In the run-up to the Oscars, Redbrick Film critic Joe Ryan gives us the top ten faux pas in Academy Awards history.

Images by Mubi

Each year, the Oscars ceremony is routinely met with collective scepticism. Even this year, there have been significant oversights from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Céline Sciamma for helming Girlhood, to Charlize Theron for Mad Max: Fury Road. The glitz and glamour of Oscar night masks months of campaigning and politicising behind closed doors as winners are strategically chosen. Without fail, this results in controversy as the opinions of the Academy and of audiences often diverge to a baffling extent, and faith in the judging panel dwindles. And with the following examples, who can blame us? Here are my somewhat subjective picks for ten of the worst decisions that the Academy has ever made.


10. 67th Academy Awards – Best Film: Forrest Gump

A controversial one out-of-the-way early on. Forrest Gump is not a bad film – it is actually pretty good. Best film of 1994, however, it is not. On a lesser year it could have been a valid contender, but besides Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, it is surprising that it ever conceivably stood a chance. Personally, as neither of those two are particular favourites of mine, I would have seen the award go to Robert Redford’s based-on-a-true-story drama Quiz Show. All three alternatives were nominated, so how they were overlooked by the Academy should be beyond all of us.


9. 36th Academy Awards – Best Cinematography: Leon Shamroy (Cleopatra)

Once again, a fairly decent film, and not a bad-looking one. But the unremittingly harsh lighting and pasty looking sets pale (quite literally) in comparison to Giuseppe Rotunno’s phenomenal work on The Leopard. Rotunno’s visuals are indicative of a near-perfect career (Rent-a-Cop notwithstanding) and, with high praise from the likes of Martin Scorsese, who can argue? Go and watch the ballroom scene and try to imagine a world where Cleopatra can hold a candle to the cinematography on display; I imagine it’ll be difficult.


8. 14th Academy Awards – Best Film: How Green Was My Valley

Who’s seen this film? Really? I’ve only seen it because it is the answer to the classic pub-quiz question ‘What film won the Oscar for Best Film the year that Citizen Kane didn’t?’ This decision shows the Academy often has trouble spotting a revolutionary film, despite it being as clear as day to the rest of the world. Whilst Citizen Kane has paved the way for filmmaking to this day, the interminably dull How Green Was My Valley must have had such a hold over the Academy in 1941 that they couldn’t see anything past its supposed sheer brilliance. Or maybe they just made the wrong call.


7. 54th Academy Awards – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond)

A fine actress in a boring film, but this is not the issue here. Off the shortlist, the award should’ve gone to Diane Keaton for Reds. However, the true extent of the Academy’s misjudgment in 1981 is that the real best actress of that year wasn’t even nominated. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest has been vastly underrated as, even though the film as a whole isn’t the greatest, her performance is equal parts faithful impersonation and scenery-chewing madness without ever seeming unjustified. The decision not to nominate her, presumably for lambasting Hollywood stalwart Crawford, is a great injustice to a bold performance.


6. 49th Academy Awards – Best Director: John G. Avildsen (Rocky)

This is a special example of the Academy getting it almost tragically wrong. 1974 was a strong year for American cinema and, although I would personally disagree, the argument for Rocky winning Best Film can be made. Best Director, however, is a travesty, as the entirety of the rest of the category all display better direction. Ingmar Bergman (Face to Face), Sidney Lumet (Network), Alan J. Paluka (All the President’s Men) and Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties) were all unceremoniously cast aside in favour of a film which, whilst well written and performed, does nothing in the way of notable direction. To add insult to injury, Scorsese was not even nominated for Taxi Driver! Just think about that.


5. 58th Academy Awards – Art Direction: Stephen Grimes (Out of Africa)

What film would have had to release in 1986 for the gloriously chaotic Brazil to not instantly win Best Art Direction? The answer, of course, is Kurosawa’s beautiful Ran and, to the Academy’s credit, Yoshiro Muraki was nominated. Whoever answered with the pretty yet unimaginative Out of Africa obviously works for the Academy, although how they got the job, I have no idea.


4. 62nd Academy Awards – Best Film: Driving Miss Daisy

1989; Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing explores the pervasive undercurrent of bigotry and racism in urban America; My Left Foot offers a heartfelt portrayal of a man communicating with the world despite a severe handicap; Cinema Paradiso acts as a love letter to the power of cinema and the effect it can have on a life. And the award goes to… a rose-tinted “comedy” in which an old woman doesn’t quite forgive her chauffeur for being black.


3. 82nd Academy Awards – Best Cinematography: Mauro Fiore (Avatar)

Ignoring, for a second, the anti-logic resulting an almost entirely CG film being said to have had good cinematography, Avatar isn’t even a particularly well shot film. It certainly should never have beaten Christian Berger’s work in Michael Haneke’s hauntingly beautiful, Bergman-esque The White Ribbon. And if you haven’t seen that, then how about Inglorious Basterds? Tarantino’s meandering yet gorgeously shot war film loses to a cartoon that, even now, isn’t showing signs of aging well.


2. 65th Academy Awards – Best Actor: Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman)

Pacino’s reputation as a gruff over-actor stems entirely from this film. Playing a blind, alcoholic army veteran, Pacino infuses his performance with all the ham worthy of a humorous side-character from a 3rd rate comedy. Although nominated, on the night, the Academy thought that Denzel Washington’s complex performance in Malcolm X just wasn’t good enough to outshine ‘Ranger chokehold.’ Perhaps more tragically, Stephen Rea’s incredible work as an IRA member confronting his own nature in The Crying Game hardly even got a look in. It has since become clear to everyone that the Academy were merely rewarding Pacino for his past achievements, namely…


1.47th Academy Awards – Best Actor: Art Carney (Harry and Tonto)

…being overlooked for embodying Michael Corleone’s spectacular fall from grace in The Godfather Part II. Not to say Art Carney isn’t good in the film – he portrays the effects of old age with skill – but Harry and Tonto just isn’t a film that demands a whole lot from its actors. Coppola’s epic mob tale however, demands passion and poignancy from its cast, especially its lead role, and Pacino proves more than a match for the script. But for those who don’t think much of a Godfather movie without Brando, I give you Jack Nicholson. Full disclosure, Chinatown is potentially my favourite film of all time – but can you blame me? A small premise balloons out through expertly crafted twists and turns, prying into pitch black subject matter, and Nicholson’s bewildered and beleaguered gumshoe never misses a beat. For me at least, this decision exemplifies the Academy at its least insightful and most baffling.

Article by Joe Ryan