In 91 years of awarding industry excellence, Hollywood has given us plenty to talk about. We’ve had comedies that got us through the war years, dramas that broke our hearts, and family films that reminded us that maybe our households are relatively normal after all.
And through it all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has screened everything in order to alert us of the best of the best.
However, no one and no group is infallible. There were luminous wins on the part of the Academy, and also some head-scratching oversights.
Here is a unique list of the best and worst of the Oscars. This lineup will not rehash the same “top 10” lists that you can find elsewhere but will instead raise new points on some old wins and losses.
If you bet on the Oscars and other awards shows (I do!), this may give you some fresh insight as to how the Academy thinks.
Screenplays: Best and Worst Years to Judge
Hollywood receives a great deal of flack for superficiality. Yet year after year, there is notable, even sublime, writing on display. Some of the great minds and pens behind Hollywood scripts include the following works.
1954: Best Screenplay = Worst Conundrum
In 1954, the members of the Academy had a problem on their hands. The movies that were up for the award for Best Adapted Screenplay were all superlative. How to choose?
Here were the nominees:
The Cruel Sea
From Here to Eternity
As you can see, there were multiple classic films created in 1953 to be honored at the 1954 Oscars.
However, it was From Here to Eternity that garnered the win. Although the war had ended several years before this film was released, the drama and excitement of battle still permeated Hollywood scripts.
The life-or-death situations experienced by the American soldiers were still fresh in viewers’ minds. Every woman could remember waiting for a loved one to return home; every able-bodied man had memories of assisting with the war cause.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the romantic patina of war films began to wane. And by the time Vietnam became a political and social issue, the romance of war was kaput.
But such was not the case in 1953, when the film version of From Here to Eternity was released. It starred luminaries, such as Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift, and Burt Lancaster.
The film involves the lives of soldiers stationed in Hawaii and the women in their lives. There is much human drama set against the backdrop of the impending American involvement in World War II.
The viewers know that the attack on Pearl Harbor is coming. But the characters are unaware of this deadly disaster looming on the horizon, which adds to the intensity of the production.
It was such a hit that it won eight Oscars from an astounding 13 nominations. Furthermore, this film is now considered culturally significant by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
Roman Holiday, still near and dear to film lovers’ hearts, and classic Western movie Shane, just didn’t stand a chance to take this prestigious award.
And We End Up at Chinatown
The Academy faced another tough choice in 1974, attempting to choose an outstanding screenplay from a plethora of 1973 films that commanded attention—both then and now.
There was the road movie, Harry and Tonto, featuring Art Carney. Carney won an Oscar for his performance, and the Academy wanted to award the writers for the enchanting and flawless script.
And yet, there was also Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
There’s more. If those options were enough to muddy the waters, the final nominee in the category was Truffaut’s Day for Night.
Unfortunately for all of those fine films, they shared the nominee list with the classic movie Chinatown, starring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson and directed by Roman Polanski. Chinatown has been considered a nearly perfect film since its release, and it’s still considered one of the best movies ever produced.
“To you the truth, I lied”
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
“Look at my face. I don’t sing with my ass.”
Harry and Tonto
“You never […] feel somebody’s suffering;[…]only their death.”
Day for Night
Bells Are Ringing
“…not following you, I’m looking for you. There’s a difference.”
There have been other tough writing award decisions in Academy history, but in those cases, the decision is between the two best.
For instance, in 1977, the award was granted to the scriptwriters for the edgy, cutting film Network. It was about the foibles and vagaries of the network television business.
But the French film Cousin Cousine was also considered a shoo-in for the prize that year. In the end, Network, starring Duvall and Dunaway, edged out the foreign movie and took the prize.
Regarding the awards shows listed above (1954 and 1974), the choice was among several films featuring equivalently sublime scripting. At such a time, other factors may come into play, such as the timeliness of the subject matter.
For instance, Chinatown dealt with real estate manipulation and the murderous jockeying for water rights. It was an issue that was nascent then and is still of critical importance today, particularly in Southern California.
And in the Beginning Was the Word, and It Was “Meh”
The award for Best Original Screenplay was created in 1941. Now, you would think that this new category was introduced because the scripts of 1940 were of such a high and literate caliber that some sort of supreme recognition was required.
Well, suffice it to say that this award must have taken years to bring to fruition, and was therefore likely based on some films of the 1930s. The first batch of nominees that were up for the inaugural Oscar for Best Original Screenplay were ho-hum in the scriptwriting department.
Even Rita Hayworth and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. could barely enliven the conversation in Angels Over Broadway.
The rest of the choices offered no better repartee. Fortunately for moviegoers, there was plenty of other razzle-dazzle in the films that year in the form of luxe sets and glittering movie stars to keep them entertained.
Here were the nominees of the first Best Original Screenplay Academy Award:
The Great Dictator
The Great McGinty (winner)
Angels Over Broadway
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet
The Worst Oscar Losses
As noted above, the Academy isn’t perfect. Furthermore, many great ideas suffer “death by committee,” and great films can also suffer the sting of opinionated discord.
Here are a few prime examples of stellar moviemaking that fell through the cracks.
The Eight Nominations of Quo Vadis
MGM, now nearly a century old, is one of the oldest studios in the movie industry. This production company has given us the James Bond thrillers, the Rocky saga, and the Barbershop series, among hundreds of other titles.
The Bond series alone has netted the studio more than $7 billion. Yet in 1950, MGM was on the verge of bankruptcy due to various failed productions.
Then-movie star Robert Taylor (Killers of Kilimanjaro, Return of the Gunfighter) stepped in and asked MGM, “Quo Vadis,” which is Latin for, “Where are you going?” (Okay, he didn’t actually say that. This is the famous line Jesus is supposed to have asked Peter as they met up on the road leading out of Rome, and for which this film is named.)
The film Quo Vadis, epic in scope and budget as historical films tend to be, was one last lifeline thrown out by MGM onto the waters of public opinion. And that lifeline was caught by a whale.
Quo Vadis, a film based on Rome during mad Emperor Nero’s time, was nominated for eight Oscars, made MGM $21 million in 1951, and singlehandedly saved the studio from extinction.
The movie that became a byword for silver screen epic-making was a massive hit with the public, as moviegoers paid to see it again and again.
However, despite the eight nominations at the Academy Awards, the movie did not win a single one.
Here are the categories in which the film was nominated, along with who actually took the win at the 1952 Academy Awards.
Best Motion Picture
An American in Paris
Best Supporting Actor*
A Place in the Sun
Best Art Direction
An American in Paris
An American in Paris
Best Costume Design
An American in Paris
Best Film Editing
A Place in the Sun
*Quo Vadis had two actors nominated in that same category
Fun fact: Sophia Loren was an extra in the movie, uncredited. I am going to watch the film again to seek her out. I can’t imagine her blending into any background.
A Crying Shame
That is the most reasonable thing that can be said of the fact that The Fight Club did not win an Oscar.
This 1999 film starring Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, and Edward Norton was superbly acted, but forget that.
The theme of a man who is so buffeted by the appalling realities of his job in particular and the modern world in general that he must seek out personal violence in order to feel something clean, and something real, is one of the most genius film commentaries on life in the history of cinema.
The script was excellent, the visuals perfect. But again, the plot of the movie hit home in a way that got under our skin and stayed there.
This film is still expounded upon most enthusiastically two decades later as if it had come out recently.
What in our own lives causes us to want to “split,” makes us too shocked to die and too lost to continue the way we have been doing?
Knowing people as I do, I’d say that much of what we experience in the home and workplace is more than we ever thought we could bear. The inhumanity of everyday slights, the trap of lost love, and the indignities of aging are not rare.
They are ubiquitous, which may explain the popularity of this film; we all recognize ourselves in every role.
The film’s lack of an Oscar makes me want to punch someone in the face. But I won’t tell you where and when, because the first rule of Fight Club…
The Best of the Forgotten Winners
Some films, such as Gone with the Wind, and certain actors, such as Meryl Streep and Robin Williams, will never be forgotten.
Other stellar performances have not weathered time well, however.
Here are a few stars that shone brightly for the moment but have since been set too far back on the shelf. Let’s grab our feather dusters and rediscover a few treasures.
The Moving Art of Cedric Gibbons
Gibbons, born in 1890, was the artist who created the image of the Oscar statuette. He then turned his sketch to a metal sculptor who created the first version of the award back in the late 1920s.
But Gibbons was so much more than that. He was the production designer who may have influenced the look and feel of movies the most in the nascent stages of the industry.
Gibbons was nominated for the Oscar an astounding 39 times! Among these nominations for Best Production Design are these works with which you may be familiar:
The Wizard of Oz
An American in Paris
As you can see, these are movies that are considered benchmarks in film development, which impressed upon moviegoers around the world what a film should be and could be.
It is fair to say that from the Bombay film industry to UK cinema to the Shanghai studios, Gibbons may have had more influence on the look and feel of films than any other human being.
Same Time, Next Year
This film, starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, won several Academy Awards:
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Song
The movie also won several Golden Globes and the Writers Guild of America Award.
Therefore, I can hardly say that this film has been overlooked. However, it has been largely forgotten, which is one of the most heartbreaking shames in the history of moviemaking.
This movie not only shows the brilliant Alan Alda at his very best (even better than MASH!), but it’s also one of the most believable and realistic portrayals of a male-female relationship to ever hit the silver screen.
What’s odd is that this film was nominated in the Comedy category despite the very real drama inherent in the film. Some of the best dramas have comical moments, and this should have been slotted into the drama category despite the effervescent writing.
The Best Actress That Time Forgot
Judy Holliday played a nouveau riche gal who needed polishing in Born Yesterday, opposite William Holden.
Her portrayal of a ditzy blonde was perfect, her timing and on-screen presence nearly unrivaled by any other actress. Holliday won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, which is notable considering Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were among the other nominees.
Because Holliday is so riveting, there were long, silent scenes in the movie (some of which were filmed in one take) that other stars couldn’t get away with or would not have had a big enough personality to fill a screen without patter.
The film is a comic romance in the vein of My Fair Lady and Pygmalion, in which a sculptor—or a linguist, in the case of My Fair Lady—turns a woman at her most raw into an ideal, and the woman then falls in love with her mentor.
This theme may inspire rancor in the hearts of bluestockings, but it remains a popular theme, nonetheless.
Some of her other performances also deserve a modern screening.
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy
The Marrying Kind
Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak
Bells Are Ringing
Holliday also worked in radio, performing with Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and Tallulah Bankhead…all members of an amazing generation.
Worst Academy Category Decision
This isn’t a “forgotten winner,” but rather a “never was” winner.
One category has been proposed to the Academy time and time again, and it has been rejected time and time again.
The category “Best Stunt Coordination” would not only be a popular favorite at the Awards ceremony, but it would almost certainly generate added box office revenue as crowds who adore live chase scenes, fight scenes, and “he could have died!” scenes rushed to catch the films in theaters.
For whatever reason—probably to keep the awards show to a reasonable length—this category has never been given the nod.
It’s a shame since rescreening Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne character in a European car chase, and a million other high-impact opportunities would only add enthusiasm to Oscars night.
Wrapping Things Up
As I move into my screening room, I’ll admit that this article has rekindled all of the excitement and pathos that Hollywood wanted me to feel when the best of the best rolled onto the screen.
There are great actors with poor scripts, great writing demoted by lackluster supporting stars, and fine directors who struggle with poor musical scores.
But when things come together, when all of the parts are finely tuned and of the highest quality, we are treated to film gold.
The Academy knows this, which is why the Oscars came about in the first place.
The members of the Academy know that most of what is produced by the industry is solid entertainment, but that a few variables in every year elevate themselves to the timeless, to the worthy, to the level of “should never be forgotten.”
It’s a great time to be alive.