Greatest upsets in Oscar history






































1942 — How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane

Don’t get me wrong, How Green Was My Valley is a wonderful movie (especially if you have a soft spot for epics about Welsh mining villages…well, who doesn’t?). And John Ford belongs on anyone’s Mt. Rushmore of great directors. But it’s no Citizen Kane. It isn’t now and it wasn’t then. This was pure Old Hollywood politics: the calcified establishment boys’ club teaching the brash upstart, Orson Welles, a lesson. It’s the Academy that wouldn’t wind up looking foolish in the eyes of history. —Chris Nashawaty 

1975 — Art Carney wins Best Actor for Harry and Tonto

The Best Actor class of 1974 featured a lineup to rival the 1927 Yankees. Dustin Hoffman for Lenny. Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express. And then the two best performances of the year (maybe even the two best performances of the decade): Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II. So naturally, the statuette went to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto, a perfectly fine road trip movie about a man and his cat. All of the others would be nominated again. Some would win. But this was the year when the fifth-best contender won. —CN

1993 — Marisa Tomei wins Best Supporting Actress 

Her bangs were as big as her accent; her bodysuits were gloriously floral; her biological clock was tickin.like.this. Technically, there’s nothing not to love about Tomei’s performance as Joe Pesci’s spandexed fiancée in My Cousin Vinny; give her all the People’s Choice Awards! But her win over a veritable Mount Rushmore of class actresses — Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson — is still shocking, 25-plus years later. In the immortal words of another famous Pesci role, “Do I amuse you, Academy?” —Leah Greenblatt

1995 — Forrest Gump tops Pulp Fiction
 

The great and the good love Forrest Gump: It’s a heartwarming, life-affirming movie with enough pull quotes to fill a daily desk calendar. But choosing Robert Zemeckis’ sweetly broad sentimentality over the truly electric sui generis jolt of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in both the Best Picture and Director categories? That’s the depressing definition of a safety pick. —LG

1974 — ‘The Way We Were’ is deemed a better song than ‘Live and Let Die’

Unsurprisingly, the ’70s were not exactly peak times for this category (there’s more than one very good reason to banish “You Light Up My Life” to the forever dustbin of history). But surely we could have done better than to award Streisand’s I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-buttah schmaltz over McCartney’s thunderous, boogieing Bond theme. —LG

1940 — And the winner is…Robert Donat? 

1939 has been called (more than once) the Greatest Year in Hollywood History. The performances weren’t bad either. Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, to name a few. All were nominated. None of them won. That honor would go to Robert Donat for the pre-war weepie Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Frankly, my dear, this was nuts. —CN

1999 — Gwyneth Paltrow wins Best Actress over Cate Blanchett

Ah, Gwyneth, with your tears and your diamonds and your pink princess dress; yes, you did good in Shakespeare in Love. But you are no Cate Blanchett, so fantastically layered and irascible as no man’s Elizabeth.(Fernanda Montenegro and Emily Watson, you deserved it, too; Meryl Streep, we knew we’d catch you on the flipside.) —LG

1991 — Kevin Costner wins Best Director over Goodfellas‘ Martin Scorsese

Obscenely, Scorsese would have to wait another 16 years for his very first Best Director prize, for The Departed. But hey, go ahead and give it to Costner for Dances With Wolves; he worked hard on that handlebar mustache. —LG

1993 — Al Pacino wins Best Actor for one of his least deserving films

Let’s be clear: Al Pacino deserves to have an Oscar in virtually every room of his home. Instead he has just one — and it’s for the absolutely wrong movie. Scent of a Woman is schmaltzy, overblown garbage. This was a make-good award, plain and simple — reparations for past snubs. In a just world (and one would never call the Oscars a just world), Clint Eastwood would have walked away with it for Unforgiven. —CN

1977 — Underdog Rocky wins Best (Feel-Good) Picture

I adore Rocky. But can you really tell me with a straight face that it’s a better film than All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver? That’s just baloney. This feels like the Academy wanting to be done with Watergate, Vietnam, and the bad vibes of the ’70s and putting on a smiley face. Maybe Rocky was the movie that the nation needed at that moment, but Travis Bickle, Howard Beale, and Woodward and Bernstein are forever. —CN

2005 — And the Best Picture goes to…Crash

There’s almost no need to keep dumping on Crash; it’s easily one of the most reviled Best Picture winners of the modern era. But this is just your annual reminder that Paul Haggis’ self-righteous bromides on race, class, and coincidence in L.A. beat out a murderers’ row of truly superior films: Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck. —LG

1982 — Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire definitely deserved best slo-mo running scene

Hugh Hudson’s film about the 1924 Olympics is a rousing story with a very memorable scene of athletes running on the beach in slow motion to the electronic muzak of Vangelis. But it’s also the epitome of a certain strain of middle-brow period dramas that the Academy ate up with a spoon in the ’80s (see: Out of Africa, Gandhi). Nowadays, it seems criminal that neither Warren Beatty’s wildly ambitious — and wildly unfashionable — epic Reds nor Steven Spielberg’s rollicking, perfectly engineered popcorn adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark won the top honor. Beatty would snag Best Director and Spielberg would walk off with the box-office spoils, but this one still smarts. —CN 

1994 — Tommy Lee Jones wins Best Supporting Actor over Ralph Fiennes

Tommy Lee Jones is very cool in The Fugitive; he gives some very fine speeches. But he also seems to be playing one more variation, more or less, on Tommy Lee Jones: Calm, collected, supremely capable. Ralph Fiennes’ performance as a conflicted Nazi officer in Schindler’s List was something else: An utter monster, but an unforgettably human one, drunk on power, madness, and his own delusion. —LG

1955 — Grace Kelly wins Best Actress for the wrong movie; Judy Garland loses for the right one

Grace Kelly starred in two Hitchcock movies in 1954 (Dial M for Murder and Rear Window). Winning Best Actress for either of those performances would have made more sense than the movie she was actually nominated for: The Country Girl. Winning for that film makes even less sense. Especially considering that Kelly went up against Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. There’s no competition there. Let’s just hope that Lady Gaga doesn’t read this before this year’s Oscars. —CN

1953 — The Greatest Show on Earth wins Best Picture over High Noon

Cecil B. DeMille’s three-ring groaner, The Greatest Show on Earth, stars Charlton Heston as a granite-jawed circus manager lording over a menagerie of trapeze artists, lion tamers, and one sad-eyed clown named Buttons. It’s big and bright and busy…and there isn’t an honest moment in it. So, of course, it won Best Picture over High Noon. —CN

2010 — The King’s Speech beats The Social Network for Best Picture

Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech feels more like the Best Picture winner of 1983 than 2010. David Fincher’s The Social Network, on the other hand, was a movie of its moment. Maybe the movie of its moment. Hollywood, once again, was years behind the curve. —CN

2002 — Jim Broadbent wins Best Actor over Ben Kingsley as Don f—‘in Logan?!

No one will ever convince me that there was a better male acting performance in 2002 than Ben Kingsley as the chrome-domed, hair-trigger Cockney psycho Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Don’t even try. It’s pointless. —CN

2014 — Birdman beats out Boyhood for Best Picture

Birdman is a bravura feat, and a deserving-enough winner in most any year. But its clever filmmaking tricks pale next to the spirit, storytelling, and sheer gorgeous humanity of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s time-jumping, heartbreaking love letter to one boy’s Texas adolescence. —LG

2016 — Emma Stone wins Best Actress for La La Land 

Stone’s win wasn’t a surprise; she was on rails for it from the Globes onward, and it’s been proven time and again that there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than stories about…itself. But her warbling ingenue Mia also felt (unlike her spectacular turn in The Favourite this year) like a Globes-caliber performance. The work of other women in her category, particularly Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Natalie Portman in Jackie, was on another level entirely: complicated, strange, even willfully unlikeable — in other words, exactly the kind of roles you always hope this prize will go to, even when they rarely do. —LG

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