With the 86th Academy Awards coming this Sunday, you can bet that there will be journalists, pundits, and movie lovers of all stripes screaming bloody murder Monday morning because “those idiots” gave the coveted statue to the wrong person or movie. Obviously, all such awards are nothing more than a matter of opinion and there is no “right” or “wrong” decision, but there have certainly been moments in the history of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when its Oscar night winners caused people to raise an eyebrow — and sometimes a fist!
Sometimes it’s simply a question of an embarrassment of riches. Take the Best Actress competition in 1950. I love the wonderful Judy Holliday and would never begrudge her the Oscar she won for her portrayal of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday. But leaving Holliday out of it, how is it possible that Gloria Swanson could have gone home empty-handed that night after her brilliant portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. And that Bette Davis was not honored for her sparkling career-best performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve? Then there are the years when people win because Academy voters feel guilty that they overlooked a better, earlier performance. I love Jimmy Stewart and The Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite films of all time, but let’s face it, he won the 1940 Best Actor Oscar primarily because he didn’t win the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And does anyone believe that Elizabeth Taylor really deserved a Best Actress Oscar for the sleazy Butterfield 8 in 1960? Oh, come on. She won partly because she had almost died earlier that year and had basically come back from the dead and partly because she didn’t win in previous years for her much better performances in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. Hey, don’t take my word for it — listen to Taylor herself. “I still say it stinks!” she famously said after winning the Oscar.
To be honest, reviewing many of the awards since the Academy started doling them out 86 years ago, I’m actually quite impressed by the majority of the voters’ choices. But then there are the Oscars that don’t seem to make any sense at all. I’m not even talking about performances or films that weren’t nominated and should have been — that discussion would require a book-length treatise. No, just looking at the winners among that year’s nominees is sometimes cause for great concern. Here is my list of ten of the Academy’s most egregious errors. Just my opinion, of course — feel free to be outraged at my outrage!
Luise Rainer, Best Actress, The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Okay, I just started and I already hate myself. Why? Because I love Luise Rainer, I really do! I was lucky enough to see her in person, being interviewed (at the age of 101) by Robert Osborne at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Rainer was wonderful, talking about her career and introducing a screening of The Good Earth (for which she won another Best Actress Oscar in 1937). But as much as I admire the actress, who is still with us at the age of 104, I still find it hard to believe that she won the top prize for her small role as Anna Held, the first wife of famed impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (played by William Powell) in the MGM extravaganza The Great Ziegfeld. Rainer is delightful in the role, and I’m sure she won the Oscar for her emotional telephone conversation with Ziegfeld after she finds out that he’s dumped her for actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Forgive me, Luise, but I would have given the award that year to Carole Lombard for her wonderful performance (also opposite William Powell) in My Man Godfrey. Frankly, I’m not sure Rainer would have minded — after winning the Oscar two years in a row she later remarked “Nothing worse could have happened to me.” But I still feel a little guilty for including her here — especially since she is currently the oldest living Oscar winner.
The Life of Emile Zola, Best Picture (1937). It’s not that I have anything against this well-made William Dieterle film — I think Paul Muni gave a fine performance as the French author. It’s just that, despite the film’s pedigree, I don’t think it really passes the test of time in taking precedence over such a fantastic slate of Best Picture nominees that year including The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, Stage Door and A Star Is Born. Personally? I love Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door starring Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou and many others so much that it definitely would have received my vote. But that just wasn’t the kind of “prestigious” film that the Academy likes to honor. Maybe I’m just bitter because while The Life of Emile Zola covers important historical incidents such as the Dreyfus Affair, a major political scandal and miscarriage of justice that revolved around anti-Semitic feelings in France, it does so without ever mentioning the word “Jew” or “anti-Semitism.” A pretty cowardly move on the part of the largely Jewish studio heads in 1937. That said, the film is worth seeing for many reasons, not the least of which is Muni’s performance along with Vladimir Sokoloff as Paul Cézanne and Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
Robert Donat, Best Actor, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Sigh. I have nothing against Robert Donat who ages 63 years (somewhat convincingly) over the course of this film that was based on the novel by James Hilton about the former headmaster of a boarding school for boys. Donat played opposite Greer Garson in the Sam Wood film (which was remade 30 years later as a musical starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark). I think Donat was fine in the role, I’m just pissed because I really think Clark Gable should have won for his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. I also think Jimmy Stewart was more deserving for Frank Capra’s superb Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But I would have voted for the underrated Gable. Sure, he barely even tried to attempt a Southern accent, but I think Rhett was a much more difficult part than people gave him credit for and he performed it perfectly. Especially since he was so reluctant to play the role in the first place — he was practically drafted into the film through sheer public outcry.
Rebecca, Best Picture (1940). I’m starting to worry that publicly declaring some of these decisions as “mistakes” may cause my movie-loving wife to consult a divorce lawyer. At the very least, I may have to sleep on the couch tonight when she sees that I’m complaining about the Best Picture win for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca starring Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Judith Anderson and lovely Joan Fontaine who died two months ago at the age of 96. I love the film and have probably watched it dozens of times. But here, again, I can’t help but compare this film’s merits with some of the other nominees, especially two films that I consider true masterpieces: John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Sorry Hitch, Larry and Joan, but it’s crazy that Rebecca was chosen over those two films. The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most powerful films of all time, but as I’ve already stated, I have a special place in my heart for The Philadelphia Story and that’s the film that would have received my vote.
Ginger Rogers, Best Actress, Kitty Foyle (1940). Oh lord, with every entry on this list I’m going to make more enemies among classic movie lovers. Let me state it clearly: I LOVE Ginger Rogers! In addition to her wonderful early films with Fred Astaire, I think she’s fantastic in films such as Stage Door, Bachelor Mother, The Major and the Minor, I’ll be Seeing You, Storm Warning and so on. But Sam Wood’s melodramatic Kitty Foyle? Nope, especially not a Best Actress win over Katharine Hepburn’s brilliant performance as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. (Have I made it clear how much I love that film?) Hepburn and Rogers had a wonderful rapport in Stage Door a few years earlier even though they reportedly did not get along very well on set. And the fact that Hepburn turned down the lead role in Kitty Foyle must have made this a sweet win for Ginger. Oh well. The other nominees that year weren’t exactly chopped liver, either: Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, Bette Davis in The Letter and Martha Scott in Our Town. Hepburn went on to win more Oscars than any actor in history (four Best Actress statues) but I still say she was robbed!
An American in Paris, Best Picture (1951). I know, I know, this film is beloved the world over, and many say it’s one of the best musicals ever made. I’m certainly a fan of the Vincente Minnelli film which starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant and Nina Foch. The Gershwin songs, such as “S’wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay” are delicious and I am all for musicals winning the Best Picture award (nine have received that honor, most recently 2002’s Chicago). But between you and me, this is far from my favorite Minnelli film (I prefer Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon) and my main objection with this win is that it took the prize from George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, and Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. Of course, these apples-and-oranges contests are crazy to begin with, but some films are so spectacular that you can’t help but be outraged that they were bypassed for lesser films. If I were an Academy voter in 1951, I think I would have had to mark A Streetcar Named Desire on my ballot.
The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Picture (1952). Sorry Mr. De Mille, but I don’t feel any guilt at decrying the insane decision to name this film the Best Picture of the year. It’s not that the Technicolor drama about the behind-the-scenes happenings of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus doesn’t have its charms, but the film, which starred Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame and James Stewart as a clown who never takes off his makeup, doesn’t hold a candle to some of the other nominees that year, most notably Fred Zinnemanns’s High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and John Ford’s The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. I know I promised to only talk about the nominees but I also have to contemplate this film winning the top prize when certain films from that year including Singin’ in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful and Come Back, Little Sheba didn’t even get nominated. FAIL! Academy voters seemed to prefer spectacle over story in the 1950s — we’ll get to the worst example of that in a minute.
Grace Kelly, Best Actress, The Country Girl (1954). Yikes, here I go again. Who doesn’t love Grace Kelly? Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief — she was a wonderful, gifted actress and obviously wonderful to look at. With all apologies to the Princess of Monaco and her fans, I think she won the Best Actress Oscar in 1954 because she “pulled a Charlize Theron.” Nothing thrills Academy voters more than when spectacularly beautiful actresses make themselves look plain (or in Theron’s case downright scary) for a movie role. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Kelly’s performance in The Country Girl, based on the Clifford Odets play and co-starring Bing Crosby and William Holden, but I believe the award that year really belonged to Judy Garland for George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, her “comeback” of sorts after being booted from MGM a few years earlier. It was Garland’s best shot at the Academy Award and all of Hollywood was sure she’d finally nab one (other than the special juvenile Oscar she received in 1940). Time magazine said that Garland “gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history” and I couldn’t agree more. Not that it’s Grace Kelly’s fault that she won — I’m sure she was as shocked as everyone else. At the time Groucho Marx quipped that it was “the biggest robbery since Brink’s!”
Around the World in 80 Days, Best Picture (1956). Okay, now I will tell you the truth. I wrote this entire list just to have the opportunity to scream about Around the World in 80 Days winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1956. Here I will dispense with the niceties and say, “ACADEMY MEMBERS, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” Does anyone actually believe today that this bloated mess, based on the Jules Verne book and starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and Shirley MacLaine, deserved top honors over films such as Friendly Persuasian, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments? I think not! The film was produced by Michael Todd (Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband) who was the Harvey Weinstein of his day — he must have mounted quite an Oscar campaign for this film. In my view, this is one of the most embarrassing decisions ever made in the history of the Motion Picture Academy. I would have been happy if any of the other nominees won the Oscar that year, but I would have voted for George Stevens’ excellent Giant, starring Rock Hudson, James Dean and Mrs. Mike Todd.
Roberto Benigni, Best Actor, Life Is Beautiful (1998). Jumping ahead to more recent times, I’m afraid I have to cite Roberto Benigni’s win for the Italian film Life Is Beautiful which he also wrote and directed. Not that I’m against a non-English-speaking performance winning a top prize — au contraire, I applaud the Best Actress Oscars given to Sophia Loren for Two Women and Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose. But, despite my great personal interest in World War II and the Holocaust, I was just not a fan of this film or Benigni’s performance, especially stacked up against the other Best Actor nominees from that year: Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, Nick Nolte in Affliction and Edward Norton in American History X. I have to admit, though, that I did enjoy Benigni’s unbridled enthusiasm when his name was announced during the broadcast and the way he hopped across the seats and the backs of the A-list actors on his way to the stage. Of course, proving how fleeting such acclaim can be, Benigni was named Worst Actor of the Year just a few years later at the Golden Raspberry Awards for his performance in his next directorial effort, an Italian verison of Pinocchio.
And there you have it. I apologize if I’ve offended you by dissing your favorite star or movie. Let’s see what kind of outrage we can all muster on Sunday night!