The Academy Awards: Best Picture Losers Part 2
It’s award season! And you know what that means? It means for every popcorn blockbuster, we get about three Oscar-bait movies that are made solely to appease that body of somewhat stodgy Academy voters. Don’t get me wrong, a good portion of the Best Picture winners in history are still some of the greatest films ever made – The Godfather (Parts I and II), Schindler’s List, etc. But what about those historically good movies that got the nomination, but didn’t take home the prize? What about those popular movies that carried fan support, but lost out to a smaller, most of the time better, film? Well, here they are. This list focuses on those films that may or may not have been produced as Oscar bait, but earned the recognition of “Best Picture nominee,” only to walk away without the big prize. As usual, not in order of worst to best. I take into account quality, kindness of social opinion as time has passed, and, of course, if it was a year of an infamous “snub.” Envelope, please…
25. The Graduate (1967)
Lost to: In the Heat of the Night
Another loser from 1967 (what a year) that has stood up as a brilliant look at growing up, love, and what a strange thing sex can be. Starring Dustin Hoffman in his first real star-making performance, this Mike Nichols-directed comedy treated sex and relationships as a driving force of hilarity and awkwardness, something is rarely done so directly before. When Ben (Hoffman) falls in with his parents’ friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), he eventually finds himself drawn to her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s dismay. The film grabbed seven nominations and surprisingly won the Best Director Oscar for Nichols, his only win. Regardless, of the 1967 nominees, The Graduate probably has aged the best and seems to have made this biggest cultural impact, but most of that may be due to the soundtrack from Simon & Garfunkel.
24. Le Grande Illusion (1937)
Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You
What’s a French Jean Renoir film from 1937 doing on a definitive list like this? It only received one Oscar nomination, although it was for the big one. Well, Le Grande Illusion was the first foreign-language film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, widening the reach of the Academy dramatically. The first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar wasn’t presented until 1957; though, between 1947 and 1955, the Academy presented Honorary Awards to films they felt were worth it. There have now been nine foreign-language films nominated for Oscars, but the first after this film was 1969 (Z) – 32 years between them. Taking all this into account, it’s also worth mentioning that it is still one of the most evidently anti-war films ever made by one of France’s great masters.
23. The Great Dictator (1940)
Lost to: Rebecca
Charlie Chaplin has gone down in history as one of the greatest screen legends of all time, though he never received much award recognition. Most of this was due to the lighthearted themes of most of his films and the fact that the Academy was still in its infancy. In 1940, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator grabbed his lone nomination for Best Picture (he was also nominated for Best Actor). The film grabbed a total of five nominations, winning none. But, for a man who spent the majority of his life on screen completely silent, this satirical takedown of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich is a fascinating look at Chaplin in a speaking part, most memorably in a final monologue that is, more or less, Chaplin the man voicing his political opinions in a weary world.
22. Fargo (1996)
Lost to: The English Patient
Joel and Ethan Coen debuted in 1984 with Blood Simple, a modern film noir that was only a taste of what they could do. They dabbled in dark comedy and more crime drama throughout the 80′s and early 90′s, eventually coming to this, a true crime story of an inept car salesman’s plan to extort money from his father-in-law, only to see it fall apart while a pregnant cop is on the trail. Fargo was a revelation – a brilliant piece of storytelling that felt like a foreign film but remained purely American. It was a near-perfect film that grabbed seven nominations and was all but the Best Picture of 1996 until an Anthony Minghella directed British period drama swooped in and took the award. The Coen Brothers would eventually win a Best Picture with No Country for Old Men, but Fargo was the first film that got this close.
21. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Lost to: All About Eve
Billy Wilder showing his range again, this time with a film that feels like a horror film. Sunset Blvd. grabbed eleven nominations, winning three (Score, Black and White Art Direction, Writing). Wilder’s masterpiece has gone down as one of the most brilliant, claustrophobic tales of lost glory and fear, with Gloria Swanson giving one of the most unsettling performances of all time against strong work from William Holden. Unfortunately, it was also the year of Joseph Mankiewicz’s behemoth All About Eve – fourteen nominations are tough to beat. Both films were cynical looks at show business with surprisingly similar themes – how Hollywood can destroy a person’s soul, creating a warped sense of self-importance and selfishness. But, All About Eve was an easier film to swallow, despite star Bette Davis and Swanson both missing out on a Best Actress Oscar (Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday).
#20. The Exorcist (1973)
Lost to: The Sting
Crammed in between two Best Picture wins for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films was an interesting little year that rewarded another pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman (trivia: The Sting’s Julia Phillips is the first time female producer to ever win Best Picture). The other big landmark – the first time a pure horror film was nominated for Best Picture. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Oscars, winning for Sound and Adapted Screenplay. The horrifying story of a young girl possessed was, rumor has it, cursed as they tried to complete the film. This film about the struggle between faith and sin is possibly the most important horror film of all time.
#19. Avatar (2009)
Lost to: The Hurt Locker
The year after The Dark Knight and WALL-E missed out on Best Picture nominations, the Academy decided to change the rules and allow ten nominees. It didn’t necessarily change anything, because the race still ended up being between two films: a little indie drama about a bomb diffuser in Iraq and the biggest box office hit of all time. A weird twist – the directors of each film were formerly married. On Oscar night, the Academy made the bold choice to go with The Hurt Locker, shunning Pocahontas in Space, AKA Avatar. Oscar went to a dark, infectious film instead of an amusement park ride. Good for them. While it may not have been an “upset,” it was still an important moment to see the highest-grossing film of all time walk away without the big prize.
#16. (tie) All the President’s Men (1976)
#16. (tie) Taxi Driver (1976)
#16. (tie) Network (1976)
Lost to: Rocky
I had no choice to go with a tie here. Look at that gauntlet of films. And they all lost to a sports movie about an underdog boxer. Now, Rocky is a good movie – it grabbed ten nominations. Sylvester Stallone was only the third person ever to be nominated for Acting and Writing in the same year (the other two are Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin…not bad company). But, you have to assume that the three films here split the vote. Network is a cutting satirical drama about the TV industry. All the President’s Men is the brilliantly written and acted story of the Watergate Scandal. Taxi Driver is the ultimate story of urban paranoia. Between the three of them, they were nominated for 22 Oscars, winning eight. And, if you ask me, each holds up much better than the Best Picture winner.
#14. (tie) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
#14. (tie) Pulp Fiction (1994)
Lost to: Forrest Gump
Another important year in the history of cinema saw one of the most competitive races. And yes, I cheated and went with another tie. Deal with it. The Shawshank Redemption has become one of the beloved films of all time, still sitting at #1 on IMDBs top 250 films. Pulp Fiction gave birth to a new filmmaking formula when Quentin Tarantino broke every rule to tell a twisted, but wholly entertaining thinly-veiled film noir. But when the envelope was opened, the award went to a lighthearted epic about a handicapped man whose life reads like a history book. Forrest Gump is a nice movie – extremely enjoyable and re-watchable. But the two movies it beat have had much greater social and industrial impacts than it can ever imagine. But, stupid is as stupid does, I suppose.
#13. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Lost to: An American in Paris
Playwright Tennessee Williams worked with iconic director Elia Kazan to bring his play A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen. Williams wrote the screenplay for his stage play and Kazan directed a stellar cast that grabbed twelve nominations, including one in all four acting categories. Oscars went to Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, and Vivien Leigh, though Marlon Brando – the biggest name of the bunch – missed out on an award. Then, when the big announcement came, they handed the statuette to a musical starring Gene Kelly. It was light. It was colorful. It wasn’t nearly as dark as Streetcar was. Streetcar has gone down in history as an acting class, to say the least.
12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Lost to: Ordinary People
In retrospect, it may not have deserved the award and certainly wasn’t the biggest surprise of that year (coming up soon!). But, given the impact Steven Spielberg’s essential adventure film has made on the entire industry, there is no reason to think that Raiders of the Lost Ark isn’t one of the most important films to go home without a Best Picture win. The first of a film series that has slowly gotten worse, Raiders was the first film to put Harrison Ford on an island (figuratively). The man who first appeared in American Graffiti and stole the show in Star Wars as Han Solo got to headline a film and blew it out of the water. The film may have become more myth than substance, given its epic reputation, but Spielberg’s mix of action sequences and wit in this film is rarely approached in the industry today.
#11. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Lost to: In the Heat of the Night
Finally, we hit the last of the film on this list from 1967, one of the greatest years in film history. While The Graduate redefined sex in the movies and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night tackled issues about race that few films would approach, it was Arthur Penn’s ultra-violent (at the time) story of historic bank-robbing couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that may have broken the biggest barriers. Nominated for ten Oscars and winning for Cinematography and Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons), Bonnie and Clyde changed the way not only violence was portrayed on screen, but managed to embed it within an interesting discussion of masculinity and relationships. The movie may have centered around bank robbers, but the real root of the film was how Bonnie and Clyde played off each other as a couple and the complexity of their courtship. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty played the leads like the masters they are and helped create one of the finest films of the 60′s or any decade.
#10. Chinatown (1974)
Lost to: The Godfather Part II
Well, no one will argue that it should have won, but still. Roman Polanski’s film made a true leading man out of Jack Nicholson. It grabbed eleven nominations, only taking home one. That being said, that one was for Original Screenplay, written by Robert Towne, which may be the greatest even written. Entire courses could be taught on this screenplay alone and Polanski and his actors delivered a perfect translation of it to the screen. Also starring Faye Dunaway and the great John Huston, the story of power and corruption still stands as one of the greatest films of the 1970′s (or any decade for that matter). It’s just a shame it ran into the greatest movie sequel of all time.
#9. Cabaret (1972)
Lost to: The Godfather
Seems weird, doesn’t it? Well, the Liza Minnelli vehicle is on this list for one important reason: it won the most Oscars of all time without taking home the big one. Cabaret grabbed ten nominations and won eight of them, including Best Actress for Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, and Best Director for Bob Fosse. In most other years, it may have walked away with Best Picture, but it was up against quite possibly the greatest American film ever made. It had a great pedigree – Fosse directed the Broadway version of Chicago and brought his songwriters with him for Cabaret. But Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece was too much to overcome.
#8. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Lost to: Crash
I’ll go on record right now and say that I am not as big a fan of this film as most people. That being said, the divide between critics and the Academy was never so visible as it was in 2005 when the Oscar went to a hyperlink film about race relations in Los Angeles instead of a groundbreaking film about gay cowboys. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was a force to be reckoned with – critics loved it and it broke barriers in terms of a mainstream film taking a look at such a touchy subject. It gave the world a collection of young stars – Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams – that would become the future of the industry. But, in the end, the topic may have been a little too risque and the award went to the much more audience-friendly film packed full of A-list stars. The late Ledger’s role as The Joker may be his defining performance, but his work here as Ennis is uncompromisingly subtle and complicated.
#7. Jaws (1975)
Lost to: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The summer blockbuster didn’t really exist until 1975 when a young filmmaker named Steven Spielberg unleashed a shark upon the world. Jaws didn’t get as much Oscar love as you would think – only four nominations and three wins (Film Editing, Original Score, Sound), but the lack of recognition for Spielberg in the directing category was a surprise and would begin a strange trend for his films. Eight Spielberg films have been nominated for Best Picture – only one has won (Schindler’s List). Spielberg himself has only won two Best Director Oscars, for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. It’s just another example of a director viewed by most as one of the greatest of all time, but without the hardware to back it up. If you’re asking me, while Jaws may not have “deserved” the Oscar in 1975 (Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel is a brilliant film), it’s still his best film.
#6. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Lost to: Gone with the Wind
We already talked about one other loser from 1939 (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but it pales in comparison to this mammoth of a film. While Frank Capra’s story of a greater America is inspiring, it will never match the impact this classic film made on the world. The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Oscars, winning two (Original Score, Original Song), somehow missing out on any technical awards (though, to be fair, they were in their infancy at the time). Director Victor Fleming shapes a dream-like story of a young girl’s trip to Oz – a magical world with a tin man, a scarecrow, and a lion all searching for the one thing they believe will complete them each. The three of them and Dorothy (Judy Garland) journey along the yellow brick road to meet the wizard and escape the Wicked Witch of the West, accompanied by Toto the dog. It’s great family fun and has since been only expanded in its mythology. But, let’s be honest. Nothing was going to beat Gone with the Wind.
#5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Lost to: Shakespeare in Love
Steven Spielberg’s highest-rated film on the list may not be his best, but it was the most unexpected loser, for sure. From Saving Private Ryan’s premiere, it was exalted for its realism, honesty, and true depiction of warfare, specifically the scenes on the beaches of Normandy. Nominated for eleven Oscars and taking home five (including Best Director), the war epic still suffered from some of the typical Spielberg tropes (the final act is a bit melodramatic, for sure). It was chosen as the front-runner early on, but, in the end, the Academy chose a lighthearted comedy named Shakespeare in Love, about the young playwright’s love affair. It was early proof that the Weinsteins (Miramax) were a lobbying force to be reckoned with, pushing their little love story to Best Picture (and the Best Actress award for Gwyneth Paltrow).
#4. Citizen Kane (1941)
Lost to: How Green Was My Valley
It’s widely identified as the greatest American film of all time. It was a labor of love and obsession by one of the industry’s greatest directors at such a young age. It was a cutting attack on the newspaper industry veiled as a fictional biopic. But, while 99% of film enthusiasts may look at this as one of the biggest travesties of all time, this was never unexpected. Citizen Kane has aged more gracefully than any film. As time has gone on, the respect and admiration for what Orson Welles created have grown and blossomed. But, in 1941, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley taking home the top prize was not a surprise. It didn’t incite riots. No one set the theater ablaze out of anger and frustration. It was just early proof that, regardless of how much weight we put on the Oscars, they mean nothing when debating what films are truly “great.”
#3. Raging Bull (1980)
Lost to: Ordinary People
We’ve seen what felt like the Oscars vs. Steven Spielberg saga in a few places on this list, but a much larger, more obvious battle was a longstanding divide between the Academy and the great Martin Scorsese. Beginning in 1976 with Taxi Driver, Scorsese had four films nominated for Best Picture before finally winning in 2006 with The Departed, though he made plenty of other Oscar-worthy films during that span. This film was the second of those losers, but the first that was the overwhelming favorite. Raging Bull was a tour-de-force for Robert De Niro and one of the most intense, honest films that revolved around a sport of all time. But it was exceedingly dark and painful to watch as Jake LaMotta’s downward spiral was captured fully by Scorses and Michael Chapman’s black and white cinematography. Raging Bull grabbed eight nominations, only winning two (Best Actor, Best Film Editing). But, its loss to Robert Redford’s family drama Ordinary People has gone down as one of the biggest surprises (and disappointments) in Oscar history.
#2. Goodfellas (1990)
Lost to: Dances with Wolves
Martin Scorsese had already been “cheated” by the Academy once, with the previous entry on this list. Ten years later, he collaborated with author Nicholas Pileggi to adapt his novel Wiseguys into the motion picture that would become Goodfellas. Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco, the true-life mob story of a gangster-turned-informant portrayed protagonist Henry Hill as a kid looking for an opportunity to “be someone” in a world that was defined by this set of criminals. Eventually, his entry into that world slowly destroys him and the people he loves, forcing him to turn his back on a life he would still go back to in a heartbeat. Nominated for six Oscars (winning just one – Best Supporting Actor for Pesci), Goodfellas has long been regarded as one of the biggest Oscar misses of all time. Kevin Costner’s sweeping, yawn-inducing western Dances with Wolves took home the gold (along with six other wins and twelve total nominations). Liotta was never better, De Niro found a new place in cinema, and Pesci gave a juggernaut of a performance in, ironically, the same year he would be bested by a pre-teen (Home Alone). Goodfellas took a mob story, made it a personal character study, and only sits behind The Godfather, Parts I and II in the pantheon of gangster films. Which is ironic, because it was also nominated against The Godfather Part III, an awful, awful film. “Goodfellas” may not be Scorsese’s best film, but it damn sure should have a Best Picture Oscar.
#1. Star Wars (1977)
Lost to: Annie Hall
And so it comes to this. Sometimes, a film defines a genre. Sometimes it defines a fan base. Other times, it defines an entire movement of culture. In 1977, George Lucas crafted this first film in a trilogy that would essentially change the world. Star Wars was something different: a western set in space. The Lucas formula used interesting characters and expanded mythology to create what felt more like a comic book issue for the silver screen. It grabbed ten total nominations, winning six (all in technical or music categories). It lost out on the big prize, Best Director, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), and Original Screenplay. It wasn’t a huge surprise – the Academy wasn’t quite at the stage to truly accept a genre film. Fast forward to 2013. Now Disney owns the rights to make more Star Wars films, after George Lucas finally phased himself out, before he could destroy his creation further. Regardless of what happens from now on, the original trilogy and, more specifically, the film that kicked it off, holds a place in society as one of the most important cultural events of the last fifty years. Should it have won? Not sure. Annie Hall is a really good movie.
– Joshua Gaul
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.