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22 Controversial Oscar Wins — and Who Should Have Won Instead

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What Were They Thinking?

Few competitions are riper for second-guessing than the Academy Awards. Actors are snubbed. Films are overlooked. And worst of all, many Oscars go to performances that don’t stand the test of time. Not to mention most people call foul if their favorites don’t win. With the benefit of hindsight, here are some of the most controversial decisions made by Oscar voters over the years.


Related:Small-Budget Films That Went on to Win Oscars

‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941)
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‘How Green Was My Valley’ (1941)

Should Have Won: “Citizen Kane”

The list of films that weren’t fully appreciated in their time is long and “Citizen Kane” may be at the top. Orson Welles’ masterpiece was nominated for nine Oscars and is ranked as the No. 1 film of all time by the American Film Institute. But it not only lost the Best Picture Oscar at the 1942 Academy Awards to John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” – not an AFI Top 100 film – starring Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara, it only won one of the eight categories in which it was nominated. Welles shared an Oscar for writing with Herman J. Mankiewicz, losing Best Director to Ford.


Related: 33 Cult Films We Can’t Stop Watching

‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952)
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‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (1952)

Should Have Won: “High Noon”

“Oscarologists have long described ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ as the worst Best Picture winner ever,” says Time. While it has its good points, it probably isn’t Cecil B. DeMille’s best work and it certainly doesn’t stand up against “High Noon,” generally regarded as one of the best Westerns ever made.

‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (1956)
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‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (1956)

Should Have Won: “Giant”

All these years later, this one is still a puzzle. How does a film with eight nominations – primarily in smaller categories – take Best Picture over the likes of “The Ten Commandments,” “The King and I,” and “Giant”? To be fair, none of these films is in the AFI Top 100, but “Around the World in 80 Days” doesn’t even crack the top 250 films on IMDB.com.

‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967)
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‘In the Heat of the Night’ (1967)

Should Have Won: “Bonnie and Clyde”

To be sure, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger’s gripping drama still holds up, but “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” are considered to be better films today by the AFI. Academy voters gave Steiger the Best Actor Oscar, Estelle Parsons of “Bonnie and Clyde” won Best Supporting Actress, and Mike Nichols won Best Director for “The Graduate.”

‘Oliver!’ (1968)
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‘Oliver!’ (1968)

Should Have Won: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

If you look at the Best Picture nominees for the 41st Academy Awards, you might be tempted to say, sure, “Oliver!” probably deserved the Oscar. But here’s the rub: Academy voters inexplicably didn’t nominate the year’s best film – “2001: A Space Odyssey” – in that category. It ranks No. 15 on the AFI top 100 films of all time, but got no love from Oscar. “2001” director Stanley Kubrick — who never won an Oscar for directing — was nominated but didn’t win. That honor went to “Oliver!” director Carol Reed.

George C. Scott, ‘Patton’ (1970)
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George C. Scott, ‘Patton’ (1970)

Should Have Won: Dustin Hoffman, “Midnight Cowboy”

In this case, the controversy wasn’t the Best Picture winner so much as its lead actor. George C. Scott declined the Best Actor award for his performance as George S. Patton because he didn’t believe performances should be pitted against each other, calling the ceremonies “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” Alright then. At least he was consistent: He’d also shown his indifference to the process when nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “The Hustler” in 1962.

Marlon Brando, ‘The Godfather’ (1972)
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Marlon Brando, ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

Should Have Won: Peter O’Toole, “The Ruling Class”

Marlon Brando – already an Oscar winner for “On The Waterfront” – also created a famous controversy when he sent Apache actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the awards ceremony in his place to decline the Best Actor award for “The Godfather,” citing “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry.” Fun fact: Presenter Roger Moore took the Oscar home with him; the Academy eventually came to take it back.

‘Rocky’ (1976)
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‘Rocky’ (1976)

Should Have Won: “All the Presidents Men”

The 49th Academy Awards had something for everyone with heavyweight dramas such as “Network” (10 nominations). “All The Presidents Men” (8 nominations), and “Taxi Driver” (4 nominations) going against the crowd-pleasing underdog “Rocky” (10 nominations). In a switch from their usual MO, Academy voters gave Best Picture and Best Director to the box office king of 1976 – to the surprise of just about everyone.

‘Annie Hall’ (1977)
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‘Annie Hall’ (1977)

Should Have Won: “Saturday Night Fever”

Reverting back to their old ways, Academy voters honored Woody Allen’s rom-com instead of the space western we all know as the first film in the spectacularly uneven “Star Wars” trilogy and “Saturday Night Fever,” a movie that may have brought in the disco era but was about far more than John Travolta in a white suit. Allen won Oscars for writing and directing and Diane Keaton won for Best Actress. “Star Wars” had 7 wins in 10 nominations — mostly for technical achievements. It was the beginning of a string of 16 nominations and two more wins for Allen.

‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979)
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‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979)

Should Have Won: “Apocalypse Now”

Here’s another fine film that might have been a safer bet for Academy voters. In a year that included some big films — “Apocalypse Now,” “Norma Rae,” and “All That Jazz” — it was the smaller drama with big performances that won out, taking Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Support Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Director (Robert Benton). But let’s be honest, “Apocalypse Now” — maybe Francis Ford Coppola’s best movie — should have gotten a bit more credit.

‘Ordinary People’ (1980)
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‘Ordinary People’ (1980)

Should Have Won: “Raging Bull”

Similar to the prior year, this traditional drama with a star-studded cast and first-time director Robert Redford took home four Oscars including Best Picture, director, and supporting actor (Timothy Hutton). But it’s AFI’s No. 4-ranked “Raging Bull” that was high on critics’ lists and is still considered one of Martin Scorsese’s best films. All and all, it was probably a tough call for Academy voters with “The Elephant Man,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “Tess” in the mix for best picture. At least Robert De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar.

‘Out of Africa’ (1985)
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‘Out of Africa’ (1985)

Should Have Won: ‘The Color Purple’

Sydney Pollack’s sprawling romance with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and “The Color Purple” both earned 11 nominations at the 58th Academy Awards. Pollack’s film won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director while Steven Spielberg’s went home empty handed despite nominations for Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery, prompting some to refer to the situation as a “blackout.” Speilberg wasn’t even nominated, which might have been a tell.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989)
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‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989)

Should Have Won: “Do the Right Thing”

There was so much to like about the 1989 movie season, including “Dead Poets Society,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Field of Dreams,” and “My Left Foot” all nominated for Best Picture along with “Driving Miss Daisy,” an adaptation of a popular Broadway play. In the end, the only film from that year among AFI’s top 100 is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” with nominations for writing and best supporting actor (Danny Aiello) and no wins.

‘Dances With Wolves (1990)
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‘Dances With Wolves (1990)

Should Have Won: “Goodfellas”

This may be the closest argument on the list pitting Kevin Costner’s epic directing debut against another Martin Scorsese crime gem “Goodfellas” — easily the strongest films at the 63rd Academy Awards (which also included Best Picture nominations for “The Godfather: Part III” and “Awakenings”). Joe Pesci won a supporting actor Oscar, but “Wolves” and Costner won the big prizes. Today, “Goodfellas” has a place on AFI’s top 100; “Wolves” does not.

‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)
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‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)

Should Have Won: “Pulp Fiction”

There’s nothing especially wrong about this film that plays on a never-ending string of unlikely coincidences involving the title character (Tom Hanks), but it’s still a little tough to believe that it beat out Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” for Best Picture, much less “The Shawshank Redemption,” which is playing on a loop somewhere right now as one of the most beloved films of all time. All three are AFI top 100 films. Chalk it up to personal taste?

‘The English Patient’ (1996)
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‘The English Patient’ (1996)

Should Have Won: “Fargo”

Director Anthony Minghella’s indulgent, overwrought period piece about doomed romance was nominated for 12 Oscars and took home nine including Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche) and Best Picture, beating out Ethan and Joel Coen’s “Fargo.” Film Daily suggests “the Academy may as well have tossed the 1997 Best Picture statue into a woodchipper” and urges people “to watch both movies back-to-back immediately to see which one holds up best.”

‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1999)
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‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1999)

Should Have Won: “Saving Private Ryan”

In one of the biggest Best Picture upsets in the history of the Oscars, the romantic comedy beat out Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” considered one of the best war films of all time, and “Life is Beautiful.” “While Spielberg did land Best Director, collective gasps were heard ‘round the movingoing world when ‘Shakespeare’ won Best Picture,” Time says. A win that many suggest may have come as a result of producer Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive campaigning.

‘Gladiator’ (2000)
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‘Gladiator’ (2000)

Should Have Won: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”

While Ridley Scott jammed plenty of exciting action into the Best Picture winner, “Gladiator” didn’t come close to the awe-inspiring, balletic moves seen in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The epic (and tragic) love story set against a backdrop of 19th century China was pretty stellar, too. The gravity-defying moves first seen in the movie have been borrowed by almost every action movie since, though never as impressively.

Roman Polanski, ‘The Pianist’ (2002)
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Roman Polanski, ‘The Pianist’ (2002)

Should Have Won: Pedro Almodóvar, “Talk to Her”

Despite the fact that director Roman Polanski was wanted in America following a guilty plea for statutory rape, members of the Academy decided to honor him with the Best Director statuette. A remarkably bad decision in any era.

‘Crash’ (2004)
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‘Crash’ (2004)

Should Have Won: “Brokeback Mountain”

The underdog indie film pulled off an upset against competition like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Munich.” Cue the outrage and second guessing. “If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like ‘Crash,’ “ The Atlantic said in a piece titled “Worst Movie of the Decade.” “ ‘Brokeback’ screenwriter Larry McMurtry grumbled about homophobia,” Time said. “He wasn’t the only one.” The film’s director, Paul Haggis, even agreed it wasn’t worthy of the honor. And a decade after its win, The New Republic said “ ‘Crash remains one of the most derided Best Picture winners, its name practically emblematic of the Academy's penchant for wrongheaded choices.” So, there’s that.

‘The King’s Speech’ (2011)
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‘The King’s Speech’ (2011)

Should Have Won: “The Social Network”

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had any hope of making the organization look insightful in the 21st century, it blew it by choosing a tepid period drama over a caustic, challenging film that would only become more resonant as Facebook became Meta.

‘Argo’ (2013)
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‘Argo’ (2013)

Should Have Won: “Amour”

While “Argo” might have been a high-profile, star-studded choice, critics weren’t as enthusiastic (Slate ran an article disparaging the film with a title we can’t print here). The French film “Amour,” which The New York Times called “a masterpiece about life, death, and everything in between” wouldn’t have been an easy pick, but it would have been a better one, While the story of two octogenarians facing infirmity and death might not have been uplifting for most viewers, the film packed a heavier punch than the “Argo” and its palatable revisionist history.