I love the Academy Awards. I watch them every year, even if I haven’t seen many of the nominated films. Watching the Oscars feels like witnessing Hollywood history, and although I know people complain about the politicization of the entertainment industry, it’s easy for me to put all of that aside (0ther than momentarily grumbling about it) one night a year.
I’ve also enjoyed studying the history of the Oscars, and along with that, I like playing armchair movie critic, looking back and judging which wins made sense and which winners were undeserving. The Academy usually gets it right, but occasionally, they make the wrong choice.
In the days leading up to this year’s Academy Awards, I’m going to look at the four acting categories along with Best Picture and share the most undeserving winners in each category with you. I’ll also speculate on who should have won instead.
Today, let’s take a look at the Best Supporting Actress category. Here are the six most undeserving Oscar recipients. Enjoy!
6. Helen Hayes, Airport (1970)
The star-studded disaster movie was a hallmark of cinema in the 1970s. The basic plot of these films follows a cast of characters interacting in a particular environment where disaster awaits—if you’ve seen the Airplane comedies, probably the only lasting legacy of these pictures, you’ll understand the concept.
Airport was the first of this genre of movies, and the cast included the legendary actress Helen Hayes, who played an elderly stowaway in a somewhat silly, non-challenging role that critic Pauline Kael referred to as “her lovable-old-trouper pixie act.” The flight crew enlists Hayes’ character to help foil a potential bombing on the plane.
The Academy Award nominations that year pitted the old guard against a new generation, and the Best Supporting Actress was no exception, with younger actresses like Karen Black and Sally Kellerman in bold films facing down older stars like Hayes and her co-star Maureen Stapleton.
But it was Hayes’ name in the envelope, and she won her second Oscar, though she wasn’t present to accept it. The critics seemed to be glad she was absent because, as one critic noted, her work in Airport was, “let’s face it, just a teentsy-weentsy bit terrible.”
Who should’ve won? Black’s role in Five Easy Pieces may be one of the few long-lasting roles from that year, but the Oscar should’ve gone to Hayes’ co-star, Stapleton, who played the bomber’s distraught wife.
5. Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The Agatha Christie mystery movies made up another series of all-star spectacles from years gone by. Murder on the Orient Express featured Albert Finney as the famous detective Hercule Poirot investigating a murder committed on the famous train. The killer, of course, was one of the other passengers, each portrayed by a celebrity in various forms of overacting.
Ingrid Bergman plays a Swedish missionary (one of the film’s smaller roles) and filmed her biggest scene in one take. When the nominations came out, Bergman joined a crowded field of memorable performances. On Oscar night, her name was in the envelope—her third Oscar—and Bergman seemed a little surprised and even apologized to one of her competitors.
Who should’ve won? Bergman herself seemed to think that Valentina Cortese should have won for Day for Night, and hers was a terrific performance. Diane Ladd and Madeline Kahn were wonderful as well, but Talia Shire should have run home with the gold for her powerhouse role in The Godfather, Part II.
4. Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (1992)
I don’t like to hate on good movies that were made in my hometown, but unfortunately, Marisa Tomei’s Oscar win isn’t quite the claim to fame that it ought to be for Covington. Don’t get me wrong: My Cousin Vinny is a terrific comedy, and Tomei is a treat, but an Oscar-worthy performance? The Academy generally doesn’t go for light comic roles, so Tomei’s performance doesn’t really seem to fit in with much of the history of the category.
Disclaimer: this clip contains a bit of language.
When the nominations came out, one critic called the choice of Tomei “the off-the-wall nomination,” while many others considered her an also-ran in a crowded field of prestigious nominees. It’s even possible that she won because the other actresses canceled each other out. The joke around Hollywood was that presenter Jack Palance read Tomei’s name because she was the only American nominated.
Who should’ve won? It’s a tough field, really, and any of the other four nominees could have walked away with the gold. But above all of them, Miranda Richardson really shone as a scorned wife in Damage.
3. Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
For some reason, the Academy loves to give Best Supporting Actress to women in Woody Allen films. From Dianne Wiest (twice) to Penelope Cruz, seems like all an actress had to do for many years was appear in a Woody Allen movie to get an Oscar.
Case in point: Mira Sorvino. Allen cast her as a prostitute and adult film actress—and his love interest—in Mighty Aphrodite. She delivers every line in the same tone, often sounding like the human equivalent of a writer who neglects punctuation.
Critics had mixed reviews for Sorvino: some called her “endearing” and compared her to Victoria Jackson (an insult to Jackson), while others referred to her “disconnected, defenseless performance” and said she was “uncomfortable to listen to.” Yet somehow, Oscar votes went her way.
Who should’ve won? I’m partial to Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13, simply because it’s my all-time favorite film, but truth be told, hers was one of the best performances that year. Joan Allen was incredible in Nixon too, but the absolute best—and most deserving of an Oscar—was probably Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility.
2. Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973)
O’Neal, the daughter of heartthrob actor Ryan O’Neal had the distinction of being the youngest actress ever to win an Academy Award. Ryan O’Neal saw the film Paper Moon as an opportunity to spend time with his daughter and give her the affection he felt he hadn’t given her.
The trouble is, all the affection in the world can’t turn a little girl into a polished actress. Director Peter Bogdanovich, notorious for limiting the number of takes he would do with his actors, admitted that Tatum took as many at 53 takes to get scenes right and called hers a “manipulated performance.”
She’s not terrible, but it’s not really Oscar-worthy either, although apparently, the Academy thought so.
Who should’ve won? Well, if the Academy really wanted to give Oscar to a child, Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist was more harrowing (even though it wasn’t her voice delivering many of her lines). But O’Neal’s Paper Moon co-star, Madeline Kahn, shone well above the other competitors that year.
1. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990)
Some films and some performances don’t belong anywhere near the awards show stage. Ghost is one of those films—it’s nothing more than sappy, supernatural dreck. It’s truly a God-awful movie. I wrote about its Oscar nominations years ago as one of Oscar’s greatest blunders:
While a surprise box-office smash,critics didn’t take kindly to Ghost. Julie Salamon of the Wall Street Journal said the film wasn’t “awful enough to be a great trash movie, but it often comes close.” Yet when the Academy Award nominations came out, Ghost scored five, including one for Best Picture.
Disclaimer: more language.
Whoopi Goldberg, a truly talented woman, was stuck playing third-wheel comic relief in a cheesy chick flick, and somehow she wound up winning an Academy Award over a bevy of more deserving actresses. What a shame that such a terrible film has wound up immortalized in Oscar history.
Who should’ve won? I suppose it’s a cop-out to say, “anybody else.” All four of Goldberg’s fellow nominees were wonderful, but Lorraine Bracco stood head and shoulders above the others in Goodfellas.
So there you have it. What are your picks? Let us know in the comments below.
Author’s note: Much of the research for this post—and the rest coming up in the series—comes from two books: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona and Inside Oscar 2 by Bona. These books are fun, essential reading for movie history buffs.