By John H. Foote
When the Academy Award nominees for film excellence in 1967 were announced, there were some audible gasps when the Best Picture category was read. As expected Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night were nominated, all richly deserved. But also among the five was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, a bi-racial comedy drama with the great Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, sparring with no less than Sidney Poitier. Good film? Sure, but not a great film. It got worse with the realization that Dr. Doolittle was the fifth nominee, a dreadful children’s film that had been a resounding flop at the box office, not to mention crucified by film critics. Though it was sad the latter two films were included, much more tragic was the two that were not among the final five, the extraordinary Cool Hand Luke, and the brilliant black and white adaptation of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking novel In Cold Blood. Two films for the ages were left out of a strong year at the movies, in their places, two clearly inferior films.
It was not the first time, nor would it be the last that weak movies were nominated, in some cases, they managed to win the Best Picture Award, drawing howls of protest.
Since 1960 there have been at least 25 films that did not deserve to be an Academy Award nominated Best Picture, another five to ten that could be easily excluded and not missed. In the sixties it is easy to point to the might of the studios in getting their expensive films into the Oscar race, but through the seventies through mid-2000’s there is no such argument. When the Academy foolishly increased the number of nominees from five to ten, the result was films being nominated which had no right in the Best Picture category. The Reader (2008)? The Blind Side (2009)? More embarrassments than rightful nominees. Never forget for every lame Best Picture nominee there are three being left out that deserve to be in the race.
And when the undeserved nominee wins? My God, a seismic event takes place.
Here are 25 of the most undeserving Best Picture nominees since 1960. What is sad are the ones that won Best Picture.
THE ALAMO (1960)
John Wayne’s passion project, which the Duke directed, produced, financed much of and starred as Davey Crockett was a snore inducing film until the final battle, which was thrilling. More of a favour to Wayne that the studio backed the film to help him save face, it tragically bumped the more deserving Psycho (1960) from the nominees.
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962)
Marlon Brando nearly single handedly ruined this remake with his erratic behaviour on set and decision to portray the heroic Christian as a fop. Directors were fired to appease Brando, the result being an uneven mess of a movie. Nobody cared then, no one cares now. Virtually forgotten. In a very strong year this could have been replaced easily by Long Day’s Journey Into Night or the powerful Blake Edwards film Days of Wine and Roses.
At the time this was the most expensive film ever made, and every dime spent is up there on the screen. Sadly the story moves as fast as Cleopatra’s barge, slow, and is uninteresting to boot. Her arrival in Rome is extraordinary but beyond that, well, yawn! 1963 was a very weak year at the movies, Hud was by far the years best film, but it was tragically, because of Cleopatra not nominated…but certainly should have been.
DOCTOR DOOLITTLE (1967)
I hate this movie for so many reasons, number one being that I detest Rex Harrison and everything about this abusive bastard. Two, the zippers on some of the more bizarre creatures are visible in some shots and three, well it is just a terrible movie. Lousy production values, bad acting and worse direction and the songs…oh God, the songs. Cool Hand Luke was ousted for this colourful horror show of whimsical baloney.
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? (1967)
The weakest of the racial issue films in 1967, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir With Love each finer films, but Hollywood royalty offered the Academy a chance to honour Hepburn and Tracy one last time. So, they did awarding Hepburn her second Oscar of four, nominated Tracy for the last time, and nominating the picture. In Cold Blood deserved the nomination that went to this film, or the groundbreaking prison drama Cool Hand Luke.
HELLO DOLLY! (1969)
Though it bombed, earning brutal reviews here it is a Best Picture nominee. They Shoot Horses Don’t They? had nine nominations, missing out on Best Picture, which clearly it deserved being a vastly superior film to this bomb. Critics publicly killed it. Both the aforementioned Jane Fonda film, and True Grit, which won John Wayne a long overdue Oscar, were both worthier nominees.
The first of the big budget disaster films was a huge success despite being little more than a soap opera in the sky. Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster led an all star cast, but Little Big Man or the seminal documentary Woodstock, deserved to be here instead. Airport spawned three sequels and created an entire new genre that dominated box office in the early to mid seventies.
A TOUCH OF CLASS (1973)
Why this romantic comedy instead of the remarkable The Way We Were, a beautiful, nostalgic film about two star crossed lovers who clash over politics during McCarthyism? Redford is terrific as the flawed writer and Streisand deserved the Oscar this year for Best Actress. One of the greatest love stories ever made, the ending is filled with such longing, such love it brings tears to my eyes every time I see it.
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974)
Another disaster movie makes the final five, this time the all star cast fights a raging inferno in a skyscraper high above the city. Great visual effects, beautifully shot but, um, Best Picture? Seriously? Ignored was Badlands, the superb Terrence Malick breakthrough, and Mel Brooks superb comic parody Young Frankenstein, an instant classic.
CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)
Where to start? Not only was it nominated it won! But better than Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark or the non-nominated Body Heat or Ragtime? No way. The score helped immeasurably, but the film is at the end, rather ordinary, very dull, and sanctimonious.
Another winner. No really, this too won Best Picture. At its core it is Gandhi’s Greatest Hits, Though bolstered by a superb Ben Kingsley performance. In honouring the film, I believe the Academy felt they were honouring the man himself. Better than E.T. or Tootsie? Nope. And snubbed was Sophie’s Choice and Victor/Victoria, rather shamefully. A travelogue of India and film that elevates an ordinary man, a deeply flawed man to sainthood just because the director wanted it to be so.
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, they snubbed Spielberg for Best Director but should have left it off the list for Best Picture. Altering the edgy book to make a Disney-sequence film, sweet-natured, sentimental, with a brutal score, it is among the directors lesser films. That said Whoopi Goldberg is sensational in the film. A better nominee might have been the Spielberg produced smash Back to the Future.
THE GODFATHER PART III (1990)
In my world The Godfather Part III does not exist, it was never created, it was never screened, it was been stricken from memory. Coppola wrote a brilliant script, but when Robert Duvall refused to do the film for a cut rate fee, and Winona Ryder pulled out citing exhaustion, the great Coppola was left scrambling. The result was a film that paled in the shadows beside the two originals, barely no resemblance to either. And Don Michael (Pacino) the most important organized crime leader on the planet, romances his ex wife by donning the hat of a peasant and drives her around Sicily begging her not to “dread” him. Just a mess. And this gets nominated instead of The Grifters or Miller’s Crossing???
Really? And then Ghost wins Best Original Screenplay? In the year that saw Miller’s Crossing break out as one of the most original gangster films ever made? In the year of The Grifters or The Sheltering Sky? Even Warren Beatty’s wildly inventive Dick Tracy would have been a greater choice. The mind boggles.
SCENT OF A WOMAN (1992)
”Hoo Haw” screamed Pacino all the way to an undeserved Oscar, but the Best Picture nomination seems, not excessive but, um, stupid. Especially when one considers the films ignored included Malcolm X, Aladdin and A League of Their Own. I bet they would like to have this one back.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1998)
It was one thing to honour Roberto Bengini with Best Actor, but quite another to nominate his irresponsible film for Best Picture. A comedy set in a concentration camp, I kid you not, the film insults the memory of every person to perish in such a place. Not here because of this film? Bulworth, The Truman Show, and The Prince of Egypt.
A very good film, the first really fine sandals and sand epic in 30 years, but then it wins Best Picture? Nominated in place of Requiem for a Dream, the years best film, Cast Away or O Brother Where Art Thou? Gladiator is a handsome film, well acted but simply not among the years best films.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
I think the reason I dislike this film is that it seemed created to be an Oscar juggernaut rather than tell a story, and to make up to Ron Howard the terrible omission in the directing category for Apollo 13 (1995), still his finest film. This well produced, nicely acted film was empty at its core, we cared about no one! How was this nominated in place of The Royal Tanebaums or Ghost World? A mystery to me.
The look on presenter Jack Nicholson’s face said it all, were they kidding? How did this film even get nominated? Some impressive performances in it but Best Picture? The episodic structure was interesting and there was little doubt that somehow the characters were interconnected, but overall, something was missing? Heart! The film, while often emotional had no heart. Now Peter Jackson’s awe inspiring remake King Kong had heart, and soul, and presence and beauty. Why was King Kong was snubbed? Crazy.
THE READER (2008)
One of the weakest films ever nominated and it is shameful Kate Winslet won her Oscar for this. That same year she as astonishing as a deeply unhappy fifties suburban housewife in Revolutionary Road, and frankly that was a more worthy nominee. Or WALL E, Or the year’s best film The Dark Knight. Some truly great films were passed over in 2008.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
The critics hailed it new, ground breaking cinema, yet no one even talks about it today. A love story, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back set in poverty stricken Mumbai against the backdrop of a young man playing Who Wants to Be. Millionaire. Looking forever like a music video, it moves energetically, but all Danny Boyles’ films do so. In the end the film bamboozled the Academy by appearing to be new when in fact it was not. As with The Reader, the Batman film The Dark Knight was the years Best. Period.
THE BLIND SIDE (2009)
A profound example of the stupidity of going to up to 10 Best Picture nominees. Sure Sandra Bullock is terrific, but newsflash, she usually is, just more cocky and plucky than ever before in this. This one had no business being up for Best Picture, not when The Road went ignored, a superb post apocalyptic story beautifully acted by the great Viggo Mortenson. Bullock rocks, no question, but a Best Picture nominee? Please.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)
Another beauty. Critics pretty much hated this cloy, weak film that seem made for awards season though was missing the very good element. Why was it there? Because it was about 9/11. Because it had Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks as a family gutted by that tragedy. The paint by numbers narrative was weak, easy to figure out. The Grey might have been a stronger nominee.
DARKEST HOUR (2017)
Now I am among those who did NOT champion the performance of the great Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. Take away the fat suit, the jowls, the make up and what do you have? Something much less. Why was Hostiles not a nominee? Why was The Disaster Artist not nominated? Why this? Why? Why? Why?
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)
Rami Malek fooled the Academy into thinking he gave a great performance, but I was not fooled, not at all. He acted, he emoted, he lip-synched all over the screen, but never became Freddie Mercury, not for me. And yet this very ordinary film won four Academy Awards? Where may I ask was First Man? Where was the years best film and a film for the ages which was exactly what First Man was.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”