Year in, year out, since the first Academy Award ceremony back in May 16, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, there has always been controversy surrounding Hollywood’s big night. Although Oscar winners receive no financial prize, the 13½ inch, 8½ pound golden statue signifies an enormous amount of prestige in the film business (and for the cynical minded, a greater number of DVD sales), so the competition often heats up in the weeks preceding the night.
Over the past 86 years the ceremony has seen a streaker, much political infighting, a good amount of wild accusations, a handful of truly moving speeches (as well as some really awful name dropping), and some of the best and worst hosting of all time. Below is the list of 10 of the most controversial Oscar moments, some of which are fairly recent and familiar, and others which have been somewhat forgotten despite their shocking nature:
10. 2010: The Hurt Locker
Like many Oscar controversies, the various spark points surrounding The Hurt Locker began to emerge as the Academy ceremony got closer. As is often the case, the film was engaged in a close battle against another title: James Cameron‘s Avatar. Regardless of individual opinions, there’s a lot to be said in support of both features.
Avatar is a somewhat imposing competitor, not only because it is currently the highest grossing film of all time (at $760,507,625), but also because it broke new ground on methods of animation and 3D technology. Conversely, The Hurt Locker had limited commercial success with a theatrical release of under $50m. Despite this it had many critics on its side for several reasons; it took a contemporary subject and viewed it from an apolitical stance, and the result was a highly watchable film of substance. To top it all off, it was a war film made by a female director, which sent the critics running for their keyboards.
Towards the end of February several war veterans began to attack the film’s depiction of the bomb disposal teams, and although they were disputed by other war vets, the claims dramatically affected the film’s reception. However, the voters eventually decided to go with the critical success over the commercial, and to this day the film remains the least seen Best Picture winner of all time.
9. 2013/14: John Travolta
A mispronounced name is embarrassing for all involved, as it proves that any enthusiasm that the presenter is pretending to have for the film or person that’s being introduced is fake. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that Travolta should be able to make a better stab at the pronunciations of the names of the people he’s about to introduce, particularly with the number of PR agents involved in these big ceremonies.
Whether Travolta deserves to make it to No.8 for his mispronunciation of Idina Menzel‘s is debatable, but when we remember that he messed up one of the most famous book/play/film titles of all time: Les Misérables, his position on this list seems more secure. The controversy here lies in the Academy’s decision to bring him back the very next year.
8. 1942: Citizen Kane
Even the audiences for preview screenings of Oscar Welles’ film realized that the character Kane (played by a 25 year-old Welles) was essentially based on the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and that the portrayal wasn’t exactly a positive one. It didn’t take long for Hearst to mobilize his empire, banning his newspapers from reviewing it (or even mentioning it) and ordering a studio chief to buy the original film and destroy it.
It was only in 2012, after 70 years, that the feud ended. Hearst’s great-grandson gave his backing to a screening at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, saying it was time for an “informed” assessment of Citizen Kane. This however, was too late for the 1942 Oscars, which saw How Green Was My Valley beat Welles’ film in the Best Picture category.
7. Charlie Chaplin
Despite his extensive filmography Charlie Chaplin (like Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, and Alfred Hitchcock) never won a competitive Oscar for his acting or directing. He has received two non-competitive, honorary awards, but this still seems like a controversy in itself. Chaplin is credited by IMDB as acting in and writing 87 features, and directing an incredible 72 films. One of Chaplin’s greatest films The Circus was even nominated for an award at the very first Oscars.
A potential reason for Chaplin’s lack of success is his activities during WWII. In the 30s he was vocal in his criticism of the militaristic patriotism that he saw in the lead up to the war, and despite his highly negative portrayal of a totalitarian leader very similar to Hitler in The Dictator, Chaplin was seen as dangerously left-leaning or communist, and eventually moved to Switzerland to avoid persecution.
6. 1998: Good Will Hunting
Though both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are most famous for their position in front of the camera, it was their role as the writers of Good Will Hunting that was the cause of the controversy at the 1998 Oscars. As the ceremony approached there was an increasing number of rumors flying around about the ‘true’ identity of the script writers.
The media didn’t believe these two young, good looking actors could’ve penned such a successful script, and so a sort of witch-hunt for the true writer began, with William Goldman, the writer of All the President’s Men, and Ted Tally, who wrote The Silence of the Lambs as the prime suspects.
Goldman released a statement saying that though he “would love to say that (he) wrote it”, and although Damon and Affleck asked him for advice on a particular scene, he couldn’t claim to have any hand in the script. Tally also denied the allegations saying that if he “had written it (he’d) take credit for it”.
Fortunately the Oscar campaign survived the various attempts to smear the script, and Affleck and Damon walked away with ‘Best Original Screenplay’, having given a wonderful acceptance speech.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio
Its tough to know what will have hurt DiCaprio more; the fact that his fourth nomination didn’t convert into a golden statue, or the knowledge that the internet went into overdrive creating hundreds of thousands of close ups, gifs, and memes of his face at the very moment Matthew Mcconaughey‘s win was announced.
It is very probable that the internet wanted him to win more than he did, and with his nearly impeccable back catalogue the hope was that the academy would finally do the right thing. Either way, it must have been tough to plan and execute the most neutral disappointed face possible knowing that it would be dissected so completely by the whole internet.
4. 1973: Marlon Brando
In the 50 years in which Brando was active he received two oscars and eight nominations, which makes him the fifth most nominated male actor (after Nicholson, Olivier, Spencer Tracy, and Paul Newman). His first win was in 1955 for On the Waterfront, which he accepted in the usual fashion.
However, in 1973 when Brando received an Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather the actor decided to make a political point by sending an American Indian in his place to read a speech about the mistreatment of America’s native populace.
His moralizing slightly backfired when his 15 page speech was cut down to 60 seconds by Academy officials, and also by the fact that his ‘genuine’ Native American representative turned out to be a Californian actress.
3. 1988: Cher
Like Jolie‘s kiss, the storm of comments surrounding Cher‘s appearance at the 1985 Oscars isn’t exactly complicated. The outfit was one of many ‘statement’ Oscar dresses worn by Cher to various ceremonies, though this particular dress received even more attention than usual because of Cher’s role as presenter of the 61st ‘Best Picture’ award.
2. 2002: Roman Polanski
Polanski is easily one of cinema’s most controversial figures. In 1977 he was arrested following a Vogue shoot during which he sexually assaulted a 13 year-old girl to whom he would later pay $604,416 in damages.
He was indicted on six counts of criminal behaviour one of which was rape, and despite many of Hollywood’s powerful players coming to his defence, Polanski was charged with one count of ‘Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a minor’. However, before he was imprisoned Polanski fled to France, where he holds citizenship.
Polanski continued to make films despite being unable to return to US soil. In 2002, The Pianist won an Oscar, and although he couldn’t receive it himself many people in the crowd gave him a standing ovation. As with the films of Woody Allen, Polanski’s many accomplishments are very much complicated by his actions outside of his film making.
1. 2009: Slumdog Millionaire
In 2009 the rags to riches film Slumdog Millionaire won eight oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Writer, Cinematographer, and Soundtrack. The successes of the film (which grossed over $287 million worldwide) forced the two nine year-olds Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali into the spotlight. In the build up to the ceremony there were questions about the possible exploitation of the two child actors, so Director Danny Boyle created a trust-fund of $700,000 to pay for the children’s education.
However, a year after their appearance at the Oscars neither actor is really seeing any difference in their quality of life. In early 2010 Rubina Ali still lived in the same slum, despite having had her home bulldozed three times, whilst Ismail had been chased from his home in the Garib Nagar slum by the Railway authorities.
Boyle recently released a statement concerning the two actors, six years on from the release of the film saying that “They’re bright kids… They’ve learned to speak English, which they couldn’t do when we were shooting and that will benefit them in terms of opportunities. And we have provisions made for them to help them (when they leave school) as well”.