For many stars, the Academy Awards represents the absolute pinnacle of achievement and acclaim in Hollywood.
Taking home an Oscar is something actors dream about from their earliest days, with some stars willing to do almost anything to win (Leo, we’re looking at you).
However, the Academy doesn’t always get it right when it comes to celebrating the best work in the film industry — as we’ve seen in 2019, with Bohemian Rhapsody proving a surprising nominee for Best Picture.
There are plenty of examples of great talent being overlooked at the awards, and a look through the archives throws up plenty of baffling decisions.
From Shakespeare in Love to Forrest Gump, these are the biggest Oscars upsets of all time.
How Green Was My Valley (1942)
Citizen Kane is synonymous with cinematic greatness, with the Orson Welles masterpiece frequently heralded as the best movie ever made. However, in 1942 it wasn’t even recognised as the best film of the year, after How Green Was My Valley won the prize for Best Picture. What’s even more baffling, is that Citizen Kane was recognised with wild praise at the time of its release too — Bosley Crowther of the New York Times’s review was indicative of the critical response, saying: "Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon ... it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”
How Green Was My Valley, the story of a Welsh mining community in the 19th century, remains a cult favourite, but could never match the legacy of Wells’ classic — the movie might have missed out in 1942, but it’s destined to be lauded forever.
Art Carney (1975)
Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson gave the performances of their lives in the run up to the 1975 Oscars, starring in The Godfather and Chinatown respectively. Both era-defining films with powerful turns from Pacino and Nicholson at their heart, which have gone on to be regarded as two of the greatest films ever made. However, it was Art Carney, best known for appearing in sitcom The Honeymooners, who took the Best Actor prize for comedy Harry and Tonto. The film — a cutsie drama about an old man travelling across country with his cat — appears to have disappeared into the vaults of film history, while The Godfather and Chinatown remain two giants of cinema. Audiences saw things a little differently at the time — Carney was given a standing ovation during the ceremony, and his performance is certainly more impressive than the film itself. However, in hingsight, awarding him the award seems like a mistake from the Academy.
Beatrice Straight (1977)
Beatrice Straight claimed the Best Supporting Actress prize with only five minutes screen time in 1977’s Network, marking the shortest Oscar-winning performance ever. Straight beat Jodie Foster and Jane Alexander, who had major, critically-acclaimed roles in Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men respectively. While Network is a classic of its kind, with a prescient outlook on rolling news culture and public discourse, awarding an Oscar based on a five minute performance is frankly ludacris. Safe to say, it made the other nominees mad as hell...
The Rocky movie series got increasingly ridiculous as it went along, reaching a preposterous peak with the unbelievably epic training montage in Rocky IV. However, it all started rather more seriously, with the first film representing a hard-hitting drama. Despite excellent performances from Sly Stallone and Talia Shire as Adrian, it was still a shock to see the film knock out the likes of Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Network in 1977. The later Rocky films may have changed fan’s perspectives of the original - with people forgetting just how gritty and moving it is - but the fact that it won against such strong opposition is still surprising.
Dances With Wolves (1991)
Goodfellas was unbelievably unlucky to lose out to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves for Best Picture back in 1991, with Costner also winning Best Director. Kevin Costner’s epic western is a fine film in its own right, but pales in comparison to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece and hasn’t stood the test of time nearly as well. There’s a chance Goodfellas could have been overlooked due to its graphic violence, with the academy generally favouring the wholesome over the nasty or nihilistic. But while it’s a very different movie, Costner’s Dances With Wolves is a less impressive work. It’s a travesty that Scorsese had to wait a further 16 years before claiming an Oscar for best Director on The Departed, while none of his films has ever won Best Picture.
Forrest Gump (1995)
Forrest Gump might be one of the most popular films of the last 25 years, but it’s still very surprising that it won out over Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank redemption for Best Picture in 1995. As with Goodfellas a few years later, perhaps Pulp Fiction was a little too violent, and Shawshank Redemption’s poor performance at the box office may have swayed their decision — the revered film was a flop upon release, making just $28m (£21.5m) off the back of a $25m (£19m) budget. However, the teams behind the films would have been aggrieved to have lost out to Robert Zemeckis’s schmaltzy drama, which thanks to clunky use of CGI and a performance from Hank lacking in nuance, hasn’t aged as well.
Shakespeare in Love (1999)
Harvey Weinstein embarked on an exhaustive three month press cycle to push Shakespeare In Love into contention in the late 90s, changing the way Oscars marketing was done for ever. He also hosted parties for members of the Academy, which were accused of going against the awards’ regulations. While Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — one of the greatest war films ever made, which grossed $481m at the worldwide box office — seemed a dead cert when it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1999 just a few months before. It was the schmaltzy romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love which came away with the award that year though in a shock decision.
Judi Dench (1999)
That Judi Dench is a fantastically talented actor has never been in doubt, but her Best Supporting Actress award for Shakespeare In Love in 1998 came as something of a shock. Dench was on-screen for a grand total of eight minutes as Queen Elizabeth, and her win certainly ruffled a few feathers. While she certainly deserves an award for her illustrious career, this wasn’t the right film with which to win it. Sadly, it looks to be the effect of the Weinstein-led marketing frenzy which surrounded the film could have played a part, with Gwyneth Paltrow also winning Best Actress for her performance in the film
Weinstein's influence is thought to have played a significant part in another Oscars upset, after it was suggested his campaigning helped the English Patient's Juliette Binoche win the Best Supporting Actress award over Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall who gave a critically acclaimed performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces back in 1996 — previously the clear favourite. Binoche even acknowledged Bacall in her winning speech, saying "she deserves it".
Crash became one of the most surprising Best Picture winners of all time back in 2006, when Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton and Matt Dillon’s film proved a surprising winner and beat a list of hotly-tipped contenders. It’s a perfectly fine, if pretty preposterous thriller, but when Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Munich were all nominated that year, it has to go down as one of the Academy’s biggest upsets. What makes it even more surprising was the film’s very mixed critical reception. Variety's Todd McCarthy called it “a determinedly dire — but neatly packaged — ensembler on the state of race relations”, while the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said: “Its daringly supercharged fantasies of racial paranoia and humanist redemption are not to be taken too seriously.” To see it beat modern classics like Brokeback Mountain is pretty unthinkable in hindsight.
The King's Speech (2011)
The King’s Speech might be one of the most successful British films of recent years, but it still came as something of a surprise when it beat Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake, The Social Network, 127 Hours and The Fighter to the top spot. The film feels televisual at times — almost like a BBC Sunday night drama — and decidedly twee in the face of bolder and more daring competition. David Fincher’s The Social Network, in particular, was unlucky to miss out, having been nominated for eight awards and winning three. It was also awarded the Golden Globe for Drama Motion Picture that year and should have won the Best Picture award at the Oscars too.