In recent years the Academy has come under fire for its lack of diversity in its nominations, and while much of that can be traced back to voter demographics, the truth is that no matter what movies are nominated, solid arguments can usually be made for those that aren’t included.
That being said, there are times when they got the winners just plain wrong. Here are 10 Acting Oscars that should have gone to someone else…
Marlon Brando – Best Actor, 1972 – The Godfather
This isn’t an attempt to court controversy by saying that Marlon Brando didn’t deserve the Oscar for his role in The Godfather – we aren’t going to reference his extensive use of cue cards or even his deplorable behavior on the sets of Last Tango in Paris or Apocalypse Now. This is about being a drama queen even when the camera stops rolling. Mark Twain once said that ‘to refuse an award is another way of accepting it with more noise’, which Marlon Brando may have been aware of when he sent Littlefeather in his place to decline the Best Actor Award at the 1973 Academy Awards. While the Native American cause may have been worthy enough, it doesn’t mean Brando’s refusal wasn’t self-serving – if he really didn’t want the award he could have reached out to the Academy earlier and withdrawn with no fuss at all.
Marisa Tomei – Best Supporting Actress, 1992 – My Cousin Vinny
Yes, yes, this is a bit of an obvious one, but it must be on the list. The previously unknown Marisa Tomei emerged from the pack of veteran nominees to claim the Best Supporting Actress at the 1992 Oscars. Rumours immediately circulated that 74-year-old Jack Palance read out the last name on the teleprompter instead of the name on the envelope, which was likely either Judy Davis or Vanessa Redgrave, who had more gravitas in movies that were far more serious than Tomei’s light outing in the forgettable My Cousin Vinny. Whether that Palance mishap was true or not, it’s a great rumour, and it took a few years before she was able to stage a career revival in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Wrestler.
Nicole Kidman – Best Actress, 2003 – The Hours
The only good thing about giving Nicole Kidman the Best Actress win in 2003 was that Renée Zellweger didn’t garner yet another award for the unwatchable Chicago. But still, it’s a choice that doesn’t hold up well. Wearing a fake nose that even Joseph Fiennes would be embarrassed about, there was no chance of credibility and all it did was re-enforce the accusation that the Academy rewards performances where the ‘acting’ can actually be seen, with actors physically and visibly transforming themselves. Add to that the fact that Kidman had only 28 minutes of screen time (Julianne Moore had 33 minutes and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress), and you’ve got yourself a very questionable win indeed.
Alan Arkin – Best Supporting Actor, 2006 – Little Miss Sunshine
It’s unclear whether Alan Arkin is capable of Jedi mind tricks or he has compromising material on a majority of voting Academy members, but either way, his mere presence in a film seems to magically provide Oscar glory. Sometimes that glory is reflected back on himself as seen with his for Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his fairly pedestrian (and short-lived) turn in Little Miss Sunshine. Eddie Murphy was the strong favourite to win that year for Dreamgirls, but the most deserving recipient may well have been Jackie Earle Haley for his portrayal of the tragic Ronald James McGorvey in Todd Field’s Little Children. If you haven’t seen that film, do yourself a favour and check out the pool scene for an example of black comedy at its best.
Gene Hackman – Best Supporting Actor, 1992 – Unforgiven
Gene Hackman was good as the baddie in Unforgiven, but he wasn’t the best thing in it and it wasn’t anything close to the best performance of his career, so it seems like he was a strange choice as winner – especially as Jack Nicholson’s Nathan Jessop was in contention for ordering Code Reds all over Guantanamo Bay (back when that place represented something different) in A Few Good Men. Sure, Nicholson’s was an over the top, scene-chewing performance, but he didn’t just dominate the court scenes, he dominated the whole movie.
Tatum O’Neal – Best Supporting Actress, 1974 – Paper Moon
Every once in a while a young up and comer gives a breakout performance and they are rewarded with an Oscar nomination. And here’s where I’ll get a little controversial. A child Oscar nom is usually not one they are meant to win, it’s just a little taste of the big leagues for the youngster to show them that if they continue to produce quality work, they could come back and win it one day. Jennifer Lawrence was nominated for Winter’s Bone, but while that indie performance was noted, she had to wait another two years before she won for the mainstream Silver Linings Playbook. Quvenzhane Wallis, who was aged five when she played Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, didn’t win when she was nominated, but now if she continues to master the craft and builds on that experience she will be well positioned to return to the Oscar stage to collect a statue. Other child noms without wins include Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense and Hailee Steinfeld for 2010’s True Grit. So, why did 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal win an Academy Award? Surely it’s a slap in the face to every actor if a child is judged to be able to do it better than a whole industry of trained professional actors?
Judi Dench – Best Supporting Actress, 1999 – Shakespeare in Love
The Academy was so enamored with Shakespeare in Love that it briefly lost its collective mind. It swept the awards, winning Best Picture (!), Best Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Music, Best Original Screenplay and most egregiously, it also won Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench, who was on screen for only eight minutes and spent most of that in icy silence. What were they thinking? Best Costumes, Music and Screenplay are all defendable, but it’s difficult to understand the logic of Dench’s win. Despite kicking the British out in The War of Independence, do the American artistic elite still hold their English counterparts in higher esteem than local talent? While diversity is indeed a healthy thing, is there an element of cultural cringe at play here? Let’s check the numbers – in the last twenty years, of the 80 acting awards the Academy has handed out, 33 have gone to international-born (non US) actors; 41%, that’s pretty fricken high!
Martin Landau – Best Supporting Actor, 1995 – Ed Wood
Giving Martin Landau the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Horror Legend Bela Lugosi was one of those unofficial Lifetime Achievement type nods the Academy delivers from time to time, and it’s hard to begrudge him. As best friend of James Dean and classmate of Steve McQueen, his is a survival story in Hollywood. But the cost was Samuel L. Jackson missing out, and no amount of Bet 365 commercials can ever erase the memory of Jackson’s phenomenal performance as Jules in Pulp Fiction.
Adrien Brody – Best Actor, 2003 – The Pianist
It seems as though Adrian Brody has been in movie jail since being awarded the 2003 Oscar for his role in The Pianist. He’s worked on day release in character parts and Wes Anderson projects, but nothing befitting the statue of an Oscar winner in the prime of his life. To truly test his current standing in the industry, if you type “Brody” into IMDB, Adam Brody from the OC comes up before him. The reason for his fall from grace may be his on-stage harassment of Halle Berry when accepting his Oscar, or it may just be because he stole the award from Nicolas Cage. Playing dual roles in Adaptation, Cage was provided just the right release valve that it seems he needs to focus on playing a character without allowing his more crazed impulses to rise to the surface. The recipe worked and he was able to be hilarious, pathetic, neurotic and brilliant as Charlie Kaufman, and dumbly optimistic as his fictional brother Donald. Someone needs to work out a way to get Cage to play multiple roles in every movie he’s in.
Roberto Benigni – Best Actor, 1999 – Life is Beautiful
When serious thespians talk about acting they will refer to it as “a craft,” a skill that has to be learned and honed, and by its nature it should be able to be replicated in different movies under different circumstances. Usually the Academy is pretty aware of this, which is why there are perennial nominees, such as Meryl Streep, who are recognised as being at the top of their craft and are rewarded accordingly. So, it’s unusual when a novelty performance takes the top award, such as what occurred when Italian comedian Roberto Benigni won for Life is Beautiful. It seemed like it was probably a one-off at the time, and if his over-the-top carry-on at the awards didn’t confirm it, his follow-up performances in Pinocchio and Asterix did. This was a year where the Best Actor gong clearly went to the wrong person and it no doubt left Ed Norton, nominated for American History X, sitting in the audience imagining curb stomping that clown climbing all over the back of the chairs.