine character study. But when put up alongside Coppola’s Vietnam fever dream and Bob Fosse’s autobiographical binge, it seems like a less solid choice.
Rocky beats Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men 1977 Best Picture
It will always remain a surreal situation. While nominated for 10 total awards, it looked like Sylvester Stallone’s labor of love was about to be swept out of the ‘77 ceremony. Then, in one of the most unlikely upsets ever, John G. Avildsen won Best Director (beating shoe-in Sidney Lumet) and Rocky took home the top prize. While a fine film in its own right, the notion that it managed to trounce a trio of post-modern classics confirms the Academy’s occasional lose grip on motion picture reality.
The Color Purple Goes 0 for 11 1986 Awards
At this point in his career, Steven Spielberg was constantly referred to as the most popular, influential, and considered director not to win the big one (apparently, the East Coast bias against Scorsese was still in full force). So when he took on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about rural African Americans in ‘30s America, his eventual win (and several more for the film) seemed like a foregone conclusion. Spielberg even received the coveted DGA blessing, making him the presumptive favorite. In pure Oscar style, he wasn’t even nominated.
Pulp Fiction Goes 1 for 7 1995 Awards
Sometimes, the shortsighted nature of the entire awards process more or less mandates Academy missteps. Though many saw it as nothing more than an overreaching critical darling, Quentin Tarantino’s cult crime epic has gone on to be one of the most influential films in the recent history of cinema. Of course, it couldn’t beat the feel good flimsiness of Forrest Gump (that year’s Oscar sweetheart) and QT did get the conciliatory screenplay nod. He and his still remarkable film deserved much, much more.
2001: A Space Odyssey Fails to Get a Best Picture Nod 1969 Awards
While a sensibility soaked in Star Wars might argue about Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi meditation on man’s place in the cosmos, the truth is that the 1968 spectacle stands as a singular cinematic achievement. Yet, somehow, it failed to earn a Best Picture nomination. Clearly, the Academy thought Rachel, Rachel, Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, and eventual winner Oliver! were much more representative of the medium. Almost 40 years later, it’s clear which film remains the most iconic, and important.