The Worst Oscar Winners, From ‘Rocky’ and ‘Crash’ to Gwyneth Paltrow

A look back at the least deserving Oscar winners ever, from The Greatest Show on Earth taking Best Picture over High Noon to Crash and The King’s Speech.

The Oscars are Sunday night. Which means the complaining about the Oscars is officially set to commence Monday morning.

It’s a tradition as hallowed as the ceremony itself. Hollywood bestows trophies on movies and actors and the general public responds with a resounding “WTF!?” It’s an understandable tradition when one takes a look back at Oscar history. A survey of past honorees is like a tour not down Memory Lane, but What Were They Thinking Way.

With that in mind, and with fear pulsing through their veins about what nonsensical wins await on Sunday night, The Daily Beast’s critics Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon debate what were the worst—the very worst—wins in Oscar history.

Marlow: The best of the worst. Everyone knows about the biggest Oscar upset in history—John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley winning Best Picture over Citizen Kane in 1942—which was largely thanks to William Randolph Hearst’s epic smear campaign against the stylized film à clef based on his own life, but Ford’s film, while undeserving in this case, is still a solid movie. And, in 1977, Rocky—another fine film—took home Best Picture over far more deserving fare, including Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men.

But as far as the worst best picture winners go, I’d have to start in 1952, when Cecil B. DeMille’s ridiculous Ringling Bros. circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth won over High Noon. Now, The Greatest Show on Earth does boast a fine turn by Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown, a former doctor on the run from the FBI for (we later learn) mercy killing his wife, but it’s a side plot far more intriguing than the central one—the plight of Brad Braden (Charlton Heston), the circus’s general manager, and his who-gives-a-damn attraction to Holly (Betty Hutton), a flyer and star of the show. And High Noon is, of course, a classic, boasting a career-best turn by Gary Cooper as an aging town marshal who’s forced to stand up to a vicious gang all on his own.

Unfortunately, the film was probably hurt come awards time since it served as an allegory for people afraid to stand up and testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Oh, politics. And if you want to see an interesting carnival flick, check out Tod Browning’s pre-code film Freaks instead. Other contenders include ’65, which saw My Fair Lady trump the greatest comedy of all-time, Stanley Kubrick’s gonzo Cold War epic Dr. Strangelove (why does the Academy hate comedies so?), or Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction in ’95, since the latter is the zaniest movie of the ‘90s, and Gump has aged terribly (too schmaltzy). And don’t even get me started on Crash over Brokeback Mountain

Kevin: It’s fitting that we’re opening up this conversation with worst Best Picture winners because I am having ritual night terrors that we may be headed for a doozy: a possible Best Picture win for American Hustle. For the love of God, Marlow, American Hustle could win Best Picture! It’s not a bad movie, of course. But it is most definitely not Best Picture, not in a year that saw Gravity challenging the industry to push the boundaries of technology and imagination in storytelling, 12 Years a Slave challenging us to examine our conscience through film, and Her challenging us to look at love a different way. I cringe at the idea of, as Tina Fey put it at the Golden Globes, the “explosion at the wig factory” that is American Hustle triumphing over those films, simply because some cabal of critics have decreed that it is cool to like it. Egads!

Marlow: Oh, poor American Hustle. It’s a bit sloppy, but I like its energy and pizzazz, and a part of me is actually happy that a dishy, sexy film like that would even be up for awards—a far cry from years past.

Kevin: Yes, at least a Hustle win in Best Picture would be a change of pace as far as outlandish wins go for the Academy. Typically it’s the formulaic, self-important schmaltz—a kind of film so identifiable that the label “Oscar bait” sends an instant image, and elicits a simultaneous groan, to people—that triumphs egregiously. Take, for example, when Driving Miss Daisy triumphed over My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, or Born on the Fourth July. The pedantic race-relations weepie’s win is more ridiculous when one considers that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the far more invigorating and transformative take on those issues, was released the same year (but not nominated). Of course, the Crash over Brokeback Mountain debacle fits into this same rant.

More recently, The King’s Speech, a film that could very well have been manufactured in an Oscar Bait Factory, is an example of this, too, triumphing over the smart and scintillating The Social Network, gritty and grandiose The Fighter, and two epically and intricately crafted mindfucks: Inception and Black Swan. (While we’re naming Oscar Bait Factory products that took home Best Picture, ridiculously, let’s give some special shout-outs to Braveheart, The English Patient, American Beauty, and Out of Africa, too.) And while I will watch it every single time it is on TV—and love it, too—it’s hard not to be embarrassed about the fact that Rocky (like American Hustle, a good film!) took home Best Picture in 1976 instead of Taxi Driver, Network, or All the President’s Men.

Marlow: By sheer volume, The King’s Speech was a pretty crazy win. That stale period piece winning Best Picture over, like you said, the likes of The Social Network, The Fighter, Inception, Black Swan, and even Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone, is insane. I mean… any of those films is more deserving of the prize. And the Academy should be ashamed of themselves for the way they treated Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which was far and away the best film of that year, and a brilliant examination of Reagan-era disillusionment on the part of African-Americans. To go back to Crash over Brokeback, I tried re-watching Crash recently, and it’s painful. So heavy-handed, an endless, cringe-worthy string of: “X is racist to X, then X and X engage in an epic stand-off.” The unprecedented 130,000 screeners Crash producers shipped out to every SAG and Academy member aside, it seems Hollywood—as far-sighted as they are—wasn’t ready for “the gay cowboy movie” to win Best Picture. It would play out differently in 2014. As far as Best Actor goes, historically speaking, the Academy still has some explaining to do when it comes to 1940, which saw Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) winning over Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), as well as Humphrey Bogart losing Best Actor for this writer’s favorite movie of all-time, Casablanca, to Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine—only to win a make-up Oscar in 1952 for his sappy turn in The African Queen over a more deserving younger candidate: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. STELLA!?!

Kevin: Best Performance by Bulging Biceps Under a Wet White T-Shirt.Marlow: Definitely. And I thought Roman Polanski’s The Pianist was a beautifully composed film, but Adrien Brody’s Best Actor win over four previous winners—all more deserving—was unexpected. It’s basically just Brody looking frightened for two hours uttering nary a word, whereas that same year, Nic Cage was brilliant as not one, but two eccentric screenwriting brothers in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation., Jack Nicholson delivered a touching late-career turn in About Schmidt, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays historical Americans better than anyone ever, was a force of nature as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.

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Kevin: I always forget that Adrien Brody won the Oscar for his performance in The Pianist and not for his performance in Guy Scares the Crap Out of Halle Berry By Making Out With Her. Decades from now, when we all look back on the career of Adrien Brody, let’s face it—we’re not going to even remember the name of the movie he won an Oscar for. Just that creepy kiss. But, hey, at least Brody gave us one of those TV moments that served as fodder for endless parody!

Marlow: The thought of it still gives me chills.

Kevin: But, yeah, this Best Actor category has been pretty bananas over the years. Maybe more than any other category at the Oscars, it’s the one susceptible to the laziest form of awards giving, the “oh crap we still haven’t given this super famous star an Oscar so let’s just give him it for this silly movie he was only OK in now so we don’t look stupid later on” form of awards giving. It’s not a totally despicable endeavor. Because of it, we can say things just sound right, like “Academy Award-winning actor Al Pacino” and “Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman.” The silly thing, however, is when the film these actors won for are named. Did Pacino win for Dog Day Afternoon? For Serpico? Godfather Part II? Nope. He won for Scent of a Woman. Seriously. And Newman—his trophy wasn’t for his work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Hustler or Cool Hand Luke. It was for The Color of Money, by far not his finest performance.

The Oscars have a knack for handing out “making it up to you” awards to actors they slighted in the past, or awards honoring an actor’s entire body of work, even when the performance doesn’t deserve the accolades. Pacino’s Scent of a Woman win, for example, robbed Denzel Washington, who should’ve won for Malcolm X. To make up for it, Washington later won for Training Day. For Training Day! Talk about a bad win. Actually, we will talk about a bad win! There’s Art Carney for Harry and Tonto, Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady, Jean Dujardin for being really good at raising one eyebrow…

Marlow: “Oo-ah!” Yes, Art Carney for Harry and Tonto over both Jack Nicholson’s deliciously snarky turn as private eye Jake Gittes in Chinatown AND Pacino in The Godfather Part II is crazy, and Rex Harrison’s My Fair Lady win over Peter Sellers as a cast of wacky, indelible characters in Dr. Strangelove is a classic example of the Academy’s bias against comedy movies (and performances)—a bias that also extended to Jack Lemmon losing for The Apartment (in favor of Burt Lancaster for Elmer Gantry) only to receive, like you said, a “career Oscar” for his turn in Save the Tiger over Pacino in Serpico, Nicholson in The Last Detail, Brando in Last Tango in Paris, and Redford in The Sting. What?! As far as Best Actress goes, Elizabeth Taylor got the infamous “make-up Oscar” in 1961 for her patchy performance as a high-class hooker in Butterfield 8 over Shirley Maclaine’s outstanding comedic turn in The Apartment because the former was snubbed for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I’m still a bit confused as to how Cher won the Best Actress Oscar for yelling things like “Snap out of it!” a lot in Moonstruck over Glenn Close’s iconic crazy-lady performance in Fatal Attraction, and it seems Gwyneth Paltrow won for her mopey character in Shakespeare in Love in ’99 over Cate Blanchett’s far superior turn in Elizabeth because she had more Hollywood friends back then (and the Harvey Weinstein machine churning behind her).

Kevin: As a noted Gwyneth Paltrow apologist (#GOOP4LYFE), it pains me to agree with you. Paltrow was absolutely lovely in Shakespeare in Love, and deserving of every career boost she received after it launched her onto the A-list…except the Oscar. That was Blanchett’s. The Paltrow win is interesting, too, because it sort of kicked off that long, infamous line of hotties and starlets winning Best Actress that didn’t end, really, until Helen Mirren in 2007. People sort of obsessed over how those pervy old white guys who voted for the Oscars and the formula there seemed to be to get their attention: be really, really pretty, ugly yourself up for a role, plaster yourself all over Vogue and its rivals, and the Oscar goes to…YOU! There was Halle Berry winning for Monster’s Ball instead of Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge! (and then Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose winning for The Hours instead of Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, Diane Lane in Unfaithful, or Renée Zellweger for Chicago).

Then there was the weakest Best Actress winner ever, Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line. Reese was cute and spunky and feisty in her, like, six scenes in the movie, just as she is cute and spunky and feisty in real life. But it was a supporting performance, and one that was just fine at that. It’s crazy that she has an Oscar for it, while Felicity Huffman’s work in Transamerica that year went unnoticed. And while we’re on supporting performances that won lead acting trophies and no way should have, there’s Kate Winslet in 2009 for The Reader. Winslet would’ve been a deserving winner that year, had she been nominated for her superior Revolutionary Road performance. But she wasn’t. She was nominated for The Reader. Or her boobs were. We’ll never be sure. Either way, the win was crazy.

Marlow: Helen Mirren is a total babe! I liked Reese a lot in Walk the Line—not as much as her performance in Freeway, or her husband’s DUI arrest video (which should be played as a double-feature), but close. While she wasn’t the best winner of the award, that was just a really weak year for the category (Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice was even nominated). The Reader win was nuts—and doubly so considering she’d joked on Gervais’ Extras that the only way she was going to win an Oscar, since she’d been passed over so many times in the past (Eternal Sunshine!?!), was to be in a Holocaust movie. The Reader is crap, though. I enjoyed when Seth Rogen and James Franco parodied it Pineapple Express-style at the Oscars, transforming it into a stoner comedy, way more than the actual film and its barrage of horrible German accents. I think Winslet says the word “kid” in that more times than The Wolf of Wall Street uses the word “fuck.”

In the supporting categories, everyone gives a lot of crap to Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny—that crazy rumor persisted that presenter Jack Palance had read the wrong name—but she’s bubbly and cute in that, and the performance has aged very well on cable. I love Cate Blanchett—love—but her turn as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator was pure caricature, whereas Virginia Madsen’s in Sideways was delicate and very nuanced. Judi Dench won for her five minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love, but far be it from me to poo-poo a Dench win. I love Dianne Wiest, but her win for Bullets Over Broadway over Uma Thurman’s funky dancing-and-ODing one in Pulp Fiction is outrageous—as is Martin Landau’s turn as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood over Samuel L. Jackson’s now-legendary performance as gheri-curled, scripture-yelling hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.

Kevin: I CANNOT believe you are putting down Dianne Wiest’s win. To quote the fabulous screen siren Helen Mirren, “Don’t speak.” OK, you can speak, because you are defending Marissa Tomei. It’s always baffled me that people disparage her win so much, especially since, in hindsight, it’s the perfect supporting performance. It’s memorable. It’s entertaining. And it has lasted.

The Best Supporting Actor category is a bizarre one. I mean Jack Palance for City Slickers? Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine? But I think the best way to conclude this piece, a rumination on how absurd the Academy has proven to be, is this bit of information. Not only did Driving Miss Daisy win Best Picture, it won Best Makeup. Now, unless you know something I don’t, like Jessica Tandy was an Asian teenager and Morgan Freeman is actually a dog with prosthetics to make him look like a human, there is no godly reason that film should’ve won Best Makeup. If nothing, I suppose, then, the Oscars are consistent. Its strange wins run all the way down to Best Makeup. In that case, best of luck on Sunday night to the makeup team from Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa!