A Brief History of Oscar Upsets

As the dust settled, Neil Patrick Harris put his clothes back on, and Sean Penn made a vaguely racially insensitive remark, the 2015 Academy Award for Best picture went to Birdman over long time favourite Boyhood, in what can only be described as an upset. Birdman had a lot of buzz, and, quite rightly, was very well received critically and was tipped to win awards. However, the exceptional, groundbreaking Boyhood had been on a steam train of critical praise and awards, and was by far the favourite to come away with the top prize. The result meant that Boyhood came away with just one award from its six nominations, surely to go down in history as one of the biggest surprises in recent Oscars history. Boyhood’s lack of awards is not the first time the Academy has provided us with a good shock, and nor will it be the last. Throughout the history of the awards there have been various examples of genuinely shocking picks, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Image: yahoonews

For the first real shock, you can go back all the way to the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, where two big names battled it out to win the Best Picture gong: Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. It was expected that Citizen Kane was going to win most – if not all – of its nominations, and The Maltese Falcon had received a fantastic amount of critical praise. Once the envelope for Best Picture was opened, however, the winner was announced to be How Green Was My Valley. The Welsh drama ran away from that ceremony with five awards from nine nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for John Ford, and the fantastically specific Best Black-and-White Art Direction – Interior Decoration. Citizen Kane went on to become a genuine classic; How Green Is My Valley meanwhile, despite it being a fine film in its own right, is barely more than the answer to a trivia question.

The shocks have kept coming ever since. In a particularly stacked year, the 49th Academy Awards in 1977 saw exemplary films such as Taxi Driver, All The Presidents Men and Network take a backseat to the big winner: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Rocky is a great film, and an incredibly enjoyable underdog story. But ahead of Network? Ahead of Taxi Driver? Surprising to say the least.

Image: Paramount Pictures
Image: Paramount Pictures

In one of the most famous examples of an Oscars shock, 1994 had Forrest Gump beating out the incredibly popular Pulp Fiction and the beloved Frank Darabont classic The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank came away from that years ceremony with zero oscars to its name. A travesty for sure, but looking back the lack of awards for the film has actually added to its appeal. Audiences undoubtedly think “I cant believe it didn’t win any Oscars! I need to show all my friends this underappreciated film!”

And then we get to Crash. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is undoubtedly one of the most important films of the last decade. Critics adored it, it dealt with a timely, important social issue, and people went to see it in their droves, making $178 million on a budget of just $14 million. It was by far the favourite to win a heap of awards, and indeed it did come away with three, but not the Best Picture award. This was reserved for the forgettable, convoluted Crash, a film certain to be consigned to the same trivia question pile as How Green Was My Valley, while Brokeback Mountain continues to be one of the most important pieces of LGBT cinema of all time.

Boyhood not winning Best Picture is a shame. A big shame. But if you look through the history of awards, is it such a bad thing? Looking at Shawshank, at Brokeback Mountain, at Taxi Driver, these important, exceptional films have more than survived; indeed, they have flourished almost because they didn’t win the Best Picture gong. Birdman can have the award, it more than deserves it, but surely those involved with Boyhood will be quite happy to be in the “How on earth did that not win the Oscar?” pile.

Alistair Norman

Image: Miramax Films

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