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The Ten Worst Academy Award Winners

Ruud’s Bottom Ten

Following the debacle of this year’s Academy Awards, it seemed the perfect time to present a list of the ten worst movies to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar. If you read this space last week, you might be aware of just how much I didn’t think Green Book was deserving of a Best Picture nomination, let alone a victory. Turns out I’m hardly alone in that assessment, as morning after critics were, for the most part, shrieking their disapproval over the Academy members’ puzzling preference of such a trite film over the technical virtuosity of Roma or the period glamor and biting satire of The Favorite or even the deeper relevance of BlacKkKlansman. Spike Lee apparently tried to leave the room when the award was announced, and I don’t think it was just sour grapes.

But lest we think this gross injustice is somehow unprecedented or even unexpected, it’s time to remember just how many miscarriages of justice there have been in the 91-year history of the Academy Awards. And in that spirit I offer the following list of the ten worst films to have filched Oscar’s biggest honor away from far more deserving competition. I’m sure some will disagree with some of my assessments—there was certainly grumbling under my own roof. But here’s my opinion anyway.

Let me set a few ground rules first: I am not including here some of the gross errors made during the first decade of the awards. Among those early awards were some unquestionably substandard films—Broadway Melody (1929), for instance, the first talking film to win the Best Picture Oscar, is universally regarded as the worst film ever to win, and not far behind are Cimarron(1931)Cavalcade(1933), and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). But voters didn’t take the awards as seriously in those early years, and tended, anyway, to just vote for their friends or films produced in the studios they were under contract with. Even so, some of the all-time classic films were honored with the Oscar during those years, including All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), It Happened One Night (1934), and the first Oscar winner, Wings (1927). But I’m starting my list in 1950, so we won’t include some of those regrettable early blunders.

I’m also not going to single out good films that probably should not have beaten out other even better films. Most people agree that Goodfellas was a brilliant film that probably should have won, but Dances with Wolves had an appealing epic grandeur and made an important statement, and is a fine film in its own right. And Saving Private Ryan was a devastatingly powerful film that is unsurpassed in its depiction of the fearful brutality of war, and it probably should have been Best Picture, but that doesn’t make Shakespeare in Love a bad film: Shakespeare has its own delightful glories. And although I’ve made no secret that I thought last year’s winner, The Shape of Water, was an absurd choice in the face of competition from one of the best films of the decade, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I can’t honestly say that it was a bad film. So in addition to choosing only Oscar winners post-1950, I’m also focusing on films that I just didn’t think were Best Picture material at all. And let’s start with Green Book:

 

10) Green Book (2018)

It’s not that Green Book is a bad movie. It’s just not Oscar material. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill buddy-road-trip movie, in which two apparently incompatible people get to understand and appreciate one another. And it’s got its heart in the right place. It might have been titled “Can’t we all just get along?” But other than feeling vaguely good about the human race—if these two can work it out, maybe everybody can—there’s not a lot here. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen are serviceable in their roles, though Viggo sometimes comes across almost as a caricature. Still there is not much to take away from this beyond the message that gosh, things were bad for black folks in the south in the early 1960s, and you know what? Italian Americans, like most white Americans, were prejudiced at the time, largely through ignorance. Who knew? But the film is shallow, cliché, and dated, and uses the “white savior” trope that we ought to have grown out of by now.

 

9) Gladiator (2000)

Ridley Scott put together an epic throwback to films like Spartacus or Ben-Hur, while emphasizing the brutality of war in an opening scene inspired by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Russell Crowe as the enslaved ex-general Maximus who must fight to regain his stolen life won the Best Actor Oscar that he should have won the previous year for The Insider, and Joachin Phoenix played a memorable narcissistic nutcase emperor in a sprawling three-hour spectacle and endurance test that is ultimately predictable and without much substance beyond the bloody spectacle. It’s no Spartacus and it’s no Ben-Hur. It’s not even Life of Brian. Sorry, Ridley. Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic was a far better film that year.

 

8) Argo (2012)

Ben Affleck’s film, about a CIA plan to smuggle six American hostages out of Iran by posing as a science fiction film crew scoping out Tehran as a site for their film, is not a bad movie either when considered in itself, but it’s certainly not a great movie, and really isn’t especially memorable. But it’s pretty much an average sort of spy drama, “based on a true story,” that’s not especially distinguishable from dozens of similar kinds of films, and it stays on a pretty simple level throughout, without going beyond the surface of the real issues involved. A decent movie but not Academy Award material. But Academy voters apparently really liked the idea of Hollywood saving the day, and voted for their feelings.  With a truly well-made spy thriller, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, as the competition, the choice should have been obvious to voters at the time. It certainly is from the current vantage point.

 

7) Braveheart (1995)

The case against Mel Gibson’s directorial debut is not unlike the argument against Gladiator. What we have in Gibson’s rousing spectacle of William Wallace’s role in leading the Scottish to resist the dominance of England’s Edward I, is an uneven story that is very long on technical achievements but short on character depth or complexity. It’s bloody and violent, something Gibson has continued to do, sometimes to excess, and it handles battle scenes with great facility, but it’s not like the characters are particularly memorable, or the plot especially compelling. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 has proven to be a far more compelling film, and probably should have won the Best Picture award that year, though Ang Lee’s brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility would have been a deserving choice as well.

 

6) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

In a plot eerily reminiscent of Green Book, this film focuses on a rich, old, Jewish widow (Jessica Tandy) and her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman), whose relationship spans a time of significant social change in the American south. And while the two main characters do ultimately form a relationship of mutual respect, it’s ultimately a mildly racist flick that has not aged well. Perhaps the Oscar nomination that went to Freeman for Best Actor here was largely the result of his excellent work in Glory that same year—a movie that would have deserved the Best Picture Oscar, had it even been nominated. Also not nominated that year? Spike Lee’s truly groundbreaking Do the Right Thing.

 

5) Gigi (1958)

There have been some great musicals that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, among them My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story, all of which first came to popular attention on Broadway before making it big on the big screen. For Gigi, Lerner and Loewe (the team that brought you My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon) agreed to provide a book and music directly for the screen, the script based on a French novella of the same name by Collette, about a young courtesan in training. Directed by Vincente Minelli, the film was the last of the big MGM musicals, and perhaps for that reason received support from voters, the Oscar for this movie a kind of nostalgic tribute to that whole history of films. But never having been tested and forged before live audiences onstage makes this film a whole different animal than My Fair Lady. There is one memorable song in the film—Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”–but that’s not enough to raise it above banality, nor is Leslie Caron’s cute dancing as the title character. And from a contemporary standpoint, Chevalier’s song is pretty creepy, and this film really hasn’t aged well. It’s hard to believe this could have beaten out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones for Best Picture. If you want to see Leslie Caron in some lovely Parisian scenes, watch An American in Paris and skip this one.

 

4) Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

By the mid-1950s, television was making huge inroads in the entertainment industry, and movies were beginning to fight back, with wide-screen projections like Cinemascope and Vista Vision, as well as expanded use of technicolor and a new emphasis on spectacle. In 1956, Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days was the champion of spectacle. With David Niven and international comic star Cantinflas, this adaptation of the classic Jules Verne novel was filmed on location in 13 different countries, using 140 sets, 68,894 extras, 74,685 costumes, all at a cost of more than $6 million, which at the time was a pretty hefty budget. Todd also coined the term “cameo” to describe the brief appearances in the film of more than 40 of Hollywood’s biggest stars for Niven and Cantinflas to run into on their speedy circumnavigation (Frank Sinatra as a piano player, Marlene Dietrich as a saloon owner, Buster Keaton as a train conductor etc., etc., etc.). And while this does give us John Carradine uttering one of the memorable lines of movie history—“Well hang me for a sheep-stealin’ son of a tarantula if you ain’t a couple of yellow- bellied milksops!”—it doesn’t exactly make for a coherent narrative. In the end, despite some spectacular views from a hot air balloon, the movie has virtually no substance. It’s sprawling three hours has very little plot but only a long string of episodes in interesting locales, and no actual takeaway other than, “Well that was fun. Let’s go to dinner.” But on the principle that “bigger must be better,” the Academy gave it its biggest award. It’s almost shocking that a film of such weightless fluff was selected as Best Picture over the even more spectacular The Ten Commandments or James Dean’s brilliant tour de force performance in Giant. (By the way, one of the greatest westerns ever made, The Searchers, also came out in 1956—and was not nominated for a single Oscar. It was far and away a better movie than Around the World in 80 Days, and arguably better than Giant or The Ten Commandments as well, but it was an independent production at a time when studios pretty much ruled the movie industry). But I digress…

 

3) The Artist (2011)

And speaking of weightless fluff, the Academy made a similar gaffe in 2011 when for some inexplicable reason they gave the Best Picture Oscar to this silly little film from France. I mean, it’s not a terrible movie, or unenjoyable. There’s a bit of charm in this tribute to and parody of American silent film classics, and the novelty of seeing a black-and-white silent movie in the 21st century appealed to a certain portion of the public, and apparently a larger portion of Academy members. Director Michel Hazanavicius, and stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo had collaborated on a couple of modest French spoofs of spy films before getting this movie released in America, where it suddenly became huge. Why? Harvey Weinstein, the undisputed king of Hollywood in his pre-#MeToo days, had bought the distribution rights to the film, and chiefly through his influence made the film a hit, and convinced members to vote for it. Seriously, has anybody thought about this movie even once since the Oscar ceremony? Most critics believe Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life should have run away with the Oscar this year. Personally, I thought that film was a piece of self-indulgent crap but it still would have been more deserving than this one. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris were also nominated this year. The Artist remains a major head-scratcher. Seriously, if you want to see a classic silent film comedy, go watch The Gold Rush and get the real thing.

 

2) Crash (2005)

This is a film whose heart is in the right place, and it has a super cast including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, Terrence Howard, Michael Peña, and a memorable Matt Dillon as a racist cop. So why is Paul Haggis’s film so much maligned by critics? Well, the Canadian director tries to create a comment on racial tensions in Los Angeles by bringing several intertwined characters together in a literal as well as a metaphorical collision. It doesn’t work well because the incidents are contrived, the tone seems condescending, and the message blatantly obvious and oversimplified: Everyone is capable of bigotry or xenophobia, and it ain’t a good thing.The only conceivable reason for Crash to have won the Best Picture award is that the favorite this year, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, with its sympathetic and nuanced treatment of a secret gay cowboy love affair, was too controversial at the time for Academy voters to embrace. The other possibility, Spielberg’s brilliant Munich, was too dark and morally complex to get a lot of enthusiastic support, so why not go with the simple, black-and-white feel- good Crash?

 

1) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

By 1952, Cecil B. DeMille had been making movies for 40 years, and a lot of Academy members seemed to think that it was high time he won an Academy Award. He’d just directed this star-studded ode to the glory of circuses and heck, every kid loves a circus, right? So why not give it to him for this one? Well, a lot of reasons: an actual plot might have been nice, to go along with the string of circus acts the audience is treated to…or bored with. Given the decline of circuses and their popularity, this is a film that hasn’t aged well at all, but even in its day was little more than an episodic chance for Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart to don circus togs and act like it’s fun. This might be a case similar to Around the World in 80 Days, the circus providing a little bit of spectacle in technicolor and the wide screen, and the Academy saying “Yeah, you can’t see this on television!” Or, as I say, it was just a lifetime achievement award for DeMille. But if that’s what the voters wanted to do, it certainly would have been better, in retrospect, if they’d waited a few years and given him the award for The Ten Commandments. That would have solved two injustices, because it would have allowed the Best Picture Award to go to Fred Zinnemann’s brilliant High Noon (or possibly John Ford’s charming The Quiet Man) in 1952.

 

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LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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