The Oscars: A history of snubs and mistakes

By Cory J. Willey


Each year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds The Oscars, and each year they discover new ways to get it wrong. More often than not, history is kinder to those films, actors, actresses and directors, whom the Academy deemed not quite good enough.

The golden statuette has an uncanny knack for ending up in exactly the wrong hands. Looking back at the storied past of the Academy Awards, certain unfortunate trends emerge. Legends not receiving credit when it’s due, safer choices in the Best Picture category winning out and the tendency to give awards based on a career rather than a performance are just a few of the patterns that arise.

Take for example Samuel L. Jackson’s loss at the 1994 Awards. Jackson was up for Best Supporting Actor for his now iconic performance as mob hit man Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Looking back, Jackson should’ve been a shoe-in for the award. Instead the award went to Martin Landau for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood.” At the time, Landau had come up empty in his two previous nominations and at 66 years old he was nearing the end of his career. This win goes down as more of a reward for his career than for the actual performance. Jackson’s hit man has gone down as one of the best characters in the recent cinema. When was the last time anyone brought up Landau’s performance?

“The Wizard of Oz” remains a staple of cinematic history, not only for its brilliant use of color, but for its wonderful story-telling and delightful music. At the heart of the film stands Judy Garland’s Dorothy, who largely carries the film. Garland, however, was overlooked at the Academy Awards and did not receive a single nomination for her role in the film. Vivien Leigh went on to win Best Actress that year for “Gone With The Wind.”

The 1994 Academy Awards provide another example of a common Oscars trend. The Academy loves to play it safe, especially when it comes to the Best Picture category. In 1994, “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” were all up for the night’s biggest award. All of these films are unquestionably good. Two of them, however, are excellent and they happen to be the two that lost. “Forrest Gump” was a safe choice, as seemingly everyone at the time loved it. It dealt with far less dark and controversial subject matter than “Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank,” despite being a less interesting and compelling film.

Sometimes the Academy manages to rob even cinema’s most seminal films and directors. In 1989, Spike Lee’s racially charged drama, “Do the Right Thing,” did not even receive a nomination for Best Picture. Instead “Driving Miss Daisy” took home the Oscar. Lee’s film continues to be a much more important and relevant work.

At the 49th Awards in 1977, Martin Scorcese did not receive a nomination for his masterpiece “Taxi Driver.” The film itself lost out to “Rocky” for Best Picture, which went on to win three awards that year.

Scorsese would be continually unrecognized in the years to come until finally winning for Best Director in 2007 for “The Departed.” His work on “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” were much more deserving, revealing another case of the Academy dealing out awards after the fact, essentially acknowledging their own mistakes.

Alfred Hitchcock, whose name is synonymous with American cinema, never won an Oscar. Think about that for a moment. The master of suspense, director of so many classics including the likes of “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “The Birds,” never received a statue for his work. This in and of itself should be enough to show that maybe the Academy isn’t the best judge of talent.

If Hitchcock’s lack of a directorial Oscar isn’t enough evidence, then this surely is: “How Green was my Valley” won five Oscars in 1942, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s competition? “Citizen Kane.” “Citizen Kane,” widely regarded as the best film of all time, especially due to masterful direction from Orson Welles, received only one Oscar that year for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. There is no question which film was more deserving of those awards now.

The list of mistakes and snubs throughout the years goes on and on, but the Academy Awards continue to carry weight in the film industry. Sometimes they get it right, but when declaring something or someone the “best,” there will always be contention. We will forever gather to observe these awards as the most important night for film. Only history will truly reveal those most deserving of praise and recognition.

Cory J. Willey can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @cojwilley.