The 25 biggest Oscars shocks and snubs in Academy Awards history
Academy Awards history is littered with instances of supposedly sure things that didn’t come good, and rank outsiders who prompted gasps when their names were read out.
Since the first awards ceremony in 1929, there has been a multitude of memorable shocks and surprises throughout the decades which has left critics and viewers questioning the decisions of the Academy.
Not limiting ourselves to winners, but including shock nominees and omissions too, here’s history’s rundown of all the Oscars’ most criminal and cringe-worthy hand-over-mouth moments.
25 Oscars shocks and snubs through history
Frank Lloyd, Best Director winner for Cavalcade (1932-33)
“Come on up and get it, Frank!” were the words used by Will Rogers when he opened the envelope, in the year of Frank Capra’s first Best Director nod for ‘Lady for a Day’. Capra, by his own admission, had been so caught up in excitement at being nominated, he rose from his seat and headed for the stage. The winner, alas, was Frank Lloyd for Cavalcade. When Capra realised his mistake, he turned tail and began what he called “the longest, saddest, most shattering walk of my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”
It’s hard to feel too sorry for him in the long run, mind: ‘It Happened One Night’ swept the awards a year later, and he would end up winning three times.
Luise Rainer, Best Actress winner for The Good Earth (1937)
This German-born stage veteran had won Best Actress the year before, for her relatively small role in Best Picture winner ‘The Great Ziegfeld’. “Nobody wins two years in a row”, 1937’s Best Actor nominee Paul Muni told Jack Warner about his own chances – and Rainer seemed to have the same idea, since Greta Garbo was widely expected to win for Camille.
Rainer set about shunning the ceremony, and took a drive up the coast with her boyfriend, Eugene O’Neill. But they were beckoned back by Louis B. Mayer after a tip-off she might win again, and she showed up to collect with an unsightly tan from driving in the sun all day. Rainer was the first winner of back-to-back acting Oscars, paving the way for Spencer Tracy, Tom Hanks, Jason Robards and Katharine Hepburn. But she later called this one-two “the worst possible thing” that could have happened to her career – it set expectations higher than she was able to match.
Loretta Young, Best Actress winner for The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)
No one reckoned that Young, the 30-year-old former child star nominated for a lightweight country-mouse comedy, had a chance of upsetting the hot category favourite, Rosalind Russell, who had lost twice before and campaigned aggressively to bag the award for the hefty O’Neill adaptation ‘Mourning Becomes Electra’. Russell was so confident of her chances, she even rose from her seat before the winner was announced. When Fredric March called Young’s name, it drew gasps from the audience. The quick-witted Russell at least pulled off a more dignified rescue than Capra, leading the crowd in a standing ovation as if that were her intention all along.
An American in Paris, Best Picture winner (1951)
‘A Place in the Sun’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, two evergreen classics of Hollywood prestige drama, made 1951 a great year for American movies, and an especially hard-fought Best Picture contest with a shock spoiler waiting in store. Streetcar bagged three of the four acting awards, with only Marlon Brando losing out to Humphrey Bogart for ‘The African Queen’.
But the surprise contest of the night was between glossy, star-led, black-and-white tragedy and Technicolor musical razzle-dazzle. An American in Paris, that flagship production of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, was expected to sweep in the colour technical departments, and for its music and lyrics. But it ended up tying with A Place in the Sun with six Oscars apiece, and pipping it to the post for Best Picture, with Vincente Minnelli also wresting Best Director away from George Stevens. Minnelli would pull off a similar feat with a repeat trip back to Paris, for 1958’s Gigi.
The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Picture winner (1952)
Industry Bible Variety said that ‘High Noon’ was “a cinch” to win, perhaps reckoning without the controversy over its anti-McCarthyite politics, and the fact that its screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was in the process of being blacklisted for failing to co-operate with HUAC. Producer Stanley Kramer had wanted him thrown off the movie, but Gary Cooper and Fred Zinnemann intervened.
Cooper would take Best Actor, but Hollywood closed ranks in the big two races, and instead picked the most conservative choice imaginable – ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, a retro circus extravaganza whose director, Cecil B. DeMille, was a noted Republican campaigner. NBC, televising the ceremony for the first time, were supposedly so surprised they failed to find one of the producers in the audience. The prize only really makes sense as a career achievement award for DeMille – and if they’d only waited till the feeble field of 1956, ‘The Ten Commandments’ would have been a much better choice.
Joan Crawford, Best Actress for… wait, The Miracle Worker?! (1962)
You can accuse Joan Crawford of many things, but being in The Miracle Worker is not one of them. Instead, she was in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ opposite Bette Davis that year – a film whose sisterly feuding extended off-screen when Davis, and not she, was Oscar-nominated. Bette was even tipped to win, for the first time since ‘Jezebel’ in 1938, which would have made up for her unlucky loss to Judy Holliday in the year ‘All About Eve’ was up.
But clever old Joan spotted a way to grab the limelight, and campaigned against Davis winning, in favour of just about all of the other nominees. Only Davis among them was present that night, and by prior arrangement with second favourite Anne Bancroft – busy on the Broadway stage – Joan was lurking backstage when the award was announced, and got to read out the winner’s speech in absentia. Her glee at thereby upstaging Davis and making up for the nomination snub is still visible on YouTube.
Audrey Hepburn, NOT nominated for Best Actress, My Fair Lady (1964)
Poor Audrey had the bad taste to come up against Julie Andrews, whose role in ‘My Fair Lady’ she appropriated when Jack Warner refused to let Julie repeat her stage triumph. He needed a bigger star for this $17m megaproduction, especially with Rex Harrison as the male lead. Enter Hepburn, whose singing voice, regrettably, didn’t cut it – she was duly dubbed by ubiquitous backstage saviour Marni Nixon, who had performed similar duties for Natalie Wood in ‘West Side Story’ (1961).
The outcry when Andrews lost the role was hysterical. Time magazine printed one of the more restrained reactions: “There is an evil and rampantly lunatic force at loose in the world, and it must be destroyed!”. Not only did ‘My Fair Lady’ go on to sweep the awards, winning eight including Best Picture, but Andrews ended up winning Best Actress for her rival musical ‘Mary Poppins’, and even had the cheek to thank Warner in her speech. To her credit, though, she was impeccably gracious about the Hepburn snub. “I think Audrey should have been nominated. I’m very sorry she wasn’t.”
Tie for Best Actress (1968)
Katharine Hepburn holds the acting-award record – four Best Actress trophies – despite having never once been a favourite to win, in 1933, 1967, 1968 or 1981, or in attendance to collect on any occasion. Many were surprised when she, and not Spencer Tracy, took gold for her not-massively-taxing work in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’. And, just a year later, a bigger surprise was in store. Barbra Streisand had won the Musical/Comedy Golden Globe for her world-conquering debut in ‘Funny Girl’, and was the hot favourite.
Hepburn had lost the Drama Globe to Joanne Woodward. So the announcement from Ingrid Bergman took everyone aback: “It’s a tie!”. Anthony Harvey came to the stage on Hepburn’s behalf, escorting a slightly-nonplussed-looking Streisand, who looked down at her statue and gave impersonators a favourite catchphrase by saying “Hello, gorgeous!”. At least, unlike those others, it was a Hepburn performance worth the fuss – her Eleanor of Aquitaine is an acid joy. But you have to feel a little for Peter O’Toole, who came so very close to winning too, and died with zero Oscars to Hepburn’s four.
Beatrice Straight, Best Supporting Actress for Network (1976)
There’s a legend that Anthony Quinn’s role as Paul Gauguin in ‘Lust for Life’, which won him his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar, clocked in at a mere eight minutes of screen time, but it’s not true: his scenes with Kirk Douglas easy pass the 20-minute mark. For a really short Oscar-winning performance, you have to look to Judi Dench’s Elizabeth I in ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (“I feel, for only eight minutes on screen, I should only get a little bit of him”, she said when accepting). Or, going down to six-odd minutes, cherchez Beatrice Straight, the surprise recipient of a supporting actress trophy in 1976, for her one big scene as William Holden’s bitter wife in ‘Network’.
It’s a memorable face-off in a much-respected film, but she was perhaps given a leg-up by the lack of a consensus favourite among the other nominees – Jodie Foster for ‘Taxi Driver’, Jane Alexander for ‘All the President’s Men’, Piper Laurie for ‘Carrie’ and Lee Grant for ‘Voyage of the Damned’.
Richard Dreyfuss, Best Actor winner for The Goodbye Girl (1977)
In many ways it was Dreyfuss’ year – he’d carried Spielberg’s multi-nominated whopping hit ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, so this win for a then-popular Neil Simon comedy, in the hands of a then-much-in-demand director, Herbert Ross, doesn’t look all that surprising.
But this, which made him the youngest-ever winner of Best Actor at the time, was reckoned a major upset: everyone’s money was on Richard Burton, riding Equus to his seventh nomination with not a win among them. It was poor Burton’s last chance, and Dreyfuss’s first, for a film and performance that have both dated quite nastily. As Burton sat grimly applauding his competitor for the umpteenth time, it must have occurred to him that Oscar voters, when it came down to it, really just didn’t like him all that much.
Steven Spielberg, NOT nominated for Best Director for The Color Purple (1985)
With 11 nominations, ‘The Color Purple’ had all but one of the ingredients for an epic sweep in 1985 – it was in for picture, screenplay, three acting nominations, cinematography, art direction, costumes, make-up, music and original song. It won none. The tea-leaves of its defeat were there for all to read when Steven Spielberg’s name failed to show up on the Best Director shortlist.
Given that this was Spielberg’s first move away from blockbusting, bums-on-seats entertainment towards more adult and pedigreed material, this must have stung particularly badly, and made him question anew whether the industry resented his success. He hadn’t been nominated for ‘Jaws’ either, and had lost three in a row since then. It took ‘Schindler’s List’ to break the drought.
Geena Davis, Best Supporting Actress winner for The Accidental Tourist (1988)
There’s meant to be an unwritten rule, when you’re nominated twice in a year, that you win for one of them and lose for the other – ask Fay Bainter (1938), Teresa Wright (1942), Barry Fitzgerald (1944), Jessica Lange (1982), Al Pacino (1992), Holly Hunter (1993) and Jamie Foxx (2004). It was a rule that held until 1988, when Sigourney Weaver was up for Best Actress in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ – an award she lost to Jodie Foster, rather than the favourite, Glenn Close – and for Supporting Actress in ‘Working Girl’, which seemed like an ideal consolation prize (she actually won both Golden Globes).
Voters preferred the kooky stylings of near-newcomer Geena Davis in ‘The Accidental Tourist’, and Weaver has waited ever since to be nominated again. At least she’s been subsequently joined by good company in the empty-handed double-nomination club – namely Emma Thompson (1993), Julianne Moore (2002) and Cate Blanchett (2007).
Marisa Tomei, Best Supporting Actress nomination AND win for My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Even Tomei’s nomination as Joe Pesci’s brash fiancée in this sleeper hit of a courtroom comedy had been a bit of a long shot – the Golden Globes hadn’t picked her, and there was a general “who?” factor surrounding the nod. What a shock, then, when Jack Palance read her name out, instead of Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), Miranda Richardson (Damage) or Joan Plowright (Enchanted April).
For years afterwards, there was a rather mean rumour that the 73-year-old Palance, confused by the teleprompter, had simply announced the wrong name, though the Academy’s accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, vociferously deny that any such error would have stood uncorrected on the night. Tomei herself has confessed that her victory still lives under “a cloud” of sorts, though her very reputable career since then, with additional nominations for ‘In the Bedroom’ (2001) and ‘The Wrestler’ (2008), have helped diminish the fluke factor.
Juliette Binoche, Best Supporting Actress winner for The English Patient (1996)
Everyone, but everyone, was expecting this to go to Lauren Bacall, never previously nominated in her legendary 50-year career, for playing that least likely of roles – a Jewish mother even Barbra Streisand considers overbearing – in ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’. Binoche was certainly the last one expecting to be called up on stage – “I didn’t prepare anything. I thought Lauren was going to get it, and I think she deserves it,” she immediately said.
It was a textbook case of the more popular film propelling one actor to the front: the groundswell of support for ‘The English Patient’ overrode any consideration of Bacall’s longevity, and the widely disliked Mirror/Faces took the sails out of her sentimental campaign.
Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan to Best Picture (1998)
It seemed pre-ordained right down to the last envelope – Spielberg would prevail for the second time in a decade, and indeed did take Best Director. Then again, Saving Private Ryan’s producers might have felt a shiver of apprehension when Gwyneth Paltrow beat the more heavily favoured Cate Blanchett to Best Actress.
There was clearly a lot of Shakespeare love in the room, however cleverly mobilised by then-head-honcho-of-Miramax Harvey Weinstein, in one of his earliest and most famous juggernaut campaigns. DreamWorks, though, were no slouches in their own promotional efforts: they may even have spent more. And the Love/Ryan stand-off wasn’t as last-minute as often remembered – they had been duelling at precursor awards through the season. Splitting the film and director awards was simply a smart way for voters to honour both films. This is one surprise that, on reflection, wasn’t so much of one.
Marcia Gay Harden, Supporting Actress winner for Pollock (2000)
It’s curious how often the Supporting Actress field throws up the big surprises – Tomei, Binoche, Davis and Straight (all above) are key examples, as was Anna Paquin for ‘The Piano’ in 1993, beating Rosie Perez and Winona Ryder. Meanwhile, Las Vegas bookies had the 41-year-old, never-previously-nominated Harden at 12/1 to win for playing Lee Krasner in Ed Harris’s Pollock biopic. They doubtless came to that figure based on Harden’s relative obscurity as well as the film’s – it was easily the lowest-grossing in her category.
Most thought Kate Hudson in Almost Famous had this sewn up. Above all the other examples, this feels like a salutary case of the voters ignoring other factors – the temptation to give Hudson a Goldie Hawn-like career boost, say – and purely rewarding the work, as Harden’s fierce, gritty performance is easily the most substantial of the ones nominated.
Adrien Brody, Best Actor winner for The Pianist (2002)
It was all about Jack Nicholson, milking his latest comeback role in Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’, or Daniel Day-Lewis, as the major redeeming feature of Scorsese’s out-of-control behemoth ‘Gangs of New York’. Clashes between Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein on that project were legendary, but the latter had one rock-solid conviction when he saw it assembled – that Day-Lewis would win this. Harvey even suggested his competitors might just as well stay at home. Adrien Brody was pretty glad he didn’t.
At 29, he beat Richard Dreyfuss’s record as the youngest-ever winner, getting a standing ovation from a genuinely delighted-looking auditorium, planting a big snog on the astonished Halle Berry, and delivering a long, emotional speech with a plea for “swift resolution” to the war in Afghanistan. “They’ve got me under a restraining order,” he quipped on returning to the podium a year later, before whipping out a breath freshener.
Keisha Castle-Hughes, Best Leading Actress nomination for Whale Rider (2003)
It was a funny old year for Best Actress. Only one of the Best Picture nominees even had a leading role for an actress – that was ‘Lost in Translation’, and Scarlett Johansson wasn’t cited. Nor were Nicole Kidman for ‘Cold Mountain’ or Uma Thurman for ‘Kill Bill, Vol. 1’. This cleared the field for voters to throw in an unexpected shout for Samantha Morton in In America, and to correct something else, which was the strategic category fraud Whale Rider’s US distributor, Newmarket Films, were trying out to guarantee its 13-year-old star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, a nomination.
They were pushing her for Best Supporting Actress, despite the blatant fact that she’s the film’s main character – a gambit that had worked for Tatum O’Neal in ‘Paper Moon‘ (1973) (she even won) and would later get a nomination for Hailee Steinfeld in ‘True Grit’ (2010). In this instance, voters rebelled and rightly insisted she was a leading lady. At the time she was the youngest ever nominee in the category, but 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis has since stolen that honour.
Three 6 Mafia, Best Original Song winners, for Hustle and Flow (2005)
Everyone thought Dolly Parton would get this for her Transamerica ditty, ‘Travelin’ Through’. It was the year of a singularly bizarre interpretive dance effort during the ceremony, with slow-motion exits from burning vehicles to symbolise ‘Crash’, though we were mercifully spared any choreographic representation of sex-change surgery.
Presenter Jon Stewart was already having a field day, imagining a mock feud between legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, performing excerpts from the Original Score nominees, and the hip-hop trio Three 6 Mafia, nominated for ‘It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp from ‘Hustle & Flow’. Then they won, and Stewart’s joke-writing team went into overdrive. “For those keeping track,” he quipped, “that’s Three 6 Mafia – one, Martin Scorsese – zero”.
Crash beats Brokeback Mountain to Best Picture (2005)
Not everyone was thrown for a loop when Paul Haggis’s patchwork racism tract pipped ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to the post: after barely getting a look-in at the Golden Globes, ‘Crash’ had been gathering momentum in the final weeks of voting. Still, it was very much Brokeback’s award to lose on the night, and Jack Nicholson, presenting Best Picture, summed up the mood of the room (and indeed the internet) with his eyebrows-raised delivery and offstage “Whoah!”.
It’s gone down in history, if not perhaps as the most shocking upset of all time, as certainly the most contentious, with immediate accusations of homophobia, and worse, simple bad taste flung at the voting body. The worst thing that ever happened to ‘Crash’ was this poisoned-chalice victory – seemingly within days, it become the all-time Oscar champ everyone most loves to hate.
Bruce Springsteen, not nominated for The Wrestler from The Wrestler (2008)
How did this miss? Before nomination day, Springsteen, a previous winner for ‘Philadelphia’, looked like a near-sure-fire bet for a second Oscar, and took the Golden Globe for a terrific, emotive song that feels like a perfect epitaph to its (highly admired) movie. His absence from the shortlist – whittled down to three this year from the usual five – is hard to explain, unless you consider that voters are given a clipreel of all the nominated songs, and Springsteen’s happens to play out in the visually uninspiring context of the credits roll.
His thunder was stolen by the Bollywood sugar-rush of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which got a double-dip here, and Peter Gabriel’s bland eco-wallow Down to Earth from ‘Wall.E’ (which… has prettier end credits?). Bad call, Oscars.
Best Foreign Film winner, Departures (2009)
Oscar watchers who like to rag on the Foreign Film category – a niche but fanatical pastime – get plenty of ammo every year, thanks to shockers like the freak omission of Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007, which brought about a change in the category’s voting rules. But you can never rely on them to make the final call very sensibly either.
This year had some excellent contenders, including Laurent Cantet’s much-hailed paedagogical drama ‘The Class’, Ari Folman’s animated Lebanon war essay ‘Waltz with Bashir’, and the grimly brilliant Austrian thriller ‘Revanche’. But the Academy chose Japan’s entry, ‘Departures’. Sight unseen, it could hardly have sounded more like a self-parodic foreign film winner – it’s about a failed cellist who embarks on a second career in ritual embalming. Sight seen, it was middling, sentimental, and tragically undeserving.
Best Picture nomination for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)
Eight looked like the magic number, from the onscreen layout of Best Picture slots that day, so when Stephen Daldry’s widely-derided 9/11 drama was announced at the end of the broadcast, tacked on as a ninth nominee, everyone was practically rising from their seats to go home. No critics groups or other awards bodies had given it the time of day. Twitter went ballistic, and it was quickly identified as probably the worst-reviewed film ever to get a Best Picture nomination, at least in recent history: even ‘The Blind Side’ has a 66% fresh score on the aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, versus 46% for this.
Stephen Daldry thereby extended his uniquely charmed record as an Oscar nominee: all four of his films to date, until the unsuccessful ‘Trash’, have achieved either a Best Picture or Best Director nod (in two cases, both). With only one other nomination – Best Supporting Actor for Max von Sydow, which was another surprise – Extremely Loud could hardly have been less of a threat to pull off victory. But to barge its way into the race at all was quite some coup.
Jacki Weaver, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
To say that this nomination came from nowhere isn’t quite telling the truth – it came, essentially, from Harvey Weinstein, and his legendary gift for identifying an awards magnet and using it to scoop up every nomination in his reach (see also: ‘Chocolat’). Still, very few pundits had Weaver on their radar this year, two years after her thoroughly deserved nomination for ‘Animal Kingdom’ (2010). The actress herself wasn’t expecting it in the slightest. It was a did-we-hear-that-right? moment, the kind without which nominations day would be very dull indeed.
It’s only a pity there was nothing particularly exceptional about Weaver’s role or performance as a doting Philadelphia mom – a nod for say, Ann Dowd in ‘Compliance’ or Nicole Kidman in ‘The Paperboy’ would have been slightly less surprising, considerably more merited. With this, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ became the first film since ‘Reds’ (1981) to achieve a full house of acting nominations in every category – a feat director David O. Russell would manage to repeat the very next year, with ‘American Hustle’.
Ben Affleck, NOT nominated for Best Director, for Argo (2012)
Poor Bruce Beresford, in 1989, didn’t get nominated for ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, a film with a driver but seemingly no director, which ended up taking Best Picture. Way back when, it happened with ‘Wings’ (1927/8) and ‘Grand Hotel’ (1931/2). Did the odds for an Argo Best Picture win actually improve when Affleck wasn’t nominated? The poor-Ben factor gave his film an underdog quality that can only have helped: voters don’t always like being strong-armed into backing the film that’s way out in front.
He wasn’t the only one passed over, in a particularly rough-and-tumble year for the category – both Kathryn Bigelow (‘Zero Dark Thirty’) and Quentin Tarantino (‘Django Unchained’) were widely predicted to get in, and didn’t. The trouble with a potentially ten-wide Best Picture lineup is that as many as half can end up being these orphaned nominees: there’s only room for five directors, and a surprise like Benh Zeitlin (‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’) can be an Affleck’s ruin. Still, for Argo fans out there, it came right on the night.