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They Don’t Always Get it Wrong: The Best (And Worst) of Oscar

Written by: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K


Image My obsession with seeing every film ever nominated for an Academy Award led me to place Norbit in my Netflix queue within a few hours of this year’s Academy Award nominations.  Two days later as I sat watching it, two thoughts occurred to me: One, is this the most pathetic nomination ever? And two, is this the worst film ever nominated for an Academy Award?  Then I thought, I need to be certain before I answer these.

So I made a list of every category and went through year by year, trying to answer that question.  I also decided to check out how good a job the Academy has done at getting it right, and how badly have they snubbed various worthy contenders.  So, here you have it, a breakdown of the Academy by category and how good a job they’ve done.  For the best choices, I only use winners.  For the snubs, I only use non-nominees that I feel not only should have been nominated, but should have won.  The Academy goofed by not giving the Oscar to Citizen Kane (so it’s not a best choice), but at least had the sense to nominate it (so it’s not a snub).  For the worst, I’ve chosen nominees and winners (winners are in bold).

Best Animated Film:

best: the winners (especially Spirited Away)

worst: Shark Tale / Surf’s Up

snubs: waiting until 2001 / Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow / Tokyo Godfathers

Only entering it’s seventh year, the Animated Film category has done a fairly good job.  All of the winners have been solid, only two of the nominees have been sub-par and the only really solid films they missed were Sky Captain (which wasn’t on the list of eligible films in 2004, but really, if Beowulf is eligible, why wasn’t Sky Captain) and Tokyo Godfathers (but the lack of nominations for Godfathers, Millennium Actress and Paprika just shows they don’t get Satoshi Kon).

 

Best Foreign Film

best: Rashomon / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

worst: Madame Rosa / Tin Drum / Evil

snub: Seventh Seal

 

Several foreign films make my Top 20 list of all-time, but only two of those won the Oscar.  The only one on that list that I can confirm was submitted by its country and was not nominated is The Seventh Seal.  Madame Rosa and Tin  Drum are weak films that people give more weight to because of dealing with the Holocaust.  Madame Rosa is especially embarrassing as a winner given that they passed up the chance to give an Oscar to Luis Bunuel for his final film (That Obscure Object of Desire).  Evil is not a bad film, but simply the only truly mediocre nominee of the last twenty years.

 

Best Original Song

Best: Wizard of Oz / Pinocchio / Song of the South / Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Worst:  Kotch / Slipper and the Rose / Norma Rae / Beverly Hills Cop II / Beethoven’s 2nd

snubs: The Graduate (“Mrs. Robinson”) / all songs from Help and A Hard Day’s Night

 

Of course the four best choices need no justification.  They are, after all, “Over the Rainbow”, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Da” and “Moon River”.  The snubs are hard to confirm, as not only were they not nominated, they weren’t even longlisted on the long list of 10 the Academy made in the sixties available in Academy records.  As for the worst, well, we have some highly forgettable songs.  Bob Seger has pretty much disowned “Shakedown” (from Beverly Hills Cop II) as his worst song, Norma Rae won the Oscar for Best Song in spite of competing against “The Rainbow Connection” (from the Muppet Movie) and the Academy nominated the horrid “The Day I Fall in Love” from Beethoven’s 2nd when Danny Elfman had the wonderful eligible songs from Nightmare Before Christmas and the Golden Globes had the sense to nominate U2’s “Stay” from Faraway, So Close and Sinead O’Connor’s wonderful “Thief of My Heart” from In the Name of the Father (written by Bono).

 

Best Makeup

Best: Bram Stoker’s Dracula / Fellowship of the Ring

Worst: waiting until 1981 / Mrs. Doubtfire / Click / Norbit

snubs: Princess Bride / Dangerous Liaisons / Interview with the Vampire

 

For the most part, the Makeup branch has acquitted themselves.  They have chosen some great makeup jobs.  Except with their idiotic thought that fat suits deserve awards, they have done well.  Their worst mistake was waiting until 1981, after The Elephant Man to finally establish an award.

 

Best Sound Effects Editing

Best: The Right Stuff / The Hunt for Red October

Worst: Braveheart / Eraser

Snubs: Heat / Fellowship of the Ring / Return of the King / Aviator / Casino Royale

            The muddled noise of Braveheart was better than the Sound Editing on Heat?  Two Towers deserved an Oscar, but Fellowship and King didn’t deserve nominations?  Casino Royale’s brilliant crisp sound wasn’t worthy?  Hard to understand.

 

Best Visual Effects

Best:  2001 / Star Wars / Alien / Jurassic Park / all three Lord of the Rings

Worst:  Stuart Little / Gladiator / Poseidon

Snubs:  Heavenly Creatures / Fifth Element / The Fountain

            It’s hard to pick on the Academy for early choices when there wasn’t much in the way of visual effects.  The movies I’ve chosen as the best are ones that push the boundary to a new high.  For the most part, the Academy has done well, with a few recent slip ups (how does Poseidon get nominated for visual effects that were a rehash of Perfect Storm?).  If they only had the sense to nominate the amazing effects in Fifth Element or the visionary new world of Heavenly Creatures, or the old fashioned brilliance at use in The Fountain.

 

Best Costume Design

Best:  Dr Zhivago / Barry Lyndon / Amadeus / Ran / Last Emperor / Dangerous Liaisons / Memoirs of a Geisha

Worst:  Facts of Life / Airport / Airport 77 / Swarm / Harlem Nights / 102 Dalmatians

Snubs:  Lawrence of Arabia / Tom Jones / Interview with the Vampire

            Facts of Life was the first sign that too few black and white films were being made, even though it took seven more years before they did away with the black and white / color splits for Costume Design, Art Direction and Cinematography.  Airport 77, Swarm and 102 Dalmatians were bizarre choices in weak years.  Hard to believe, looking back now that among Lawrence and Tom Jones’ double-digit nominations were nothing for costumes.  Interview is the worst snub, as they not only had period costumes, but from two different countries and two different centuries.

 

Best Art Direction:

Best:  Great Expectations / Sunset Boulevard / Dr Zhivago / Amadeus / Last Emperor / Aviator

Worst:  Earthquake / Airport 77

Snubs:  Godfather

            The category that the Academy has done the best with, it’s hard to find unworthy nominees.  The only major goof was not nominating The Godfather for its brilliant sets.  The best of these are truly the best: 19th century London, a haunting, aging mansion, an ice palace, 18th century Vienna, a Forbidden City, the mansions of a genius.

 

Best Sound:

Best:  Jaws / Star Wars / Raiders of the Lost Ark / Right Stuff / Last of the Mohicans / Return of the King / King Kong

Worst:  Life of Emile Zola / Song of Bernadette / Johnny Belinda / Sayonara / The Apartment / Becket / Tootsie / Terms of Endearment / Shakespeare in Love

Snubs:  Bridge on the River Kwai / 2001 / Fight Club / Casino Royale

            The best of these are truly the best, where the sound becomes part of the experience.  It’s why Star Wars made such a compelling radio drama.  The snubs have the same feeling, as you can listen to these films without the dialogue and still be amazed.  The worst of these are nomination patters.  All of them are Best Picture nominees, all with double digits in nominations.  None of them were really worthy of the nomination.

 

Best Original Score

Best:  Wizard of Oz / Lawrence of Arabia / Jaws / Star Wars / Fellowship of the Ring / Return of the King / Brokeback Mountain

Worst:  Fame / Home Alone / Shine

Snubs:  Laura / North by Northwest / Great Escape / The Good, the Bad and the Ugly / Once Upon a Time in the West / The Princess Bride / Glory / Last of the Mohicans

            The best really need no introduction.  They are for all time.  Fame taking home an Oscar over The Empire Strikes Back or The Elephant Man is silly.  Home Alone got in on John Williams’ reputation alone (I’m his biggest champion, but it doesn’t belong) and Shine got in on the strength of Rachmaninoff.  The snubs are all time greats, the scores that have been long remembered after the actual nominees have been forgotten.

 

Best Cinematography

Best:  The Third Man / Lawrence of Arabia / Dr Zhivago / Bonnie and Clyde / Cries and Whispers / Barry Lyndon / Apocalypse Now / Glory / Fellowship of the Ring/ The Aviator

Worst:  Three Coins in the Fountain / Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice / Blaze / Girl with a Pearl Earring

Snubs:  Touch of Evil / 2001 / Godfather / GoodFellas / Last of the Mohicans / Ed Wood / Return of the King

            The Academy has thrown a mix of awarding the best and failing to nominate them.  The most irritating of the worst nominees is Girl with a Pearl Earring, nominated over Return of the King, denying it a record 12 Oscars.  How many of the most famous shots in history have failed to be nominated?  The opening shot of Touch of Evil, the brilliant shots of the cavemen, the final shots of Michael Corleone bathed half in darkness, the entrance to the Copacabana, the shot of the beacons being lit.

 

Best Editing

Best:  Bridge on the River Kwai / French Connection / Jaws / Raging Bull / Raiders of the Lost Ark / Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Worst:  10 Commandments / The Alamo / Mutiny on the Bounty / Cleopatra / Braveheart / Titanic

Snubs:  2001 / Star Trek II / Blood Simple / Lone Star

            The idea of editing is to make the film more watchable, to make it flow quicker and tighter.  The best of these films do exactly that, using editing as an important part of the process.  The worst of these are absurd choices.  To nominate a bloated epic that needs to be thirty minutes shorter (or even an hour in some cases) for it’s editing is pathetic.  Given that the Academy had the good sense not to nominate Titanic for it’s pathetic script, it’s the one award that is unjustifiable.  On the other hand, the snubs all do amazing things.  One of the best edited scenes in film history is the four minutes in Star Trek II after the Genesis device is activated (four minutes in screen time as well, brilliantly done), and the entire point of Lone Star is how beautifully it moves back and forth between time, especially the scene at the bridge.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Best:  Citizen Kane / Sunset Boulevard / Apartment / Producers / Chinatown / Annie Hall / Pulp Fiction / Almost Famous / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Worst:  How the West Was Won / Love Story / Sleepless in Seattle / Braveheart

Snubs:  Modern Times / Sullivan’s Travels / A Perfect World

            Interesting how the Academy passed up Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown, three of the greatest films ever made, for Best Picture, but had the good sense to award the brilliant writing for all three.  And interesting how in the middle of writing this, Love Story and Sleepless in Seattle both showed up on a most overrated list of romantic films.  Braveheart’s script is not only laughably bad, but all of Scotland should have protested its distorted, badly researched view of history.  As for the snubs, well, Chaplin never got the love he deserved and Preston Sturges got a lot of nominations (and one Oscar), but a complete snub for his best film.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Best:  Casablanca / Treasure of the Sierra Madre / Godfather / All the President’s Men

Worst:  Gone with the Wind / Gigi / Airport / Fellini’s Casanova / Out of Africa / Fatal Attraction / Sling Blade / Borat

Snubs:  Petrified Forest / Touch of Evil / Chimes at Midnight / Princess Bride

            The best of these scripts need no explanation.  They exist on a level all their own.  The worst of them are full of clichés, badly written characters, ridiculous dialogue, tepid melodrama and bloated stories.  Of the four snubs, though I rank all four of them among the greatest films ever made, they earned one nomination (for Song) between them.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Best: Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) / Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) / Shirley Jones (Elmer Gantry) / Diane Wiest (Bullets over Broadway) / Cate Blanchett (The Aviator)

Worst:  Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) / Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny)

Snubs: Frances Fisher (Unforgiven) / Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

            Probably the category that the Academy has done the best with over the years.  Not very many bad choices (though Tomei’s choice was so ridiculous and unexpected that it spawned an urban legend that Jack Palance had called out the wrong name).  Many excellent choices (I could have named several more with no problem).  And the only two snubs I could come up with aren’t particularly glaring.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Best:  Walter Huston (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) / Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire) / Robert DeNiro (Godfather Part II) / Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) / Denzel Washington (Glory) / Martin Landau (Ed Wood)

Worst:  Brandon de Wilde (Shane) / Burl Ives (Big Country) / Mikhail Baryshnikov (Turning Point) / Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer) / Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator)

Snubs: Orson Welles (The Third Man) / Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) / Sterling Hayden (Dr Strangelove) / Anthony Hopkins (Lion in Winter) / Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West) / Mandy Patinken (Princess Bride) / Bill Murray (Rushmore) / Michael Sheen (The Queen)

            Perhaps the best of the best with the winners (I had to cut half my original list because it was just too long).  Of the worst, the first problem is getting the wrong film (Burl Ives winning for Big Country when he should been nominated for Cat, Joaquin Phoenix nominated for the worst line ever on film (“I am vexed.  I am most vexed.”) for Gladiator when he should have been nominated for Quills), and young male actors who are really irritating but somehow get nominated.

            I feel the need to give a separate paragraph to the snubs.  In this category my choice seems to either win the Oscar or fail to get nominated and I’m stunned at the number of brilliant performances that didn’t get nominated, many of them by major actors.

 

Best Actress

Best:  Janet Gaynor (Sunrise) / Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind) / Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire) / Elizabeth Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) / Katherine Hepburn (Lion in Winter) / Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) / Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice) / Frances McDormand (Fargo) / Helen Mirren (The Queen)

Worst:  Loretta Young (Farmer’s Daughter) / Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)

Snubs:  Bette Davis (Of Human Bondage) / Bette Davis (Petrified Forest) / Christine Lahti (Running on Empty)

            Another list of the best that had to be pared down.  Like with Supporting Actress, they rarely have completely snubbed the best performance.  On the other hand, when they gave the Oscar to Judy Holliday, they passed over possibly the three greatest lead performances in film history: Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve.  Oddly enough, the Academy gave Bette Davis two Oscars, but didn’t her give one for her best and didn’t nominate her for her next two best.

 

Best Actor

Best:  James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) / Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront) / Alec Guinness (Bridge on the River Kwai) / Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull) / Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot) / Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs)

Worst:  Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou) / Cliff Robertson (Charly) / Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman) / Denzel Washington (Training Day)

Snubs:  Humphrey Bogart (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) / Orson Welles (Touch of Evil) / William Holden (Wild Bunch) / Johnny Depp (Ed Wood) / Ian Holm (Sweet Hereafter)

            The worst of these are like a catalog of what the Academy does wrong.  Giving the wrong person the Oscar, thus causing a makeup Oscar later on (Marvin over Steiger, thus Steiger winning it two years later), a “hey he can act, so we’ll give him an Oscar” (Robertson), the career Oscar (Pacino), and the makeup Oscar (Washington for The Hurricane).  The best of these are the best of film.  The snubs are also the best of film.  None of my list of the truly greatest performances are on either the best or the snubs because they got nominated but didn’t win (Welles in Citizen Kane, Bogart in Casablanca, Nicholson in Chinatown, Brando in Streetcar, O’Toole in Lawrence).

 

Best Director

note:  Because Best Director is so closely tied with Best Picture, I did this category differently.  The worst are from films nominated for Director but not Picture.  The best are films that won Director (deservedly) but not Picture.  The snubs are films that were nominated for Picture, but not Director.

Best:  Ford (The Informer) / Huston (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) / Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan)

Worst:  Wise (I Want to Live) / Dassin (Never on Sunday) / Perry (David and Lisa) / Fellini (Satyricon)

Snubs:  Curtiz (Adventures of Robin Hood) / Fleming (Wizard of Oz) / Huston (Maltese Falcon) / Spielberg (Jaws) / Scorsese (Taxi Driver) / A Lee (Sense and Sensibility) / Jackson (Two Towers)

            The best of the best is Spielberg because I agree with giving him the Oscar and agree with not giving it Best Picture.  The worst of the worst is Fellini, who continued to get rewarded for pathetic self-indulgence in his later films.  The most egregious of the snubs are Spielberg and Scorsese for making true directorial visions and not getting the credit and Ang Lee, whose directorial snub probably cost Sense the Oscar for Best Picture.

 

Best Picture

Best:  Casablanca / Bridge on the River Kwai / The Godfather / Return of the King

            Best Picture is a tricky thing.  Of my highest ranked films of the 4500+ I’ve seen, four of them actually won Best Picture.  Rounding out my top five for the winners would be Lawrence of Arabia followed by Schindler’s List, On the Waterfront and Annie Hall.  Those are, quite simply, the best of the best.  The best slate of nominees is 2002, where Chicago was a worthy winner and is still the weakest of the nominees, followed closely by this year, the only other year where every nominee is a four star film.

 

Worst:  Braveheart (worst winner) / Cleopatra / Airport / Love Story (worst nominees)

            Braveheart is an appalling choice.  Badly directed, bad acting, incredibly bad writing (bad history as well).  Cleopatra will be discussed in more detail later.  Airport and Love Story are the combo plate – the only time since the Academy dropped to 5 Best Picture nominees (in 1944) that they nominated two bad films.  I also tallied up the totals for each year, with my ranking, and they make 1970 the third worst slate of nominees (kept above the bottom by the strength of M*A*S*H), the second worst being 1956 (the only year I don’t give four stars to any of the nominees) and the worst being 1963 (one excellent film (Tom Jones) three mediocre and one truly bad.

 

Snubs:  Touch of Evil / The Princess Bride

            Of my top 20 films of all time, four won Best Picture.  Two weren’t nominated (Rashomon, The Seventh Seal), but they’re both foreign films.  Two others weren’t nominated (my snubs).  The other 12 all got nominated for Best Picture.  It isn’t until my second 20 that more excellent films that failed to get nominations pop up (Paths of Glory, Modern Times, Third Man, Wild Bunch, Lone Star, Ed Wood).  The Academy has done a pretty good job of at least recognizing the pinnacle of filmmaking, even if they don’t always award it.  For the record, those 12 films nominated for Best Picture, but not winning, that make my top 20 are: Grand Illusion, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dr. Strangelove, Cries and Whispers, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, GoodFellas, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Fellowship of the Ring.

 

THE WORST OF THE WORST:

Win:  Titanic (Best Editing)

            This is truly atrocious.  Way, way too long and badly written, in a year where L.A. Confidential showed you how to put a picture together, to give this an Oscar for Editing is embarrassing.  Titanic (unlike, say Braveheart) is not a bad film, and most of the production aspects are phenomenal.  But to award the editing is just wrong.

 

Nomination:  Cleopatra (Best Picture)

            In the end, Norbit’s nomination is not the worst.  Cleopatra tops that honor.  Not only is it a truly bad film, badly written, badly directed, with horrendous performances from its two stars, who, three years later, would give two of the greatest performances in film history.  It also almost sank Twentieth Century Fox (and probably would have had The Sound of Music not saved it two years later) with the amount of money it lost.  It also took the nomination from Hud, which was a first rate film with nominations for acting, directing and writing, yet, not for the film itself.

 

Worst Snub:  Touch of Evil

            As stated above, all but 4 of my top 20 were nominated for Best Picture.  Rashomon won Best Foreign Film and The Princess Bride was nominated for Best Song.  The Seventh Seal was a foreign film that wouldn’t have been expected to get much notice.  Touch of Evil, on the other hand, is the biggest snub of the bunch.  It tops a truly distinguished list (that includes Modern Times and Paths of Glory) of the best English language films not nominated for a single Academy Award.  Not one.

 

Worst Film:  Norbit

            There have been 2938 Oscar nominated feature films.  I have seen 2047 of them.  Most of what I’m missing are films from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s that got technical nominations, plus a lot of Foreign films.  Of those 2047 films, only three of them have managed to get a ½ star rating from me, and bizarrely enough, I have seen all three of those in the last month:  Norbit, The Swarm and Krakatoa East of Java.  Of those three, Norbit just slides below, as the worst film ever nominated for an Academy Award.  It stuns me that they would pass over Sweeney Todd’s brilliant makeup to nominate a historically bad film with, what is essentially, a fat suit.  And didn’t this film maybe cost Eddie Murphy the Oscar last year?

 

For the most part, the Academy does a fine job.  In a lot of the categories, while I might not agree with the winners, they are a worthy selection.  Most of their nominees are worth nominating.  But every now and then the Academy really drops the ball.  And boy, oh boy, did they ever chunk it this year by nominating Norbit.

Author: Erik Beck, Special to CC2K

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