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The 15 "Edgiest" Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
February 19, 2014 3:39 PM
29 Comments
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“Ugh, the Academy, so conservative” goes the cliché, as bloggers and pundits the movie world over take a moment to roll their eyes and sigh before diving back in to beaver away on one of a million pieces about this year’s nominations, the pros and cons, the good picks, the bad picks, the odds, the ends (hey, we’ve done a few ourselves with more on the way!) But while that knee-jerk stance is an easy one to adopt (and also comfortable—setting the speaker above the choices in question by virtue of the fact that they’re not challenging enough, not cinephile-y enough, too MOR, too bland), it doesn’t take account of those times when we’ve been surprised by the august body. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which does absolutely skew older-white-male in its demographics (as does the film industry, folks) has, on occasion given us pause—nominating a film which, in content or execution, might seem to be light years away from its wheelhouse: explicit in its treatment of sexuality, or extreme in its violence or just wholly different to our idea of an “Oscar movie.”

While this year that debate has centered on Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the expansion of the Best Picture Category to ten titles (similar to the number included in the Golden Age ceremonies of the 1930s and 1940s) has meant that going forward there will perhaps be more room for a couple of outlier nominations each year. However, the readjustment in 2011 ensuring that the category can have anywhere from five to ten nominations has supposedly done away with the possibility of a film or two getting in there purely to make up the numbers with no hope whatsoever of winning (pundits point to the 2010 Best Picture nomination for “Winter’s Bone” as an example of that).

Even without the official changes in policy, the Academy may be overall a slow-moving and rather reactionary organization, but it is subject to cultural influence, to trends and fashions that sometimes result in a film not traditionally deemed Academy-friendly getting a nomination for the highest award the industry has to offer. When this happens it’s usually a good thing; it shakes up the awards season and adds a little spice to the mix. So we thought it time we celebrated this under-appreciated phenomenon: here are 15 instances where the Academy, whether they got it right or wrong, surprised with edgier picks.

"The Racket" (1928)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? It's hard to say if anything would have been a surprising Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture, as it was known back in the day) nomination back in 1928, given that it was the first ever Academy Awards ceremony, and no precedent had been set. But there's a daring quality to "The Racket" that makes it something of an outlier even among the early years of the Oscar. Adapted from a stage play, directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by a then 23-year-old Howard Hughes, the film's a sturdy crime tale, but one with a pre-Code moral ambivalence that proved somewhat shocking at the time. Thomas Meighan plays the one good cop in a Chicago that's rotten and corrupt from the top down, who becomes determined to bring down Al Capone-ish crime boss Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim, in a part played by Edward G. Robinson on stage, and which made him into a star) by any means necessary, legal or not. The film's depiction of citywide corruption, official approval of bootlegging, and even a morally ambivalent conclusion (Scarsi is eventually brought down not by Meighan's cop, but because the all-powerful Organization are scared that he'll name names) are more familiar now, but undoubtedly had a power back then, and certainly feels more complex than many other classic early gangster pictures (and even the Hughes-produced, Robert Mitchum-starring 1951 remake of the same material). Both lawmakers and criminals took up against it, as well: Chicago bootleggers, alarmed by the film's accuracy, reportedly made death threats towards Hughes, Milestone and the actors, while the the city of Chicago, shocked and appalled that anyone could believe that their city was corrupt, banned the film, as they'd already done to the play. Fortunately, no one ever mentioned the words "Chicago" and "corruption" in the same sentence again...
Why Was It Nominated? Tricky to say. The film received decent notices, but most predicted that the film would be lost among the swath of similar gangster pictures, while the New York Times said that it was "one of the most entertaining pictures in quite a time," it also acknowledged that "[coming] at the end of a season somewhat overrun by melodramas and underworld mysteries.... [it] will likely not get the niche in the hall of fame it perhaps deserves." One could point to slim pickings in the infancy of the awards, but that's not quite accurate—"Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans," "The Jazz Singer," "Metropolis" and the similarly crime-themed "Underworld" were among the movies passed over for Outstanding Picture in favor of "The Racket." The cynics among us, tainted by years of Oscar politicking, might suggest that the film's backing by the obscenely wealthy Hughes might have helped a little. But in reality, it's probably more that Hollywood types wouldn't have had the same objections as Chicago natives.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Like many films of its era, "The Racket" was believed lost for decades, until one sole surviving print turned up (in Hughes' private collection after his death), was restored and occasionally airs on TCM. The film's power is diluted by many of the crime flicks that came after, but it's solid and atmospheric stuff, with some impressive production value and real moral complexity.

"She Done Him Wrong" (1933)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Almost no one in mainstream Hollywood has ever embodied sex—and more importantly, female sexuality—better than Mae West. And in many ways, "She Done Him Wrong" saw her at her peak: the film, her first big hit, was released in 1933, the year before the Production Code started to be more strictly enforced, cleaning up Hollywood for the next few decades. Set in a saloon in the 1890s, where West's singer squares off against her pimping boss, her psychotic ex-boyfriend and various other no-goods, with the help of Cary Grant's undercover Federal agent. The film has a remarkably unabashed attitude towards alcohol (for a film shot before Prohibition was lifted, it practically serves as product placement for beer), and sees West manipulating and murdering without much consequence. And, more than anything, there's sex everywhere: from the pornographic cards swapped by characters, to the enormous nude painting of West, to the fizzly dialogue ("I've heard so much about you"/"Yeah, but you can't prove it," West's song "I Like A Man Who Takes His Time," and of course, her most famous line, "Why don't you come up some time and see me," which West recycled for the same year's "I'm No Angel"). Compared to, say, "Nymphomaniac," it's obviously tame stuff, but you couldn't get away with it a year later. The film had been trimmed down from West's play "Diamond Lil" to make it more palatable but it still caused an enormous fuss from Hollywood-watching moralists. The National Legion Of Decency, the powerful pressure group intended to wipe objectionable content off the screen, was set up soon after the release of West's breakthrough film, and more than one film historian have named it as a direct cause of the organization's foundation; Gerald Gardner wrote that "the Legion of Decency was established primarily to remove Mae West from the screen. It was six months after the release of her salacious "She Done Him Wrong" that the most virulent form of censorship took hold in the movie colony, and by 1934, an amendment to the Production Code was created forcing all movies to obtain a certificate before being released.
Why Was It Nominated? The film was certainly a fairly unlikely Best Picture nominee, in part because it was the year where the clean-cut "Cavalcade" won Best Picture, in part because it's the shortest film ever nominated, at 66 minutes, but mainly because of the happy immorality on display. As with "The Racket," the reviews for "She Done Him Wrong" were decent without being especially effusive: Variety wrote that "the story is pretty feeble," and determined that "it looks as though Paramount brought Miss West along too fast," though the New York Times were keener, praising West's "highly amusing performance." It undoubtedly helped that the film was a big hit (taking in $2 million at the box office), and that West was a huge new star—by 1935, she was the second highest-paid person in the country, after William Randolph Hearst—but it may also have been a reaction against the coming censorship. 1933 saw Variety write pieces attacking the then-ineffectual Production Code, with one screenwriter saying "the Hays moral code is not even a joke any more: it's just a memory." A vote for "She Done Him Wrong," it could follow, was a vote against the Code.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Not briliantly, to be honest. West is still a delight, and the best of her dialogue remains eminently quotable, but the film around it is slight, tonally awkward, and pretty much slows to a crawl every time West is off camera. The supporting cast, up to and including Cary Grant, who's clearly still finding his feet on screen, are pretty weak too, veering between caricature and non-entities. That the Academy would go for this over the superior "I'm No Angel," or even Ernst Lubitsch's equally sex-infused, infinitely wittier "Trouble In Paradise," is deeply puzzling, regardless of its shock value.

Peyton Place(1957)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? With the 1956 Grace Metalious book of the same name barely finishing its run in the bestseller list, the fact that “Peyton Place” the movie was a hit was unsurprising, but its critical success and Academy recognition, in nine categories including Best Picture, was more unexpected. Touching on incest, rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, adultery and suicide in a small, rotten New England town, the film is a potboiler of the highest order, one that didn’t even come with a particularly high pedigree in terms of its participants: director Mark Robson would get a Best Director nomination again the following year for “Inn of the Sixth Happiness” but until this point had been something of a journeyman, if a prolific one, while the supporting cast, especially the younger ones like Diane Varsi (also nominated, along with co-star Hope Lange, for Supporting Actress), were close to unknowns. And as for Best-Actress-nominated star, Lana Turner, her popularity seemed to be on the wane and she’d only been talked into doing the film, in which she plays the mother of an 18-year-old, in the hope (well-founded, as it turned out) that it might revitalize her career the way playing a mother in “Mildred Pierce” had done for Joan Crawford. That the film got to nine nominations (though no wins) with material this salacious was remarkable.
Why Was It Nominated?  Or maybe not so salacious. Reviewers, even at the time, noted that a lot of the more shocking elements of Metalious’ novel had been toned down, smoothed over or eliminated, and the film has overall such a moralizing tone that whatever grubby exploits remain seem there purely to teach valuable lessons. And while in retrospect that seems like a regressive move, it did undoubtedly help the film become more palatable to the Academy. It also shows the power of buzz (and box office potential) in influencing the Academy, as it always does—the “Peyton Place” brand was everywhere at that stage and the film, released in prime Oscar season December, had already been a hit. As an odd footnote: while it had made a very good return by the time the Oscar ceremony happened, an infamous murder that very night would be widely regarded as the reason its subsequent box office performance would be even stronger. The night of the Oscar telecast (April 4, 1958) was the very night that Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter killed Turner’s lover, the gangster Johnny Stompanato. And the ensuing scandal, which Turner initially feared would end her career, actually boosted her profile, leading to her casting in William Wyler’s “Imitation of Life” and blackly proving the cynical adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, the lurid real-life crime couldn’t have been more in keeping with the kind of behind-closed-doors nastiness that “Peyton Place” revolved around.
How Does It Hold Up Now? So mired in 1950s moralizing that to modern eyes it’s a bit like the product of another planet, “Peyton Place” is still kind of a fun watch, though how it ever could have been regarded as 'quality' is sort of baffling. Put together with nowhere near the style or visual splendor of other 1950s melodramas like “Imitation of Life” or “All That Heaven Allows” “Peyton Place” feels, by comparison, rather bumbling and dreary, and for all its potentially splashy subject matter, desperately afraid of offending, so no one gets to transgress in any way without being swiftly and sternly punished. if you’re a fan of the melodrama genre it’s probably fairly essential, and indeed it even spawned the TV soap opera that launched the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, and saw such luminaries as Gena Rowlands, Leslie Nielsen and Dan Duryea crop up from time to time.

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29 Comments

  • natalie | April 20, 2014 2:15 PMReply

    FYI - Douglas Sirk directed"Imitation of Life".

  • fergus brazel | February 27, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    Has anyone read Ty E`s truly astonishing reveiws of "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "12 Years a Slave" over on Soiled Sinema ? hes perhaps the ONLY film reveiwer in the entire world whos had the guts and the nerve to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about those two 'supposedly great' movies ! ! !.

  • Fergus Brazel | March 7, 2014 5:37 AM

    This is not me making these comments. Why are you using my name to post comments on this board?

  • fergus brazel | February 27, 2014 6:46 PMReply

    Jervaise, every geezer in the world wants to bugger Abigail Breslin, THATS A GIVEN ! ! !.

  • Fergus Brazel | March 7, 2014 5:38 AM

    This is not me making these comments. Why are you using my name to post comments on this board?

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:43 PMReply

    I want to bugger Abigail Breslin.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:42 PMReply

    I want to bugger Linda Blair (as the bird was in 1977 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • jervaise brooke hamster | February 27, 2014 6:40 PMReply

    "The Silence of the Lambs" is an unwatchable pile of garbage.

  • frank | February 24, 2014 10:55 PMReply

    Sorry but William Wyler did not direct Imitation Of Life, Douglas Sirk did. He might have wished he had!

  • Chris138 | February 21, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    Nope, you're not alone in your assessment of A Clockwork Orange. I feel the exact same way. I've watched it twice and both times found things to admire (mainly McDowell's performance) but everything else feels flat and, quite frankly, rather dull. It's my least favorite Kubrick film, but I know that is a minority opinion.

  • Anonee | February 26, 2014 1:59 AM

    Even kubricks WORST film is better than 95 percent of all movies ever made.

  • Fergus Brazel | February 20, 2014 6:33 PMReply

    No mention of Blue Velvet which was nominated for Besy Director award in 1986. Surely the 'edgiest' film ever nominated. Its omission pretty much renders your list invalid.

  • Fergus Brazel | February 20, 2014 6:38 PM

    OK, I've just realised that the list is of Best Picture nominees and I suggested a film that was nominated for Best Director and not Best Picture, so just ignore my remark.

  • Giordano | February 20, 2014 3:13 PMReply

    just a few films of this list were truly big surprises or really edgy. I mean... Everybody knew "Inglorious Basterds", "The Wolf of Wallstreet", "Black Swan" were going to be nominated. Too much buzz.

    And where is "Babe" in the list? That was surely edgy!

  • John | February 20, 2014 3:52 AMReply

    I couldn't disagree more with you about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I recently re-visited this film and found it more powerful than when I saw it ten years ago. It's a bold, courageous and deeply unsettling film about human nature and the way we cannot control it. I mark this as one of Kurbrick's best. There aren't enough films like this that provide such a deep insight into human psyche and divide critics and audiences alike.

  • Larry | February 19, 2014 9:01 PMReply

    William Wyler's Imitation of Life?? No, no, it was Douglas Sirk who directed it. And The Exorcist didn't get a Best Actor nomination; it was Best Actress nom for Ellen Burstyn. I think I'd add Brokeback Mountain as an edgy surprise; though the Best Picture nom wasn't really a surprise, the fact that the Academy embraced it (sort of) was the surprise. A bigger "surprise" was that it lost Best Picture to the mediocre Crash, though Ang Lee won for directing Brokeback. I think it lost because so many homophobes said they refused to even see it -- Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, and Mark Wahlberg among them. Another edgy surprise for me was Juno, an adult movie that included teen pregnancy as a topic.

  • mass | February 19, 2014 6:55 PMReply

    TAXI DRIVER: ... ... ... ...

    AMOUR..... ... ... ..... ....

    PULP FICTION... ... ... .... ... ...

    THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... ..... ... .. ..... ... ... ... ... ...... .... .... ... .... .... ...... ..... ..... .... .... .... .... .... .... ....





    Yeah. I wonder which film The Playlist is rooting for this year.

  • Agent's Assistant | February 19, 2014 6:47 PMReply

    "...(some would argue for "Goodfellas," but they're wrong)..."

    Show me, dear "oliver", the hardcore, empirical, multi-sourced evidence corroborating your claim. Or is this just one more pompous statement (in an article rife with pompous statement?) You laptop critics are surely carving out a specific niche for yourselves.

  • JD | February 20, 2014 10:43 AM

    "hardcore, empirical, multi-sourced evidence corroborating your claim"--you don't get what criticism is, do you?

  • Joe H. | February 19, 2014 4:39 PMReply

    Your dislike of a Clockwork Orange is just you. It's Kubrick's greatest film, much more compelling and significant that 2001.

  • az | February 19, 2014 5:56 PM

    It's not just you. And I agree about Jackie Brown, in fact I think it's Tarantino's best. I wonder if a film like Bonnie and Clyde could survive the initial reviews these days, probably not.

  • Mike | February 19, 2014 4:18 PMReply

    This list reads like my 'favorite films of all time' list, although I think it's constrained by just focusing on nominees. Most truly edgy films are too edgy to actually be nominated. 'Fear and Loathing', 'Easy Rider' and 'Natural Born Killers' to be the edgiest stuff I've seen. I even think 'Caddyshack' and 'Animal House' are very edgy, the former is how it pokes fun at class warfare, and the latter at how it pokes fun at sex in college, subjects that were more taboo during their time. I've always liked how 'Fear and Loathing' lacks any real consequence for the massive amount of drugs the pair do, rather than even how movies like 'Wolf of Wall Street' usually use them for metaphorical falls from grace.

  • Alex | February 19, 2014 4:14 PMReply

    It's hard for me to have an objective stance on 'Clockwork's merits.. it was originally my favorite of Kubrick's films. It jumped out at me, shook me, empowered me and left me in awe of a film willing to address taboo issues with such infectious abandon.. I was given real food for thought and inspired to experiment more with ideas, as well as showing me the possibility of film. Still to this day, ruminating over the film, I am given things to think about. I just wanted to give a different perspective on 'Clockwork'.. I owe it to that film and the experience of seeing it for the first time.

  • Christian | February 19, 2014 4:11 PMReply

    Almost all of these are among my favorites..!

  • Jim | February 19, 2014 4:05 PMReply

    I'd say Inception was pretty edgy and unusual for a Best Picture Nom.

  • spassky | February 21, 2014 4:18 AM

    In that it's an horrible, over-rated piece of gargantuan shit? agreed.

  • kf | February 19, 2014 3:55 PMReply

    black swan, seriously? is there anything more oscar baity than that?

  • Alex | February 19, 2014 4:17 PM

    How is Black Swan 'oscar baity'? There's no sentimentality.. it's infused with existential dread, with a narrative flow that twists and confuses the audience's idea of the true reality of the situation.. I left completely obliterated by the film, affected to the point that I had to ask my brother to drive home. Whether my reaction was a sign of personal fragility or not, to say this film is 'oscar baity' is way off base! A film like 'The Butler' is oscar baity.. Lee Daniels was born to feed off the sentimental glow of the oscar statuette.

  • Nolan | February 19, 2014 3:48 PMReply

    Pulp Fiction was such a strange cultural event that I can remember my square, Republican parents renting it to see what the fuss was about. I was probably ten or so, but I still remember hearing the language from the other room and them turning it off after ~15 minutes.

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