With the Academy Awards fresh in our minds, it seems only fair to talk about Oscar winners of years past. Normally, one would discuss movies that swept their respective awards shows or shattered box office records, but today we’re taking a different track: Best Pictures that did not leave an indelible mark at the box office, instead thriving on word-of-mouth and critical acclaim. The following ten films, arranged by gross rather than chronological order, were the Cinderellas of the Oscars. Note: this list is being limited to the last 50 years because, prior to the 1960s, film was still a fairly new medium and the idea of a box office smash, with notable exceptions like Ben-Hur, simply didn’t exist. The very idea of a “blockbuster” didn’t come about until the enormous success of Jaws in 1975. Had this been an “of all time” list, most if not all of the movies would be from the ’20s or ’30s and only film historians would recognize them. So we’re focusing on the Baby Boomers onward rather than the Greatest Generation, so to speak.
10 The French Connection, 1971: $51,700,000
9 The Deer Hunter, 1978: $50,000,000
8 The Hurt Locker, 2009: $49,230,772
7 Midnight Cowboy, 1969: $44,785,053
6 The Last Emperor, 1987: $43,984,230
5 West Side Story, 1961: $43,700,000
4 Annie Hall, 1977: $38,251,425
3 Tom Jones, 1963: $37,600,000
2 A Man for All Seasons, 1966: $28,350,000
1 In the Heat of the Night, 1967: $24,379,978
Norman Jewison’s southern crime drama paired Sidney Poitier with Rod Steiger as a Philly detective and a Mississippi police chief, respectively, who are forced to cooperate together while working a murder case. The film’s popularity coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the time and, along with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, helped to make Poitier a household name. It made close to $25 million at the box office, more than 12 times its $2 million budget, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards that year, winning five of them (along with Best Picture, ones for Best Actor, Film Editing, Sound and Writing Adapted Screenplay).
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