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Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book.
Patti Perret / Universal Studios"Green Book."

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

What would the Academy Awards be without a little controversy?

Pretty boring, actually. Sure, in the award show pantheon, the Oscars hold the most sway, honouring the best movies of the year, influencing box-office returns and shaking up the canon of the greatest films of all time. But that doesn’t mean they always get it right. And while those screw-ups can echo through history, for viewers, the debate is part of the whole experience.

In keeping with the spirit of that annual grousing, we’ve gone through the archives and picked out the 20 least-worthy Oscar winners ever chosen, from Al Pacino hooing and hawing all over Scent of a Woman to Avatar computer-generating its statuette-winning cinematography to a Best Makeup gong for the woeful Harry and the Hendersons…yes, the Bigfoot movie won an Oscar.  

RECOMMENDED: The five big take-aways from the 2022 Oscar nominations.

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’.

‘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’.

‘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’.

‘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’.

Rick Baker for ‘Harry and the Hendersons’

Best Makeup, 60th Academy Awards, 1988

‘Academy Award winner “Harry and the Hendersons”’ must be one of the oddest accolades ever devised, but it’s nonetheless true. The make-up fraternity may simply have been rewarding FX legend Rick Baker for past achievements, but whatever their reasoning, this dire family monster-com had no right to be within sniffing distance of awards glory.

It could’ve been...
Absolutely anything else.

‘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’.

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.

‘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).

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’.


Best Picture, 2006

2005 was the year politics returned to Hollywood, with the Middle East (‘Munich’), gay rights (‘Brokeback Mountain’) and America’s troubled political history (‘Good Night and Good Luck’) all on the agenda. ‘Crash’ was a political film too, but in the lily-livered, hand-wringing, don’t-say-anything-unless-you-say-something-offensive-by-mistake vein – so of course it snatched the big prize.

It could’ve been...
Any of the above.

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’. 

  • 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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