Why the past 25 years? Two reasons. First, before about 1985, any major controversial or undeserved Oscar moments worth knowing are widely known. Does anyone NOT know that at the 1942 ceremony “Citizen Kane” was unbelievably overlooked by the Oscars, except for “Best Screenplay”? Or that in 1951, the very good film “All About Eve” beat out the masterpiece “Sunset Blvd.” for most major awards? There’s a long string of these, from “Oliver!” triumphing over Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the triumph “Ordinary People” over “Raging Bull.” And all of these things are well-known, because most of the great films that are 25 years or older have come to be known as such. Kubrick’s films, Bergman’s films, Scorsese’s catalogue hasn’t remained because it won awards, and many that have won awards have faded away over time.
But the last 25 years has brought the rise many new movie trends, chief among them being massive Oscar campaigns, in which your movie can depend on loud, well-positioned dollars instead of talent and acclaim, and your film can still wind up with a boatload of statues.
What I didn’t want to do is create a list of deserving people who don’t happen to be my personal choice. Are you going to be the one to say “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Ghandi” didn’t deserve to win Best Picture? Are your feelings about the winner for Best Supporting Actress in 1989 (Geena Davis in “The Accidental Tourist”) really that strong? Do you really believe that Noah Baumbach (for “The Squid and the Whale”) deserved Best Original Screenplay at the 2006 Oscars over Paul Haggis (for “Crash”)? And if so, does it still ruin your life? It shouldn’t.
Many don’t think Roberto Benigni should have won Best Actor for “Life is Beautiful” in 1999, but it’s a great performance and I love that movie, so even though he’d have been my third choice that year, it’s still fine that he won. Most of us have moved on, because the sin was negligible. Instead my list is composed of those winners who, regardless of their fellow-nominees, were simply undeserving of an Oscar solely on their own merit (or demerits, as it were).
Here’s my list of The Top 5 Worst Oscar Winners of the Past 25 Years (note: the year referenced is the year of the ceremony, not the year the film came out):
5. Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, for “The Cider House Rules” (2000)
Here is a clear example of an Oscar campaign at work. Miramax, the studio behind the film, is notorious for slapping together the gaudiest campaigns for the least-deserving movies. Unfortunately for everyone, it took a few years for anyone to catch on. And so, somehow, Lasse Hallstrom’s mediocre-fest won two awards (the other was for Adapted Screenplay) and garnered nominations way out of proportion to its quality. Yes, but what about Michael Caine? He’s one our great actors. He was great in films before this one, he’s been great in films after this one, it’s just a shame that, through no fault of his own other than saying “Yes” to the project, he is not anywhere near great in this film (instead, see his other Oscar-winning performance in 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters”). His catch-phrase gives him a shred of humanity, but the film is such a tepid liberal morality trip, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
(Should Have Won: Tom Cruise for “Magnolia”)
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4. Best Adapted Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman, “A Beautiful Mind” (2002)
A full-blown Hollywood Drama in the most classic sense of the word, this was the big winner at the 2002 Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, all of which were acceptable winners, if not my first choice that year. But one award it didn’t deserve – and an annoying reminder of the Academy’s internal machinations – is Akiva Goldsman’s win for best Adapted Screenplay. The movie could not depend less on writing. It’s about the chemistry between Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly; the way director Ron Howard uses special effects to enhance seasonal shifts and render the mental state of the film’s protagonist, and the clunky, heart-warming, hopeful treatment of mental illness. None of these things involves the words written by Mr. Goldsman. His win was so the Academy could have a tent-pole for its ceremony. Knowing it was Denzel Washington’s “turn” to win Best Actor (for his very good performance in the very mediocre “Training Day” – a film for which, to show just how delusional the Academy can be, it awarded a Best Supporting Actor nomination to Ethan Hawke, who had both more screen-time than Washington and was the film’s clear protagonist). So with that award already seen as “given away” from the gold-pile of “A Beautiful Mind,” the Academy wanted to make sure it won some of the bigger awards, of which screenplay is one. (This same mentality was at work in 2008 when the Oscar for the same category went to that year’s tent-pole production, “No Country For Old Men,” a brilliant film, but not much of a written achievement since The Coen Brothers mostly just transcribed the novel.)
Finally, it’s worth noting the pedigree of Mr. Goldsman: “Batman Forever,” “Batman and Robin,” “A Time to Kill,” “Practical Magic,” “I, Robot” and “Cinderella Man.” Not much to write home about. Even when he is writing decent scripts (which isn’t often), he’s a functional writer, not an author. And now for a joke worthy of Goldsman, himself – Give back the Oscar Golds…man! See, now I hate myself.
(Should Have Won – Todd Field and Robert Festinger for “In the Bedroom”)
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3. Every Movie Nominated For an Oscar in 1986
Listen, it was bound to happen, it’s understandable. Not much good came out of the mid-198’s. Let’s fill our arms with “Back to the Future,” “Ran,” “Brazil,” and what the heck, we’ll grab “Witness” just for a good thriller, and let the rest go up in flames or down with the ship or however you like to think of it, so long as it’s gone for good and doesn’t come back. All right, we’ll let “Out of Africa” come too, for historical purposes and because I have a romantic thing for Meryl Streep that even I don’t understand. But it has to walk on its own, I’m not carrying it.
(Should Have Won: 1945, hell, I don’t know.)
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2. Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, “Dreamgirls” (2007)
The exact dimensions of Hudson ‘s awfulness are hard to measure. Everyone talks about her big song in the middle of the movie, and I went in expecting to be blown away. What I was, instead, was annoyed. Her performance is not “powerful” or “emotional,” it’s big in the laziest, least soulful ways that acting can fall flat on its face. She doesn’t sell the song, because she doesn’t play a character. Her performance doesn’t exist. A lot of people, I’m sure, expected the likes of Halle Berry or Cuba Gooding, Jr. or Charlize Theron to show up on this list. They’ve been the biggest butt of Oscar jokes for a while. Why? Those were all brilliant performances. They all showed that any actor can achieve greatness if given the right role. I would say the same thing about Hudson, except, of course, she isn’t an actor.
(Should Have Won: Rinko Kikuchi for “Babel”)
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1. Best Picture: “The English Patient” (1997)
By now, everyone knows that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often awards their biggest prize to the year’s biggest movie. It’s happened a lot, especially during the last 25 years. Sweepingly-epic melodramas are like Oscar buffets. This is the way that things have been and still are. And, to an extent, it’s understandable. These are the films that most clearly speak to a large number of people. So, again, I resign myself to this fact. Except when that sweepingly epic melodrama isn’t any damn good at all. Behold “The English Patient.” Let me tell you: I love love stories. I want them to take my breath away. I want to get wrapped up in them. I want them to make my heart ache. Anthony Minghella’s film does none of those things. It bores us with its tedious Mystery-Man plotline and drones on and on with a love story I didn’t buy or care about for one frame. All I know is, that episode of “Seinfeld” got it right. And the Academy’s face sure must have been red one year later when a little picture called “Titanic” came along and, for all its flaws, made good on every promise “The English Patient” squandered.
(Should Have Won: The Coen Brothers for “Fargo”)
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Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section.
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