Looking back over the history of the Academy Awards, I find it astounding how many worthy films were overlooked. The most egregious snubs occurred in 1960, when three classic films were not even nominated, and in 1976 and 2008, when the worst of the five films nominated actually won the Best Picture Oscar. But nearly every year had its injustices, and, like any other industry, Hollywood often lets politics, cronyism, and grudges outweigh merit. Here are the Top 10 Best Picture snubs, starting with the least appalling and counting down to the most appalling:
10) Tennessee Williams' steamy stageplay, "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," got a cinematic makeover in 1958, and its exploration of familial hypocrisy and sexual identity was ahead of its time. Burl Ives and Paul Newman were exceptional as Big Daddy and Brick; Elizabeth Taylor, though at times a little too breathless and emotional, made Maggie's sexual hunger palpable. Such memorable scenes as Big Daddy's recollection of his hobo father and Brick's trashing of his father's "worthless" valuables were ignored by the Academy, which inexplicably voted for "Gigi."
9) Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" lost to "My Fair Lady" in 1964. While I admit that "Lady" was one of the best musicals ever made, no film before or since is comparable to "Strangelove." Kubrick infused his masterpiece with exquisite black-and-white photography, black humor, timely Cold War commentary, and unforgettable performances. Peter Sellers' three characters are as distinct and original as if they'd each been played by separate actors, and the other actors--George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens--are devilishly funny. The story shatters American military mythology and presages disasters such as Vietnam and Iraq. 45 years later, the film is still relevant.
8) 1951--"An American in Paris" beat out "A Streetcar Named Desire." Sure, Gene Kelly's dance number is a classic, but "American" has not much use for plot or narrative thrust. It is an average film elevated by Kelly and his athleticism. Hollywood must have owed him one. Meanwhile, Kazan and Brando created a landmark in American cinema. Actors and directors today still refer to this movie as a kind of watershed moment in the evolution of film in this country.
7) 1963--"Tom Jones," a British film directed by Tony Richardson, was ground-breaking in many respects (the quick cuts and the liberated sexual attitude), but it beat out a superior film--"Hud." This is possibly Paul Newman's best job on screeen, and James Wong Howe's cinematography has never left me. Newman plays a compelling Texas heel as if he was born to the part. Howe's depiction of the vast barrenness of the Texas landscape is as appealing as Hud's exterior and as desolate as his soul.
6) 1952--"High Noon" lost to "The Greatest Show On Earth." Think about that for a minute. A circus movie beat out one of the all-time greats. Cecil B. DeMille directed "Greatest Show," and maybe this was Hollywood's way of giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award. But Fred Zinneman's western is more than just a shoot-em-up. It was a metaphor for personal integrity in a time when congress was on a witch hunt, persecuting individuals for their personal politics. It took bravery to stand for one's principles when everyone else was running for cover.
5) 1971--"The French Connection" won the Oscar instead of "Last Picture Show." I know I'll get arguments about this one. I admit that "Connection" was highly entertaining, and Friedkin's hard-bitten direction and thrilling car chase stand out. But I prefer the elegant, black-and-white existentialism of Bogdanovich's film. The acting was first-rate, especially Ben Johnson's subdued, sad portrayal of Old Sam. The story of a dying era, embodied in a remote, dusty Texas town, evoked that greatest of all American themes--lost innocence.
4) 2008--"Slumdog Millionnaire" won despite being the worst of the five films nominated. Readers of this blog know my disdain for this movie (see previous posts), so I won't elaborate here...except to say, it lacked the epic, heartfelt sweep of "Benjamin Button," the righteous indignation of "Milk," the credible fiction of "The Reader," and the surprising suspense of "Frost/Nixon."
3) 1939--In a strong year, "Gone With The Wind" beats out "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," "Wuthering Heights," "Of Mice and Men," "Stagecoach," and "Good-Bye Mr. Chips." Any one of the losers should have beaten the winner. See my thoughts on GWTW in a previous post.
2) 1960--Before I researched the winners and losers in the Academy archives, I made educated guesses as to the winning film in each year. "The Apartment," 1960's best film, never came to mind. A long-forgotten Billy Wilder/Jack Lemmon film, it contains plenty of overacting, contrived circumstances, and forced humor...just like the Wilder/Lemmon collaboration the year prior--"Some Like It Hot" (maybe the most overrated comedy of all time). Many believed Wilder's Oscar made up for the "Hot" snub in 1959. Also nominated in 1960 was John Wayne's "The Alamo," a bloated, heavy-handed movie that did not deserve the honor. Wayne bullied the Academy into nominating "Alamo" by taking out trade ads claiming it would be un-American to snub "Alamo." But 1960 is most notable for the classics which were not nominated--"Psycho," "Inherit The Wind," and "Spartacus."
1) 1976--The cloyingly heart-warming "Rocky" beats out four worthier films--"Taxi Driver," Martin Scorsese's brilliant exploration of alienation and violence in urban America; "Network," written by one of the great screenwriters of all time, Paddy Chayefsky; "All The President's Men," a timeless and engaging political drama; and "Bound For Glory," the underrated biopic of Woody Guthrie. Rocky's tale of the underdog making good is as old as film itself, but it does not compare with the artistry of the losers.