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10 Oscar Winners Who Won For The Wrong Film

by Oliver Lyttelton
February 11, 2014 3:40 PM
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Carol Reed
Total Nominations:
Three directing nominations, for "The Fallen Idol" (1948), "The Third Man" (1949) and "Oliver!" (1968).
The Film He Won For:
Somehow, "Oliver!" This writer has a admittedly difficult relationship with Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," mainly borne out of people singing the title song at him from a young age. And it's not that the British veteran (who was 62 when he made the film, and only directed two more mostly forgotten movies before passing in 1976) does a bad job on the film version: the child performers are strong and the musical numbers beautifully staged, suggesting that Reed had a real capability for the genre. But it's, frankly, a bit of a trifle, and compared to the absolute command of Reed's post-war prime, definitively lesser work. Again, that Reed had never won before must have played a part, especially as he'd been somewhat in the wilderness for a while, along with a slight sense that the Academy was kicking against the new Hollywood wave that had emerged the year before with "Bonnie & Clyde" and "The Graduate." But given that Reed beat Stanley Kubrick for "2001" (and Gillo Pontecorvo for "The Battle of Algiers"), there aren't any excuses that'll make us feel better.
The Film He Should Have Won For:
After the Second World War, Reed had an extraordinary back-to-back trio of successes with "Odd Man Out," "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man." Any would be a worthy winner ("Odd Man Out," a brutal and powerful Irish troubles-themed thriller with James Mason, is masterfully directed—it's Roman Polanski's all-time favorite—and didn't even get a nomination), but if we were going to laud Reed for any of them, it would be "The Third Man," one of the most atmospheric and richest thrillers ever made. Endlessly influential, and still hugely iconic 65 years later (cue zither score... ), it's an all-time classic (the BFI named it the Best British film of the 20th century, and Reed would have been a far worthier winner than Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who took the prize for "A Letter To Three Wives."

Martin Scorsese
Total Nominations:
Eight directing nominations, for "Raging Bull" (1980), "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988),  "Goodfellas" (1990), "Gangs Of New York" (2002), "The Aviator" (2004), "The Departed" (2006), "Hugo" (2011) and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (2013), plus screenplay nominations for "Goodfellas" and "The Age Of Innocence" (1993), and picture nominations for "Hugo" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street."
The Film He Won For:
At the 2006 ceremony, host Jon Stewart quipped, after the victory of "Hustle & Flow" for Best Original Song, "Three Six Mafia 1, Martin Scorsese 0." Stewart must have hit a nerve, because a year later, the Academy made amends, with "The Departed" taking Best Picture and Best Director for Marty, his first-ever Oscar win. And making amends is probably the key word there. "The Departed" is a good movie, certainly—hugely entertaining, quotable, and with a brace of excellent performances, including Mark Wahlberg's, which was nominated, and Matt Damon's, which disgracefully wasn't. And to be fair, it was a step up from Scorsese's previous couple of nominations. But it's still fairly glossy, almost comic-book stuff, fairly disposable when put up against Scorsese's career heights (or even the similarly irreverent "The Wolf Of Wall Street"). It wasn't the strongest year, to be fair (though Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Greengrass, who were nominated, or Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo del Toro, who weren't, would have been more deserving), but even so, it's hard to think about this as anything other than a career award, especially as it marked a return to the kind of gangster picture that made the director's name.
The Film He Should Have Won For:
Interestingly, Scorsese wasn't nominated until "Raging Bull" in 1980: either "Taxi Driver" or "Mean Streets" would have made worthy winners. But it's definitely 'Bull' we come back to. "The Last Temptation Of Christ" might have been more controversial, and "Goodfellas" slicker, but it's "Raging Bull" that still feels like Marty's masterpiece: dazzlingly crafted, powerfully performed and with a soulfulness that isn't necessarily present in some of his showier work. We like Robert Redford and all, but the idea that his work on the dull "Ordinary People," which beat Scorsese to the Oscar, is superior to "Raging Bull" is patently absurd.

Rod Steiger
Total Nominations:
Three, for Supporting Actor for "On The Waterfront" (1954) and Best Actor for "The Pawnbroker" (1966) and "In The Heat Of The Night" (1968).
The Film He Won For:
At the time, Steiger made it clear how much he wanted the trophy for "In The Heart Of The Night" saying, "I want to win it. It's important. It gives you greater latitude in the business and a chance to get bigger and better parts. I just don't think I'll get it." For that reason, and because Steiger gave an all-timer of a speech (informed by the recent death of Martin Luther King, which had caused the ceremony to be delayed, in part because Steiger and others had threatened to boycott if it wasn't pushed back), and because he's good in the movie, it's very difficult to resent Steiger's win. But the film's still a stodgy, if solid melodrama, and given that he was up against Warren Beatty in "Bonnie & Clyde," Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" and Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," we're not sure we can say that Steiger deserved it on merit alone.
The Film He Should Have Won For:
 Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker," a bleak, defiantly uncommercial piece of work starring Steiger as a Holocaust survivor alienated from the world around him. A chameleonic and deeply intense turn, the best of his career by a country mile, it did manage to pick up a nomination, but even in a weak year that also included Olivier's blackface "Othello," Oskar Werner in "Ship Of Fools" and Richard Burton in "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold," Steiger was beaten by, of all people, Lee Marvin in "Cat Ballou." As much as the politics of "In The Heat Of The Night" contributed to Steiger's victory, you sense that the Academy making up for the earlier snub was just as much a factor.

Honorable Mentions: We may well return to this subject in the near future, so we won't go into too much detail, but among the directors that we'd argue won for the wrong movie are Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Zemeckis, Bernardo Bertolucci and George Cukor. As far as actors go, there's Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and James Cagney, while among actresses, there's Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Lange, Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo, Penelope Cruz and Juliette Binoche, to name but a few.

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  • Brett | March 12, 2014 5:26 PMReply

    Martin Scorsese is my favorite director and I thought The Departed was my favorite of his, I thought Raging Bull was overrated

  • John | March 3, 2014 2:44 PMReply

    Ordinary People is.. cute, but Raging Bull is an American masterpiece, and at the very least should have gotten Martin his first directing Oscar.

    Gloria Swanson should have won for 'Sunset' not Davis for All About Eve. The others I agree with.

  • Get a clue, John | March 9, 2014 12:23 AM

    Ordinary People is cute????!!!! That is such a lowly belittling insult. It is an American masterpiece worthy of every award it was given. Although as has been stated Timothy Hutton should have been nominated and won for Best Lead Actor.

  • L | February 26, 2014 7:41 PMReply

    Ordinary People was amazing. If any award was given to the wrong person that year, it was Timothy Hutton in Supporting--he should've been in the Lead category, and he absolutely should have won.

  • Jake | February 26, 2014 1:41 AMReply

    I'm kinda sick that people say ordinary people was not worthy to win best picture, I recently saw it again and I don't think a movie has moved me as much as that did. Shirley MacLaine was very deserving for terms of endearment. Why not mention renee zellwegger and Penelope cruz who both won supporting oscars the following year for performances they were better in

  • Bob | February 20, 2014 9:58 PMReply

    Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are two big ones that stand out. Crowe should have won for INSIDER and then BEAUTIFUL MIND and Denzel for HURRICANE.

  • jhpcine | February 20, 2014 5:00 PMReply

    I've just read your honorary mentions and I couldn't agree more... With the exception of James Cagney's inclusion! He was perfect in "Yankee Doodle Dandy"! One question, which film do you think should've earned his award to Robert Duvall?

  • jhpcine | February 20, 2014 4:33 PMReply

    Just some random thoughts: Julie Christie was awarded for "Darling" by academies (she won both the Oscar and the BAFTA) as well as by cirtics circles such as the National Board of Review and New York. The same with Shirley McLaine; she didn't just won the Oscar for "Terms of endearment", but the most important American film critics' awards: Los Angeles, National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and New York. As for Geraldine Page, I agree "The trip to Bountiful" isn't a great film, but Page's performance is great, don't you think? I love her in both Williams' films, but do you think she should've beaten Sophia Loren and Anne Bancroft?

  • Helgi | February 15, 2014 8:45 AMReply

    Stanley Kubrick. The fact that he never won an Academy Award for directing shows that it is just a popularity contest. A showcase for beautiful bubbles to shine for a day or two.

  • robin | February 14, 2014 11:00 AMReply

    The biggest omission is certainly Alfred Hitchcock. He is the most critically acclaimed director now (according to the sight and sound survey, 2012). But he never won an Oscar.

  • Dave's Deluxe | February 14, 2014 12:05 PM

    Now now, Oliver. "Snark" isn't very becoming of internet movie critic folks. I would assume it best to simply contribute to the mystique of the work and remain silent, and let us little people have our fun amongst you quick-witted giants.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | February 14, 2014 11:29 AM

    I'm used to people commenting without reading the article, but you might be the first person I've come across to leave a comment without even reading the headline.

  • blobbo | February 13, 2014 10:16 PMReply

    Fun article. One error: at the end of the piece about Carol Reed, it states that he lost the Best Director Oscar for "The Third Man" to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for "A Letter to Three Wives." In fact, he did lose to Mankiewicz for the 1950 awards, but it was when Mankiewicz won for "All About Eve." It was the year before that Reed -- nominated for "The Fallen Idol" -- lost to Mankiewicz for "A Letter to Three Wives." Also, it might just be semantics, but you state that "Odd Man Out" did not even receive a nomination. If you are specifically talking about Reed as director, that is correct, but the film did receive a nomination for Best Film Editing. "Body and Soul" starring John Garfield won that category. Personal opinion: as for the one and only magnificent Julie Christie, I'd choose "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." Heartbreaking and haunting performance.

  • DomizianoA | February 12, 2014 2:28 PMReply

    Oh my God: great article! But as usual the comments are angering me! We are talking about sublime legends like Julie Christie, and, most comments go over Jennifer Lawrence, or Amy Adams who was truly insipid in 'American Hustle' (i am sorry but she was, just not her role!),or Russell Crowe! People, it is just not about today! And just today! There were so many better movies, and so many dreamier stars back until the 1980's: in fact, those icons who are still alive, such as Christie, still works, and looks great (she was the best thing of "The Company You Keep" by FAR!!!), and, not like other thespians lately.. who have a decade, max!
    And, of course, there are still MacLaine, and the great Pacino, and there was Carol Reed who made a few memorable movies...
    Please, try to get back to the greater Cinema, at least once in a while!!! Goddammit!
    And, no i am not 70, i am barely 40.

  • Klamentyne | February 28, 2014 1:38 AM


  • Colin | February 15, 2014 2:35 PM

    Domizianoa , actually both the highly overrated Jennifer Lawrence & Amy Adams are insipid in American Hustle . I am still surprised that film and its performances received Oscar nominations .

  • Alex Carlson | February 12, 2014 10:07 AMReply

    I'd add John Mills to this list. He's a brilliant character actor who did brilliant work in films like GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but he wins the Oscar for his non-speaking role in RYAN'S DAUGHTER, a performance that basically consisted of making scared faces and running away from things.

    He should have won for HOBSON'S CHOICE, where he gives and incredibly honest comedic performance as the nervous future son-in-law of Charles Laughton's brash protagonist.

  • Jmclarosb | February 12, 2014 9:13 AMReply

    I'm surprised hot to see Russell Crowe on the list. He should have won for The Insider and/or ABeautiful Mind, not Gladiator

  • jimmiescoffee | February 12, 2014 12:29 AMReply

    'The Departed' is an almost perfect film. sorry.

  • Frank | February 26, 2014 5:17 PM

    No, The Departed is the exact opposite of perfect.

  • Kurskij | February 14, 2014 3:16 PM

    It is, but considering Scorsese directed it and it came out as an almost frame-by-frame by more bleak and (I hope it's not an IMHO) superior Internal Affairs, while it wasn't a surprise and was a relief that Scorsese finally got his due, it was disappointing that one of the very best directors of all time, one of the smartest and most respected men in Hollywood and, moreover, in the history of cinema, won for what was a terrific movie, but one clearly belonging amongst his lesser works.

    Only recently he admitted that some movie he made as bona fide favors to people he admires - and it seemed like he was talking about Departed and Wolf of Wall Street.

    Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and praised yet still underrated Casino are parts of cinema history to be studied, admired and cherished for as long as cinema lives.

    While Departed will always remain a powerful remake of a movie that truly f*cked with the genre in an the most astonishing ways.

  • Doon | February 12, 2014 3:22 PM

    Hear, hear!

  • gerard kennelly | February 12, 2014 1:34 AM

    the departed is a cartoon when you compare it to goodfellas or mean streets

  • K. Bowen | February 12, 2014 12:05 AMReply

    Is it too soon to say Jennifer Lawrence?

  • Colin | February 15, 2014 2:37 PM

    Agreed about Jennifer Lawrence . First , she was nominated over Marion Cotillard , and she won over Emanuele Riva and Naomi Watts. Talk about hilarious .

  • Sean | February 11, 2014 11:34 PMReply

    Personally, I think you guys don't know shit when it comes to MacLaine and her win with Terms.
    But other than that, I agree with everything else. Hell, I would even go with Scorsese and Aviator. Just not Departed.

  • Jorge Clooneigh | February 11, 2014 9:05 PMReply

    Why do I get the horrible feeling that Amy Adams will join this list come March after a surprise thieving of the trophy from the genius Cate Blanchett?

    Adams is so mediocre in American Hustle it would be insulting to her work in Junebug, The Master and many other performances to acknowledge her here.

  • Oogle monster | February 11, 2014 8:41 PMReply

    What about Colin Firth for A Single Man (instead of TKS), Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone (instead of SLP), and Gwyneth Paltrow for absolutely nothing since her career is a joke and her Oscar win is a bigger joke (although she is borderline good in The Talented Mr Ripley)....

  • Kurskij | February 14, 2014 3:21 PM

    Firth gave a very nuanced performance in A Single Man - and TKS was for him what Gladiator was for Crowe and "Iron Lady" for Streep (also Pacino etc. etc.).

    "We feel bad, there ya go" Academy is the worst. And it looks like it's getting worse.

  • IJS | February 11, 2014 7:22 PMReply

    Denzel won for Training Day, but he should have won for Malcolm X. I must have pushed Al Pacino's win out of my mind.

    Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost years after her Color Purple snub.

  • sam jackson | February 12, 2014 1:36 AM

    mark my words
    steve mcqueen WILL win best director
    and that loudmouth cu** spike lee will present it

  • Jorge Clooneigh | February 11, 2014 7:11 PMReply

    Why do I get the horrible feeling that Amy Adams will join this list come March after a surprise thieving of the trophy from the genius Cate Blanchett?

    Adams is so mediocre in American Hustle it would be insulting to her work in Junebug, The Master and many other performances to acknowledge her here.

  • Klamentyne | February 28, 2014 1:44 AM

    not gonna happen!

  • Cassie | February 11, 2014 5:55 PMReply

    Cher should have won for mask or silkwood not that silly accent in moonstruck

  • Truth | February 11, 2014 7:04 PM


  • BEF | February 11, 2014 4:28 PMReply

    Man, Ordinary People sure gets a short shrift from everyone. It's a good movie. Is Raging Bull better? Of course! But Ordinary People is no Crash awarding embarrassment ... it's just a good throwback melodrama without the Sirk colors. I wish people would pick on Costner more for "robbing" Scorsese.

  • Kurskij | February 14, 2014 3:24 PM

    Oh, damn, "Crash". The year when what looked like a lesser HBO movie won Best Picture.

    I'm still amazed what happened there.

  • brad pitt54321 | February 12, 2014 1:42 AM

    goodfellas is 5 stars amazing
    but so is dances with wolves
    on the big screen Dances With Wolves would make goodfellas look like a tv show
    the average academy member is 62
    of course they preferred an epic western instead of
    stomach turning foul language and violence

  • Andrew | February 11, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    A more recent trend has been awarding someone in an acting field for an inferior performance to one they gave the year prior. Colin Firth deserved Best Actor for A Single Man, not The King's Speech.

  • cattt | February 11, 2014 4:23 PMReply

    They could've swapped the best actor winners from 2010 and 2011. Jeff Bridges should've won for True Grit and Colin Firth should've won for A Single Man. It went the other way around.

  • Kurskij | February 14, 2014 3:26 PM

    Crowe should have one for Insider (not to start and argument of course) - a quiet, immensely powerful performance from an actor who is considered burly and "walking the line".

  • soup per man | February 12, 2014 1:47 AM

    @ CATTT

    Russell Crowe should've won for a beautiful mind

    he did till he beat up the bafta producer
    and the ocars were playing politics that night
    halle berry
    same PC garbage that went on the night they gave best actor to penn instead or rourke
    and hanks instead of Thewlis who wasn't even nominated

  • tom cruise 12345 | February 12, 2014 1:44 AM

    pitt and Clooney should have been nominated for tree of life and ides of march instead of moneyball and descendents

  • Jorge Clooneigh | February 11, 2014 9:38 PM

    SO TRUE. I have thought this for a while too. Firth is superb in A Single Man. He is the best thing about The King's Speech, granted, but it is clearly inferior to the former.

    Likewise, Jeff Bridges is fine in Crazy Heart yet it was kind of ridiculous to see the Academy freak out thinking "oh, crap he's getting old - let's give him an Oscar before he dies!", when they could have waited a year.

  • Jorge Clooneigh | February 11, 2014 7:05 PM

    SO TRUE. I have thought this for a while too. Firth is superb in A Single Man. He is the best thing about The King's Speech, granted, but it is clearly inferior to the former.

    Likewise, Jeff Bridges is fine in Crazy Heart yet it was kind of ridiculous to see the Academy freak out thinking "oh, crap he's getting old - let's give him an Oscar before he dies!", when they could have waited a year.

  • cattt | February 11, 2014 4:26 PM

    Also: Russell Crowe should've won for The Insider or A Beautiful Mind instead of Gladiator.

  • serena | February 11, 2014 4:08 PMReply

    A lot of great classic actors won for the wrong film. Henry Fonda should've won it for GRAPES OF WRATH, Humphrey Bogart won for THE AFRICAN QUEEN but his greatest performance was the previous year in IN A LONELY PLACE, I'd even argue that Gary Cooper's first Oscar was the right year for the right director, but the wrong film: BALL OF FIRE has aged so much more gracefully than SERGEANT YORK, both released in 1941 and directed by Howard Hawks.

  • Milano | February 11, 2014 4:04 PMReply

    James Stewart won for "The Philadelphia Story" and should have won the year before for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Joan Fontaine won for "Suspicion" and should have won the year before for "Rebecca."

  • serena | February 11, 2014 4:11 PM

    With respect to Stewart, Robert Donat is pretty marvelous in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS which won Best Actor in the crowded year of 1939. For me Stewart's crowning achievement is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a beautiful performance he has to carry on his lithe back. Either way, his Capra films allowed for better acting than THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.

    For what it's worth, the best film and performance Joan Fontaine featured in was LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN.

  • T | February 11, 2014 3:58 PMReply

    Goodfellas Vs. Dances with wolves....

    now on which universe is the latter deserving over the former?

  • RTO | February 25, 2014 2:03 PM

    Loved, and still love, Dances With Wolves. I rarely re-watch a movie a second time, and have seen this just twice, but remember it sooooo fondly. It's been at least a decade since the last viewing, so this has reminded me it's time to see it again.

  • Julieanne | February 14, 2014 1:33 AM

    To be honest - Dances with Wolves. I think Goodfellas is a bloody good film HOWEVER I just love the romance and optimism of Dances. And I think Kevin Costner is a spunk!

  • goodfellas is mafia disgusting propaganda | February 12, 2014 1:49 AM

    which movie would you rather watch in a cinema right now ?
    be honest

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