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
William Friedkin’s explosive police thriller—which contains arguably the greatest car chase of all time, to boot—was the first R-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was also one of the first major roles for now-Hollywood veteran Gene Hackman, who along with Roy Scheider portrayed New York cops on the trail of drug smugglers. A fun fact: according to the Internet Movie Database, the famous car chase was filmed without any official permits, with the production crew collaborating with off-duty NYPD cops to control traffic so they could get the shots they needed.
9. The Deer Hunter, 1978: $50,000,000
The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken (in his defining role), portrayed the physical and psychological tolls of the Vietnam War on the men who fought it. The film’s initial release in 1978 was somewhat unusual for its time, with Universal debuting The Deer Hunter in just two theatres in the United States—so to qualify for the awards season for that year—and then giving the movie a wider release after it was nominated for several Oscars. It was the first of several films—Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket included—to depict the Vietnam War throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and remains a war movie staple to this day.
8. The Hurt Locker, 2009: $49,230,772
One of the first major films about the Iraq War, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was a tense and psychologically intimate story of a three-man improvised explosive device-defusing team, focusing in particular on its daredevil squad leader (Jeremy Renner in his breakout role). In shooting the film, Bigelow recorded over 200 hours of footage (rivalling the sheer yards of celluloid Francis Ford Coppola expended while shooting Apocalypse Now) and became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director for her efforts. Though it met and exceeded its $15 million budget, the movie came just short of earning $50 million at the box office, and according to articles in Variety and The State Journal-Register its run suffered from a shortage of prints, the movie’s distributor seemingly underestimating wider demand for the movie.
7. Midnight Cowboy, 1969: $44,785,053
This Best Picture winner, which tells the story of a naïve male prostitute (Jon Voight) and his cynical and streetwise friend and hustler (Dustin Hoffman), garnered controversy for its homosexual content in the year of its release, initially receiving an R rating from the MPAA before it was changed to the more restrictive X rating at the recommendation of a psychologist. Like its descendant category, NC-17, the X rating severely restricted who could see the film and even which theatres would show it. The MPAA revised its content rules at the end of the ’60s, making the R rating more accommodating for sexual content, and Midnight Cowboy has been rated R ever since. To date, it is the only X-rated film to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture—or any Oscar, for that matter (A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango in Paris received nominations in their respective years).
6. The Last Emperor, 1987: $43,984,230
The Last Emperor, a historical epic directed by Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, had an unusual run in theatres during the year of its release. Distributor Columbia Pictures, an article by Richard Corliss in Time said, was apprehensive about releasing the film, with one of the movie’s producers having to pony up much of its cash himself. According to Box Office Mojo, which tracks grosses over the years, The Last Emperor did not initially make much headway in the theatres, with the biopic not cracking the top ten until its 12th week in the cinemas and eventually peaking at the #4 spot. Nevertheless, it made back nearly twice its $23.8 million budget and even had a 3D release last year at Cannes.
5. West Side Story, 1961: $43,700,000
One of the most iconic musicals in the history of Hollywood, West Side Story was based on the eponymous Broadway musical by Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents (with the former co-directing the movie with Robert Wise). Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical starred Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer as star-crossed lovers from rival street gangs in Manhattan. According to IMDb, the movie earned close to $20 million from distributor United Artists renting out its reels to theatres. It won 10 Oscars that year, the most for any musical at the Academy Awards to date.
4. Annie Hall, 1977: $38,251,425
Perhaps Woody Allen’s signature film, Annie Hall tracks the relationship of stand-up comedian Alvie Singer (Allen) and the titular character (Diane Keaton) from start to finish—albeit in a nonlinear fashion. Considered “as much a love song to New York City as it is to the character,” Allen’s romantic comedy featured an assortment of established actors and comedians like Carol Kane, Christopher Walken and Shelley Duvall, and even roles for future big name stars Jeff Goldbum and Sigourney Weaver. It also contains the most unexpected cameo by Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan ever.
3. Tom Jones, 1963: $37,600,000
Based on a novel by Henry Fielding and containing homages to films from the silent era, Tom Jones stars a young Albert Finney as the rakish, womanizing rogue of the film’s title. Though its $37.6 million gross seems paltry today, it was a success by the standards of the era, making over 37 times its budget. It was nominated for 10 Oscars overall that awards season, and possesses the unusual distinction of being the only film to have not one but three actresses nominated for Best Supporting Actress—Diane Cilento, Dame Edith Evans and Joyce Redman—though they all lost out to Margaret Rutherford.
2. A Man for All Seasons, 1966: $28,350,000
Directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by Robert Bolt (who also wrote the play of the same name on which this movie is based), A Man for All Seasons is the fairly true-to-life story of Thomas More, the chancellor to Henry VIII whose integrity was put to the test when he was forced to choose between his faith and his king. Actor Paul Scofield won Best Actor for his portrayal of More, and remains the actor’s greatest role in the eyes of many critics. The movie also provided a role for then-rookie actor John Hurt, who would go on to have famous roles in Alien, The Elephant Man and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
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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