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10 Oscar Winners Who Won For The Wrong Film

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 11, 2014 at 3:40PM

There are many reasons you can win an Oscar. You can win an Oscar because your peers decided you gave the best performance or directed the best film of the year. You can win because everyone liked your movie the most, and you're being carried along by the momentum. You can win because Oscar bloggers decided you were going to win back in September, and wishing made it so. You can win because your distributor placed the most ads and threw you a bunch of parties. Or sometimes, you can win because you should have won years ago, and they want to make it up to you before it's too late.
55
Oliver!

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."

The Departed Damon Nicholson

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.

In The Heat Of The Night

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.


This article is related to: Awards, Academy Awards, Oscars, Features, Feature


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