Oscar's Only Human: The 10 Biggest Academy Awards Blunders
Jack Haley, Jr. hit upon a brilliant idea. The producer of the 1979 Oscars telecast devised a special medley of hit songs the Academy never nominated. Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis, Jr. would perform it at the ceremony. The Academy’s Music Branch protested, but when Haley and host Johnny Carson threatened to walk they relented.
A smash hit, the audience applauded “Oscar’s Only Human” throughout and treated the performers to a prolonged ovation.
Oscar is only human, and he’s made some terrible mistakes over the years. From controversial wins to unfortunate slights to sins of showmanship, the Academy Awards have failed time and time again.
In honor of this Sunday’s broadcast, here are my personal picks for Oscar’s ten most egregious screw-ups:
In 1985 Whoopi Goldberg made a big splash. She earned a Grammy for her first comedy album as well as a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod for her film debut in The Color Purple. Five years later, her movie career had faltered, thanks to a series of flops.
But then came the perfect storm that was Ghost. With the makings of the quintessential chick flick -- sexy stars in Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and a supernatural romantic subplot -- Goldberg appears for comic relief as the medium used to communicate beyond the grave.
While a surprise box-office smash,critics didn’t take kindly to Ghost. Julie Salomon 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.
The big story at the Oscars that year was Kevin Costner’s revisionist Western Dances With Wolves, but Goldberg managed to walk home with the Best Supporting Actress trophy. Considering her competition that year -- Lorraine Bracco, Annette Bening, Mary McDonnell, and Diane Ladd, all from dramatic films -- it’s curious that Goldberg won for such a comic role.
Film historians and critics have long considered 1939 a golden year for movies. A list of the year’s notable films reads like the cream of the classic crop: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), Wuthering Heights, The Wizard Of Oz, and a little Civil War drama called Gone With The Wind.
The Best Actor category that year was packed with iconic performances. The nominees included Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, and, um, Mickey Rooney for something called Babes In Arms.
Strangely enough, the voters chose British actor Robert Donat for the inspirational teacher drama Goodbye Mr. Chips over Gable, Stewart, and Olivier.
Donat’s win cast a black cloud over Gone With The Wind’s triumphant night -- eight Oscars and two special awards -- and producer David O. Selznick considered Gable’s loss his greatest disappointment that year.
Time has not been so kind to Donat. His is one of the least remembered performances in a banner year for cinema, and he isn’t as highly regarded as his competitors. Or, as one writer put it:
Seventy years later, we’re still quoting Gable, while we’re googling who Robert Donat was, how his performance could have outshone Gable’s, and what Goodbye Mr. Chips was about.
It’s an odd tradition for directors of highly regarded films to miss out on a Best Director nomination at the Oscars. It happened to Steven Spielberg twice -- first for Jaws and again a decade later for The Color Purple. Barbra Streisand failed to get a nod for The Prince Of Tides, and Rob Reiner didn’t garner a nomination for A Few Good Men.
Driving Miss Daisy was one of the most beautiful films of 1989. Its depiction of mid-20th century Atlanta was meticulous, and the cast gave tremendous performances. Australian director Bruce Beresford brought the pieces together yet the Academy did not see fit to nominate him for Best Director.
Beresford’s omission became a focal point of the awards broadcast. In his opening monologue, host Billy Crystal referred to Driving Miss Daisy as “the movie that apparently directed itself,” a remark that led to cheers from the crowd. Best Adapted Screenplay winner Alfred Uhry called Beresford “great and unheralded,” while Best Actress Jessica Tandy thanked her “forgotten” director. Finally, producer Richard Zanuck gave Beresford his due when he accepted the Best Picture award:
We’re up here for one very simple reason, and that’s the fact that Bruce Beresford is a brilliant director, it’s as simple as that.
Driving Miss Daisy became the first film in 57 years to win Best Picture without a nominated director. On a successful night for the team behind Driving Miss Daisy, it was a real shame for Bruce Beresford to walk away empty handed.
7. The Little Film That Could (But Didn’t)
One of the most compelling documentaries of all time was 1994’s Hoop Dreams, a film following William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young men from inner city Chicago on their quest to make it in the NBA. Director Steve James initially planned to make a 30 minute short for PBS. What he wound up with after five years was 250 hours of footage, which he cut down to a three hour movie.
Hoop Dreams was an instant critical favorite and a surprising success for a documentary. Critic Owen Gleiberman called it “a movie with more passion and suspense than most dramatic features.” The film wound up earning nearly $12 million at the box office.
When the time came to campaign for the Academy Awards, Fine Line Features went for broke. The studio sent letters to Academy members asking them to consider the documentary for Best Picture. Later on, Fine Line Features head Ira Deutchman admitted that the studio didn’t actually think voters would nominate the film for Best Picture, but he was surprised at how many voters he had heard from who said they would consider it.
However, when the Academy released the nominations, Hoop Dreams was nowhere to be found in the Documentary category (though it did pick up a nod for Best Editing). Many considered the omission to be the biggest injustice of the awards season. One journalist referred to the Academy’s failure to nominate Hoop Dreams as a “singularly unspeakable outrage,” and Oscar host David Letterman called the Academy out in a Top Ten list during the broadcast.
The Best Documentary award that year went to a film about the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The winning documentary’s director just happened to be a former chair of the Academy’s Documentary Committee. Hoop Dreams’ omission led the Academy to reexamine its procedures for nominating documentaries. But it was too little too late for Fine Line Features.
6. Second Best Director?
On Oscar night in 1973, two of the previous year’s greatest films competed neck-and-neck throughout the night. For the most part, 1972’s Oscar race came down to the dynastic sweep of The Godfather versus the intentionally tawdry musical Cabaret.
At first, it looked like no contest: by the time the Best Director presentation rolled around, Cabaret had won six statuettes, while The Godfather had none. Director George Stephens and Julie Andrews gave the Best Director award to Cabaret’s Bob Fosse over Francis Ford Coppola while a stunned audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion looked on. Venerable columnist Army Archerd later wrote that the “biggest gasp from the Academy members -- and guests -- greeted the announcement.”
Thirty-nine years after that Oscar show, I can’t help but wonder what the voters were thinking giving Cabaret eight awards -- the most to a non-Best Picture winner at that time -- to The Godfather’s three.
5. Al Pacino’s Lifetime Achievement -- I Mean, Best Actor -- Award
The Academy has a strange history of neglecting iconic actors then giving them awards for lesser roles later on in their careers. They’re almost like lifetime achievement trophies disguised as competitive awards.
We’ve seen it so many times. Henry Fonda deserved his Best Actor win for On Golden Pond in 1982, but Oscar passed him over so many times and that year was literally his last chance to win. Paul Newman’s Oscar for 1986’s The Color Of Money felt like a consolation prize because he failed to win for so many better performances (and because the Academy gave him a lifetime achievement award the year before).
The most obvious case of this phenomenon was Al Pacino's Best Actor win in 1993. Pacino, of course, was one of the most memorable actors of the 1970s, giving a string of electrifying performances and receiving six Oscar nominations prior to 1992. Pacino received two nominations that year -- Best Actor for Scent Of A Woman and Best Supporting Actor for David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. He lost the latter to Gene Hackman, but he won in the Best Actor category.
Pacino’s win seems like too little too late because Scent Of A Woman was largely a critical failure -- in spite of garnering four Academy Award nods. One writer went so far as to call it a “cheap, dull, and loathsome waste of film” and noted that “the only feeling it arouses is a torrential rage.”
Honestly, it just seems as though the Academy was making up for lost time giving Pacino the Best Actor after so many iconic performances -- including one in the Best Supporting Actor category that same year.
4. It’s Hard Out Here For A What?
Sometimes it’s painful to watch the Academy try to be hip and pay attention to trends. In the 2000s, Oscar embraced hip-hop -- twice. In 2003, Eminem won Best Song for “Lose Yourself” from the film 8 Mile, and it was a good choice.
Three years later, the Academy honored another rap song, and the choice left millions scratching their heads. The Best Song of 2005, according to the Academy, was “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” from the movie Hustle & Flow. Yes, that’s right. From now until the end of time, the rap trio Three-6 Mafia can refer to themselves as Oscar winners.
Over at Big Hollywood, Kurt Schlichter put it best when he said:
For once, the saccharine Disney ditties and the generic pop hits were thrust aside in favor of a gritty urban tune that finally dared to musically explore the difficulties that industrious entrepreneurs face in their daily lives. Yeah, nothing like a song we can all relate to.
I wonder how many Academy members -- who I'm sure had a great laugh when they voted for Three-6 Mafia -- regretted their smartass choice for Best Song that year.
3. The Worst Awards Show Of All Time
The Academy left the 61st annual ceremony in the hands of producer Allan Carr, best known for producing Grease and Can’t Stop The Music and discovering such diverse celebrities as Olivia Newton-John, Mark Hamill, and Steve Guttenberg. Carr was also known for throwing lavish parties, and the Academy hoped his touch would liven the ceremony.
Carr promised “the antithesis of tacky,” and he put his clout to use to lure as many famous names as possible to present awards. He went with a host-free format for the show and grouped presenters into categories he named “costars,” “couples,” and “compadres.” One of his innovations still stands today -- he traded the traditional announcement of “and the winner is...” to “and the Oscar goes to...”
The broadcast opened with actress Eileen Bowman portraying Snow White, dressed in sequins and singing with a screechy voice. This number led into Merv Griffin performing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts" while stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s sat at tables in a nightclub setting. After Griffin, Snow White was back, this time duetting with Rob Lowe on a medley of “Proud Mary” and “Hooray For Hollywood,” both with revised lyrics.
Before viewers saw the first award presentation, three addresses followed the opening number, including one by Lily Tomlin, who opined:
More than a billion and a half people watched that. And at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it.
Carr chose not to allow the three Best Song nominees to perform on the broadcast, but he made room for film clip montages devoted to tap dancing, movie musicals, and -- ironically enough -- performances of previous Best Song winners.
The show featured yet another lengthy production number, this one featuring the stars of “young Hollywood.” Titled “I Want To Be An Oscar Winner,” the performance included Patrick Demspey, Ricki Lake, Christian Slater, and Corey Feldman, along with 15 others. One critic cracked that the number “inspired no confidence in Hollywood’s future.”
All in all, the show took a major critical drubbing, and the attacks started practically as soon as the broadcast ended. Carr testily defended his production, but after the hits he took, he kept a low profile until his death in 1999. The ceremony was such a laughingstock that Walt Disney Studios threatened to sue the Academy and Carr. The next year when Billy Crystal was named host, he remarked at a press conference that “a Snow White piñata would be a good idea.”
The 1989 Academy Awards have taken their rightful place in history as the worst awards show of all time.
2. I Wonder If Academy Members Ever Suffer From Voters’ Remorse?
Most Oscar winners accept theirs with grace and class. Others wind up giving boring speeches, reading lists of names off a piece of paper. And then there are the winners who personify everything wrong with the Academy Awards. I’m looking at you, Roberto Benigni.
The Italian actor-director-writer released a film in 1998 titled Life Is Beautiful. It was a comedy set in a concentration camp. A Holocaust comedy. Just let that sink in.
I’ll defer to Schlichter again:
This award was so manifestly undeserved that it made President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize seem as underwhelming as a third place middle school science fair ribbon tossed at Albert Einstein.
Someone told Roberto Benigni a terrible lie – that he was amusing. In fact, he is the most annoying performer in the entire history of cinema...
Oddly enough, the Academy fell for Benigni’s schtick hook, line, and sinker. Perhaps it’s their peculiar obsession with the Holocaust, or maybe Benigni somehow charmed the voters. Either way, this obnoxious fool walked away with statuettes for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film.
Benigni’s acceptance speeches were truly bizarre. Take a look.
Fortunately for us, Benigni faded back into the obscurity he deserves. Unfortunately for us, the Academy can’t take his Oscars back.
1. The Least Deserving Best Picture Of All Time
Sometimes the Academy Awards go to the most hyped movies instead of those films that are most deserving. Take The English Patient for example. Or American Beauty. Or Out Of Africa. Or Dances With Wolves. You get the idea.
The biggest example of this phenomenon is a film that’s a sacred cow for some people, but it’s truly the most undeserving Best Picture winner of them all. I’m talking about Forrest Gump.
The premise of Forrest Gump is ridiculous. A mentally deficient man with a bad haircut and even worse Southern accent manages to find himself among all the important events of the mid-20th century, stopping to spout off inane sayings here and there. Don’t get me wrong -- the special effects are great, but Forrest Gump is a picture I literally could only watch once. It’s that bad. Why this movie is so well-loved is beyond me.
And Tom Hanks for Best Actor? As an actor, Hanks is a national treasure, but his performance in Forrest Gump is horrid. The Academy should’ve saved his second Oscar for Apollo 13.
The six awards that Forrest Gump won look even more ludicrous next to the film’s competition -- specifically Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Can anyone honestly tell me that this:
is better than this:
It’s painfully obvious that Forrest Gump was the least deserving Best Picture of all time.
(Author's note: I couldn't have written this post without tremendous help and inspiration from two books: Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona and Inside Oscar 2 by Bona. Both books are absolute must-haves for awards show junkies and movie history buffs like me.)