YOU CAN already feel the tension building. You know what we mean: the backlash, should “Gladiator” take home the top prize at tonight’s Oscar ceremony.
If “Gladiator” does indeed win, it won’t go down in history as the only controversial Oscar-winner. Throughout the decades of Oscar, there have been jeers lobbed the way of the Academy for some of its choices.
So we decided to take an informal poll from some of the Times’ movie buffs Mary F. Pols, Vera H-C Chan, Chuck Barney, Lynn Carey, Deirdre McGruder and Randy Myers finding out their opinions on which Oscar picks from years past weren’t deserved. Here’s what they came up with:
Vera H-C Chan,
- Any post-1970 Disney movie song: The Academy in the last two decades has required that only banal milquetoast songs qualify (witness “You’ll Be in My Heart,” 1999, and “Flashdance What a Feeling,” 1983). At least the early Disney songs (like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” 1940) had the grace to be artless and heartfelt, not like the swelling hysteria of “A Whole New World” (1992) with the singers taking a hit of oxygen after each chorus.
- Bruce Joel Rubin, best original screenplay, “Ghost,” 1990: This schmaltz had a script? The coitus pottery sequence alone looked like a bad sex-ed reel: Patrick Swayze nibbles on Demi Moore while she shapes clay into various suggestive contours before squishing it in passion. The supernatural mystery romance proved cowardly when the two lovers “reunited,” but audiences saw Swayze hug and kiss Moore, even though Whoopi Goldberg was channeling him. In fact, take back that best picture nomination.
- Kim Basinger, best supporting actress, “L.A. Confidential,” 1997: A giant hook should have yanked that statuette from her undeserving hands. The only plausible explanation is that she didn’t embarrass herself alongside her more deserving co-stars, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey none of whom got the Oscar time o’ day. Maybe the Academy was impressed that she could take a smack on the head.
- “Titanic,” best picture, 1997: Hollywood either slams excess or heaps shameless accolades upon it especially if it makes money. This turgid, overblown melodrama deserved special-effects recognition, but everything except Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates was against it. It was awash in insipid dialogue, bore the brunt of Leonardo DiCaprio’s anachronistic accent, drowned in clichs and was helmed by an egomaniac. No wonder the ship sank.
- “Shakespeare in Love,” best picture, 1998: Of all the Shakespeare films to be deemed worthy in Tinseltown history, it had to be this frothy comedy in Elizabethan dress. Entertaining, yes, but Joseph Fiennes is no Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh. The notion that the playwright’s romance directly inspired “Romeo and Juliet” undercuts the play itself and the Romeo character as an unstable, destructive character spouting bloodthirsty metaphors even in his wooing (“kill the envious moon”).
Chuck Barney, television critic
- “How Green Was My Valley,” best picture, 1941: In 1996, the American Film Institute asked 1,500 film pros and critics to name the best motion picture ever made. It was no contest: “Citizen Kane.” How then did it get beat by John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” a fine film about a Welsh mining village, but certainly no masterpiece? The answer: Orson Welles. The mastermind behind “Citizen Kane” was an abrasive outsider who alienated the Hollywood establishment. The voters stuck it to him in the end, but in doing so, they perpetrated one of Oscar’s most glaring injustices.
- Paul Lukas, best actor, “Watch on the Rhine,” 1943: Ever hear of this guy? Didn’t think so. After winning the gold statue for “Watch on the Rhine,” he slipped into obscurity. Somehow, though, he bested two Hollywood giants, Humphrey Bogart (“Casablanca”) and Gary Cooper (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) on Oscar night. The prize, of course, should have gone to Bogart for one of the most memorable roles in cinematic history.
- “The English Patient,” best picture, 1996: When I saw this film, I almost passed out from boredom. “What an overrated piece of garbage,” I seethed. I kept my thoughts to myself, though, because it had Oscar’s stamp of approval. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. But then I breathed a big sigh of relief when I saw that “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine nearly committed hara-kiri while watching the film. (“Great! I’m not alone!”). It’s worth noting that no major critics organization named “Patient” as its best film that year. My pick would have been “Fargo.”
- “I Am a Promise,” best documentary, 1993: OK, OK, I’ll admit I never even saw this documentary (who did?), but it would take a colossal lobbying effort to convince me that “Hoop Dreams” didn’t deserve the prize that year. The poignant film, which chronicled the lives of two inner-city high-school basketball stars, failed to even nab a nomination triggering a national uproar and forcing Oscar to change its voting system for this category.
- Judi Dench, best supporting actress, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998: There’s no denying that Dench is a superb actress, but did she really deserve a prize for her measly eight minutes of screen time in “Shakespeare in Love”? It was the shortest acting performance ever to earn an Oscar. When you consider that legends such as Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant went their entire careers without winning an Oscar, it hardly seems fair.
Times Book Club
- Gwyneth Paltrow, best actress, “Shakespeare in Love,” 1998. Was this the Hollywood old guard talking? Gwynny’s parents actress Blythe Danner and director Bruce Paltrow are as adored as their daughter, who probably grew up in full view of most of the Academy members who voted. And Gwyneth did a lovely job, pretending to be a boy in much of this lighthearted romp of a movie, not to mention adopting a British accent (again). But she should give the statuette to Cate Blanchett, for her titular role in “Elizabeth.” Cate brought a vulnerable, human side to the monarch, and in the process made history fascinating.
- “Out of Africa,” best picture, 1985: What a yawn of an epic. Sydney Pollack directed this travesty, relegating even stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford to mere blips on the landscape. What’s particularly disturbing is that “Out of Africa” was up against two edgy, more beautiful movies, “The Color Purple” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Either is more deserving than Pollack’s travelogue.
- Bernardo Bertolucci, best director, “The Last Emperor,” 1987: This is another incredibly long epic full of longing looks and silences especially from audiences, who were mostly asleep. Nonetheless, in their infinite “wisdom,” the Academy gave this movie awards for every category it was nominated for, including best picture. Bertolucci should have handed off the statue to Norman Jewison, who with “Moonstruck” directed a funny and poignant film that will always stay in the public consciousness.
- “Kramer vs. Kramer,” best picture, 1979. Yeah, yeah, this was a significant “divorce” movie, making it extremely relevant to the folks who vote. But to the rest of us, “Kramer vs. Kramer” was a small movie with big stars, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, both of whom also took home statuettes. Hoffman beat out Peter Sellers, who pulled off an remarkable accomplishment as the special hero in “Being There.” Heck, Hoffman also beat Jack Lemmon, whose unraveling panic in “The China Syndrome” was a stellar piece of acting. But to beat out “Norma Rae” and “Apocalypse Now” for best picture? Positively apocalyptic.
- Kim Basinger, best supporting actress, “L.A. Confidential,” 1997. The girl barely moved or spoke in this movie, merely stiffly tossing her Veronica Lake ‘do on occasion. Possibly voters were stuck between the immensely more talented Julianne Moore, the drug-addicted porn star in “Boogie Nights,” or Joan Cusack’s hysterically frustrated and hungry love interest sort of in “In & Out.” Cusack should have won. She was robbed, robbed.
Randy Myers, entertainment editor
- “Driving Miss Daisy,” best picture, 1989: Should have been packaged as one of those nice and appealing Hallmark TV movies. Good acting, yes, but “Do the Right Thing,” which wasn’t even nominated, delivered a powerful message and had, and still has, greater impact. A travesty that Spike Lee’s film didn’t even receive a nod, or, for that matter, win that year.
- Marisa Tomei, best supporting actress, “My Cousin Vinny,” 1992: Dress trashy. Talk trashy. Don’t forget to act cute. Is that enough to win an Oscar? The trophy belonged on the dresser of Judy Davis for Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.” Now that’s great acting.
- Beatrice Straight, best supporting actress, “Network,” 1976: Here’s another winner in the go-to-the-potty-and-you’ll-miss-her-performance category. Straight did anguish and torment well as the cheated-on wife for all of 10 minutes! Her role and performance were incidental, while Jodie Foster’s, a nominee for “Taxi Driver,” definitely was not.
- “My Fair Lady,” best picture, 1964: Anyone else think this big-screen musical is on the flabby side? The songs are great and the two stars strong (Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison), but the chemistry between the feuding couple didn’t work for me. The clear winner that year should have been Stanley Kubrick’s subversive comedy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
- “Gone With the Wind,” best picture, 1939: Bring on that hate mail. Admit it, though which movie have you watched more frequently in your life: “Wind” or its competitor, “The Wizard of Oz”? A tough choice in 1939, but the soap opera “Wind” can’t compare to taking a walk on the Yellow Brick side with Dorothy and chums.
Mary Pols, movie critic
- Geena Davis, best supporting actress, “The Accidental Tourist,” 1988. Good Lord! With the exception of “Thelma & Louise,” she’s done nothing even close to Oscar-worthy since then. If she hadn’t won the damn Oscar, she’d never have gotten that dreadful television show. She beat out Frances McDormand, Michelle Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack and Sigourney Weaver. OK, the last two were nominated for “Working Girl,” but still.
- Mira Sorvino, best supporting actress, “Mighty Aphrodite,” 1995. She was cute and funny as Woody Allen’s ditsy prostitute girlfriend. But that’s about it. And the proof she didn’t deserve the Oscar is in her rsum since then. “At First Sight” with Val Kilmer? Oi! And she beat out Kate Winslet for “Sense and Sensibility.” Horrors!
- Al Pacino, best actor, “Scent of a Woman,” 1992. OK, so he’d been nominated and lost six times before he scored double nominations for “Scent of a Woman” and for supporting actor in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” You could say he was owed, what with losing for “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The “Godfather.” But rewarding him for his over-the-top performance in “Scent” seems to have encouraged him to turn in one shouting, spitting performance after another since then.
- Robert Zemeckis, best director, “Forrest Gump,” 1994. Take back the award Zemeckis got for that sentimental drivel and give it instead to Krzysztof Kieslowski for “Red,” the final film in his remarkable Three Colors trilogy. The Academy throws awards at old-timers or people who’ve been passed over in the past. Shame on them, then, for missing the chance to recognize the brilliant Polish director. He died shortly afterward, Oscar-less, but his artistic legacy will live far longer than Zemeckis’. (I’d happily take back “Gump’s” best picture award, too.)
- Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, best original screenplay, “Good Will Hunting,” 1997. Their shared win cemented their partnership for all time, and opened the door to an endless series of articles and television pieces speculating about their girlfriends, the true meaning of their love for baseball, etc. Enough already! Their “Good Will Hunting” story was sweet but it was all formula, in vivid contrast to another 1997 nominee, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s wildly creative screenplay for “Boogie Nights.”
Deirdre McGruder, deputy features editor
- “Braveheart,” best picture, 1995. Bottom line: “Braveheart” was three hours of blood, hairy men in kilts and slo-mo shots of Mel Gibson, blood- and blue-paint splattered, hair flying. “Braveheart” was entertaining, yes, but hardly the best movie of the year. It lacked a solid sense of history, it lacked true emotion, it lacked a good editor! It was too dang long! Did none of the voters get a look at “Sense and Sensibility”? That delicate movie, courtesy of Miss Jane Austen, tackled large social issues subtly and wittily, and had a happy ending to boot!
- “Rocky,” best picture, 1976. Yep, slurring Sly Stallone’s much-lampooned first feature actually won best movie. Now let me tell you what it was up against so the horror will really sink in: “Network,” (how prescient was that one?), “All the President’s Men” and “Taxi Driver,” for gawd’s sake. Yes, I know “Rocky” was a feel-good movie where the underdog kicks boo-tay. But, c’mon. This a case where the Academy went with what’s popular instead of what’s worthy.
- Geraldine Page, best actress, “The Trip to Bountiful,” 1985. Page had been nominated seven times before she finally got the Oscar for this, her final movie role. “The Color Purple” was Whoopi Goldberg’s first movie role, and for that, I think she was punished. One of the Academy’s many flaws is giving Oscars as lifetime achievement awards (hello? What’s the Irving G. Thalberg award for, then?) instead of to the most deserving person. Celie was the role of Whoopi’s life. It was her moment of glory. Great performances like that don’t come around often, and they should be rewarded.
- “You Light Up My Life,” best original song, 1977. I’ll admit that, if pressed, I could probably sing most of this sickeningly sweet love song from memory, but “Saturday Night Fever” wuz robbed! None of the songs from that movie many of which we still boogie to today were even nominated! The highfalutin Academy disdained disco that much. But if you look past the “Fever” snub, there was already a better song in the running: “Nobody Does It Better,” by Carly Simon, from “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Hey, “Live and Let Die” (1973) and “For Your Eyes Only” (1981) didn’t win, either. Whassup with dissing the Bond songs?
- “Topsy-Turvy,” best costume design, 2000. Yes, the designer for this movie did a fine job of re-creating the fashions of 1800s Great Britain. Big whoop. How many times has that been done? Did you see the intricacy and sensuality of the “Anna and the King” designs? Weren’t you ready to don silk and go barefoot after seeing that movie? Or what about the weirded-out clothes in “Titus,” my pick to win? Julie Taymor’s rendering of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known (with good reason) plays was a gory mess and it made us go “Huh?” but the costumes luxurious Roman robes, weird S&M leather getups, sleek modern suits were edgy, arty and took creative chances.