Every year, people dish out billions of dollars to see the newest films being released in theatres across the country. Sometimes these films are very good, worth seeing a second time or even good enough to be bought and kept in a personal collection. Most films released every year either go unnoticed or aren’t very good like the The Wedding Planner or Gigli. Such productions often fade away, are soon forgotten or, at best, are remembered by a handful of cult movie fans.
Like salmon swimming upstream, the ‘good’ movies usually survive a bit longer and, if they are ‘good’ enough, get advertised longer and end up making it to the Academy Awards (aka the Oscars). Here they are judged and ranked by a committee who more often than not get the decision right. Of course, friendships, popularity, politics and favoritism all come into play to varying degrees when it comes to handing out the Oscars. This has led many people to write off the awards as a serious recognizer of talent – focussing more on the red carpet fashions and quality of the hosts, presenters and performers.
The following list looks at some of the most controversial winners at the annual Academy Awards. Specifically, the following are 10 of the most controversial Best Film winners from as far back as the 1940s. Here you’ll find a range of films which won when they probably shouldn’t have and missed out when they were the clear favorites. Why? The reasons vary but can include everything from blatant lobbying and politics to simply being Martin Scorsese.
11 Honorable Mention: Driving Miss Daisy – 1989
So why on earth is Driving Miss Daisy on this list? Yes, almost everyone enjoyed the dramedy about an elderly Jewish widow’s relationship with her black chauffeur, played by Morgan Freeman. It dealt with the issue of race relations, but in a safe and somewhat comfortable way. This left some asking why Glory, a Civil War film dealing with the same issue in a much grittier way, wasn’t even nominated that year. After all, it still had Morgan Freeman – only instead of helping elderly white Southerners he was shooting them. Of the films nominated, Driving Miss Daisy was good enough to stand up to the likes of Field of Dreams, My Left Foot and Born on the 4th of July – although many thought Oliver Stone’s film deserved to be the winner.
10 Titanic – 1997
There’s no doubting this 1997 film was an absolute monster at the box office and has, up to today, generated more than $2 billion worldwide. People who went to see this film weren’t in for any surprises because we all know how it ends. Nonetheless, the special effects and depictions of the ship sinking were spectacular at the time. The Academy were so impressed that they gave James Cameron’s film every award from Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects to Best Sound and Best Cinematography. Where things get a bit controversial for some is that the film received no acting related awards. The additional fact that the film beat out the likes of As Good As It Gets and Good Will Hunting, made many feel that Titanic’s box office success was the real driving force behind the Academy’s decision.
9 Rocky – 1976
Everyone loves an underdog story, especially the Academy. That’s why, on the one hand, the 1976 story about Rocky Balboa’s rise from a Philadelphia debt collector to heavy-weight boxing title contender garnered so much attention in 1976. Shot in a month with a budget of $1 million, Rocky made well over $200 million which definitely caught the eye of the awards committee. On the other hand, many feel the box office success clouded some of the judgment of those voting for Best Picture and caused them to overlook what is considered to be a landmark film – Taxi Driver. Perhaps the film was too dark for Hollywood, or perhaps Martin Scorsese offended someone on the voting committee. All we know is that there are many fans and critics who feel the wrong movie won.
8 Chicago – 2002
The dawn of the 21st century promised all sorts of new things, but in the world of movies, there was a bit of a resurgence of an old theme. 2001 saw the musical become popular again with Moulin Rouge! garnering all sorts of attention. The following year the musical momentum was continued and Chicago cashed in. Loaded with recognizable stars, Chicago was generally considered to be a good movie, although some critics felt parts were flat and some acting left a bit to be desired. Futhermore, the decision to give the musical the Oscar for Best Picture raised a few eyebrows considering it was up against the likes of Gangs of New York and The Pianist. Even Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers lost out which is made worse by the fact the final installment in the Peter Jackson trilogy won the following year.
7 Crash – 2005
Crash is proof that if you dangle anything about race relations in front of the Academy, no matter how average, it will win something. Loaded with stars, Crash tries very hard to be a great film by intertwining the lives of a diverse group of characters over a period of two days. Critics have pointed out the film isn’t ground-breaking and comes off more than a bit preachy at times. This isn’t to say it’s a terrible film but it didn’t deserve the win considering what it was up against. Brokeback Mountain witnessed break-out performances by Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger. Its focus on a homosexual relationship in a traditionally ‘straight’ lifestyle brought forward questions of social change far more effectively than Crash did.
6 Ordinary People – 1980
5 Dances With Wolves – 1990
Before Waterworld, Kevin Costner had really helped his image as a director with the 1990 Best Picture winner Dances With Wolves. In addition to his directing duties, Costner starred in the film as a Civil War veteran who takes up a Western frontier post and comes in contact with the local Lakota natives. This film had everything the Academy loves – history, race relations, an individual out of his element trying to live in a foreign culture. Overall, the film is good but suffers from being long, slow at times and having some cringe-worthy depictions of Native Americans. That said, there are many people who can’t wrap their head around the fact that this film beat out the mobster classic Goodfellas. The curse of Martin Scorsese strikes again!
4 Around the World in 80 Days – 1956
Generally considered one of the worst movies to ever win an Oscar, if you watch this 1956 ‘classic’ you’d probably be left wondering what on earth it beat to get the award. You’ll probably also wonder why you wasted nearly two and a half hours of your life watching this adaptation of the famous Jules Verne novel. Nonetheless, what is impressive is the size and scope of this film which was shot in 13 countries with thousands of extras used. It has some comedic scenes which make the long and drawn out aspects more bearable. Still, it makes one wonder how on earth Around the World in 80 Days beat out the likes of The King and I and The Ten Commandments for the Best Picture award.
3 Forrest Gump – 1994
As time goes by, Forrest Gump appears to have become a more divisive film among fans. People seem to either really like it for its comedy and warm hearted nature, or they dislike it because it’s cheesy and annoying at times. In any event, when the film came out in theatres it was a big success and was noted for its special effects and encompassing storyline which provided a view of American history in a most unconventional way. Of course, there are the films it beat out. 1994 saw some big hitters play second fiddle to Forrest Gump. These included Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption. Both were great films, in very different ways, and both were worthy of an Oscar should they have it. All we can say is that the Academy must have heard a rumor that Martin Scorsese was somehow involved with both productions.
2 Shakespeare in Love - 1998
Leading up to the award for Best Picture at the 1999 Oscar Awards, critics, media and fans were all pretty sure who was going to win. The year had produced some very good films, such as Life is Beautiful and The Thin Red Line. Nonetheless, it was a particular Steven Spielberg movie that had gathered all the attention in the months leading up to the Oscars. When the time came, it wasn’t Spielberg’s influential and innovative Saving Private Ryan which won, but Harvey Weinstein’s Shakespeare in Love. Some say Saving Private Ryan was robbed because Spielberg had already won an Oscar for Schindler’s List. Others said it was because the film was too violent or too successful at the box office – both claims which can be discounted thanks to previous Best Film winners like Braveheart and Titanic. Ultimately, many credit the success of Shakespeare in Loves to Weinstein’s aggressive, multi-million dollar ad and distribution campaign – something unprecedented up to that point in Hollywood.
1 How Green Was My Valley – 1941
If you’ve ever wondered if behind the scenes dealings and politics affects Oscar winners, then look no further than the 1941 Best Picture winner, How Green Was My Valley. The film itself was pretty good and followed the lives of a family who live and work in a Welsh mining town. It did, however, beat out Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane. It turns out Citizen Kane would have been the likely Oscar winner if not for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Turns out that Hearst heard that the title character, Charles Foster Kane, was loosely based on him. It also turns out that Hearst didn’t like that the film was not flattering. The result was that Hearst made sure none of his papers even mentioned Citizen Kane and many theatres were banned from showing it. Additionally, he lobbied MGM to pressure Hollywood to get rid of the film altogether. In the short term, Hearst won out and Welles and his film missed out on Best Film and Best Director. In the long run, everyone now knows Citizen Kane is all about Hearst, largely because of the effort he put into preventing its release back in 1941.