The Academy Awards honor the best in cinema of their respective years. At least, they're supposed to do that. Oscar voters often come under scrutiny when choosing between several popular nominees, as when Robert Zemeckis won Best Director for Forrest Gump in 1995 over Quentin Tarintino for Pulp Fiction and Krzysztof Kieślowski for Three Colors: Red. Some may prefer these other picks over Forrest Gump, but at least the ultimate winner makes sense.
But sometimes, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets it so wrong that we can't help but look back in embarrassment. These are Best Picture winners we've long since forgotten, Best Actor winners that make us cringe, and Best Supporting Actress turns that even the performer doesn't understand.
Dangerous (1935) Best Actress, Bette Davis
When Bette Davis won for playing a destructive actress who lured away a successful architect (Franchot Tone), even she knew something had gone screwy. Davis had just given one of the best performances of her career the year before, a performance that received no awards attention. By giving Davis the Oscar the following year, the Academy set one of its worst precedents: the apology Oscar, making up for a mistake in previous years.
The African Queen (1951) Best Actor, Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart is one of the greatest actors of all time, a man who brings a lived-in sense of integrity to (almost) every role. However, he did his best work in genre movies like In a Lonely Place or The Maltese Falcon, movies that too rarely get the attention they deserve. So when Bogart finally made The African Queen, a straightforward adventure flick with romantic themes, the Academy rewarded him with his sole Oscar win. Despite his chemistry with co-star Katharine Hepburn, Bogart seems to play a caricature of himself, a sadly sanded-down version of his best characters.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Best Picture
How Green Was My Valley is a fine movie, even a very good movie. An adaptation of the Richard Llewellyn novel by the same name, the film tells the compelling story of a Welsh coal-mining family. With solid direction from the great John Ford, How Green Was My Valley is incredibly competent and moving. But is it better than Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles film that redefined cinema? Not even close; thus, How Green Was My Valley's win can only be remembered as a mistake.
Born Yesterday (1950) Best Actress, Judy Holliday
Acting styles and moviegoer tastes change over time, meaning that some modern audiences struggle to connect with older films. The bigger type of earlier performances may put off those accustomed to more “naturalistic” acting in today's movies. But even with that caveat, Judy Holliday is nearly unwatchable in Born Yesterday. Irritating at every turn and lacking any internal tension, Holliday is the rare example of the Oscar going to an outright terrible contender.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) Best Picture
Among Steven Spielberg's many talents is the ability to make The Greatest Show on Earth look enticing. In the autobiographical film The Fabelmans, he cites the picture as the movie that inspired his alter-ego, Sammy, to become a director. But without Spielberg giving us a sense of awe, The Greatest Show on Earth is just a bloated Cecil B. DeMille epic that lacks the power of his Biblical films. The spectacle feels empty, and even great performances like Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston can't breathe life into this loud, plodding slog.
BUtterfield 8 (1960) Best Actress, Elizabeth Taylor
Like Bette Davis before her, Elizabeth Taylor won her Oscar not for her best performance but for a mediocre follow-up. In 1958 and 1959, Taylor starred in a pair of Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, which allowed her to play the tragedy and pathos of her sultry characters. Conversely, Gloria Wandrous of BUtterfield 8 is essentially a cipher, an impression of her best work.
West Side Story (1961) Best Supporting Actor, George Chakiris
There is so much to love about the first big screen adaptation of West Side Story, including the fantastic sets, Robert Wise's striking direction, and stunning performances by Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn. However, George Chakiris as Sharks leader Bernado does not belong among those positives. Even if we leave aside that he's a Greek American actor playing a Puerto Rican character, Chakiris brings no charisma or life to his role as the heavy who thwarts the romance between his sister and a rival gang member.
My Fair Lady (1964) Best Director, George Kukor
Big costume dramas and musicals were all the rage in the 1950s and 60s, so it's no surprise that the big screen version of the Alan Jay Lerner play My Fair Lady (itself based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion) would be the highest-grossing movie of its year. But its success came despite, not because of, George Kukor's clumsy direction, which struggles to make the characters stand out among the lavish costumes and set designs. When you consider that Kukor beat out Stanley Kubrick for Doctor Strangelove, Michael Cacoyannis for Zorba the Greek, and Robert Stevenson for Mary Poppins, the Oscar win looks even worse.
My Fair Lady (1964) Best Actor, Rex Harrison
Yes, believe it or not, My Fair Lady won not one but two bad Oscars. Defenders might say that Rex Harrison had to underplay Professor Henry Higgins to let (the un-nominated) Audrey Hepburn shine as Eliza Doolittle. But he sleepwalks through his time as the stuffy Englishman, to the point of nearly falling off the screen. He deserves credit for giving room to his co-star, but not a Best Actor Oscar.
Ryan's Daughter (1970) Best Supporting Actor, John Millis
An epic retelling of Madame Bovary, directed by David Lean and starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles, Ryan's Daughter sounds like the best of the old style that the New Hollywood movement would soon replace. But even the most nostalgic, change-resistant viewer of the day should see the problems with John Millis's cloying, irritating take as an intellectually disabled villager. Full of hurtful stereotypes, even for its time, Millis's performance deserves mockery, not the highest praise from his peers.
Airport (1970) Best Supporting Actress, Helen Hayes
The 1970s saw the rise of the disaster movie, low-brow affairs that gathered an ensemble cast of stars and put them in catastrophic danger. Much of the appeal came from watching respectable actors fight for their lives, not plum the depths of human nature. And yet, somehow, 72-year-old actor Helen Hayes won over voters with her elderly stowaway in the thriller Airport. Her sweet but trite take entertains, but it lacks the depth of those she beat out, especially Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces.
Harry and Tonto (1974) Best Actor, Art Carney
Art Carney is acceptable in the humane road movie Harry and Tonto, about an elderly man traveling across the country with his cat. He comports himself well in the film, one of Paul Mazursky's influential looks at changing America. But the Oscar feels like it's being awarded for Carney's lifetime of work, not for his specific role in Harry and Tonto. It's good that the long-time character actor gets some recognition, but not over his competitors from that year, Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), and Al Pacino (The Godfather, Part II).
Cocoon (1985) Best Supporting Actor, Don Ameche
Like Art Carney before him, Don Ameche won his award less for this specific performance and more for his life's work. Ameche's career stretched back to the vaudeville days and included appearances in films such as The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Down Argentine Way, and Trading Places. Ameche puts in a likable turn in Cocoon as one of the elderly people rejuvenated by aliens. Still, there's nothing remarkable in his character, certainly not enough to deserve an award.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) Best Actress, Jessica Tandy
On the one hand, the Academy awarded Jessica Tandy the Best Actress Oscar for her role as the elderly Southern widower Miss Daisy, and not for a previous performance they missed. On the other hand, not even an actress of Tandy's powers can make Driving Miss Daisy interesting. American film and literature already have hundreds of prejudiced characters who learn to respect others not like them, and Miss Daisy follows their well-worn paths. Tandy does find notes of humanity to play, but even she can't overcome the movie's poor writing.
The Scent of a Woman (1992) Best Actor, Al Pacino
Theoretically, the Oscars should inspire actors to do their best work. But the Best Actor win may have ruined the once-great Al Pacino. A stage actor who came to screens during the New Hollywood movement, Pacino proved himself a master at playing internal depths, a performer who can express layers of emotion with a glance. But the Academy decided to award Pacino for being loud and obnoxious in The Scent of a Woman. As a Vietnam vet who advises a young man, Pacino chewed plenty of scenery, and the Oscar win forever encouraged the actor to choose obvious shouting over depth and subtlety.
Girl, Interrupted (1999) Best Supporting Actress, Angelina Jolie
By 1999, the Oscars had developed a reputation for rewarding not the best acting but the most acting. The more over-the-top a performance could be, the more it deserved attention. Such was the case for Angelina Jolie's win for her breakout movie Girl, Interrupted. As a patient at the mental hospital visited by where Winona Ryder's troubled protagonist, Jolie took every opportunity to go big, and the Oscar voters loved her for it. Jolie has gone on to have a great career, especially in action and genre movies, but Girl, Interrupted does not showcase her best work.
The Hours (2002) Best Actress, Nicole Kidman
If Jolie won her Oscar by shouting a lot, Kidman fell into the other actor's trap by making herself look ugly. Oscar voters love it when an actor radically changes their body for a role, especially when an attractive person makes themselves look ugly (see also: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull or Charlize Theron in Monster). In The Hours, the false nose that Kidman dons to play writer Virginia Woolf gets most of the attention, distracting from the melodramatic part she plays.
Cold Mountain (2003) Best Supporting Actress, Renee Zellweger
An adaptation of a respected novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain seems designed only to win an Oscar, not to tell an interesting story. Nowhere is that desperation more evident than in its only winner: Renee Zellweger as Ruby Thewes, a farmer forced to desperate measures by the outbreak of the Civil War. The naturally glamorous Zellweger does her best to accentuate Ruby's earthy roots, but she only reminds us that she's a Hollywood actress pretending to be an Appalachian laborer. Zellweger did benefit from a weak crop of Supporting Actress contenders that included equally shaky portrayals by Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River and Patricia Clarkson in Pieces of April.
Crash (2004) Best Picture
Hollywood has always had a place for issue movies, films that tackle some hot-button issue. But too often, Oscar voters pick movies with the most simplistic take on complex problems, congratulating themselves for recognizing films with social consciousness without actually dealing with the challenges they present. Such is the case for 2004's Crash, a heavy-handed look at race through intersecting stories. Crash may have won Best Picture that year, but it's now dismissed as a trite and ultimately unhelpful.
The Reader (2008) Best Actress, Kate Winslet
Since her debut in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, Kate Winslet has been an exciting, unpredictable actor. Her work had received plenty of praise and a few Oscar nominations but no wins. She parodied her plight on the BBC television series Extras, in which she played a version of herself who stars in a World War II movie because that's the only way to get an Oscar. The biggest joke is that she was correct, winning her only Academy Award in the sentimental and self-serious drama The Reader.
The King's Speech (2010) Best Director, Tom Hooper
Moviegoers can easily understand how The King's Speech earned a Best Picture nomination. The Academy loves period pieces with big, showy performances. But The King's Speech tells its simple story about a monarch overcoming his speech impediment in the most bizarre way possible, thanks to director Tom Hooper's unusual decisions. Off-putting close-ups and haphazard wide shots distract from the character interactions, forcing viewers to wonder more about Hooper's skills as a director than the heroes' struggles.
Django Unchained (2012) Best Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz
Americans first met Austrian/German actor Christoph Waltz as the charming and evil Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which netted him a deserved Best Supporting Actor win. But as much as we like seeing him play a more heroic version of Landa for the revisionist Western Django Unchained, Waltz repeats the same picks from his first Oscar-winning role. In a year in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tommy Lee Jones wowed in The Master and Lincoln, respectively, the award seems wasted on the self-plagiarizing Waltz.
Argo (2012) Best Picture
If there's one thing Oscar voters love, it's movies about movies. So we can quickly see how Argo, a film about Hollywood solving the Iran Hostage Crisis, would be a hit with the Academy, which primarily consists of industry professionals. However, those not working in the movie business probably have less affection for the flick. Implausible when it's not laughing at its own jokes, dull when it's not touting its own importance, Argo forgets that Hollywood exists to entertain, not deal with global politics.
The Revenant (2015) Best Director, Alejandro González Iñárritu
In the same way that Oscars go to the most acting, they also go to the most directing instead of the best directing. Few movies capture this tendency more than The Revenant, the rugged Western directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The press heavily reported the trials endured by star Leonardo DiCaprio, but Iñárritu made sure viewers saw the hard work he put in as well. Fancy camera tricks and unnecessary movements remind viewers of the director's presence, distracting them from the reality of the actual story.
Green Book (2018) Best Picture
Oscar voters will have a hard time living down Green Book. After a string of great choices, including the powerful drama Moonlight and the adventurous romance The Shape of Water, the Academy chose Green Book as the best movie of 2018. An insultingly simplistic look at racism in America, Green Book wastes its talented leads, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and finds nothing interesting to say about its core issue. Green Book's win shows Hollywood has learned nothing from the embarrassment of Driving Miss Daisy thirty years earlier, setting the film industry back instead of pushing it forward.