Based on the 1939 novel of the same name -- about the hardships of a family in a Welsh mining town -- John Ford's 1941 adaptation of How Green Was My Valley is a well-crafted film, but even without the benefit of 75 years of hindsight, it had no business beating the far superior Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1942. (Valley won five Oscars, including Best Director, while Kane only won for its screenplay.) If it wasn't clear in the first 13 years of the Oscars what tickles Academy voters' fancy the most, it was definitely clear now: If forced to choose between a safe, comfortable weepy drama and a challenging, visionary achievement, they will more often than not go for the former.
Judy Holliday's turn as Billie Dawn, a role she originated on Broadway, in Born Yesterday bested two of the most iconic screen performances of all time in 1951's Best Actress race: Bette Davis in All About Eveand Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Anne Baxter's equally worthy turn in All About Eve was also in contention, which marked the first time multiple people from the same film were nominated for Best Actress. Did Holliday benefit from a vote split? Or because her bubbly tart is more likable than Margo Channing, Eve Harrington, and Norma Desmond?
The 1952 Best Picture lineup included John Ford's radiant The Quiet Man, one of the greatest Westerns ever in High Noon, the lush Moulin Rouge, and a superb adaptation of Ivanhoe. But the prize went to a movie about a circus with The Greatest Show on Earth. The Ringling Bros. romp was a major hit, but there's nothing there beneath the spectacle. Its win is partly ascribed to voters wanting to reward producer Cecil B. DeMille for his legendary career, as well as the fear-mongering political atmosphere at the time. (Both High Noon and Ivanhoe were written by blacklisted writers.) "I still believe High Noon was the best picture of 1952, but the political climate of the nation and the right-wing campaigns after High Noon had enough effect to relegate it to an also-ran status," producer Stanley Kramer said in his biography It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A Life in Hollywood.
Grace Kelly scored the Best Actress statuette with one of the surefire ways to win: de-glam. Her dowdy wife of an alcoholic in The Country Girlwas a 180 from her pristine, beautiful image, and she also probably got brownie points for her other films that year, Rear Windowand Dial M for Murder. But this was supposed to be Judy Garland's Oscar for her comeback turn in A Star Is Born. Garland was so widely expected to win that a camera crew was set up in her hospital room, where she had just given birth to her son, so she could give her speech. When she lost, the crew immediately packed up and left. "This is the biggest robbery since Brinks," Groucho Marx told Garland in a telegram.
This is a case where the Oscars rewarded scale over quality. An adaptation of Jules Verne's novel, Around the World in 80 Days is a study in indulgent excess. In addition to the huge cast and never-ending cameos, the shallow film boasted nearly 69,000 extras, 8,000 animals, 140 sets and 74,000 costumes. That was more than enough to beat the likes of Giant, The Ten Commandments, The King and I, and Friendly Persuasion for Best Picture.
Here's Exhibit A of the Sympathy Oscar. Elizabeth Taylor, who was on her fourth straight nomination, was Hollywood's scarlet lady at the time, after having an affair with Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra. She was allowed to do Cleopatra after she fulfilled her contract with MGM by playing prostitute Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfield 8, which she openly loathed. Public sympathy toward her changed after she suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia while shooting Cleopatra weeks before the Oscars. A frail Taylor, with a visible tracheotomy scar on her neck, accepted the Best Actress award, while half of her competition didn't bother to show up because they knew she was going to win. "I lost to a tracheotomy," Shirley MacLaine, who did attend and should've won for her luminous turn in The Apartment, famously quipped. Six years later, Taylor would win a second Best Actress Oscar for her indisputably tremendous performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The 1974 Best Actor field was a veritable murderer's row: Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II), and Albert Finney (Murder on the Orient Express) were all up -- and they all watched Art Carney, a beloved five-time Emmy winner for The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners, shockingly walk away with the statuette for playing an old dude on a trip with his cat in Harry and Tonto. It's a sweet, heartfelt performance, but it pales in comparison to the four other dynamic, renowned turns.
Robert De Niro was rightfully awarded best actor for his tour-de-force performance in Raging Bull, but Martin Scorsese's brilliant, incisive masterpiece was KO'ed for best picture and Best Director by first-time director Robert Redford's well-made -- if, well, ordinary -- family drama. This marked the first of three times Scorsese lost those categories to films helmed by actors-turned-directors.
Another way-too-safe choice here. An adaptation of Alfred Uhry's play, Driving Miss Daisy -- which also nabbed Jessica Tandy a career win for Best Actress over red-hot favorite Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) -- is a totally fine film. But if you're going to give Best Picture to a movie tackling race relations, give it to the incendiary, vital Do the Right Thing -- which wasn't even nominated for Best Picture or Best Director for Spike Lee. The latter snub was something the films had in common, as Daisy became the third film to win Best Picture without a nomination for its director.
A quarter of a century on, Dances with Wolves' greatest legacy is probably Kevin Costner's mullet. The sweeping Civil War Western epic's win is one of those that at best feels OK in the moment, but has not aged well at all. (See also: Braveheart's win five years later.) What other nominee has stood the test of time? Goodfellas. Costner & Co., in his directing debut, beat out Scorsese & Co. for Best Picture and Best Director.
The Best Supporting Actor category is often the Career Achievement Award for veterans (the top 10 oldest winners are 70 and above). A former nominee for Sudden Fear and Shane, Jack Palance, then 73, struck gold for his parody of his Shane bad guy in the Billy Crystal comedy, beating Bugsy's Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley, as well as Tommy Lee Jones (JFK) and Michael Lerner (Barton Fink). His victory is best remembered now for his one-armed pushups onstage while host Crystal clapped on. A year later, Palance entered Oscar lore when he was (incorrectly) rumored to have read the wrong name when he awarded Best Supporting Actress to Marisa Tomei.
Look, we love Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive as much as the next guy, but you could never mistake that for an Oscar-worthy supporting performance -- especially when you put it next to Ralph Fiennes' unshakably chilling SS Commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. Hell, even awarding then-19-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio for his breakout turn in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? would've been fine, if only so the internet wouldn't be so desperate to give him an Oscar 20-plus years later. DiCaprio finally got his trophy in 2016, but Fiennes, who hasn't even been nominated in 20 years, is still waiting for his makeup win.
It's easy to pick on Forrest Gumpthese days. That's because, while we were all taken by Forrest's jog through composite history back then, once the bloom came off the rose, it's hard to ignore how shamelessly emotionally manipulative the Best Picture champ is. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but can you honestly say its overwrought sentimentality is better than the deeply affecting Shawshank Redemption or game-changing Pulp Fiction?
One of the tenets of a good Oscar campaign is charming the pants off everyone. Roberto Benigni worked the charm offensive so well that his mug-tastic performance in Life Is Beautiful won Best Actor over complex, nuanced turns from Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters), Edward Norton (American History X), and Nick Nolte (Affliction). McKellen, Norton, and Nolte had a pact to drink at the bar if Benigni won. "As I walked up to Ian [at the bar] he said, 'Nolte, I don't know why you thought you'd get an award; you only play yourself,'" Nolte told Backstage. "And Ian was playing a gay guy, so I said, 'Look who's calling the kettle black.' And we both turned on Ed and said, 'What, did you think you'd win just because you shaved your head and got tattoos?' And Ed said, 'Well, I'm just proud to be here with you guys.' And we laughed and had a great time, a great time."
Saving Private Ryan deserved the Best Picture prize for that riveting Normandy Beach opening scene alone. The fact that it was beaten by nothing more than an enjoyable, enchanting period romance is a Shakespearean tragedy. Equally unjust was leading lady Gwyneth Paltrow's Best Actress win for Shakespeare in Love over Cate Blanchett's electric performance in Elizabeth. But Shakespeare in Love had a not-so-secret weapon in its corner: now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, whose infamously relentless campaign tactics made their debut that season.
It's not just that the delicate, poignant Brokeback Mountain was robbed, but any of the other nominees -- Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Munich -- would be immeasurably better Best Picture winners. Crash, which writer/director Paul Haggis has admitted didn't deserve the top prize, is one of those movies that thinks it's saying something important, when it's actually insufferably misguided, lazy and heavy-handed in trying to tell you that racism is bad through thin, one-dimensional characters. Its appalling lesson is, if you stop doing racist things, racism will stop, when it's actually far more complicated than that, perpetuated and systemic; look no further than Hollywood itself and #OscarsSoWhite. So, perhaps it's fitting they voted for this.
Sally Field's oft-misquoted "You like me! You really like me!" Oscar speech could apply to Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side. Compared to Meryl Streep's transformation into Julia Child in Julie & Julia or Gabourey Sidibe's gripping breakthrough performance in Precious, Bullock is merely perfectly good in the football drama. She cruised to the Best Actress award because everyone just likes her. And she knew it. "Did I really earn this or did I just wear y'all down?" she said in her speech. As is usually the case with Oscar, she lost for a more worthy performance in Gravity four years later, though Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) was unbeatable that year.
We're not saying this middlebrow historical drama about British monarch King George VI overcoming a speech impediment with the help of his therapist is a bad movie. We have no argument against Colin Firth's Best Actor win. But The King's Speech won Best Picture and Best Director for Tom Hooper over The Social Network and David Fincher. Ten years later, The King's Speech has receded into "oh yeah, that was a pretty good movie" territory, while the The Social Network is topping "best movie of the decade" lists, as its story about the origin of Facebook is even more prescient and cautionary than it was in 2010.
2017 was an incredible year for movies, and the Best Picture nominee class was packed with future classics: Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, Dunkirk, and Call Me by Your Name. But it was The Shape of Water, the sixth-best movie nominated, which somehow won. Guillermo del Toro's love letter to cinema in the guise of a human woman-fish man romance is a very good movie, but it lacks the resonance and ingenuity of its peers. The fish-man as romantic lead was a novel touch, but otherwise The Shape of Water is a simple story traditionally told. It winning was another case of the Academy sticking with the safe choice over the right choice.
We're big fans of Rami Malek as an actor and a person, and his performance as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in the otherwise seriously flawed biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was probably the best of the year's nominated performances (though a case could still be made for Christian Bale in Vice or Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born). Unfortunately, the actual Best Actor of 2018 wasn't even nominated. Ethan Hawke should have won for his stunning, politically daring performance in First Reformed as a Protestant minister who becomes a radical environmentalist, but the Academy was too scared to give it to him. (Actually, they just didn't see the under-the-radar indie, which grossed less than one percent of Bohemian Rhapsody's nearly billion-dollar take).
Driving Miss Daisy 2.0 aka Green Book won over legitimately great movies like The Favourite, Roma, and Black Panther, deservedly the first superhero movie ever nominated for Best Picture. And unlike The Shape of Water, which was a safe but respectable choice, Green Book isn't an especially good movie. The biopic about a prejudiced white man learning about the evils of racism from an exceptional black man is self-satisfied and stale. 30 years after Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee was again thwarted again by a movie about a driver and their passenger with a simplistic message about racism. "Every time somebody's driving somebody I lose," the BlacKkKlansmandirector groused backstage at the Oscars. "But they changed the seating arrangement this time."