“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.