Multi-billionaire Warren Buffett once lost a whole lot investing in silver. The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. The lesson? Even the most successful people make mistakes.
Brain cramps can strike us all. But when it comes to choosing the Best Picture every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to fall victim to an unusually large number of bloopers. But these aren’t always just innocent mistakes. The bad choices seem to be born of unsavoury agendas, vote-buying, arm-twisting and the Academy’s specialty; sticking its head in the sand.
Among the annual winners there are a surprising number of blips, largely of two kinds: Firstly, there are the out and out stinkers. They are often overblown, big budget, edge-free epics. Sometimes they’re just on old boys’ club patting each other on the back.
The second kind of bad calls are movies that are OK or even very good but inexplicably chosen over far superior rivals. A very successful Canadian politician once observed “Bland works.” The Academy has taken that advice to heart.
The following are Rotten Tomatoes’ six lowest-rated Best Pictures along with six others Best Pictures generally acknowledged to be the biggest rip-offs of all time. Injustice, thy name is Oscar!
12. Forrest Gump, 1995: 71%
‘Stupid is as stupid does’, as the title character likes to say, is also the best way to explain this mystifying selection. Not only the 6th least-critically approved Best Movie in Oscar history, this was the clunker that clogged up the Oscar passing lane for 2 far better movies: The Shawshank Redemption gets a 91% rating and the iconic Pulp Fiction, 94%, established Quentin Tarantino’s cutting-edge reputation. And if there’s anything the Academy avoids like the plague, it’s edge.
Joanne Kaufman perceptively described Forrest Gump as “America’s loss of innocence as filtered through the eyes of an innocent – that’s the theme of this plodding, heavy-handed parable.” It was otherwise said to have the wisdom of a Hallmark greeting card.
11. Rocky, 1976: 92%
A tourist draw as popular as the Liberty Bell, at the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps – now known as the Rocky Steps – a statue captures one of the most memorable scenes in movie history when a resurgent Rocky Balboa celebrates.
Is there any greater theme in film than the downtrodden underdog defying the odds and, through pluck and courage, winning the prize and getting the girl? Well, yes. As well done as it is, Rocky’s story is not at the deep end of the Theme Pool.
Of course, Rocky was a terrific movie that’s become part of pop culture vernacular. But in terms of lasting artistic achievement, it’s baffling that this was chosen for ’76’s Best Picture over heavyweight classics like master filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which boasted Robert De Niro’s performance as disturbed Vietnam vet Travis “You talkin’ to me?” Bickle. Or Network, with its prophetic depiction of the perils of ubiquitous cable television with Howard “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Beale.
10. The Great Ziegfeld, 1936: 63%
Scathing reviews of The Great Ziegfeld included “It’s amazingly dull, so of course it won the Best Picture Oscar for 1936”, from the Chicago Reader. Ozus.com whacked it too, “Only great in its tediousness, length and its budget.”
This cliché-ridden, over-blown three agonizing hours chronicles the larger-than-life life of the great impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. One of the Academy’s bigger brain cramps this year was overlooking Frank Capra’s magical politically sophisticated romantic comedy, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”
9. Driving Miss Daisy, 1989: 81%
What’s not to like? Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman bring a Pulitzer Prize winning play to the big screen, she the endearingly cranky rich old Jewish widow, he the African American chauffeur/philosopher as they chronicle changes in the southern U.S. states over 25 years.
Wonderfully acted. Absolutely charming. A vanilla ice cream sandwich on Wonder bread. Still, this one got a pretty low Tomatometer rating of 81% – far below Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at 96%. The latter, of course, was a movie which critic Ebert said “comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. Can you imagine Spike Lee bouncing up to the podium to accept the Best Picture Oscar with the rap soundtrack from Public Enemy playing? Neither could the Academy.
8. Cavalcade, 1933: 56%
Starring and directed by nobody you’ve ever heard of, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called this Best Picture a “gilded tearjerker” and “an orgy of British self-congratulation.” The film adaptation of Noel Coward’s long-running play has an impeccable literary pedigree, taking its central characters through some of the most epic moments of the British Empire. Those include the Boer to the First World War, visiting the death of Victoria and the sinking of the Titanic, the latter of which is not a bad metaphor for this movie. Absolutely first class but ultimately going down with few survivors.
7. Ordinary People, 1980 92%
The Academy loved Robert Redford’s directing debut, awarding it 4 Oscars. It does rate highly, no question. A star-studded cast (Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Judd Hirsch) did a great job with bleak material showing an affluent family disintegrating after a death and attempted suicide.
But it was another rip-off for Martin Scorsese. In 1976 Taxi Driver lost out to Rocky. In 1980, his towering classic Raging Bull got shafted by Redford’s well done but eminently forgettable tale of toil and trouble. He even lost Best Director to Redford.
6. Out Of Africa, 1985: 52%
1985 was not the most distinguished year in the annals of cinema. Out of Africa boasted superstars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford as leads and an Oscar winning director in Sydney Pollock.
It got mediocre reviews from the start. Set in the early twentieth century in what is now Kenya, it’s the film version of coffee table book – pretty pictures and little plot. Redford played an English Earl’s son, but did it like an All-American guy from Santa Monica and was widely panned.
At a mind-numbing 161 minutes, it was best described by Simon Miraudo at Quickflix as “a movie that never really gets started, and takes almost an hour to end.” Ron Howard’s charming Cocoon and the pop culture classic Back to the Future weren’t nominated. The Color Purple, featuring a young director named Steven Spielberg, was also overlooked that year.
5. Shakespeare In Love, 1998: 92%
This was a literary subject about the greatest English-speaking playwright of all time and was likely the only exposure many viewers would have to the Bard. Critics liked it and rightly so. The Academy gave it 13 nominations. But is it better than Saving Private Ryan, now perhaps the gold standard for war movies? Was it more deserving than Life is Beautiful, the memorable dark comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp?
Rumours persist that the studio spent millions promoting Shakespeare over the heavily-favoured Saving Private Ryan; this was one of the year’s when the Academy’s integrity was called into question.
4. Cimarron, 1931: 50%
It wasn’t exactly a great year at the Fourth Academy Awards. Cimarron was the first western to win the Best Picture accolade and it was so dreadful that it would be 6 decades before another western, Dances With Wolves, won.
The real Best Picture of 1931 wasn’t even nominated: The Public Enemy would establish James Cagney’s classic bad guy persona, and is still worth watching over 80 year later.
Cimarron has been castigated over the years for being racist. The cultural stereotypes in the depiction of African and Native Americans are jaw dropping.
3. Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979: 88%
If Sony Pictures thought they had trouble with The Interview, imagine the firestorm they would face if they released this weepy, anti-feminist sappy, soap starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman today. It received glowing reviews in the past but time has not been kind to Kramer Vs. Kramer.
It is superbly acted by the two stars and directed by three-time Oscar winner Robert Benton (Places in the Heart). Even now the Tomatometer gives it an 88% grade. The story: Successful executive neglects family, aggrieved wife walks leaving hubby to touchingly bond with his son while she “finds herself” in California therapy only to return and demand sole custody.
Streep is so icy, she makes Frozen look like the burning gates of Hell. Recent re-reviews call it “misogynistic claptrap” that the LA Times says “demonizes the mother who can’t recognize how far her workaholic ex-hubbie has come.”
That year, the Academy chose to overlook two infinitely better movies. Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant, horrific depiction of the Vietnam War that America had yet to heal from. Roger Ebert called it “the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul.” Also overlooked was Norma Rae, the powerful story of a young woman defying the odds and authority to unionize a sweatshop in the Deep South.
2. The Greatest Show On Earth, 1952: 44%
The Tomatometer’s lowest-ranked Best Picture, it’s storyless, long and clichéd. Not even Star Power could save this overblown Cecil B. DeMille epic.
An homage to the circus, the main characters were trapeze artists, a clown and an elephant trainer. It lasted 152 minutes. It has been called “one of the most embarrassing choices ever made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences”. The New York Times on the other hand, called it “a piece of entertainment that will delight movie audiences for years”. Just to make the choice even more incomprehensible, it won over the timeless classic, High Noon.
1. How Green Was My Valley, 1941: 89%
Now this is a decent, earnest movie, directed by the great John Ford starring Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara. It tells the story of the ebbing fortunes of a family in a declining Welsh mining town. The word dreary comes to mind, but it won Ford the Best Director accolade as well as Best Picture.
The movie won over four fantastic nominees, including one that is oft said to be the greatest American film in history. Citizen Kane was the spectacular debut of Orson Welles and influenced filmmakers for decades. But there were several classics to choose from that year. Humphrey Bogart’s legendary private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon; Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. And, considering the U.S. had just entered WW2, the epic war film Sergeant York might have also been the politically correct choice the Academy prefers, especially with Gary Cooper’s tremendous Oscar-winning performance as an anti-war hillbilly turned war hero.