The Academy Awards: Best Picture Losers Part 1
It’s award season! And you know what that means? It means for every popcorn blockbuster, we get about three Oscar-bait movies that are made solely to appease that body of somewhat stodgy Academy voters. Don’t get me wrong, a good portion of the Best Picture winners in history are still some of the greatest films ever made – The Godfather (Parts I and II), Schindler’s List, etc. But what about those historically good movies that got the nomination, but didn’t take home the prize? What about those popular movies that carried fan support, but lost out to a smaller, most of the time better, film? Well, here they are. This list focuses on those films that may or may not have been produced as Oscar bait, but earned the recognition of “Best Picture nominee,” only to walk away without the big prize. As usual, not in order of worst to best. I take into account quality, kindness of social opinion as time has passed, and, of course, if it was a year of an infamous “snub.” Envelope, please…
50. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Lost to: A Man for All Seasons
It may be the greatest performance of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, opposite her husband Richard Burton. Both actors scored nominations, plus supporting nods for Sandy Denis and George Segal. All in all, the film racked up 13 nominations and five wins, two of which were for Taylor and Denis. But, when all was said and done, Paul Scofield and his performance as Thomas Moore in the biopic of A Man For All Seasons took home the gold (both Lead Actor and Picture, respectively). Retrospectively, Virginia Woolf has gone down as one of the most brutal looks at a twisted family dynamic and almost felt like a look inside the roller coaster marriage of Taylor and Burton. Thanks to Mike Nichols’s brilliantly restricted directions and the brilliant Edward Albee source material, it still stands as one of the great claustrophobic movies of all time.
49. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Lost to: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Sidney Lumet’s definitive courtroom drama somehow only garnered three nominations – Director and Screenplay, in addition to Picture. Since that Oscar night, it has been slowly built up as one of the greatest looks at the justice system, with Henry Fonda in a brilliant performance as the only doubter in a room full of frustrated jurors who just want to slap the handcuffs on an innocent man. Pitted against Lee J. Cobb as the most one-sided, blind-to-the-facts juror in the history of cinema, Fonda shines. I would never jump to the conclusion to say it’s a better film than The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s certainly a lot easier to re-watch and enjoy.
48. M*A*S*H (1970)
Lost to: Patton
Robert Altman has a laundry list of brilliant films, most of which were nominated for something, but missed out on major gold. M*A*S*H was the first one to truly break into the mold, using the Altman-esque technique of filmmaking and screenwriting. The story fits together loosely, characters talk over each other, and it takes a serious topic and flips it on its head. Altman’s skill would be honed and injected into other wonderful Best Picture nominees (Nashville, Gosford Park), but this war comedy that gave birth to one of the greatest television shows of all time was the first to break into the fold. It lost to a good film and sits alongside “Five Easy Pieces” as another Best Picture loser from that year. Not bad company.
47. Top Hat (1935)
Lost to: Mutiny on the Bounty
In the 1930s, the Academy essentially nominated anything that wasn’t bad. Alongside eleven other nominees sat possibly the greatest Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaboration Top Hat. While Astaire is a beloved performer, he never received any nominations for his acting in musicals with Rogers (or anyone else for that matter). In fact, his only Oscar nomination came in 1974 for Best Supporting Actor in… The Towering Inferno. Top Hat grabbed three nominations other than Best Picture, for Original Song, Art Direction, and Dance Direction, but won nothing. Regardless, other than the winner that year, Top Hat stands head and shoulders above its fellow nominees. Maybe even above Mutiny on the Bounty.
46. High Noon (1952)
Lost to: The Greatest Show on Earth
It lost the Oscar to what has gone down in history as one of the worst Best Pictures of all time (no argument here). This western that grabbed seven nominations and four wins (Editing, Original Song, Music, Lead Actor) may not be as good as billed, but it’s still an original film that works well. The film focuses on Gary Cooper’s Will Kane as he struggles between sticking around until the clock strikes 12 to fight incoming enemies or leaving with his new bride, played by Grace Kelly. As the clock moves forward, he gets less and less support from the townspeople he is trying to protect. The movie is essentially filmed in real-time, flashing back to the clock over and over. While Gary Cooper was never really that great an actor, the filmmaking techniques manage to cloak his stiff facade and create one of the greatest westerns of all time. Besides, Grace Kelly is an epic definition of beauty in it.
45. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Lost to: Mrs. Miniver
The man who is better known for his gangster films gave what may be his best performance ever in this biopic of the great George M. Cohan. James Cagney won an Oscar for his lead performance, showing audiences a very different side to the man who would eventually become better known for playing a psychopath with an Oedipal complex (White Heat). Yankee Doodle Dandy grabbed seven nominations and three wins, for Cagney, Best Score, and Best Sound. Directed by the great Michael Curtiz, Cagney’s love letter to the music of America still stands up like a shot of life, even against the nine other nominees.
44. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Lost to: Midnight Cowboy
It was the movie that forever embedded Paul Newman and Robert Redford as an iconic pair of actors and redefined the western genre. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning four (Song, Music, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay), but still didn’t garner any nominations for acting. This story of two bank robbers on their way to Bolivia to escape the law is packed with memorable scenes and lines as Newman and Redford put a stamp on their illustrious careers. The catch: it lost to the first X-rated film to ever be nominated (and win) Best Picture. I’m not arguing – Midnight Cowboy is great. But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid almost created another sub-genre: the Western buddy dramedy.
43. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Lost to: In the Heat of the Night
The nominees for Best Picture this year were loaded. Two of the other films nominated are higher on this list for various reasons. Unfortunately, Stanley Kramer’s story of race relations and family dysfunction was up against another film about race relations, the other more visceral (though also starring Sydney Poitier). Oddly enough, none of this film’s ten nominations or any of In the Heat of the Night’s seven nominations included Poitier, who was wonderful in both films, in very different roles. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her work, but the film’s true gem was the final performance of Spencer Tracy, also nominated for an Oscar (he lost to Rod Steiger, also for In the Heat of the Night). Based on how the Academy likes to vote now, if this lineup of films were nominated again this year, I’d put my money on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Or even Dr. Doolittle.
42. The Social Network (2010)
Lost to: The King’s Speech
Since the mid-’90s, there has been a slowly building divide between critics and the Academy. When Oscar race tracking became so much more evident and easier, statisticians began recording numbers of precursor wins, critic society awards, and guild nominations. In the second year of the “let’s have ten nominees” transition the Academy tried out, we saw the sharpest recent divide we’ve ever seen between two films. The Social Network all but swept the critical awards before the Oscars, only to lose to a light historical story about an English king overcoming a stutter. It’s the most recent entry on this list, but if there was ever a year that showed clear evidence of the type of movie the Academy was looking for in recent memory, it was this one.
41. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Lost to: Rebecca
Screwball comedies aren’t supposed to win Oscars. While The Philadelphia Story isn’t exactly “screwball,” it is an extremely light crowd-pleaser that suffered from two problems: it was up against the only Hitchcock film ever to win Best Picture and it was one of ten nominees, four of which would historically go down as truly classic films (one more is coming up on this list). That being said, Jimmy Stewart won his only Oscar for this wonderful film about relationships, storytelling, and the passion of the press. Among all the nominations, somehow Cary Grant missed out (though I would argue he was more the lead than Stewart and every bit as good). It’s just more evidence of how perfectly crafted this film was, character to character, scene to scene.
40. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Lost to: Silence of the Lambs
1991 was the first time an animated film ever grabbed a nomination for Best Picture with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast. The film also picked up nominations for sound, Original Score (for which it won), and three – count ‘em THREE – for Best Original Song, the Oscar going to the title song. The film never really had a chance of winning (though this was one rare year where the Academy went exceedingly dark with their winner), but its inclusion was the first step toward a wider range of films getting a chance and the creation of the eventual Best Animated Film category.
39. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Lost to: How Green Was My Valley
1941 would one day become one of the most notorious Oscar upsets, but not because of this film, however brilliant it is (the other film is much higher on the list). The Maltese Falcon grabbed three nominations for Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Sidney Greenstreet – no wins. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t even recognized for what would become one of his signature performances. Throw in another great supporting performance from Peter Lorre and you’ve got a cast that deserved more than one measly acting nod. Apparently, the Academy didn’t consider it to be the stuff dreams are made of (I couldn’t resist).
37 (tie). Reds (1981)
37. (tie) On Golden Pond
Lost to: Chariots of Fire
Now, for my first tie. 1981 was easily one of the stranger years for the Oscars. Five films – one from a budding filmmaking master named Steven Spielberg (you’ll see it later), one a modern classic from Louis Malle. Then, you have a story about aging starring two iconic performers (Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda), both winning Oscars for their work. Plus, an epic story of communism and idealism put on screen by an actor-turned-director named Warren Beatty who took home the Oscar for his work. Alas, the winner came in the form of a tiny British film about a long-distance runner. Reds took home Best Director and Cinematography (not to mention ten more nominations and one more win). On Golden Pond had ten nominations, winning Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. In the end, they seemed to split the vote and all that gold meant nothing.
36. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Lost to: My Fair Lady
Sometimes a film is just way too ahead of its time. Sometimes a movie is so cutting and satirical that it proves too much for the Academy to deal with. Enter Stanley Kubrick’s darkest of dark comedies, Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick’s film was never expected to take home the trophy, but still pulled in four nominations – Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor for Peter Sellers and his multifaceted, mind-blowing work. In the end, the crowdpleaser won again, as the award went to My Fair Lady (which I love, too). The bigger snub was probably Rex Harrison over Sellers for Best Actor, but that’s another list for another time. “Dr. Strangelove” has gone down in history as one of the most ingenious political satires to ever hit the big screen.
35. Double Indemnity (1944)
Lost to: Going My Way
If I were to do this again, I’d probably slap a tie in here, too, with a fellow loser from 1944, Gaslight. Regardless, Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir is one of the most layered, fascinating pieces of filmmaking in his stellar repertoire. Starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, the movie pulled in seven nominations (Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Score, Sound, and Black-and-White Cinematography), but went home empty-handed. Instead, the award went to a musical starring Bing Crosby as a young priest. MacMurray was never better, Stanwyck was the definition of a femme fatale, and Wilder once again proved he’s one of the best there has ever been. To this day, Double Indemnity is still one of the measuring sticks for the genre of film noir.
34. The Color Purple (1985)
Lost to: Out of Africa
In 1985, the job of directing one of these most beloved African-American novels of all time fell to Steven Spielberg (weird, huh). What he created was a landmark in cinema – the first film to be nominated for Best Picture with an African-American producer (Quincy Jones). Starring essentially an all-black cast, with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover, The Color Purple also holds one other distinction: it was nominated for eleven Oscars (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress (2), Makeup, Score, Original Song, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Art Direction) and it won…NOTHING. Call it a race issue. Call it tough luck. Call it insanity. But when you lose to an incredibly boring film about a plantation owner’s love affair with a hunter in Kenya in an already weak field, something is wrong.
33. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Lost to: Gone with the Wind
It was one of, if not the best year for movies in history. It’s trademark Frank Capra – an America where good always triumphs over evil and the common man will always find a way to succeed. This time, it’s Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a small town man called into duty for the United States Senate, only coming face-to-face with political corruption. This gives way to the greatest filibuster in movie or political history. It’s typical idealistic Capra and today may feel a little “put on,” but it’s inspiring and hopeful in a world where dreams sometimes die a quick death. It grabbed eleven nominations, but only took one home, for Original Screenplay.
32. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Lost to: Lawrence of Arabia
Above all, the brilliant adaptation of Harper Lee’s read-by-fifty-million-high-schoolers novel suffered from nothing more than bad luck. Not many films would be able to take down a film as epic as Lawrence of Arabia, no matter how boring its third act is (yawn). To Kill a Mockingbird is anchored by Gregory Peck’s incredible Oscar-winning performance as Southern lawyer Atticus Finch and grabbed eight total nominations, winning for Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction. It’s a film that stands the test of time and, in the long run, may have a better shelf life than the film it lost to.
31. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Lost to: The French Connection
It’s Stanley Kubrick again, this time giving the world only the second X-rated film to be nominated for Best Picture (Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which won). Unfortunately, A Clockwork Orange didn’t come out on top, in a relatively difficult field which included eventual winner The French Connection, plus “The Last Picture Show” and Fiddler on the Roof (that doesn’t even include non-nominees McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Klute, and Sunday, Bloody Sunday). Adapted from the incredibly visceral and convoluted Anthony Burgess novel about violence and individualism in future London, the four-time nominated film was driven by a sinister performance from Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, one of the most charismatic villains in cinematic history.
30. Apollo 13 (1995)
Lost to: Braveheart
In 1995, director Ron Howard brought a true-life story of hope in the face of peril and started sweeping up awards. He won the Directors Guild Award. He won the Producers Guild Award. He won the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award. He lost the Golden Globe Drama to Sense and Sensibility, though he was nominated. Nothing could beat Apollo 13. Oscar night came and the Academy decided to hand the award to Mel Gibson’s historical epic about William Wallace, whose only precursor award was a surprise directing win at the Golden Globes. I’m not saying Apollo 13 is a greater film than Braveheart. It’s just proof that even the mighty may fall if a charismatic actor/director is at the helm.
29. L.A. Confidential (1997)
Lost to: Titanic
Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir wasn’t the only quality loser from 1997 (Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets), but the lesson here was a clear one: if you make enough money, nothing can beat you. Critical societies had clearly chosen L.A. Confidential as the best film of 1997, but James Cameron’s biggest blockbuster in history (at the time) had too much momentum and two stars that everyone loved. Titanic was gigantic – a movie that steamrolled everything in its path at the Oscars, regardless of how lazy the film seemed and how dependent upon special effects it was. People spent in droves to see it proving that box office numbers really mattered. In 2009, the Academy would partially right their wrong by choosing the better film over another Cameron behemoth, but L.A. Confidential still missed out on the award it rightly deserved.
28. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer
War movies are very hit and miss in Hollywood. When you hit dead center on a war movie at the right time period, you can knock it out of the park. Then there are those films that get better with age when viewers are separated from the era in which the films were released. Such is the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s re-imagination of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now is a war film unlike any other, keeping its cards close to the chest and speaking of the brutality of war and the effect it has on a man’s psyche in a way that feels queasy. The search for Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is terrifying enough; then you meet him and the darkness surrounds the film. The Academy went with a divorce/custody battle drama starring Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman and, at the time, I wouldn’t blame them. But Apocalypse Now has gone down as one of the most disturbing, cynical views of combat ever.
27. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Lost to: Gladiator
It wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, but it will be tough to top the total accolades thrown its way. The Academy tossed ten nominations the way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s imaginative adaptation of Du Lu Wang’s book of the same name. Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang, this high-flying story of the search for a fugitive and a stolen sword is a parable of feminism set against the backdrop of samurai warriors and insane acrobatics. It took home Oscars for Foreign Language Film, Score, Cinematography, and Art Direction – something unheard of for a foreign film.
26. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Lost to: Gandhi
Steven Spielberg’s career arc is fascinating. In the 1970′s he made some very gritty, very interesting films that didn’t do much to pander to the audience. Then 1982 came and Spielberg gave the world a modern fairy tale about friendship and what it means to be an outsider. E.T. grabbed nine total nominations, winning four (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects, Score, and Sound). Movies that center on children aren’t typically Academy fare and, while the Steven Spielberg touch helped here, in the end, the Academy chose Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, with a dominating performance from Ben Kingsley. But E.T. shaped how Spielberg would make films for the next ten years, with a growing focus on pleasing the audience, rather than telling a meaningful story. He broke that streak with Best Picture winner Schindler’s List, but a large piece of his fan base still looks at this one as his greatest triumph and most personal film.
Written by Joshua Gual
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.