There are many reasons you can win an Oscar. You can win an Oscar because your peers decided you gave the best performance or directed the best film of the year. You can win because everyone liked your movie the most, and you’re being carried along by the momentum. You can win because Oscar bloggers decided you were going to win back in September, and wishing made it so. You can win because your distributor placed the most ads and threw you a bunch of parties. Or sometimes, you can win because you should have won years ago, and they want to make it up to you before it’s too late.
The last of these options is more common than you might otherwise think, with more of a few legends over the years picking up statues for films that, in the grand scheme of their careers, are rather minor, but landed at the right time. So with a little more than two weeks before we find out if Bruce Dern takes Best Actor (what do you mean, “What are you implying?”), we thought we’d pick out ten of the more notable Oscar winners who, if we had our way, would have won for an entirely different picture, before or after. Take a look at our (highly subjective) list below.
Total Nominations: Four, all for Best Actress in “Darling” (1965), “McCabe & Mrs Miller” (1971), “Afterglow” (1997) and “Away From Her” (2006).
The Film She Won For: Unlike many of our picks here, Julie Christie didn’t win her Oscar as a way of the Academy making up for previous snubs, she won at pretty much the start of her career. Christie was the sort of Carey Mulligan of the day, a young starlet with real acting chops and serious promise, and she quickly became one of the most in-demand actresses around, thanks to her Oscar for “Darling.” Christie’s still luminous in the picture, but it’s aged very badly—shallow and flashy in a way that so much of John Schlesinger‘s other work isn’t, and pretty judgmental and misogynistic with it. As far as Christie’s work goes, much, much better was to come.
The Film She Should Have Won For: Many of Christie’s best performances didn’t get nominations (“Petulia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Shampoo“), and she’s brilliant in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” but we actually wish she’d won for a more recent picture, Sarah Polley‘s devastating “Away From Her.” Christie appears on screen rarely enough these days that it can’t help but feel like an event (yes, even in “Red Riding Hood“), but an older actress couldn’t wish for a better role than in Polley’s picture, where Christie plays the Alzheimer’s-inflicted woman who starts to forget her relationship with her husband. It’s a tough and unsentimental picture, with a tough, unsentimental, and totally committed performance from Christie.
Total Nominations: A whopping eleven, if you include the controversial “write-in” nomination for “Of Human Bondage” in 1934. The others were: “Dangerous” (1935), “Jezebel” (1938), “Dark Victory” (1939), “The Letter” (1940), “The Little Foxes” (1941), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), “All About Eve” (1950), “The Star” (1952) and “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962).
The Films She Won For: Bette Davis is one of early Hollywood’s most iconic and memorable actors, and you’d be hard pressed to say that she was hard done by the Academy: ten nominations, including five consecutive ones between 1939 and 1943, and two Oscars, for “Dangerous” in 1935 and “Jezebel” in 1938. But you’d be equally hard pressed to say that she won for the right movies. Both “Dangerous” and “Jezebel” stand up today as rather creaky melodramas, and while Davis is fairly good value—the former sees her play a selfish, destructive actress, the latter a Southern belle who loses the man she loves—they’re also the work of a not fully-formed talent (it doesn’t help that both films seem to despise their central character so much).
The Film She Should Have Won For: By “Dark Victory” in 1939, Davis was approaching the height of her powers, and she’s brilliant in “The Little Foxes” and “Now, Voyager,” especially. But how could it be anything except “All About Eve”? The film is a cousin of “Dangerous” in some ways; once again Davis as a destructive actress, but a decade-and-a-half on, the star really knows how to knock it out of the park, giving an infinitely more textured and impressive performance, and proving eminently quotable at the same time. It was a tough year—she was up against co-star Anne Baxter, “Sunset Boulevard” ‘s Gloria Swanson and “Born Yesterday” ‘s Judy Holliday, who won, but it’s Davis who’s stood the test of time the best.
Total Nominations: Eight. One in supporting, for 1955’s “Mister Roberts,” and seven in lead for “Some Like It Hot” (1959), “The Apartment” (1960), “Days Of Wine And Roses” (1962), “Save The Tiger” (1973), “The China Syndrome” (1979), “Tribute” (1980) and “Missing” (1982).
The Films He Won For: When you think of Jack Lemmon, you think of his glorious collaborations with Billy Wilder, or his moving work later in his career as he became an elder statesman and moved into more serious, dramatic fare. You probably don’t think of “Mister Roberts” or “Save The Tiger,” and yet those were the films that Lemmon won Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor for, respectively (making him the first actor to do the double). The former is a troubled adaptation of a stage hit (John Ford was fired after punching star Henry Fonda in the jaw) that gives the young Lemmon a good showcase, but is otherwise fairly minor when put against some of his better career works. The latter is an affecting though rather loose and overstuffed performance showcase—a very atypical Oscar winner—that helped Lemmon shift into more middle-aged, dramatic roles. It’s a very good performance in a film that’s maybe unjustly neglected these days, but Lemmon probably should have picked up a Best Actor trophy long before it.
The Films He Should Have Won For: Given the Academy’s usual distaste for comedy, it’s remarkable that Lemmon was even nominated for Billy Wilder‘s “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.” But given that they’re two of the greatest comedic performances in American cinema, was it too much to hope that he’d win for either of them? Impressively, the two turns, delivered in back-to-back years, are very different—as Jerry in “Some Like It Hot,” he’s a comic whirlwind, brilliantly and accidentally getting swept up in his drag disguise, while he’s positively heartbreaking in “The Apartment” even as he makes you laugh ’til you’re snorting out of your nose. He was beaten by Charlton Heston in “Ben Hur” and Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry,” respectively, but we know which way we’d have voted in both cases.
Total Nominations: Six—five leading actress nominations, for “Some Came Running” (1958), “The Apartment” (1960), “Irma La Douce” (1963), “The Turning Point” (1977) and “Terms Of Endearment” (1983), plus a Documentary Feature nod in 1976 for “The Other Half Of The Sky: A China Memoir.”
The Film She Won For: “Terms Of Endearment,” James L. Brooks‘ comedy-drama that proved to be an unexpected Oscar juggernaut, picking up eleven nominations and winning five, including Best Picture and acting prizes for MacLaine and co-star Jack Nicholson. The film is a fairly superior example of an unfashionable genre, and probably ranks in the upper tier of Brooks’ spotty filmography (though “Broadcast News” obviously takes the top slot). MacLaine gets a lot to chew on, and satisfyingly underplays the material even when Brooks tips into sentiment, which is quite often. But the power of the film and the performance has been somewhat lessened over time by its many imitators and competitors (plus its unwelcome 1996 sequel “The Evening Star“). But ultimately, in retrospect, it doesn’t much stand up among even MacLaine’s subsequent work—her turns in “Postcards From The Edge,” “Bernie” or even the undervalued “In Her Shoes” are eminently more nominatable. Not to mention…
The Film She Should Have Won For: “The Apartment.” Billy Wilder‘s picture is credited by some these days as inventing the manic pixie dream girl, but MacLaine’s wondrous performance is far more complex than that. Few actresses have ever found the truth and pain of unrequited love, of despair, and of your life spiraling down the drain with as much lightness of touch or grace as MacLaine does here. Try to imagine the film without MacLaine and Lemmon, and you’ll see why we think they both should have won.
Total Nominations: Ten in total, with one supporting nomination, for 2002’s “Road To Perdition,” one for Best Picture for “Rachel Rachel” in 1968, and eight in Best Actor, for “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” (1958), “The Hustler” (1961), “Hud” (1963), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), “Absence Of Malice” (1981), “The Verdict” (1982), “The Color Of Money” (1986) and “Nobody’s Fool” (1994). He also won an Honorary Award in 1986, and a Humanitarian award in 1994.
The Film He Won For: “The Color Of Money,” Martin Scorsese‘s 1986 sequel to one of Newman’s best known roles, in “The Hustler” (which he was also nominated for). Seeing Newman reprise Fast Eddie is an undeniable pleasure, but the film, an unusually anonymous and workmanlike one from the director, isn’t even the best performance the star gave as the character, let alone across his whole career. He’s very good, obviously, but if you were going to give one of the all-time great movie stars only one award for acting, why would it be for this movie? (Though in fairness, it wasn’t the most competitive year.)
The Film He Should Have Won For: Almost any of the other nominations would have done, including “The Hustler” (which has much more for Newman to play with), but we’d either go for the effortless charisma and iconic presence of “Cool Hand Luke,” or, if you’re going to award late-era Newman, 1981’s “The Verdict,” where Newman takes David Mamet‘s phenomenal screenplay about a faded alcoholic lawyer and plays it like a symphony.
Total Nominations: Eight. Three in supporting—”The Godfather” (1972), “Dick Tracy” (1990) and “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992)—and five in lead, including “Serpico” (1973), “The Godfather Part II” (1974), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “…And Justice For All” (1979) and “Scent Of A Woman” (1992).
The Film He Won For: Hoo-hah! It was, of course, “Scent Of A Woman,” which has become something of a byword for the kind of odd, sorry-we-didn’t-do-this-earlier Academy decision that we’re talking about in this piece. Martin Brest‘s film isn’t bad, really, though it’s way too long and somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. And Pacino is pretty good in it, and clearly having fun, even if it clearly marks the start of his descent into the Shouty Al persona that we all know today. It’s far from Pacino’s last great performance (“Carlito’s Way,” “Donnie Brasco,” “The Insider” and “Insomnia” all were nomination-worthy), but to give him the award in the year of Denzel Washington‘s turn in “Malcolm X” (or, indeed, Robert Downey Jr. in “Chaplin” or Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” also nominated alongside him) was insanity.
The Film He Should Have Won For: Bar “Dick Tracy” and “…And Justice For All,” any of his other nominations are deserving, but “Dog Day Afternoon” is our absolute fave. Sure, it might have elements of Shouty Al, but for the most part, Sidney Lumet‘s masterpiece lets Pacino play beautifully against type, a sensitive and brave performance that’s easily the most moving work he’s ever put on screen. Still, he was up against winner Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” so it’s at least understandable why he missed out.
Total Nominations: Eight, with four for supporting including “Hondo” (1953), “You’re A Big Boy Now” (1966), “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” (1972) and “The Pope Of Greenwich Village” (1984) and four for lead in “Summer and Smoke” (1961), “Sweet Bird Of Youth” (1962), “Interiors” (1978) and “The Trip To Bountiful” (1985).
The Film She Won For: When he opened the envelope at the 1986 Oscar ceremony, F. Murray Abraham was clearly palpably delighted that he would get to read out Page’s name, saying “I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language,” and with seven nominations without a victory, Page was certainly overdue, even if the actress was arguably better known as a Broadway star than in the movies. But the win is probably the only reason that “The Trip To Bountiful” is remembered at all. The adaptation of Horton Foote‘s play is sweet enough, and Page is great in it, but it’s fairly dull and creaky stuff that never finds much of a reason to exist on screen. Page might have been the best of rather a quiet year, but there were definitely previous performances that were more deserving.
The Film She Should Have Won For: Page’s work in the two Tennessee Williams adaptations are fairly definitive, but we really love her as the depressed matriarch in Woody Allen‘s “Interiors.” The bleak film, Allen’s first drama, isn’t the easiest watch, but at the very least has a superb cast, with Page first and foremost among them. It was a competitive field—Jane Fonda for “Coming Home” won, with Ingrid Bergman, Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh also nominated—so it’s understandable that Page missed out, but it might have been a more fitting summing-up of her career than “The Trip To Bountiful.”
Total Nominations: Three directing nominations, for “The Fallen Idol” (1948), “The Third Man” (1949) and “Oliver!” (1968).
The Film He Won For: Somehow, “Oliver!” This writer has a admittedly difficult relationship with Lionel Bart‘s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens‘ “Oliver Twist,” mainly borne out of people singing the title song at him from a young age. And it’s not that the British veteran (who was 62 when he made the film, and only directed two more mostly forgotten movies before passing in 1976) does a bad job on the film version: the child performers are strong and the musical numbers beautifully staged, suggesting that Reed had a real capability for the genre. But it’s, frankly, a bit of a trifle, and compared to the absolute command of Reed’s post-war prime, definitively lesser work. Again, that Reed had never won before must have played a part, especially as he’d been somewhat in the wilderness for a while, along with a slight sense that the Academy was kicking against the new Hollywood wave that had emerged the year before with “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate.” But given that Reed beat Stanley Kubrick for “2001” (and Gillo Pontecorvo for “The Battle of Algiers“), there aren’t any excuses that’ll make us feel better.
The Film He Should Have Won For: After the Second World War, Reed had an extraordinary back-to-back trio of successes with “Odd Man Out,” “The Fallen Idol” and “The Third Man.” Any would be a worthy winner (“Odd Man Out,” a brutal and powerful Irish troubles-themed thriller with James Mason, is masterfully directed—it’s Roman Polanski‘s all-time favorite—and didn’t even get a nomination), but if we were going to laud Reed for any of them, it would be “The Third Man,” one of the most atmospheric and richest thrillers ever made. Endlessly influential, and still hugely iconic 65 years later (cue zither score… ), it’s an all-time classic (the BFI named it the Best British film of the 20th century, and Reed would have been a far worthier winner than Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who took the prize for “A Letter To Three Wives.”
Total Nominations: Eight directing nominations, for “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “Goodfellas” (1990), “Gangs Of New York” (2002), “The Aviator” (2004), “The Departed” (2006), “Hugo” (2011) and “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013), plus screenplay nominations for “Goodfellas” and “The Age Of Innocence” (1993), and picture nominations for “Hugo” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street.”
The Film He Won For: At the 2006 ceremony, host Jon Stewart quipped, after the victory of “Hustle & Flow” for Best Original Song, “Three Six Mafia 1, Martin Scorsese 0.” Stewart must have hit a nerve, because a year later, the Academy made amends, with “The Departed” taking Best Picture and Best Director for Marty, his first-ever Oscar win. And making amends is probably the key word there. “The Departed” is a good movie, certainly—hugely entertaining, quotable, and with a brace of excellent performances, including Mark Wahlberg‘s, which was nominated, and Matt Damon‘s, which disgracefully wasn’t. And to be fair, it was a step up from Scorsese’s previous couple of nominations. But it’s still fairly glossy, almost comic-book stuff, fairly disposable when put up against Scorsese’s career heights (or even the similarly irreverent “The Wolf Of Wall Street”). It wasn’t the strongest year, to be fair (though Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Greengrass, who were nominated, or Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo del Toro, who weren’t, would have been more deserving), but even so, it’s hard to think about this as anything other than a career award, especially as it marked a return to the kind of gangster picture that made the director’s name.
The Film He Should Have Won For: Interestingly, Scorsese wasn’t nominated until “Raging Bull” in 1980: either “Taxi Driver” or “Mean Streets” would have made worthy winners. But it’s definitely ‘Bull’ we come back to. “The Last Temptation Of Christ” might have been more controversial, and “Goodfellas” slicker, but it’s “Raging Bull” that still feels like Marty’s masterpiece: dazzlingly crafted, powerfully performed and with a soulfulness that isn’t necessarily present in some of his showier work. We like Robert Redford and all, but the idea that his work on the dull “Ordinary People,” which beat Scorsese to the Oscar, is superior to “Raging Bull” is patently absurd.
Total Nominations: Three, for Supporting Actor for “On The Waterfront” (1954) and Best Actor for “The Pawnbroker” (1966) and “In The Heat Of The Night” (1968).
The Film He Won For: At the time, Steiger made it clear how much he wanted the trophy for “In The Heart Of The Night” saying, “I want to win it. It’s important. It gives you greater latitude in the business and a chance to get bigger and better parts. I just don’t think I’ll get it.” For that reason, and because Steiger gave an all-timer of a speech (informed by the recent death of Martin Luther King, which had caused the ceremony to be delayed, in part because Steiger and others had threatened to boycott if it wasn’t pushed back), and because he’s good in the movie, it’s very difficult to resent Steiger’s win. But the film’s still a stodgy, if solid melodrama, and given that he was up against Warren Beatty in “Bonnie & Clyde,” Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” and Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” we’re not sure we can say that Steiger deserved it on merit alone.
The Film He Should Have Won For: Sidney Lumet‘s “The Pawnbroker,” a bleak, defiantly uncommercial piece of work starring Steiger as a Holocaust survivor alienated from the world around him. A chameleonic and deeply intense turn, the best of his career by a country mile, it did manage to pick up a nomination, but even in a weak year that also included Olivier’s blackface “Othello,” Oskar Werner in “Ship Of Fools” and Richard Burton in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” Steiger was beaten by, of all people, Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou.” As much as the politics of “In The Heat Of The Night” contributed to Steiger’s victory, you sense that the Academy making up for the earlier snub was just as much a factor.
Honorable Mentions: We may well return to this subject in the near future, so we won’t go into too much detail, but among the directors that we’d argue won for the wrong movie are Danny Boyle, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Zemeckis, Bernardo Bertolucci and George Cukor. As far as actors go, there’s Denzel Washington, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster and James Cagney, while among actresses, there’s Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Jessica Lange, Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo, Penelope Cruz and Juliette Binoche, to name but a few.