Arguably, the measure by which any body that recognizes talent can be judged is to look at their track record over the years. Anyone can hand out an award (although it takes a very special type of person to get someone to hand one out to Pia Zadora…) but awards cannot dictate the judgment of history. Classic movies might not win awards, but they remain classics; some movies might be lauded with Oscar upon Oscar at the time, but wind up forgotten a decade later. And while a quick glance at the Oscars over the years has shown that they generally have a pretty good set of standards as compared to the taste of audiences over the decades (especially considering how hard it is to compare good movies–how exactly does one decide whether Jaws is better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?) But there have been a few notable missteps. Here, presented chronologically, are a few examples (as judged by me, a viewer) of times when the Oscars got it wrong.
1) 1941. Of course, 1941 should have won Best Picture easily. It had Christopher Lee and John Belushi in front of the cameras, and Steven Spielberg directing it. But audiences…hang on. Wait. Sorry. Wrong 1941. I’m actually talking about the year 1941, when the John Ford film How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture. In any other year, this wouldn’t have been a bad choice; John Ford is a legendary Hollywood director, and the film is a classic by most standards. But unfortunately for the Academy, it was up against Citizen Kane, the movie now widely considered to be the best picture not just of 1941, but ever. (“Widely”, of course, not “universally”. I, for one, will always wonder how Hellzapoppin’ didn’t even get nominated.) In all probability, the campaign waged by William Randolph Hearst against the film, which hurt it critically and financially, also damaged its chances of getting an Oscar.
2) 1952. Has anyone ever heard of The Greatest Show On Earth? Students of bad cinema, perhaps; it’s widely considered to be the worst movie ever to win Best Picture. And it’s not like it didn’t have solid competition, either; sometimes it can happen that Hollywood has a weak year overall, and films that wouldn’t make the cut wind up getting an Oscar (**cough** Gladiator **cough**), but this schmaltzy story about the Ringling Brothers Circus was up against classics like High Noon, The Quiet Man, and even films that didn’t get a nomination like Singing in the Rain. Cecil B. DeMille must have been passed over a few too many times in previous years, necessitating a “make-up” Oscar; there’s really no other explanation as to why this undeserving candidate won.
3) 1956. Okay, look. I’m not going to suggest that Around the World in 80 Days was a terrible movie. It’s a fun popcorn flick, a blockbuster movie from an era before Hollywood really made blockbuster movies. But in a year when we saw The Court Jester, High Society, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Hollywood has never respected horror as a genre), Lust for Life, and The Searchers…the thought that none of those was even nominated, while Around the World… won, it doesn’t really sit well. (To say nothing of the films that were nominated but didn’t win. The King and I? The Ten Commandments? It’s a hard case to make that Phineas Fogg has stood the test of time better than those two.)
4) 1998. This was, of course, the year that the Academy took a lot of flack for the way it had allowed certain studios to lobby for their pictures. An Oscar had come to mean a lot of extra money for films still in the theaters and those just coming to DVD, and Miramax had gotten good at exploiting that; they released a “prestige” picture in late December, usually in a few markets to build word-of-mouth and make it eligible for an Oscar, then pushed hard for it with the Academy and rolled it out nationwide right around the time the nominations were announced. Then when it got an Oscar, they’d put it out on DVD with the words “Best Picture Winner” on the packaging, and an otherwise undistinguished romantic comedy like Shakespeare In Love suddenly became a major seller with only a modest financial outlay. But when it beat out such obviously superior candidates like Saving Private Ryan, the Academy found themselves with a bit of egg on their faces. They’ve since been a lot more guarded about letting the studios lobby for their pet films.
5) 2008. This is the one that inspired this column, actually; I imagine some film student, a hundred years from now, watching WALL-E for the twentieth or thirtieth time, marveling as always at the brilliantly daring choice to open up the film with only a single character on a dead world. They take notes on the way Pixar uses subtle shifts of movement to give astonishing amounts of personality to EVE and WALL-E, the way that their romance develops almost wordlessly, the way that WALL-E’s presence on the ship creates all sorts of tiny knock-on effects with huge consequences. They study the classic physical comedy, the attention to detail, and once again find themselves lost in the magnificence of a ground-breaking and timeless classic. Then, once again, they try to remember the film that beat it out for Best Picture. And once again, they break down and look it up because it just doesn’t stick in their minds. “Oh, that’s right,” they say, when they finally check Future Wikipedia. “WALL-E only won Best Animated Picture. It wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture that year. Something called Slumdog Millionaire won.” Then they shrug. “Never heard of it,” they say, before going back to watch WALL-E again.