Tomei to the moon

A brief history of undeserved Oscars

Griping about the Oscars is every film buff’s favorite pastime, and a definitive history of undeserving winners no doubt would fill a sizable book. Like the awards themselves, undeserved Oscars come in a number of categories.

There are the people who gave perfectly decent performances but wound up at the winner’s podium only because worthier nominees split the vote. In 1992, for instance, Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) edged out Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End) and Miranda Richardson (Damage); and in 1968, Cliff Robertson (Charly) bested Ron Moody (Oliver!), Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter) and Alan Arkin (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

There are the life-achievement awards in disguise—see Cecil B. DeMille for The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) or Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven (1992). If the Academy had known that DeMille would go on to make The Ten Commandments, or Eastwood Million Dollar Baby, these pictures probably would not have won over High Noon and Howards End respectively.

Then there are the choices that may have seemed reasonable at the time but simply haven’t stood up. In 1933, the now-forgotten Cavalcade looked better to the Academy than 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Little Women. Worse yet, King Kong, Duck Soup, The Invisible Man, Dinner at Eight and Trouble in Paradise weren’t even nominated.

But even making allowances for all that, there are some winners that had at least a few people scratching their heads at the time and that defy justification. Here are a few choice examples.

Best Picture
Ben-Hur (1959)

In 1959, this elephantine stinker was considered more than a mere movie, its cultural-landmark status ranking with Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven. For Best Picture, it beat out Anatomy of a Murder, The Nun’s Story and The Diary of Anne Frank. Some Like It Hot and North by Northwest weren’t nominated. Even today, Ben-Hur’s near-total lousiness is a well-kept secret.

Gandhi (1982)

Better than E.T.? Than Tootsie? Baloney. Has anyone ever sat through Gandhi twice?

Best Actor
Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (1998)

The remorse started kicking in even before his acceptance speech, as he clambered over hapless (and more talented) spectators to reach the stage.

Ben Kingsley, Gandhi (1982)

See under “Best Picture” above. Sorry, Sir Ben, but Dustin Hoffman deserved it for Tootsie, and everyone knows it.

Best Actress
Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia (1956)

A poor performance in a worse movie, but Hollywood wanted to apologize for treating her like a whore in 1948. Meanwhile, Deborah Kerr (The King and I) got royally screwed.

Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8 (1960)

A 1961 brush with death from pneumonia won Liz the award for a film that even she called “a piece of [dung].” Once again, Deborah Kerr (The Sundowners) got cheated, as did Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment).

Best Supporting Actress
Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973)

Her dad, Ryan, played straight man and lent her his coattails, but she wasn’t even the best supporting actress in this movie; the Oscar should have gone to Madeline Kahn.