It seems every Oscar ceremony has its share of controversial winners and losers. Looking at the show’s 91-year run it’s actually quite shocking how many divisive picks have been made by the Academy with some simply being considered bad choices while others were frowned upon as an example of the Academy’s bias or unwillingness to evolve with the times. With all of the talk about “Green Book” over the past few days in the wake of its Best Picture win I took a look at some of the most talked about Oscar winners from year’s past that earned attention for the wrong reasons. These are my picks for the Top 10 Controversial Oscar Winners.
Now one could say almost every nominee could make this list because there’s always someone disappointed by the result of any given award. But today’s list isn’t focusing on those films that people liked but lost the Oscar due to superior competition nor will I be examining losses that were looked down upon mostly in hindsight as alternate winners because established classics. No, for this list I’m looking at Oscar winners in any category of the ceremony that disappointed at the time of their being honored whether it was because the winner was an inferior movie to the competition, drew the ire of critics and/or audiences for their content, or, in the case of actors, were considered wrong or odd picks for their awards either due again to superior competition or their personal conduct outside of film.
In a way this is also a makeup countdown from one of my worst top 10s ever. Some time ago I looked at what I considered the biggest Oscar upsets and, due to poor research, I was not very proud of that list. So I hope this time I get it right, or at least show a little more credibility than I did in the prior list. Judging by these decisions I’m about to discuss I bet the Academy sometimes wishes it could do the same.
What do you think was the most controversial winner in Oscar history? Did you agree with “Green Book” winning Best Picture? Let me know in the comments below.
10. “Ordinary People” Wins Best Picture, the 53rd Academy Awards
Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” is far from a bad film. It won six of its eight nominations at the 53rd Academy Awards including Best Picture and honestly it’s hard for anyone to deny it was a deserving movie had it not been pitted against two films even critics of the time new would live on in legend. “Ordinary People” defeated both “The Elephant Man” and “Raging Bull” for the night’s top honor despite “Raging Bull” being seen as the favorite and most deserving film and being named an instant classic upon its release by numerous prominent critics. “Raging Bull” was widely considered the most deserving film and it was one of many cases where Martin Scorsese lost a much deserved statuette to what many believe was inferior competition. It’s not that “Ordinary People” was a bad film. Most of the controversy that surrounded its win was simply that it wasn’t the BEST film and that sentiment has lasted to this very day. While it wasn’t the first time future classics were denied best picture (“Citizen Kane” is among the most infamous losers in the show’s history) but “Raging Bulls” loss felt and still feels like one of the most egregious denials of greatness to a cinematic work of art. It’s not the only time Martin Scorsese lost in controversial fashion either…in fact…
9. “Dances with Wolves” Wins Best Picture, the 63rd Academy Awards
The white savior narrative has been done to death in films and was far from an unknown concept when “Dance with Wolves” won Best Picture at the 63rd Academy Awards. While it was critically and financially successful a lot of the criticism it did get pointed towards its historical inaccuracies and liberties, especially from Native Americans, not to mention the story’s dependence on a white man to protect the Sioux tribe. The representation of the Sioux tribe itself was also criticized. With all of this in mind it still went on to win numerous awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, but it defeated a far superior film in “Goodfellas” which many thought was the most deserving nominee for its more accurate handling of its subject matter. It was also expected to finally break the losing streak of Director Martin Scorsese who would have to wait 16 years to earn the Best Director award in his sixth nomination. “Goodfellas” went on to become the biggest classic of the nominated films in 1990 making this a controversial loss both in the moment and in hindsight
8. “Green Book” Wins Best Picture, the 91st Academy Awards
The most recent winner and the inspiration for this countdown, “Green Book” has immediately become a controversial and underwhelming Best Picture winner with many calling it the “worst Best Picture winner since ‘Crash’” (more on that later). “Green Book” was among the favorites going into the ceremony due primary to its success at the Golden Globes, but it wasn’t the most deserving in the eyes of many who called it derivative of previous Best Picture winner “Driving Miss Daisy” and accused it of trying to “make white people feel better”. Not to mention its win prevented two worthy candidates from take home the night’s biggest crown. Spike Lee’s arguably more “woke” biopic “BlacKkKlansman” and Best Director winner Alfonzo Cuaron’s Mexican film “Roma” were considered better options. “Roma” would have been the first foreign language film to win the Oscar while “BlacKkKlansman” seemed to touch on the race issues of America more effectively than “Green Book”. In the end while “Green Book” is a very good film it seemed like too easy and safe an option for the Academy which has made it one of the most debatable winners in recent memory.
7. “Driving Miss Daisy” Wins Best Picture, 62nd Academy Awards
While we’re at it let’s talk about “Driving Miss Daisy”. It’s a very good movie, but its win for Best Picture was no less controversial than “Green Book’s”. Hell, it was even more divisive. While “Green Book” was simply accused of watering down the racial subtext, “Driving Miss Daisy” was accused of having good intentions but not being good enough to handle them properly. In fact there were critics who denounced its win on the ground that it actually reinforced the idea of slavery. Then you consider the competition. It won Best Picture over “Dead Poets Society”, “Born on the Fourth of July” and “My Left Foot”, all films that handled their themes with more subtlety in the eyes of a lot of movie fans. Oliver Stone even won Best Director for “Born of the Fourth of July” while Bruce Beresford, who led “Driving Miss Daisy”, was snubbed from that category. The most notable criticism of the win however is one that bled over to “Green Book’s” victory as Spike Lee’s arguably more significant “Do the Right Thing” was not even nominated for Best Picture prompting Lee to hold a decade’s long grudge against “Driving Miss Daisy” that he referenced after losing to “Green Book” saying “every time someone is driving somebody I lose”.
6. Casey Affleck Wins Best Actor, 89th Academy Awards
Sometimes it’s not the quality of the performance that makes a win controversial, but the quality of the person. Casey Affleck won’t be the last person on this list who was seen as a poor choice simply because it was in poor taste to recognize him. Affleck won Best Actor for his incredible performance in “Manchester by the Sea” in 2017 but his win was overshadowed by his personal life as Affleck had been accused of sexual harassment in 2010. While Affleck denied the accusations, that didn’t stop viewers from holding a grudge. It all came to a head at the Oscars when, as expected, he won the Best Actor award and presenter Brie Larson, who won Best Actress the year before for portraying a sexual abuse survivor in “Room”, simply handed Affleck the trophy and refused to clap. Viewers follow Larson’s lead by accusing the Academy of overlooking Affleck’s sexual abuse allegations while others, myself included admittedly, argued that the awards are not determined by one’s personal life but by the quality of their work on screen. Affleck dropped out of the 2018 awards where he was slated to present as the reigning Best Actor to avoid further controversy.
5. “Avatar” Wins Best Cinematography, 82nd Academy Awards
“Avatar” could have been an even more controversial winner had it earned the Best Director and Best Picture awards at the 2010 Oscars, but the revolutionary science fiction picture still managed to stir controversy with a win for Best Cinematography. Being filled with CGI environments, “Avatar” started the debate of whether or not a film containing so much computer generated scenery should even be in the running for a cinematography award. “Avatar” also won for Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction which many felt were the more deserving recognitions of its visual aesthetic. “Avatar’s” win led to a large-scale debate among industry professionals about how cinematography should be recognized going forward and how much CGI should be considered when not only picking a winner, but picking the nominees as well. In the end this is one controversy that did not lead to much change as several CGI-laden products, including the animated “Hugo”, “Life of Pi”, and “Gravity”, went on to win the award over the next decade adding to but never resolving the debate that all started with “Avatar”.
4. Marissa Tomei Wins Best Supporting Actress, 65th Academy Awards
Every year the Oscars seem to include some obvious “not going to win” nominees that serve as more honorable mentions than true contenders. For the 65th Academy Awards Marissa Tomei looked like she was one such nominee when she got a nod for her role in “My Cousin Vinny”. She didn’t even receive a Golden Globe nomination. Not to mention she was up against some heavy competition composed of Judy David, Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and that year’s Golden Globe winner Joan Plowright. How could she win? And yet, she did. She not only won as a newer name than her competition, she won for a comedy which led many to suspect that there was a mistake and that Jack Palance, who presented the award, was drunk and/or misread when he presented the statuette. While this rumor has sense been disproven it hasn’t stopped theories from flying and even led to shows like “Family Guy” poking fun at the situation helping it live on as not only one of the show’s most famous underdog stories, but one of its most infamous upsets as well.
3. Roman Polanski Wins Best Director, 75th Academy Awards
I’ve already shown that sometimes it’s not the quality of the work but the quality of the person that causes controversy with the Oscars. At no other time was that more true than when Roman Polanski won for Best Director in 2002 for “The Pianist”. In fact the 2002 show had several controversies associated with it, but Polanski’s honor was by far the its most talked about controversy. At the time of the show’s airing Polanski was a fugitive from justice having fled the United States after being charged with sexual abuse after having unlawful sexual interactions with a minor. Polanski wasn’t able to accept the award in person knowing he would be taken into custody on U.S. soil which made for an awkward moment that overshadowed the brilliance that was “The Pianist”. The odd thing was that Polanski received a standing ovation from his peers when his name was announced which viewers saw as a disgusting display by the Hollywood elite of won of their own who had commuted a despicable crime. The Academy eventually voted to expel Polanski from its membership in 2018, but the damage had long been done.
2. “Shakespeare in Love” Wins Best Picture, 71st Academy Awards
“Shakespeare in Love” fits the Academy well. Its artistic and stylish presentation is typical of the kinds of films voters tend to appreciate. But just because it’s a good film doesn’t mean it was the most deserving. In any other year a movie like “Shakespeare in Love” winning might not have been so disappointing or surprising, but in 1999 it dominated the Oscars with seven wins out of thirteen nominations including the coveted Best Picture award. The problem was that it defeated one of the most legendary war films ever made, “Saving Private Ryan”. After Steven Spielberg won the Best Director award many thought “Saving Private Ryan” was on its way to earning the Academy’s top honor. It wasn’t meant to be however as “Shakespeare in Love” took the prize while “Saving Private Ryan” became an instant classic and is today considered one of the greatest war movies ever made. While “Shakespeare in Love’s” win wasn’t an upset victory per say considering it’s success in other categories, it’s still considered to be one of the most underwhelming winners in Oscar history and even back in 1999 critics knew the Academy got it wrong.
1. “Crash” Wins Best Picture, 78th Academy Awards
When you talk about Oscar disappointments the first thing that comes to a lot of people’s mind is “Crash”. “Crash” is in a special group of only two films to win Best Picture without being nominated for a Golden Globe but what really makes it stand out is the film it beat, “Brokeback Mountain”. While Ang Lee started this list for a controversial win, his Best Director win for the drama about two gay cowboys at the 78th Oscars was celebrated and many believed “Brokeback Mountain” was the most deserving film to win Best Picture. What could have been a worthy opportunity for the Academy to be progressive in its voting instead saw them deny “Brokeback Mountain” and honor “Crash” which also touched on social themes and was considered a “safe” alternative for Academy voters. It was clearly an attempt at compromise to allow the Academy to embrace liberal thinking while also allowing the conservative voters to avoid supporting a film about homosexuality. To this day “Crash” remains one of the most infamous Best Picture winners ever, not only representing a wrong decision but one that many still today, over a decade later, use to exemplify the Academy’s unwillingness to overlook their own bias for the sake of deserving art.