Let me say from the outset that I have sympathy with those who consider movie people as overpaid, egotistical prima donnas and the Oscars a bloated, gluttonous love in for and by people who have lost all touch with reality. But at the end of the day it’s nice to see in any field – whether it’s sport, the arts or everyday life – the correct decisions being made, and quite often Oscar has got it wrong. So in that spirit here are just 12 of the great Oscar injustices that rankle with me.
1. Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award
It has been well documented but it still astonishes that Hitchcock never won an Academy Award. Anointed as “the master of suspense”, that acclaim didn’t translate to statuettes on Hitch’s mantelpiece.
Amazingly, of 52 Hitchcock movies, only five won Oscars of any kind. Rebecca was the only one to win Best Film, but David O Selznick as producer claimed that one, and only one actor, Joan Fontaine for 1941’s Suspicion, lifted an acting Oscar. Consider also one of the many reasons to love Hitchcock movies – the seamless interplay between the score and the action – his collaborations with Bernard Herrmann alone produced the unforgettable soundtracks for Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo and marvel at the fact that only 1945’s Spellbound won for its score.
So how does one account for Hitchcock’s Oscar snub? Snobbery, for a start. There seemed to be a feeling abroad that somehow his films, many of which are now acknowledged as classics, were either light entertainments or mere populist thrillers or, worse, horror movies. Hitchcock himself didn’t help this conception, often downplaying his considerable achievements. Nominated five times for best director for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window and Psycho, Hitchcock was unlucky in that in some of these years he came up against bona fide classics and equally great directors as in 1940 (Rebecca), when John Ford won best director for The Grapes of Wrath, 1945 (Spellbound) when he lost to Billy Wilder for The Lost Weekend and 1954 (Rear Window) when he lost to Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront.
However, Vertigo, which topped Sight and Sound’s 2012 list of the greatest films of all time, wasn’t even nominated in 1958 – hard to take given that voters were swayed by the light froth of Gigi – while in 1960 Psycho so shocked and appalled voters that its greatness wasn’t recognised. Hitchcock’s absence from the winner’s enclosure remains a stain in Oscar history. He did, however, receive an honorary Academy Award, the Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, in 1968.
2. Cary Grant never won an Academy Award
Grant was nominated just twice for best actor in Penny Serenade (1941) and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), films that are largely forgotten now, but he had to make do with an honorary Oscar in 1970.
Grant made his name with wonderful comic performances in a clutch of classic screwball comedies of the 1930s such as The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby, but 1940 was his stellar year. James Stewart won the best actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, but Grant as CK Dexter Haven underpins the whole film and his performance is every bit the equal of Stewart’s. Grant was the only one of the four leads not to be nominated.
The same year also saw Grant excel as the duplicitous fast-talking newspaper editor Walter Burns in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday. Falling then under the aegis of Hitchcock who recognised his dark, multi-layered side, Grant gave model studies in ambiguity in Suspicion (1941) and Notorious in 1946, but the Oscar would continue to elude the man once described as the most important actor in the history of cinema, perhaps conversely, because he was misinterpreted as one-dimensional and just a movie star. Or perhaps, as one of the first major stars to go freelance, in effect leaving the studio system in order to control his own career, Grant alienated the studios and the Academy. This outsider status may help explain his failure to win an Oscar. Or perhaps on-screen he was always just too much like Cary Grant.
3. Barbara Stanwyck never won an Academy Award
By common consensus, the great Barbara Stanwyck was one of the most versatile and popular actresses of Hollywood’s golden age, yet she unaccountably missed out on an Oscar despite four Best Actress nominations.
Her performance as the vulgar mother forced to give up her daughter to give her a better life in Stella Dallas barely left a dry eye in the house in 1937, but she lost to Luise Rainer, a two-hit wonder, who had also won the previous year, and who then virtually disappeared from the screen.
In 1941, voters preferred the demure Joan Fontaine in Suspicion to Stanwyck’s incredibly funny and sexy turn as nightclub performer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea, but surely her legendary star turn as the scheming murderess in 1944’s Double Indemnity would sway the academy? No dice: the Oscar went to Ingrid Bergman for being slowly driven mad by her wicked husband in Gaslight, and Stanwyck lost to Jane Wyman for her role as a young mute girl in Johnny Belinda in 1948. So, in common with Cary Grant, one of the greatest actresses in the history of the movies had to make do with an honorary award in 1982.
4. Henry Fonda loses best actor Oscar to his friend James Stewart (1940)
I love James Stewart to bits and he is superb in The Philadelphia Story, but his great friend Henry Fonda really should have lifted the Best Actor gong for his unforgettable embodiment of one of literature’s greatest moral protagonists, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck said that Fonda’s performance “made him believe his own words”, and perhaps if Fonda had won then Stewart would have been deservedly rewarded for It’s a Wonderful Life.
5. Citizen Kane won just one Oscar (1941)
The young tyro Orson Welles had ruffled too many feathers and egos to win over the academy and had to make do with just the single Oscar for Citizen Kane, for Best Original Screenplay, which he shared with Herman J Manciewicz. John Ford took Best Director for How Green Was My Valley, which also won Best Picture. It’s a lovely film; however, Kane has regularly topped “best film” polls for decades, but its greatness wasn’t rewarded on the night.
6. Double Indemnity upstaged by Going My Way at the 1944 Awards
Billy Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity, the epitome of film noir, was nominated for seven Oscars but won none, being upstaged by the Bing Crosby slush-fest Going My Way, which lifted seven awards. Seemingly, war-weary voters preferred the feel-good factor of Going My Way to the cynical, amoral tone of Wilder’s dark vision. It was all too much for Wilder. On Going My Way director Leo McCarey’s visit to the podium to collect the Best Director statuette, a severely peeved Wilder stuck out his foot, tripping him and leaving McCarey in Wilder’s words, “stumbling perceptibly”.
7. Judy Garland loses Best Actress to Grace Kelly for A Star is Born (1954)
The academy seemed more impressed by Kelly playing the dowdy, washed-out (well, as dowdy and as washed-out as the fragrant Miss Kelly could ever be) wife of alcoholic Bing Crosby in The Country Girl than Garland in the role she was fated to play. Given her own struggles, only Judy could inhabit the role of starlet Esther Blodgett in such an all-consuming way – and, by the way, just how unlucky was James Mason to come up against Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront for Best Actor? Garland wasn’t helped by dreadful editing of A Star is Born, but perhaps Hollywood didn’t relish the spotlight turning inwards on itself and I can only echo a distinctly unimpressed Groucho Marx, who sent Garland a telegram: “Dear Judy, this is the biggest robbery since Brinks.”
8. Tony Curtis not nominated for Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
By 1957, after years of swords, tights and juvenile costume dramas, Tony Curtis’s time had come and he was now landing parts that stretched his not inconsiderable acting talents. His sole Oscar nomination for Best Actor would arrive the following year in Stanley Kramer’s anti-racism drama The Defiant Ones, and he was every bit as good in Some Like it Hot as Jack Lemmon, who was nominated – plus he had better legs than Lemmon.
However, this is Curtis’s greatest performance by far. As the reptilian Sidney Falco, the “cookie full of arsenic” press agent who will do anything to achieve his aims in Alexander Mackendrick’s devastating film noir, Curtis tapped hitherto unsuspected depths to give a stunning breakthrough performance that destroyed his matinee idol image for good. People now realised that Curtis could act and wasn’t just a pretty boy with a haircut named after him. Unfortunately, the Academy didn’t agree and Curtis wasn’t even nominated for best supporting actor, with Red Buttons winning for Sayanora. Yes, quite.
9. Raging Bull loses Best Film to Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Redford’s first directorial effort is an almost great study of the breakdown of a family unit after tragedy strikes, but Raging Bull is a certifiable classic, arguably the peak of Martin Scorsese’s considerable achievements. Just to rub salt in the wounds, Redford took the Best Director Oscar too, but Raging Bull’s visceral assault on the senses and influence will last as long as cinema itself. Evidently, the academy wasn’t too keen on Marty for long enough as Taxi Driver lost to Rocky in 1976 and his gangster masterpiece Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves in 1990. But hey, you won’t catch me complaining too much about that one as the success of Dances with Wolves provoked a revival of the western, and that is never a bad thing.
10. Titanic sweeps the board at the 1997 Awards
Nominated for 14 Oscars and winner of 11, including Best Film and Best Director, which should have gone to LA Confidential and Curtis Hanson, and Best Song and Best Score, which should have gone to... well, anything, really, rather than Celine Dion’s interminable warbling and James Horner’s clichéd score. Titanic’s success was surely a case of hype over substance. I’m not saying it’s a bad film, but give me the simple pleasures of 1958’s A Night to Remember any time.
11. Crash beats Brokeback Mountain for best picture (2005)
Even presenter Jack Nicholson seemed shocked when he announced Crash as the winner of Best Picture at the expense of the highly acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, which had lifted just about every other major best picture award going. Crash is a very decent movie but Ang Lee’s beautifully shot and hugely emotional love story of two Wyoming cowboys really should have won, but mysteriously lost out on the night.
12. Amy Adams and Annette Bening not nominated for Best Actress in 2017
With Meryl Streep taking her ubiquitous place among the runners and riders for her 20th – yes 20th – Oscar nomination, it would have been a real breath of fresh air if either or both of these fine actresses had been considered for note perfect performances. Particularly galling is Adams’s omission for Arrival as she was initially mistakenly included on the official Oscar website. As for Bening, who missed out for her moving performance in 20th Century Women, and has been nominated four times for Oscars, surely her time will come.
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