Christopher Nolan fans might disagree, but the Academy has done a pretty top-notch job of picking the strongest candidates to slug it out at the Kodak this February – but it hasn’t always done quite as well with its picks. In fact, there’ve been years when the runners and riders seemed to be picked via some kind of elaborate game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Think about the giddy adventure of Raiders Of The Lost Ark losing out to Chariots Of Fire which, stirring as it was, was really just a two-hour long reason to go for a jog. Not to mention Alfred Hitchcock never winning a single Academy Award. Not one. Then there’s It’s A Wonderful Life getting pipped by The Best Years Of Our Lives, Apocalypse Now taking a slow-mo sword swipe from Kramer Vs. Kramer, and Citizen Kane losing to, erm... we forget. But those are minor injustices compared to some of the other kahunas we’ve identified and, in our own small way, rectified.
Who should have won: Edward Norton (American History X)
Who won: Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful)
Much as we’d love to imagine Edward Norton bunny-hopping over the seats of dignitaries in a blizzard of arm-swinging zaniness, he had to slump back in his chair and watch Roberto Benigni do the honours when Helen Hunt read out the Best Actor winner back in 1999. Both boasted their share of Nazis – the ultimate Oscar catnip – but Life Is Beautiful won the hearts and minds of the Academy in a way that American History X, with its brute force and kerb-stamp intensity, couldn’t hope to emulate. Single-minded in a way that doesn’t always play well in Hollywood, Norton’s very public fallout and lawsuit with director Tony Kaye didn’t help his cause either. Still, his ferocious, seething skinhead Derek Vinyard should have put the gentle buffoonery of Guido Orefice onto the pavement.
What should have won: Top Hat
What won: Mutiny On The Bounty
Mutiny On The Bounty over Top Hat? Really? Even taking into account Oscar’s love for a watery misadventure (see also: Titanic), it seems a stretch. After all, they overlooked one of the all-time classic musicals in favour of a bally-ho’ing melodrama of mutinous seadogs looking for Clark Gable’s missing moustache a fair-minded alternative to Captain Bligh. Consider, too, that Mutiny On The Bounty remains the only Best Picture winner not to win in any other category – even Charles Laughton’s gloriously nasty Bligh was given the swerve.
Make no mistake, Lewis Milestone’s agonised Polynesian shoot, which cost the lives of two crew members, resulted in a terrific movie – easily the best, if not the most historically accurate, of the three adaptations of the tale – but does it have Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing cheek-to-cheek around the West End? Nope. And does it have Irving Berlin tunes that made you want to break spontaneously into song? Nope. Does it win our vote? Uh-uh. No-jangles.
What should have won: La Grande Illusion
What won: You Can’t Take It With You
No foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture. Of the eight that have been nominated down the years, Jean Renoir’s prison camp classic Grand Illusion was the first and arguably the most deserving of the honour (though you could also make a case for Z pipping Midnight Cowboy, or Letters From Iwo Jima doing likewise against The Departed). Sadly, La Grande Illusion appeared plum in the middle of Frank Capra’s purple patch. It was a late ‘30s golden age when the master director could have made a balloon dog and the Academy would have nominated it for an Oscar.
The Frenchman’s moving treatise on class, nationality and conflict was probably a yard or two too far from the mainstream; it was though, and is, a masterpiece. And Capra? You Can’t Take It With You wasn’t the great man at his best. We’d have given him the Oscar for It’s A Wonderful Life eight years later instead of William Wyler’s The Best Years Of Our Lives. Tough call but, hey, this isn’t easy for us either.
What should have won: The Wizard Of Oz
What won: Gone With The Wind
Trying to win Best Picture in the early ‘40s was like scoring a place in the Harlem Globetrotters while simultaneously holding down a job at Pixar and running your own space programme. In other words, bloody tough. With the likes of John Ford, Frank Capra, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch and Leo McCarey all busy on Burbank’s back lots (or in Ford’s case, Monument Valley), the 1940 Oscars were the most ferociously competitive of all time.
Even Sam Wood, not in the same calibre as those seven, delivered a fancied outsider in the heartbreaking Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The winner, Gone With The Wind, and the film that should have beaten it, The Wizard Of Oz, shared a director in Victor Fleming, but the director’s best work was unquestionably on the musical. Picking Oz, with all its dreamy childhood nostalgia, dark heart and mind-bending majesty, would have set the tone for bolder choices in years to come.
What should have won: The Red Shoes
What won*: Hamlet
Put simply, Powell and Pressburger’s Red Shoes is one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a tale of obsession, love, music, suffering and, above all, grace under pressure. A film about life, in other words. Even Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, as faithful and worthy a Shakespeare adaptation as you could wish to see, paled into cod-pieced insignificance by comparison.
But despite a Best Film nod for 49th Parallel (1943), the British production pairing never received the recognition they deserved in Hollywood: witness the snubbing of Black Narcissus the year before. The Red Shoes – the movie that inspired Scorsese to make movies – would be a worthy winner in any year, let alone a relatively weak one. To rub salt into the wounds, Moira Shearer was completely overlooked as the film’s flame haired ingenue, a snub also extended to Anton Walbrook’s terrific portrayal of ruthless impresario Lermontov.
Who won: Grace Kelly (Country Girl)
Who should have won: Judy Garland (A Star Is Born)
The year On The Waterfront justly won Best Picture, something went a bit skewy in the Best Actress category. Grace Kelly, so terrific and Oscar-worthy in Rear Window a year later, was unconvincing as an unhappy woman coping with a booze-soaked husband. By comparison, A Star Is Born saw Judy Garland eat up the screen as a woman in a similar predicament. She was at the peak of her powers as superstar singer Esther Blodgett, channelling her own struggles into a beautifully tender and big-lunged performance.
Maybe the Academy objected to the scene where Jason Mason’s fading star drunkenly ruins their ceremony, or perhaps they felt there was presumption in Esther Blodgett actually winning a gong in the movie. These are the only straws to be clutched at, which presumably was what the NBC camera crew were doing on the night as they sat by Garland’s maternity ward bed ready to interview the Best Actress. This award even made Groucho Marx mad, a sight you didn’t see everyday.
What should have won: Singin' In The Rain
What won: The Greatest Show On Earth
“Dada-da-dada dada-da-dada… We’re singin’ and dancin’ in the rain…” Glorious feeling, glorious movie. Better than The Greatest Show On Earth? Yup. Better than High Noon? Maybe even that. Maybe. 1952 should have been a two-horse race between Stanley Donen’s musical and Fred Zinnemann’s Western, but the elephant in the room was DeMille’s circus spectacular The Greatest Show On Earth. Admittedly it did have an actual elephant in it, but it wasn’t close to the same calibre as those two slabs of fried movie gold. Arguably it was lucky to get nominated, let alone win, even at a time when people still went to the circus. Five musicals had won Best Picture by 1960, including the ordinary Gigi, but the best of the lot missed out here.
What should have won: The Searchers
What won: Around The World In Eighty Days
We’re not making any excuses for the Academy here - they plain and simple made a stinker of a choice at the ballot box. Phileas Fogg’s jolly globetrotting was given all the wit and panache David Niven could muster – which is plenty – and Jules Verne’s caper was magicked into a feast for the senses by Michael Anderson but, still, c’mon, comparing it to The Searchers is like holding up a bottle of Tizer against a vintage claret. And we like Tizer. John Ford’s Western, possibly the greatest of the entire genre, was astonishingly overlooked in every single category.
Did it get lost in the campaigning? Possibly, considering Cecil B. DeMille, King Vidor and William Wyler also had films in the running that year, but for Ford not to get a look in as Best Director spoke of the Academy’s growing ambivalence towards Westerns since the frankly ordinary Cimarron in 1934. Significantly, Ford’s four wins came for non-Westerns: The Quiet Man, The Grapes Of Wrath, The Informer and How Green Was My Valley. On his and Ethan Edwards’ behalf, here’s a giant ya-boo to anyone who voted for anything else.
Who should have won: Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Who won: Carol Reed (Oliver!)
So ahead of its time it felt like a hoverboard at a roller derby, Kubrick’s sci-fi spectacular left audiences and critics stunned. It was bold, profound and haunting. Logically, then, the Best Director nod went to Carol Reed for Oliver! instead. Presumably Academy members been too busy ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘aah-ing’ at the cheeky scamp’s efforts to score himself another bowl of gruel to notice just how revolutionary Kubrick’s treatment of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel was – though not so distracted they forgot to award it a gong for Best Visual Effects.
In fairness, picking between Carol Reed and Kubrick was an unenviable job. The former was one of the greatest of the old guard who should have won for The Third Man or The Fallen Idol 20 years previously; the latter was a true original who’d mastered every genre he set his mind to. But Kubrick never won an Oscar and the show’s credibility has suffered for it.
What should have won: Network
What won: Rocky
Like 1940, 1977 was a year of classics. At any other Oscars All The President’s Men would surely have been a shout for Best Picture: in 1976 it was last among equals. Taxi Driver, meanwhile, influential as it was, was always likely to be just too radical for Academy tastes, a fate Psycho had seemingly suffered 16 years earlier. Rocky, the soft-shoe option won, but we’d have plumped for Network. Fuelled by a full-bore script (“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon...”), Network won more acting Oscars than any film since Streetcar, which speaks volumes.
It was simply the greatest film about the media since The Sweet Smell Of Success. Watch it now, preferably in between episodes of Piers Morgan’s chatshow, and marvel at how prescient Sidney Lumet’s cautionary tale turned out to be – and we speak as hardcore Rocky fans. Italian Stallion he may have been, but the Rock wouldn’t have lasted one round with the mad-as-hell Howard Beale.
Who should have won: Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull)
Who won: Robert Redford (Ordinary People)
For many years the Academy’s catholic tastes struggled to catch up with Martin Scorsese, before he was eventually collared in 2006 and breathlessly handed a gong for a movie that if we’re honest, wasn’t as good as the Hong Kong film it remade, let alone his earlier work. Like, for instance, Raging Bull. How this majestic, black-and-white biopic of boxing’s lost soul missed out to Robert Redford’s debut feature is anyone’s guess.
Not that Ordinary people was in any way ordinary – it wasn’t – merely that Raging Bull offered voters something they hadn’t seen before: a bruiser of a movie with the grace of a ballerina. To add to the slight, it’d be the first of two occasions Scorsese would miss out to a debut director – Kevin Costner repeated the trick ten years later. Go figure. As Clint Eastwood gruffly observed when asked about Scorsese’s chances for The Aviator: “He should have won for Raging Bull”.
Who should have won: Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown)
Who won: Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets)
As Katharine Hepburn wrily commented: “The right actors win Oscars, but for the wrong roles.” There have been few better examples of this than Judi Dench. The Academy loves her – she’s been nominated six times – but her only win came for a movie she graced for a mere eight minutes. Instead of a Best Supporting win for Shakespeare In Love, Dame Judi should have walked away with a little golden man for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. Critics fell over themselves to praise her icy/tender monarch, whose initially gruff dealings with her Scottish servant (Bill Connelly) blossom into a platonic romance that made us a little wobbly. It was a year for complex relationships at the Oscars. The winner, Helen Hunt, was the straightwoman in a Jack Nicholson/Greg Kinnear neurosis-off in As Good As It Gets. It was Hunt’s one and only Oscar nomination to date. But, good as she is James Brooks’ sharp comedy, Dench was better.
Who should have won: Brenda Blethyn (Little Voice)
Who won: Judi Dench (Shakespeare In Love)
Whether the Academy was blown away by Judi Dench’s versatility and strength as an actress or just a teensy bit scared of her as M, her gong for Shakespeare In Love (1998) still feels like the greatest work/reward ratio this side of the Premier League payroll. Not to denigrate a regal cameo of earth-shaking authority, but eight minutes screentime is a little skinny for a Best Supporting nod – unless, of course, those eight minutes are spent healing the sick, solving world poverty and overcoming serious addiction, all while owning a farm in Africa and being driven around by Morgan Freeman.
In a slow year, Brenda Blethyn gave Little Voice its edge as a fag-puffing, hard-boozing alpha mum to Jane Horrock’s shy singer. With Dame Judi getting her just desserts for Mrs. Brown, we don’t feel so guilty pickpocketing her statuette and handing it to Blethyn. Horrocks deserved a look-in too, potentially ahead of Meryl Streep for her gritty, but hardly memorable turn in One True Thing.
What should have won: Brokeback Mountain
What won: Crash
They got it half right in 2005 when they awarded Ang Lee Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, a film that gets better with every passing year. Instead of going the whole hog roast and handing it Best Film as well, however, that honour went to Crash, a film that plays more and more like Altman-lite with every viewing. It was a battle between understatement and overstatement: of a quietly revolutionary story told with subtlety and warmth against Important Ideas communicated at HIGH VOLUME.
Both Good Night, And Good Luck, not only mesmerising but also the source of host Jon Stewart’s best joke of the night (something about the title doubling as George Clooney’s pay-off line at the end of dates), and Munich, a lesser Spielberg but still utterly compelling, deserved recognition ahead of Crash. A win for Brokeback though, would have been a just and deserved monument to Heath Ledger’s second greatest performance.
Who should have won: Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now)
Who won: Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer)
Even if Apocalypse Now had turned out like Hamburger Hill with more buffalo, the Academy could have been forgiven for giving Francis Ford Coppola a little gold man just for the anguish he went through making it. Typhoon, heart attacks, civil war, Marlon Brando’s mood swings: Coppola endured all this and more during than a year of carnage from which – somehow – he crafted one of the all-time great war films. One of the greats of any genre, in fact. So what did Academy voters do? They put a little tick next to the name of Robert Benton, director of Kramer Vs. Kramer, a well-made and gripping but hardly timeless courtroom drama. Perhaps Michael Cimino’s win for The Deer Hunter the year before had sated their appetite for Vietnam War movies or maybe they felt Coppola’s win for The Godfather II was recognition enough. Either way, they got it wrong.
Who should have won: Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo)
Who won: Vincente Minnelli (Gigi)
The Academy’s failure to award Hitch a single Oscar during his long and deeply illustrious career could be seen as a persuasive argument for everyone just to pack up and go home. He was nominated as Best Director five times, and lost five times. Vertigo, a thriller-cum-psychodrama of breathtaking complexity and possibly his best, didn’t even earn him a nod. Instead, in Oscar’s bell-tower moment, Vincente Minnelli won for the flamboyant but flimsy Gigi. Fail.
Who should have won: John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon)
Who won*: George Burns (The Sunshine Boys)
One of the iconic faces of the ‘70s, Cazale never got the Oscar recognition he deserved. He had a sixth sense for challenging, radical material and took more risks in his brief but glorious career than more actors fit into a lifetime. And he couldn’t half pick a director. He worked with Coppola and Cimino but, for our money, his greatest moment came working for Sidney Lumet in Dog Day Afternoon.
Both he and Al Pacino dial it back beautifully as the hapless bank robbers caught in a media circus (“So what country do you want to go to?”;”Wyoming”; “Sal, Wyoming’s not a country”), but while Pacino steals the limelight, Cazale injects pathos and humanity. With his endless forehead and hippie-monk haircut, Cazale’s Sal had the beaten gait of a man who’d set his crest firmly to ‘fallen’. Pacino got a Best Actor nod, ultimately missing out to Jack Nicholson for Cuckoo’s Nest, but Cazale went unnoticed. Again. We wish the Academy had got this one right.
Who should have won: Steven Spielberg (Raiders Of The Lost Ark)
Who won: Warren Beatty (Reds)
The Academy lapped up Warren Beatty’s paean to Red Russia and big furry hats, bestowing its cast with nominations in all four Acting categories as well as Best Picture – to date the only time that’s happened. A big-budget affair masterfully overseen by Beatty, Reds was full of the kind of big ideas the Academy loves. But among the scenery chewing and revolutionary zeal, we couldn’t help noticing the absence of face-melting Nazis, monkey or wry, whip-cracking archaeologists all appearing in maybe the greatest adventure movie ever made.
With that in mind, there is one compelling reason that Beatty didn’t deserve the Best Director and his name is Steven Spielberg.
Who should have won: Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday)
Who won: Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle)
Machine-gun dialogue? Check. Smouldering chemistry with Cary Grant? Check. Razor-sharp wit? Checketty check. Rosalind Russell’s ace reporter, Hildy Johnson, had all these things and a very cool hat, so stone us if we can explain why the Academy forgot to nominate her, especially as Howard Hawks’s improv-heavy approach brought the best out in Russell. She wasn’t his first pick for the role – she wasn’t even on the shortlist – and the two shared a frosty antipathy for much of the shoot, but Russell had an innate gift for screwball that elevated her exchanges with Grant’s editor/ex-husband to a thing of wise-cracking genius.
Grant’s on-screen partners never had much luck at the Oscars, however worthy. Others in the almost-but-not-quite bracket included Deborah Kerr (An Affair To Remember), Ingrid Bergman (Notorious) Katharine Hepburn (The Philadelphia Story) and Irene Dunne (The Awful Toast). Russell, who never won an Academy Award, was the best of the lot. And as good as Ginger Rogers was as the non-singing, non-dancing Kitty Foyle, Russell was better.
Who should have won: Sidney Poitier (In The Heat Of The Night)
Who won: George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke)
Okay, bit of a cheat here as Sidney Poitier was really only eligible for Best Actor, but Rod Steiger was a more than worthy winner there for his portrayal of a bigoted sheriff with exceptionally cool shades, so it leaves us nowhere else to go. Using True Grit logic and mixing up the Best Actor and Best Supporting categories (what is it about that film that makes the Academy go all, well, funny?), we’re saying to heck with it and giving Poitier well-deserved recognition for his equally devastating performance. He’d won an Oscar for Lillies In The Field – the first black man to do so – but this was his tour de force. He strips away the ‘tec’s patrician East Coast demeanour to reveal enough righteous anger to boil the Mississippi. Besides, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” was a line that deserved some kind of gold-clad tribute all by itself.
Who should have won: Orson Welles (A Touch Of Evil)
Who won: Hugh Griffith (Ben-Hur)
The Academy just didn’t get Orson Welles. Okay, maybe they ‘got’ him but they definitely didn’t much like him. Too difficult, too expensive and too prone to scaring the hell out of them with his radio broadcasts. Even so, it seems a little mealy-mouthed that the only time Oscar bestowed its goodness on Orson Welles was for his screenplay for Citizen Kane. If Kane’s failure to beat How Green Was My Valley to Best Picture in 1942 is a thing of enduring mystery, the lack of even a nomination for his venal border-town cop Hank Quinlan in A Touch Of Evil is stupifying.
Instead, it was the year of Ben-Hur and Welshman Hugh Griffith won as Sheik Ilderim, a larger-than-life character who looked like he'd wandered in off the set of Thunderbirds, but he wasn’t close to the sweaty menace of Welles’ gone-to-seed copper. Welles probably wasn’t helped by the Academy’s traditional ambivalence towards films noir (ahem.. Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon), but this and the failure of The Magnificent Ambersons to beat Mrs. Miniver, shonky ending and all, have to go down as two of the great injustices in Oscar history.
Who should have won: Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
Who won: Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump)
Steven Spielberg saw this one coming. In the lead up to the 67th Academy Awards, he was out duck hunting with Quentin Tarantino and his old pal Robert Zemeckis when he confidently predicted that the old stager would walk away with the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture, while the young pretender - and writing partner Roger Avary - would win Best Screenplay. He knew that Forrest Gump, filled with bittersweet nostalgia for America's historic hinterland, would chime with voters, like it had with audiences.
Both films were massively innovative; both hugely entertaining. We're saying Tarantino was the worthier winner purely for keeping his story's twisty-turny timeline from exploding our brains. Throw in his stylised reinvention of the modern noir, musical choices that showed up the Gump soundtrack as a bit first base, and the black humour coursing through its veins, and you've got the directorial achievement of the year. He did collect that Best Screenplay gong, mind you, so the only real loser was the ducks.