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The 20 worst Oscar winners in history

Here are the least deserving Academy Award-winning movies of all time

Written by
Tom Huddleston
,
Time Out Film
&
Matthew Singer
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The Academy Awards exist to piss people off. Okay, maybe there are some other reasons Hollywood has thrown itself a big, congratulatory bash every year for closing in on a century now. But in the social media era, where anger is currency, upsetting the public with bad choices keeps viewers talking far more than making good ones. Sure, nothing is more important than the Oscars – they influence box-office returns, shake up the canon of the greatest films of all time and put important notches on individual résumés. But for cinema fans, getting riled up over who wins and who doesn’t is part of the whole experience. It is the experience, really.

In that spirit of debate, we’ve gone back over the history of the Oscars and picked the 20 darkest stains on the ceremony’s legacy, from Al Pacino becoming a parody of himself to Stevie Wonder’s worst song to Crash… oh good Lord, Crash

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Victor Fleming for ‘Gone with the Wind’

Best Director, 1939

It may be a popular classic that still holds the record for most tickets sold, but slavery-era epic ‘Gone With a Wind’ feels a mite creaky in this age of #OscarsSoWhite and ‘12 Years a Slave’. But that’s not the only reason we question Victor Fleming’s Oscar win. In truth he was only one of three directors to work on the film, so the award really should’ve been split between them.

It could’ve been...
John Ford for ‘Stagecoach’, Frank Capra for ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, William Wyler for ‘Wuthering Heights’.

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‘Around the World in 80 Days’

3. ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

Best Picture, 1957

Sometimes the Academy don’t just get the winners wrong, but the whole damn ceremony: in 1957, while the likes of ‘The Searchers’, ‘Written on the Wind’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’ were wowing audiences at home, with ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘La Strada’ and ‘Seven Samurai’ on release worldwide, the Academy saw fit to reward this turgid family romp, while the nominees were rounded out with epically tedious crud like ‘Giant’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’.

It could’ve been... 
A year to remember.

Leon Shamroy for ‘Cleopatra’

For Best Cinematography, 1963

That this bloated, tedious and wildly overpriced historical epic took any awards at all is disgraceful, but the one which really sticks in the craw is Cinematography. Not only does the film look like it’s been shot through a veneer of blancmange, but it triumphed over arguably the most visually sumptuous film ever made, ‘The Leopard’, which wasn’t even nominated.

It could’ve been...
The above, ‘8 ½’ (not nominated) or ‘Irma La Douce’.

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‘The Sound of Music’

Best Picture, 1965

The mid-'60s were a grim time for Hollywood both artistically and economically, as reflected by a truly lacklustre brace of Best Picture nominees at the 1966 awards: alongside Robert Wise’s excruciatingly cheerful nuns ‘n’ Nazis romp were ranged the likes of ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘Darling’ and something called ‘A Thousand Clowns’.

It could’ve been... 
Um… ‘Von Ryan’s Express’?

‘Une Homme et une Femme’

Best Foreign Language Film, 1966

It may have looked slick, exciting and frightfully modern at the time, but Claude Lelouch’s paper-thin romantic romp now seems trite, dated and disgustingly self-satisfied – as relentlessly annoying as its twittering oh-so-French theme song.

It could’ve been... 
The Battle of Algiers’, ‘Loves of a Blonde’.

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‘Out of Africa’

Best Picture, 1986

In the mid-'80s, the Academy suddenly became obsessed with dishing out heaps of awards to grandiose, sweeping tales of life in foreign lands: see ‘Gandhi’, ‘Platoon’, and ‘The Last Emperor’. While each of those films is defensible, the same can’t really be said of this tiresome, glacially-paced colonial romance.

It could’ve been... 
Witness’, ‘Ran’ (not nominated), ‘Prizzi’s Honor’.

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Rick Baker for ‘Harry and the Hendersons’

Best Makeup, 60th Academy Awards, 1988

Rick Baker is a bona fide legend in the field of practical effects – the Academy created the Best Makeup category essentially because it had to find some way to honour his jaw-dropping work in An American Werewolf in London – but 1988 must have been a dreadful year for prosthetic design if this forgotten monster-com got anywhere near a trophy. (Indeed, the lone competition was Happy New Year, an even less-remembered crime comedy in which Peter Falk does the Dana Carvey Master of Disguise thing.) Beyond the dubious quality of the film itself, Baker’s work doesn’t even stand out as a particular highlight, especially in a decade packed with inspired creature features like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Honestly, we’ve seen more convincing-looking Sasquatches in beef jerky commercials.   

It could’ve been…
Evil Dead II, if the Academy wasn’t so allergic to horror.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’

Best Picture, 1990

Sometimes the Academy seem to enjoy making things difficult for themselves. To nominate this good-natured but worryingly old-fashioned race-relations weepie rather than Spike Lee’s dynamic, challenging ‘Do the Right Thing’ was insult enough. To then give crotchety old ‘Miss Daisy’ four awards including the big prize was an unforgiveable injury.

It could’ve been...
The above, or ‘My Left Foot’, ‘Dead Poets Society’, ‘Born on the 4th of July’.

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Anthony Hopkins for ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Al Pacino for ‘Scent of a Woman’

11. Anthony Hopkins for ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Al Pacino for ‘Scent of a Woman’

Best Actor, 1992, 1993

No actor ever won an Oscar for their subtle behaviour, but these two foot-thick slices of ham really stand out. Hopkins’s turn in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ is admittedly terrific fun: sucking the marrow out of every villainous line, he comes on like William Shatner auditioning for ‘Dracula’. Pacino, meanwhile, is just a ball of mad, bellowing energy. Is this really the same man who played it so quiet and malevolent as Michael Corleone?

It could’ve been...
1991: Robert De Niro (‘Cape Fear’), Robin Williams (‘The Fisher King’). 1992: Clint Eastwood (‘Unforgiven’) Denzel Washington (‘Malcolm X’).

Three drippy ballads from Disney

12. Three drippy ballads from Disney

Best Song, 1993, 1995, 1996

In the mid-1990s, the Walt Disney Company exerted a stranglehold over the Best Song category, resulting in wins for three unlistenably schmaltzy ballads – A Whole New World from ‘Aladdin’, Can You Feel the Love Tonight? from ‘The Lion King’ and Colors of the Wind from ‘Pocahontas’ – each of which combine lowest-common-denominator lovelorn lyrics, hideously catchy melodies and slushy string-based instrumentation.

It could’ve been... 
Anything by Randy Newman.

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‘Forrest Gump’

Best Picture, 1994

America loves to pat itself on the back, but this slick, saccharine, deeply reactionary nostalgia-fest is one giant leap too far. Tom Hanks gives a dead-eyed, inexplicably Best Actor-winning performance as the dullard man-child whose simple, old-timey wisdom inevitably gets the better of revolutionaries, counterculturists and those pesky Vietnamese.

It could’ve been: Pulp Fiction’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Quiz Show’.

‘A Beautiful Mind’

Best Picture, 2002

By the late 90s, it seemed the Academy had decided to avert any chance of controversy by doling out awards to the blandest, most inoffensive movie they could find (see also: ‘Shakespeare in Love’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Chicago’). The worst offender in this category has to be Ron Howard’s entirely forgettable maths ‘n’ madness biopic, a disease-of-the-week TV movie which somehow escaped into the multiplex.

It could’ve been... 
The Fellowship of the Ring’, ‘Gosford Park’, ‘Mulholland Dr’ (not nominated).

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Renee Zellweger for ‘Cold Mountain’

Best Supporting Actress, 2003

Proof that it’s possible for a single supporting performance to sink an entire film, Renee Zellweger’s slack-jawed, fish-faced female-Forrest-Gump ruined this otherwise decent landscape drama from Anthony Minghella – but the Academy saw fit to reward her nonetheless.

It could’ve been...
Patricia Clarkson in ‘Pieces of April’, Shohreh Agdashloo in ‘House of Sand and Fog’.

‘Crash’

Best Picture, 2006

In the past, if the Academy screwed up Best Picture, it was usually by going with the safest, most vanilla option over something more challenging and progressive. Awarding Paul Haggis’s mealy-mouthed, faux-important racial melodrama with its highest honour, however, was actually offensive, especially given that pretty much all its competition addressed social and political issues with much more heft and nuance. It’s widely considered the worst Best Picture winner of the modern era, at least until Green Book came along a decade later with an even more leaden-handed ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ message. It’s still really bad, though.

It could’ve been...
Brokeback Mountain

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Mauro Fiore for ‘Avatar’

Best Cinematography, 2010

Leaving aside the issue of quality, the real question is how a film created almost entirely within a computer can be nominated for Best Cinematography? Photographing a film is a tactile art, demanding in-depth knowledge of focal lengths, lenses and the way light moves. If all that work is done by a thousand nerds sweating over a thousand desktop computers, who’s really doing the ‘filming’? And does this mean Pixar movies are eligible?

It could’ve been...
Michael Haneke’s stunning ‘The White Ribbon’. End of story.

Tom Hooper for ‘The King’s Speech’
Best Director, 2011

Patriotic and positively pro-royal, ‘The King’s Speech’ is a perfectly diverting slice of British cosiness. But it’s hardly Best Picture material – and the fact that helmsman Tom Hooper also took the Best Director prize is simply bizarre. His work is TV-standard: solid but unimpressive. And it looks even weaker next to David Fincher’s icy-cool ‘The Social Network’, which was also in the running.

It could’ve been...
The above, Darren Aronofsky for ‘Black Swan’ or The Coen brothers for ‘True Grit’. 

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  • Film
  • Drama

Best Film Editing, 2019

It’s been said that editing is the most difficult Oscar category for a layman to judge because it requires knowing what they had to work with at the start. But you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to see that statuette-winner John Ottman made some, let’s say, curious choices in stitching together the polarising Queen biopic. A scene of the band simply getting tea with their future manager, for instance, features 60 nausea-inducing cuts in less than 90 seconds, earning a place in viral infamy alongside the basketball scene from Catwoman and Liam Neeson scaling a fence in Taken 3. Given the film’s drama-plagued production, it’s hard to totally blame Ottman, who likely had his work cut out for him, and he’s since admitted to being embarrassed by the final product. Still: What the hell?

It could’ve been…

Anyone else, really.

'Green Book'
  • Film
  • Comedy

Best Picture, 2019

Two years after narrowly avoiding an all-time blunder with the Moonlight/La La Land debacle, the Academy once again found themselves facing a high-pressure challenge: award a film made by an actual person of colour, or go with the shallow, let’s-solve-racism liberal fantasy from the director of Dumb and Dumber. Aaaand…  they went with the director of Dumber and Dumber – even with a kinetic Spike Lee joint, a deeply moving Alfonso Cuarón cine-memoir and the most culturally significant Marvel movie yet made right there in front of them. On the upside, at least it wasn’t Bohemian Rhapsody.

It could’ve been…

Black Panther, BlacKKKlansman, Roma.

 

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