10) Kevin Spacey wins over Denzel Washington (1999) – Kevin Spacey took home the Best Actor Oscar in ’99 for his role as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, the eventual Best Picture winner that has since lost its luster. Denzel Washington was up for his role as Ruben “Hurricane” Carter in the biopic Hurricane. Denzel seemed like a lock until controversy surrounding the films factual liberties somehow hurt Denzel’s chances. Enter Spacey, who is definitely good in American Beauty but, like the movie itself, he is not that great.
9) How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane (1941) – This seems weird to even type, but what is often considered to be the best films of all time for technical and narrative reasons was beaten by a film I can tell you not one thing about, aside from the fact that it has a silly title. My only theory to this is that Citizen Kane was quite edgy and progressive for its time, and even as far back as the 30s and 40s it seems the Academy was afraid to reward something that isn’t safe.
8) Art Carney beating the field (1974) – 1974 had some stellar performances from some screen legends. First there was Al Pacino nominated for The Godfather, Part II. And Jack Nicholson for Chinatown. And Dustin Hoffman for Lenny. All three performances are staples in American cinema, and all were deserving of the statue. But the eventual winner, Art Carney, won for some movie called Harry and Tonto where he travels the country with his cat. Even typing this out confuses me.
7) Dances with Wolves beats Goodfellas (1990) – Okay, Dances with Wolves is not a bad film, but it’s not really a memorable one. When is the last time anyone ever listed their favorite movies and just had to mark Dances with Wolves down on their list? Exactly. On the other end, Martin Scorsese re-wrote the book on gangster pictures, creating an instant classic with Goodfellas, a film still lauded by critics and the public as being one of the most complete crime dramas of all time. But again, Goodfellas wasn’t the safe pick, it was much too edgy and violent for stuffy Academy voters, so they went with their default American western epic.
6) Denzel Washington wins over Russell Crowe (2001) – I suppose this could be considered a make up Oscar for Denzel, who was unjustly beaten two years earlier by Kevin Spacey. Russell Crowe stretches his acting chops as a schizophrenic math genius in A Beautiful Mind, and his performance may outweigh the quality of the movie, but there is no real excuse for him losing to Denzel as a crooked cop in Training Day, a solid genre entry into the crooked cop canon. Denzel grimaces and acts “gangsta” and says things like “dawg” and “King Kong ain’t got shit on me.” Nobody should ever win an award if they say that in their movie.
5) Crash beats Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Everything was pointing one way this year at the Oscars, and then the rug was pulled out from under everyone. Brokeback Mountain had all the momentum going into the night, not to mention all of the quality, and after Ang Lee won Best Director it seemed a foregone conclusion that Brokeback would take home the big prize. And then, out of nowhere, Crash, the generic, ridiculous, over-simplified, poorly acted, cliché-riddled race-relation Magnolia rip-off steals the statue to everyone’s surprise. Even the people involved with Crash. This is a prime example of a) the Academy’s reluctance to go out on a limb, and b) the power of lobbying behind the scenes.
4) Hitchcock and Kubrick shut out – It’s hard to imagine that Alfred Hitchcock, a director so celebrated in American cinema that he has his own mimicked style of filmmaking, and Stanley Kubrick, one of the most relentlessly daring directors of all time, were a combined 0-9 in Oscar statues. I can see Kubrick not winning, as his films were a bit too progressive or edgy for Oscar (notice a trend?), but the fact that Hitchcock was shut out in his career is staggering to me. Nevermind losses for North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Vertigo, Hitchcok lost to Billy Wilder for The Apartment in 1960 when he was nominated for the game-changing birth of slasher films, Psycho. Unbelievable.
3) Tommy Lee Jones beats Ralph Fiennes (1993) – I cannot, for the life of me, understand this one. Tommy Lee Jones, again, good in The Fugitive as Sam Gerrard, but in no way, in no world, was he better than Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Nazi Colonel in Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Schindler’s List. Feinnes oozed evil in a very challenging role. Jones simply played a funny, wisecracking US Marshal. The role wasn’t near the stretch the Fiennes went through to play a murderous Nazi.
2) Ordinary People beats Raging Bull (1980) – I resisted watching Ordinary People for a long while, but I figured if I was to have the opinion that Raging Bull was robbed then I must be fair and see if Ordinary People may, in fact, be better. Well I can safely say, without simply spouting off, that Ordinary People had no business beating Raging Bull. Look no further than the title to find an accurate description for Ordinary People: Ordinary. A movie of the week soaked in drab melodrama, it in no way compares to the ferocious, cerebral sports masterpiece from Scorsese. Then again, Ordinary People, in its boringness and flat delivery, was a much safer pick than the tough, vibrant, edgy Raging Bull. One of these days maybe the Academy won’t be scared to pick quality over safety.
1) Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan (1998) – There is really no excuse for this. Saving Private Ryan was a gritty, realistic slice of war cinema unlike anything before it. Shakespeare in Love was a fluffy romantic fictionalization of the early life of William Shakespeare that really had no business being in the final five. Any of the other four pictures should have won over Shakespeare in Love, but Saving Private Ryan was perhaps the most deserving. And it wasn’t too edgy for the Academy, so there is no real excuse out there that can explain away this overwhelming error by Oscar.