Every year since 1928, the American Academy has awarded a Best Picture Oscar to the movie deemed to have been judged “Best Picture”. Sometimes they have got it right (Casablanca, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire). Sometimes they have got it wrong. Hugely dramatically wrong. Here are some of the worst foul ups and some possible explanations for them…
1941: How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is bad. It’s just that Citizen Kane is supposed to be the greatest film ever made. The young Orson Welles’ performance in the lead role as Kane himself is peerless as is his direction. Witness Kane’s convincing transformation from a charismatic young idealist into an embittered old man. The innovative use of light and shadows. The scene in which Kane’s marriage declines from untroubled romance into weary silence in the space of a few shots. Citizen Kane transformed cinema forever. Why didn’t it win?
The simple answer is that by basing Kane on the real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was still very much alive in 1941), Welles assured the film’s critical and commercial failure. The journalist’s quest to uncover the secret of “Rosebud” (the name of Kane’s childhood sledge and the character’s last word) in the film alluded to Hearst’s own private nickname for his mistress’s (ahem) private part.
Hearst was hugely powerful and buried the film amidst hostile reviews just as Rupert Murdoch would do if a similar film were made about a thinly disguised malevolent Australian TV and press baron today. The genius Welles who had read the complete works of Shakespeare before he was ten, ended his days as fat as a house and lending his distinctive voice to Transformers: The Movie. As well as probably the best beer commercial voiceovers in the world.
But critically he had the last laugh. It’s difficult to think of William Randolph Hearst these days without inviting thoughts of Citizen Kane.
And to be fair, for all its technical excellence, Citizen Kane is hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. It might not have won anyway.
1976: Rocky beats Taxi Driver (and a few other things).
1976 should have been a classic year. Sydney Lumet’s Network was a powerful critique on the media portraying a news programme’s cynical exploitation of one of its presenters when he suddenly has a breakdown and announces he’s going to kill himself on air. All The President’s Men saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. Taxi Driver saw Robert De Niro deliver one of the finest performances ever committed to film as a Vietnam vet driven mad by insomnia and loneliness comes close to assassinating a presidential candidate.
But 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial year. the Academy are a conservative bunch and were keener to reward a film endorsing the American dream than one about Watergate (in an election year) or one about Vietnam vets. This why Rocky beat all of these films, despite being clearly the worst of the lot.
1979: Kramer Vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now.
Actually for all Apocalypse Now’s classic status, I’m less sure this was such a bad call. Kramer is actually an excellent and extremely powerful film while Apocalypse Now does rather go on a bit and – let’s face it – doesn’t end properly. Besides, the much more conservative Vietnam film The Deer Hunter had already won the previous year.
1989: Driving Miss Daisy beats Born on the Fourth of July (1990 Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas).
Driving Miss Daisy was a ludicrously safe choice which barely even begins to discuss the issues raised by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Even worse, the Oscars opted for Kevin Costner’s picturesque western snooze fest the following year, thus snubbing Goodfellas, probably the best film of the entire 1990s.
1994 Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction.
The Oscars got everything wrong this year snubbing the most iconic and watchable film of the decade in favour of a film which a) portrays the entire anti-Vietnam movement as a bunch of sneering wife beaters b) suggests women should marry young and be good housewives or they’ll descend into drugs, promiscuity and prostitution c) spends a good half hour showing Forrest running across the US in a bid to win the Best Cinematography Oscar…which it didn’t win anyway! And d) is scared to mention the AIDS virus by name. In 1994. A full year after Tom Hanks had appeared himself in the Oscar winning Philadelphia which is all about AIDS.
Even worse: the one Oscar Pulp Fiction did win (Best Original Screenplay) should actually have probably gone to Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Samuel L Jackson’s response on losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (visibly mouthing “Shit”) says it all.
2006: Crash beats Brokeback Mountain.
Were the Academy attempting to show their liberal credentials by awarding a film about racism? Or were they just being homophobic? Or were they just idiots? Who knows? Either way Paul Harris’s Crash must rank amongst the weakest Best Film winners ever. It’s barely any better than the David Cronenberg car crash fetish film of the same name.
The name is fitting though: the choice was a disaster.