“Ugh, the Academy, so conservative” goes the cliché, as bloggers and pundits the movie world over take a moment to roll their eyes and sigh before diving back in to beaver away on one of a million pieces about this year’s nominations, the pros and cons, the good picks, the bad picks, the odds, the ends (hey, we’ve done a few ourselves with more on the way!) But while that knee-jerk stance is an easy one to adopt (and also comfortable—setting the speaker above the choices in question by virtue of the fact that they’re not challenging enough, not cinephile-y enough, too MOR, too bland), it doesn’t take account of those times when we’ve been surprised by the august body. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which does absolutely skew older-white-male in its demographics (as does the film industry, folks) has, on occasion given us pause—nominating a film which, in content or execution, might seem to be light years away from its wheelhouse: explicit in its treatment of sexuality, or extreme in its violence or just wholly different to our idea of an “Oscar movie.”
While this year that debate has centered on Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the expansion of the Best Picture Category to ten titles (similar to the number included in the Golden Age ceremonies of the 1930s and 1940s) has meant that going forward there will perhaps be more room for a couple of outlier nominations each year. However, the readjustment in 2011 ensuring that the category can have anywhere from five to ten nominations has supposedly done away with the possibility of a film or two getting in there purely to make up the numbers with no hope whatsoever of winning (pundits point to the 2010 Best Picture nomination for “Winter’s Bone” as an example of that).
Even without the official changes in policy, the Academy may be overall a slow-moving and rather reactionary organization, but it is subject to cultural influence, to trends and fashions that sometimes result in a film not traditionally deemed Academy-friendly getting a nomination for the highest award the industry has to offer. When this happens it’s usually a good thing; it shakes up the awards season and adds a little spice to the mix. So we thought it time we celebrated this under-appreciated phenomenon: here are 15 instances where the Academy, whether they got it right or wrong, surprised with edgier picks.
“The Racket” (1928)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? It’s hard to say if anything would have been a surprising Best Picture (or Outstanding Picture, as it was known back in the day) nomination back in 1928, given that it was the first ever Academy Awards ceremony, and no precedent had been set. But there’s a daring quality to “The Racket” that makes it something of an outlier even among the early years of the Oscar. Adapted from a stage play, directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by a then 23-year-old Howard Hughes, the film’s a sturdy crime tale, but one with a pre-Code moral ambivalence that proved somewhat shocking at the time. Thomas Meighan plays the one good cop in a Chicago that’s rotten and corrupt from the top down, who becomes determined to bring down Al Capone-ish crime boss Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim, in a part played by Edward G. Robinson on stage, and which made him into a star) by any means necessary, legal or not. The film’s depiction of citywide corruption, official approval of bootlegging, and even a morally ambivalent conclusion (Scarsi is eventually brought down not by Meighan’s cop, but because the all-powerful Organization are scared that he’ll name names) are more familiar now, but undoubtedly had a power back then, and certainly feels more complex than many other classic early gangster pictures (and even the Hughes-produced, Robert Mitchum-starring 1951 remake of the same material). Both lawmakers and criminals took up against it, as well: Chicago bootleggers, alarmed by the film’s accuracy, reportedly made death threats towards Hughes, Milestone and the actors, while the the city of Chicago, shocked and appalled that anyone could believe that their city was corrupt, banned the film, as they’d already done to the play. Fortunately, no one ever mentioned the words “Chicago” and “corruption” in the same sentence again…
Why Was It Nominated? Tricky to say. The film received decent notices, but most predicted that the film would be lost among the swath of similar gangster pictures, while the New York Times said that it was “one of the most entertaining pictures in quite a time,” it also acknowledged that “[coming] at the end of a season somewhat overrun by melodramas and underworld mysteries…. [it] will likely not get the niche in the hall of fame it perhaps deserves.” One could point to slim pickings in the infancy of the awards, but that’s not quite accurate—”Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans,” “The Jazz Singer,” “Metropolis” and the similarly crime-themed “Underworld” were among the movies passed over for Outstanding Picture in favor of “The Racket.” The cynics among us, tainted by years of Oscar politicking, might suggest that the film’s backing by the obscenely wealthy Hughes might have helped a little. But in reality, it’s probably more that Hollywood types wouldn’t have had the same objections as Chicago natives.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Like many films of its era, “The Racket” was believed lost for decades, until one sole surviving print turned up (in Hughes’ private collection after his death), was restored and occasionally airs on TCM. The film’s power is diluted by many of the crime flicks that came after, but it’s solid and atmospheric stuff, with some impressive production value and real moral complexity.
“She Done Him Wrong” (1933)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Almost no one in mainstream Hollywood has ever embodied sex—and more importantly, female sexuality—better than Mae West. And in many ways, “She Done Him Wrong” saw her at her peak: the film, her first big hit, was released in 1933, the year before the Production Code started to be more strictly enforced, cleaning up Hollywood for the next few decades. Set in a saloon in the 1890s, where West’s singer squares off against her pimping boss, her psychotic ex-boyfriend and various other no-goods, with the help of Cary Grant‘s undercover Federal agent. The film has a remarkably unabashed attitude towards alcohol (for a film shot before Prohibition was lifted, it practically serves as product placement for beer), and sees West manipulating and murdering without much consequence. And, more than anything, there’s sex everywhere: from the pornographic cards swapped by characters, to the enormous nude painting of West, to the fizzly dialogue (“I’ve heard so much about you”/”Yeah, but you can’t prove it,” West’s song “I Like A Man Who Takes His Time,” and of course, her most famous line, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me,” which West recycled for the same year’s “I’m No Angel“). Compared to, say, “Nymphomaniac,” it’s obviously tame stuff, but you couldn’t get away with it a year later. The film had been trimmed down from West’s play “Diamond Lil” to make it more palatable but it still caused an enormous fuss from Hollywood-watching moralists. The National Legion Of Decency, the powerful pressure group intended to wipe objectionable content off the screen, was set up soon after the release of West’s breakthrough film, and more than one film historian have named it as a direct cause of the organization’s foundation; Gerald Gardner wrote that “the Legion of Decency was established primarily to remove Mae West from the screen. It was six months after the release of her salacious “She Done Him Wrong” that the most virulent form of censorship took hold in the movie colony, and by 1934, an amendment to the Production Code was created forcing all movies to obtain a certificate before being released.
Why Was It Nominated? The film was certainly a fairly unlikely Best Picture nominee, in part because it was the year where the clean-cut “Cavalcade” won Best Picture, in part because it’s the shortest film ever nominated, at 66 minutes, but mainly because of the happy immorality on display. As with “The Racket,” the reviews for “She Done Him Wrong” were decent without being especially effusive: Variety wrote that “the story is pretty feeble,” and determined that “it looks as though Paramount brought Miss West along too fast,” though the New York Times were keener, praising West’s “highly amusing performance.” It undoubtedly helped that the film was a big hit (taking in $2 million at the box office), and that West was a huge new star—by 1935, she was the second highest-paid person in the country, after William Randolph Hearst—but it may also have been a reaction against the coming censorship. 1933 saw Variety write pieces attacking the then-ineffectual Production Code, with one screenwriter saying “the Hays moral code is not even a joke any more: it’s just a memory.” A vote for “She Done Him Wrong,” it could follow, was a vote against the Code.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Not briliantly, to be honest. West is still a delight, and the best of her dialogue remains eminently quotable, but the film around it is slight, tonally awkward, and pretty much slows to a crawl every time West is off camera. The supporting cast, up to and including Cary Grant, who’s clearly still finding his feet on screen, are pretty weak too, veering between caricature and non-entities. That the Academy would go for this over the superior “I’m No Angel,” or even Ernst Lubitsch‘s equally sex-infused, infinitely wittier “Trouble In Paradise,” is deeply puzzling, regardless of its shock value.
“Peyton Place” (1957)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? With the 1956 Grace Metalious book of the same name barely finishing its run in the bestseller list, the fact that “Peyton Place” the movie was a hit was unsurprising, but its critical success and Academy recognition, in nine categories including Best Picture, was more unexpected. Touching on incest, rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, adultery and suicide in a small, rotten New England town, the film is a potboiler of the highest order, one that didn’t even come with a particularly high pedigree in terms of its participants: director Mark Robson would get a Best Director nomination again the following year for “Inn of the Sixth Happiness” but until this point had been something of a journeyman, if a prolific one, while the supporting cast, especially the younger ones like Diane Varsi (also nominated, along with co-star Hope Lange, for Supporting Actress), were close to unknowns. And as for Best-Actress-nominated star, Lana Turner, her popularity seemed to be on the wane and she’d only been talked into doing the film, in which she plays the mother of an 18-year-old, in the hope (well-founded, as it turned out) that it might revitalize her career the way playing a mother in “Mildred Pierce” had done for Joan Crawford. That the film got to nine nominations (though no wins) with material this salacious was remarkable.
Why Was It Nominated? Or maybe not so salacious. Reviewers, even at the time, noted that a lot of the more shocking elements of Metalious’ novel had been toned down, smoothed over or eliminated, and the film has overall such a moralizing tone that whatever grubby exploits remain seem there purely to teach valuable lessons. And while in retrospect that seems like a regressive move, it did undoubtedly help the film become more palatable to the Academy. It also shows the power of buzz (and box office potential) in influencing the Academy, as it always does—the “Peyton Place” brand was everywhere at that stage and the film, released in prime Oscar season December, had already been a hit. As an odd footnote: while it had made a very good return by the time the Oscar ceremony happened, an infamous murder that very night would be widely regarded as the reason its subsequent box office performance would be even stronger. The night of the Oscar telecast (April 4, 1958) was the very night that Lana Turner’s 14-year-old daughter killed Turner’s lover, the gangster Johnny Stompanato. And the ensuing scandal, which Turner initially feared would end her career, actually boosted her profile, leading to her casting in William Wyler’s “Imitation of Life” and blackly proving the cynical adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, the lurid real-life crime couldn’t have been more in keeping with the kind of behind-closed-doors nastiness that “Peyton Place” revolved around.
How Does It Hold Up Now? So mired in 1950s moralizing that to modern eyes it’s a bit like the product of another planet, “Peyton Place” is still kind of a fun watch, though how it ever could have been regarded as ‘quality’ is sort of baffling. Put together with nowhere near the style or visual splendor of other 1950s melodramas like “Imitation of Life” or “All That Heaven Allows” “Peyton Place” feels, by comparison, rather bumbling and dreary, and for all its potentially splashy subject matter, desperately afraid of offending, so no one gets to transgress in any way without being swiftly and sternly punished. if you’re a fan of the melodrama genre it’s probably fairly essential, and indeed it even spawned the TV soap opera that launched the careers of Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, and saw such luminaries as Gena Rowlands, Leslie Nielsen and Dan Duryea crop up from time to time.
“Bonnie & Clyde” (1967)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? God, why wasn’t it? With a handful of exceptions (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Darling,” “Alfie“), the Academy Awards were dominated in the 1960s by mega-budget musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound Of Music,” or all-star costume dramas like “A Man For All Seasons,” “Ship Of Fools” or “Cleopatra.” But 1967 was the year that New Hollywood crashed the party. “Bonnie & Clyde” was a firecracker up the behind of the establishment, with director Arthur Penn bringing Nouvelle Vague moves and rock ‘n’ roll energy to a period gangster tale, stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lending effortless cool and sex appeal, and with a sympathetic streak towards its murderous lovers that took advantage of the crumbling production code (“The Pawnbroker” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf” had helped weaken its foundation in the previous years). Even so, the establishment kicked against the film at first: reviewing the film’s premiere at the Montreal Film Festival that August, influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the movie “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,'” and specifically attacking the film’s violence (inspired, in the closing moments, by the assassination of JFK) as being “as pointless as it is lacking in taste.” Other critics followed: Time called it “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap” and Newsweek’s Joe Morgenstern initially declared it “a squalid shoot-’em-up for the moron trade.” And damage was done. Warner Bros. had never been particularly enthusiastic about the movie, and while it performed well in big cities, confined it to a limited release. But following complaints, especially from Beatty, they eventually caved and gave a it a wide release which in some cases garnered a very different reaction. In a second piece Joe Morgenstern revised his opinion and issued a mea culpa “I am sorry to say I consider that [previous] review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate.” More love letters followed, most notably a 7000-word essay by Pauline Kael in the New Yorker (along with attacks on Crowther that essentially finished his career) and the movie became a phenomenon, making the cover of Time under the headline “The New Cinema: Violence… Sex… Art,” and earning a re-release that turned it into a mammoth box office hit.
So Why Was It Nominated? Because the tide turned. Almost as soon as his review landed, Morgenstern had changed his mind, having rewatched awards and year-end top-ten lists, and “Bonnie & Clyde” eventually came to be seen as a vanguard for New Hollywood, pitted against the more old-fashioned nominees of “Doctor Dolittle” and “Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner” (all this is documented beautifully in Mark Harris‘ “Scenes From A Revolution,” by the way). Academy voters ultimately gave the top prize to something of a compromise candidate, in the shape of the less scary and formally-radical “In The Heat Of The Night” (though that was a break from tradition in a different way, seeing that it dealt with racial issues), but ignoring a pop cultural phenomenon like “Bonnie & Clyde” simply wasn’t going to be an option for an institution wary of being labelled dinosaurs.
How Does It Hold Up? Obviously the film’s power to shock has faded a little over the last 47 years—it’s almost impossible to recapture that initial sledgehammer impact. But it remains a tremendous feat of filmmaking, probably Penn’s best picture, and still something of a gold standard when it comes to examples of the Academy’s capacity for nominating fare that’s something other than beige.
“Midnight Cowboy” (1969)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Famously the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture, John Schlesinger’s tragic story of two New York street hustlers was also the first film with that rating to be nominated. But what’s less well-known is that the nomination, and win, came during only a brief window where the picture was X-rated; it had been originally given an R (which then meant under-16s were prohibited from going unless accompanied by an adult) and it was only after consultation with a psychologist (!) that, due to the “homosexual frame of reference” and the “possible influence upon youngsters,” United Artists was persuaded to release it as an X (love the use of the word “youngsters” btw). Later changes to the rating code meant that the age limit for R movies was raised to 17, and the 1971 re-release of the movie carried an R instead. Today, the film’s nudity, depiction of prostitution and homosexual themes seem less shocking, largely because of the films that it spawned; the imprimatur of the Best Picture Oscar gave rise to a whole subgenre of Hubert Selby Jr.-esque stories of hooking and drugs and desperation that would soon outgun the original in terms of how explicit they could be.
Why Was It Nominated? While the “stigma” of the X-rating hadn’t really been ingrained at this stage, and we can’t suggest the film’s nomination was due to some sort of compensatory impulse because of the rating mess, we have to remember that at this point the film industry, and therefore the Academy too, was on the brink of a massive change, as the Golden Age of American Indie Cinema was just around the corner. And then, as now, the biggest voting block in the Academy was actors, and the performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were, and are, extraordinary. But the fact that Schlesinger also took Best Director and the film Best Screenplay points to more than just a fondness for the performances. In fact, “Midnight Cowboy” is much more a product of the sixties than we might remember it being, and it’s likely that, along with Schlesinger’s involvement (his “Darling” had been nominated in several categories, including Director just three years before) that led the Academy to favor the film, more than any right-on impulse toward championing an outsider.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Retrospectively, especially if you haven’t seen the movie recently, the nomination and win do seem to be something of a marker for U.S. film history—ushering in the Brave New cinematic decade of the 1970s with something edgy, off-mainstream, perhaps uncomfortably social realist in thrust. Yet a rewatch does the film’s rep in this arena no favors: its filmmaking style is definitely more sixties than seventies, with Schlesinger’s direction in some of the scenes (the far-out! trippy, man! Warhol party is a particular example) a great deal more tin-eared than one might recall. And that’s without mentioning the clear inference that Voight’s Joe Buck was “made” gay by his grandmother and other troubling, unenlightened stances. But the reason we still point to the film as a classic, and the way it truly does stand up to scrutiny and to claims of being at the vanguard of a new U.S. cinema, is in the performances by Voight and Hoffman which, while laden with the kind of tics and exaggerations that the film’s surprisingly loopy tone demands, transcend the material to become completely affecting. So while the film today is definitely “culturally historically or aesthetically important,” as the National Registry puts it, it is as an anthemic portrayal of two hapless lowlifes finding a sort of love, only for dumb fate to intervene that it really stands the test of time. Well, that and “I’m walking here!”
“A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Given his legendary status, Stanley Kubrick was never embraced to the bosom of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences in the way that you might expect—he never won Best Director or Best Picture, and only three of his feature films were nominated in the latter category. So it’s particularly odd that one of those three would be “A Clockwork Orange,” perhaps the most shocking and button-pushing movie he ever made. An adaptation of Anthony Burgess‘ already-controversial novella, the film is set in a futuristic London where schoolboy Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs get their kicks from sex and violence (the film was rated X on release, though later trimmed to an R). In the first half of the movie alone, they beat up a vagrant, fight a rival gang, steal a car, cripple a burglary victim, rape his wife and murder an old woman. It’s not just a laundry list of terrible acts either—the film has an ambivalent stance on morality, indicting society at large, and questioning whether it’s right to use psychological conditioning on kids like Alex. Unsurprisingly, some critics kicked against this, and not just the old guard: younger, hipper voices like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael came out against Kubrick’s film. Ebert called it “an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy” that “celebrates the nastiness of its hero,” while Kael said it was “literal-minded in its sex and bruality, Teutonic in its humor,” and called the director “a clean-minded pornographer.” Even Kubrick came to suspect he’d gone too far: after so-called copycat crimes in the UK caused him and his family to get death threats, Kubrick asked that the film be withdrawn from distribution in Britain, and it remained unavailable until after his death in 1999.
Why Was It Nominated? The film was a box-office hit (especially for an X-rated film), and more importantly, had wide-ranging critical support: the New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “perversely moral, essentially Christian,” added that it “dazzles the senses and the mind,” and that it “makes real and important the kind of fears simply exploited by other, much lesser films.” It’s this defense of the film’s morality that may have made voters happier to nominate the film, but more importantly, this was a different Academy to the one that had nominated “Dr. Strangelove” seven years earlier—it’s the most adventurous period in the history of the body, with “Midnight Cowboy” (which won the Oscar), “Z,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “MASH” having come in the years before, and “The French Connection” (which also won) and “The Last Picture Show” nominated alongside ‘Orange.’ Though Kubrick was always something of an outsider to the Hollywood establishment, he was still a major director, and it’s possible that the nominations for “A Clockwork Orange” were a way to make up for the relative lack of love for “2001” two years earlier. One can’t discount the topicality either—the year before the film’s nomination had seen the conviction of Charles Manson, the Attica Prison Riots, the headline-grabbing antics of the Weather Underground and anti-war militants.
How Does It Hold Up? Honestly, “A Clockwork Orange” has always numbered among this writer’s least favorite Kubricks—dated in a way that “2001” stayed timeless, decidedly lacking in humanity, and somewhat reactionary in its politics. It’s obviously beautifully crafted, and Malcolm McDowell is extraordinary, but it’s always felt a little sour. Just us?
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Four words. Squeal. Like. A. Pig. Over forty years on, the scene in which a pair of hillbillies rape Ned Beatty‘s Bobby remains as disturbing and as potent as it ever did, so you can only imagine the impact it would have had on an AMPAS audience that might have been challenged in recent years (“Midnight Cowboy” and “A Clockwork Orange” having led the way), but would have been unlikely to see anything like it before. But even beyond the film’s most memorable moment, it’s hard to think of a movie that’s less of an “Oscar” film. Putting aside the brutal violence of John Boorman‘s picture, it’s the kind of stripped-down, faintly existential survival thriller that even today would struggle to get traction, even in a year where survival narratives have dominated (it’s less awards-friendly, at least how we think of the term today, than “Gravity” or even “12 Years A Slave“). And the film resists becoming a good vs. evil narrative, with the harried heroes of masculinity making bad decisions, killing the wrong people, and being haunted by their actions. It was well-received on the whole, but proved controversial in some quarters: Vincent Canby in the Times called it “an action melodrama that doesn’t trust its action to speak louder than words,” Variety attacked it for “nihilistic, specious philosophising,” and Ebert again found the violence unpleasant, saying that “The appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed,” adding that it was “a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it.”
Why Was It Nominated? Those critics were very much in the minority, with most critics falling over themselves to praise Boorman’s picture. It was also, crucially, a huge hit (the fifth biggest of 1972, beating fellow nominee “Cabaret,” among others), so it stood in good stead, even if it didn’t have much of a chance against mega-blockbuster “The Godfather,” which won Best Picture. It’s also worth noting that 1972 might have marked something of a peak in terms of adult cinema—the firmly R-rated “The Godfather” became the biggest hit in history, “Last Tango In Paris” packed arthouses, and three of the top ten grossers of the year, “Behind The Green Door,” “Deep Throat” and “Fritz The Cat,” were either borderline pornography, or actual pornography. With all of these events, plus Watergate underway and the feminist movement gathering steam (that year saw the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment and the founding of Ms. Magazine), the time may have been perfect for an ultraviolent, shocking look at bruised American masculinity, especially one as artful as “Deliverance.”
How Does It Stand Up: Very well. We might be separated from some of the cultural context these days, but “Deliverance” remains John Boorman’s finest hour, a terrifying and brutal thriller (virtually bordering on a horror film), with career-best performances from its cast, and some immaculate craft throughout. Unlike some of these films on the list, it seems to have hardly aged a day.
“The Exorcist” (1973)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Um, have you seen “The Exorcist?” Not only is it a horror movie, a genre upon which the Academy is notoriously squeamish about bestowing any sort of legitimacy, but it is one of the scariest, and most grotesque horror films ever made—we can’t recall any other film in which a prepubescent girl stabs herself in the crotch with a crucifix repeatedly and demands that her mother lick her getting this sort of industry approbation. And its overt religiosity, of course, was interpreted as blasphemy by some, with preacher Billy Graham famously calling the film itself “satanic” and claiming that even the celluloid itself that went into the prints was evil, which all seems kind of quaintly hilarious now, but adds to the surprise of the film’s level of establishment acceptance: Hollywood rarely messes with religion. And we’re not talking a random, tip o’ the hat Best Picture nomination—there is depth and breadth to the Academy’s desire to recognize this film: it received ten nominations, across major categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay) and technical categories too (Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing and Production Design).
Why Was It Nominated? Well, it is an extraordinarily good horror movie. And of the ten nominations it won just two (Sound Mixing and Screenplay), which could arguably make it a good earlyish example of a practice that has become more common recently, especially since the Best Picture field was widened to ten potential nominees: the “it’s nice just to be here”/“hasn’t got a hope” nomination. But aside from that, let’s look the 1974 Oscars in general: this was a year in which Ingmar Bergman was nominated (for Picture and Director) for “Cries and Whispers,” a foreign-language film in which a character self-mutilates; “Last Tango In Paris” with its explicit anal sex scene, picking up noms for Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando; even Jack Nicholson’s nod for the (at the time) incredibly profane “The Last Detail” deserves a mention. Ah, the seventies, we might say with a misty eye, and we’d probably be right: this was a period in which button-pushing, edgy fare was more routinely rewarded that it is now. Up to a point. In terms of wins, “The Sting” which also got ten nominations, won seven, including Picture and Director. This was William Friedkin’s first film since winning Best Director for “The French Connection” and so it’s very possible that whatever he’d put out next would have gotten an added bump from his newly-minted status as an Oscar-winning director. However, his nomination in that category would mark the last time Friedkin got the nod to date.
How Does It Hold Up Now? “The Exorcist” is still a terrific film, but its impact has necessarily lessened over the years, partly due to the massive, massive shadow it casts on popular culture: it’s unlikely that anyone could come to a viewing of it today without already having seen about a hundred parody references, from the pea-soup vomit to the priestly defenestration to the infamous spider-walk. But that’s perhaps part of the reason it is still a hall-of-famer: you have to see where all those pop culture references came from, and while so doing, you may well be surprised at how genuinely shocking some of those scenes still are in their original form (I refer you back to the crucifix/blood/masturbation/mother scene which still makes me gape).
“Taxi Driver” (1976)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? We pretty much could have packed out this entire list with nothing but the films of Martin Scorsese, to be honest. With the exception of “The Aviator” and maybe “Hugo,” when the director makes something that might seem more obviously Academy-friendly, like “The Age Of Innocence” and “Kundun,” he’s overlooked, but when he’s on the territory for which he’s best known—brutal violence, f-bombs, drugs, etc. etc.—he often ends up with a Best Picture nomination, even if it took him nearly thirty years to actually win the thing. “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs Of New York” and “The Departed” all hardly feel like Oscar bait on the surface, but it’s the awards success of “Taxi Driver” that feels the most surprising in hindsight. The first time one of Scorsese’s movies landed a Best Picture nod, it’s also one of his darkest: we’d hesitate to call Paul Schrader‘s script nihilistic, because there’s enough religious subtext in there to give it some light, but the story of Travis Bickle, and the grim, seedy version of New York he inhabits, full of dates in porno theaters, child prostitution, would-be assassination and gun rampages, makes it an unfriendly watch even today. In fact, the film only just scraped by with an R-rating, after Scorsese desaturated the color of the blood in the final shootout at the MPAA’s request. As a result, even in the stronger-stomached 1970s, it was attacked in some quarters: Time called it “thoroughly depressing realism,” and the use of the then 13-year-old Jodie Foster was deemed as exploitative by some. It’s also fair to say that the film was released as the tide started to change: the age of the blockbuster had arrived, with “Jaws” a nominee the previous year, and feel-good hit “Rocky” being the film that beat Bickle to the Oscar.
Why Was It Nominated? Again, the film probably went some way towards capturing the mood of a fundamentally depressed nation—the economy was only just starting to pull out of recession, the specter of Vietnam and Watergate lingered (“All The President’s Men” was a nominee the same year), and crime rates were high. Rocky Balboa might have won out on Oscar night, but Travis Bickle was in some ways the more appropriate (anti-) hero for 1976. And for all the film’s bleakness, he could be read as a hero—risking everything to save the innocent(ish) young girl and being hailed for his efforts in the end. It certainly helped that the film was critically praised to the skies—it had already won the Palme D’Or at Cannes the previous spring, confirming Scorsese as the next big thing, cleaned up at the critics’ awards, and picked up stellar reviews of the kind that couldn’t be ignored.
How Does It Hold Up? Impeccably. Whether you find this or “Raging Bull” the peak of Scorsese’s career (some would argue for “Goodfellas,” but they’re wrong), there’s no question that this is the director at the height of his powers, with a deep bench of a cast led by the titanic De Niro, and a hellishly atmospheric picture of NYC.
“An Unmarried Woman” (1978)
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? It might have been the most daring period in Oscar history, but the late 1960s and 1970s were very much a boys’ club when it came to the Academy Awards (especially in contrast to the early days of the Oscars, which were much more open to what was then broadly-deemed the “woman’s picture” (see “Mrs. Miniver” or “Rebecca,” to name two that won). Look at the films that were nominated or won Best Picture in this time period, and there’s an awful lot of testosterone, from “Midnight Cowboy” and “Patton” through “The French Connection” and “The Godfather” films to “The Sting,” “Rocky” and “The Deer Hunter,” with only the occasional “Love Story” or “Julia” to break it up. Which makes “An Unmarried Woman” all the more of an outlier in the grand scheme of things. Following a wealthy New York woman (Jill Clayburgh, who was also nominated) adjusting to a new life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman), it hailed from writer/director Paul Mazursky, who’d received nominations for penning “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and “Harry and Tonto,” but who otherwise remained somewhat outside the establishment. Clayburgh, meanwhile, was mostly an unknown face, best known for playing a love interest in “Silver Streak,” leaving supporting player Alan Bates the best known face in the film. And perhaps most importantly of all, this was a film not just about a woman, but about the sexual awakening of a middle-aged woman. You’d be lucky to get a film about that at an indie festival in 2014, let alone in wide release at the end of a decade dominated by the womanizing, hormonal movie brats.
Why Was It Nominated? In part, and like so many of these films, “An Unmarried Woman” came pre-lauded by an international film festival: it had played in-competition at Cannes, and Clayburgh had taken the Best Actress Prize there. The reviews were fairly sensational too, with Ebert calling Clayburgh’s performance “luminous,” and concluded by saying that Mazursky “won’t settle for less than the truth and the humor, and the wonder of ‘An Unmarried Woman’ is that he gets it.” But perhaps more importantly, it landed at the right time. A sea change was coming as the very masculine New Hollywood era came to an end, and in contrast to the films that had come before, the next few years would bring winners and nominees like “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Norma Rae,” “Ordinary People,” “On Golden Pond,” “Terms Of Endearment,” “Places In The Heart,” “Out Of Africa” and “The Color Purple,” more sensitive films for a more sensitive 1980s. “An Unmarried Woman” helped to pave the way.
How Does It Hold Up? We’re admittedly very fond of Mazursky, but even we would acknowledge that “An Unmarried Woman” has dated a bit, with the late ’70s being a very different time for women than it is now in general. But there’s enough universality to the picture, enough touching wit and funny pathos, that it’d be worth seeking out even without Clayburgh’s marvelous performance.
“The Silence Of The Lambs” (1991)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? A pulpy thriller, from a director who was well-liked but never remotely registered on awards radars before, with a release on February 14th, 1991—a full thirteen months before the Oscar ceremony for which it was eligible—it’s safe to say no one was thinking Oscar. The principle cast was promising, sure—Jodie Foster was a recent Oscar-winner for “The Accused,” Anthony Hopkins was a British theater legend—but there didn’t seem to be any reason to think it was an Oscar contender any more than, say, “Sleeping With The Enemy,” which opened the week before. In fact, probably less: at least that film dealt with the serious issue of domestic violence, whereas “Silence Of The Lambs” didn’t have much in the way of subtext. Instead, it was about a cannibalistic serial killer who helps an FBI agent capture a transgendered killer who skins women’s corpses in order to make a “woman suit.” It was a horror movie (“The Exorcist” being the only other such film to get an Oscar nod), positively saturated with gore (both Gene Hackman, who originally planned to direct and play Hannibal Lecter, and Michelle Pfeiffer had pulled out of the project because of concerns about the violence), and strong language. Oh, and there’s a scene at which a character flicks semen at the heroine and tells her “I can smell your cunt.” How was this ever going to be a serious contender for an awards that had been won two years earlier by “Driving Miss Daisy“?
Why Was It Nominated? It’s a little confusing to this day, because “Silence Of The Lambs” wasn’t just nominated, and it didn’t just win Best Picture, it became one of only three films in history to win all the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay). It wasn’t lacking in competition either, with “JFK,” “Beauty & The Beast” and “Bugsy” among the films nominated that year. There again may have been a certain extent to which it captured the zeitgeist—July 1991 saw the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer, a cannibalistic serial killer of 17 people, which helped to keep the film in the headlines. But it’s probably more that it was deemed a rare and exceptional example of the genre, one of the most widely praised since Hitchcock passed. The film had been legitimized by a premiere at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival (where Jonathan Demme won the Silver Bear for Best Director), and simply managed to keep up the momentum for the year to come.
How Does It Hold Up? “The Silence Of The Lambs” certainly didn’t date as badly as Michael Mann‘s earlier Thomas Harris adaptation, “Manhunter,” which is a great film (arguably as good as ‘Lambs’ or better), but couldn’t seem more ’80s than if the main characters were all Rubik’s Cubes and members of Duran Duran. But the countless imitators on both big screen and small have ensured that the shock of the new that came from the smart, beautifully-executed take on the serial killer genre has been dulled over the years. It’s still a high water mark for the genre, but what was once innovative now can feel like cliché after the many rip-offs.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? Believe it or not, there was once a time before Harvey Weinstein was the Oscar-dominating beast we now know him as. That time (other than a brief warm-up with “The Crying Game,” another unlikely Best Picture nominee) came to an end in 1994: every subsequent year between then and when Weinstein left the company he founded in 2005, Miramax had at least one Best Picture nominee. That it was Quentin Tarantino‘s “Pulp Fiction” that led the way is both fitting (given their continuing work together since), and somewhat unlikely (given the nature of the film). Tarantino had announced himself as an exciting new talent with “Reservoir Dogs,” but given the blood-soaked, f-bomb-dropping nature of his debut, one wouldn’t have imagined that his follow-up would be headed to the Kodak Theater, something seemingly set in stone when TriStar, who’d been developing the project, dropped it, allegedly because studio chief Mike Medavoy found it “too demented.” The content of the film, once it was seen, looked to back that up. It had a time-jumping tripartite structure. It came close to breaking cursing records. A number of people meet splattery ends (pity poor Marvin). A vicious gang-boss is sodomized by a man in a gimp mask, only to be saved by a katana-wielding Bruce Willis. Two sympathetic characters use heroin. Christopher Walken wears a watch up his ass. But perhaps more importantly, Tarantino was a distinctive new voice, dropping pop-culture references and movie nods that likely would have been unfamiliar to a large chunk of the Academy audience. And the release of the movie, while wildly successful, was accompanied by endless think pieces, attacking the film’s use of violence, of the n-word (the Chicago Tribune tying it to “the ability to signify the ultimate level of hipness for white males who have historically used their perception of black masculinity as the embodiment of cool”), and Tarantino’s status as a sort of post-modern cultural magpie.
Why Was It Nominated? The debut of “Pulp Fiction,” not least in the midst of an awards season dominated by the rather staid, middle-of-the-road pictures, the likes of “The Madness Of King George,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Little Women,” “Nell” and “Legends Of The Fall,” undoubtedly had a cultural impact on a similar level to that of “Bonnie & Clyde” twenty-seven years before it. EVERYONE had been talking about since it premiered at Cannes that May (where it won the Palme D’Or, to the anger of some of the local crowd). Richard Corliss in Time said “It towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool,” and EW‘s Owen Glieberman added “I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a filmmaker who combined discipline and control with sheer wild-ass joy the way that Tarantino does.” Sure, it might have gone too far for some Academy members, but in a year where “Forrest Gump” dominated, you didn’t have to be a radical to want something fresh and new in there. And it helped that with Harvey Weinstein, now flush with cash after the purchase of Miramax by Disney, could really push the film. And it paid off: “Pulp Fiction” was lauded on the precursor awards circuit, and Tarantino was named Best Director by the L.A. Film Critics and the New York Film Critics.
How Does It Stand Up? Ok, so don’t all yell at once, but if, like this writer, you were a touch too young to see the film on initial release, and came to “Jackie Brown” first, “Pulp Fiction” isn’t quite the game-changer it seemed at the time. By that point, we’d sat through the imitators, and fallen for the director’s richer and more humane follow-up, so when we finally got to ‘Pulp,’ we enjoyed it enormously, but it feels more cartoonish and slight than ‘Brown,’ or indeed many of the director’s other films. Ok, you can start yelling now.
“Black Swan” (2010)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Love it or loathe it (there are plenty in both camps, though we land firmly on the love side), the across-the-board success of “Black Swan” (which, alongside its Best Picture nomination and four others, also made more than $300 million worldwide) still remains something of a head-scratcher. Director Darren Aronofsky had previously made a black-and-white headfuck about maths and mysticism, a brutal drug-addiction drama that ended with amputation and a double-headed dildo, and a critically-derided box-office disaster involving Incas, cancer and a bubble-shaped spaceship. His latest didn’t seem like it would be much more Oscar-friendly either: a retelling of “Swan Lake,” set in the world of contemporary ballet, but turned into a psychological horror movie that nodded to Polanski and giallo. It also featured some fairly unpleasant violence and body horror, and an attention-grabbing lesbian sex scene between the two female leads (one of whom was Mila Kunis, an actress who’d never even been adjacent to awards fare in the past). The film’s grand, realism-defying camp proved divisive with critics too: Leonard Maltin said he “couldn’t stand” the film, labelling it “ludicrous”, while The Hollywood Reporter gave it a backhander by calling it a “guilty pleasure,” and Kenneth Turan called it “high-art trash” in the LA Times.
Why Was It Nominated? The film certainly benefited from the expanded Best Picture field introduced the previous year: for the first time in sixty years, there were ten Best Picture slots rather than five, which allowed more esoteric fare like this to make the cut. But given the film’s other nominations (including Aronofsky for Best Director), it’s more than possible that it would have made the cut if there were only five nominations. Despite the naysayers, the film did have a broad swath of critical support, and it helped that even the harshest critics had kind words to say about lead Natalie Portman, who won Best Actress, and the buzz around whom probably got more Academy members to watch the film than might have otherwise done. Setting it in the ballet world undoubtedly helped to lend a veneer of class that it probably wouldn’t have had if it was a more straight-ahead psychological horror, allowing arthouse crowds to flock to the film without feeling guilty, as well as letting actors draw parallels with their own struggles back in the day. And a successful premiere at the Venice Film Festival (before shifting to Telluride and TIFF) again helping to legitimize it and distance it from the more genre-y elements, was only one aspect of a very strong campaign from Fox Searchlight, who’d really found their Oscar feet a couple of years earlier with “Slumdog Millionaire.”
How Does It Hold Up? Well, it’s only been three years, but those who loved the movie (it was this writer’s favorite film of 2010) haven’t changed their tune—it’s a balls-to-the-wall feat of pure filmmaking from Aronofsky, centered around a gorgeous, career-defining performance from Portman.
Why Was It A Surprising Nominee? Take it from someone who left it out of their final Oscar nomination predictions a year ago: while there was always the possibility that “Amour” would be an Oscar nominee, it sometimes seemed like it had an insurmountable mountain to climb to get there. For one, the Academy were less friendly to nominating international fare than they’d been in, say, the 1970s: twelve years had passed since the last foreign-made, foreign-language Best Picture nominee (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“) and even that was made with some U.S. money (“Life Is Beautiful” and “Il Postino” had been the only other two in the decade before that.) The film also came from Michael Haneke, the Austrian director whose films were so austere and bruising that the idea of him being a Best Picture nominee (and even Best Director, and three other nominations, which he also picked up) would have qualified as a hilarious gag only a year earlier. “Amour” was perhaps a little softer, in that no one is raped or drowned or cuts their own throat, but it was still an emotionally-punishing tale, set entirely in one increasingly-claustrophobic apartment, in which an elderly man cares for his immobile wife after she suffers a stroke. Again, up against more obvious crowd-pleasers like “Argo” or “Life Of Pi,” it didn’t seem to stand a chance, especially given that its subject matter risked reminding the mostly aged Academy membership of their own mortality.
Why Was It Nominated? Well, the film had a few things on its side. Haneke had become a more familiar face in the U.S. in the years running up to “Amour,” making his English-language debut with the “Funny Games” remake, and being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film with previous picture “The White Ribbon.” He’d also cast it with two legitimate icons of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both of whom had extraordinary careers of working with some of the greatest-ever filmmakers behind them. And it came pre-approved: like the previous year’s nominee “The Tree Of Life,” it had premiered at Cannes to rapturous reviews (The Guardian called it “film-making at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight,” and Manohla Dargis labelled it “a masterpiece about life, death and everything in between”), and picked up the Palme D’Or. Perhaps most importantly, despite Haneke’s reputation, and the devastating nature of the film, the title wasn’t misplaced—the film unmasked a new tenderness in the director, proving unspeakably moving whereas his other films had remained distanced.
How Does It Hold Up: Again, we’re less than two years gone from the film’s premiere, so it doesn’t quite have the required distance. This writer prefers some of Haneke’s other films (namely “Caché” and “Code Unknown“) but it’s still a major work by an absolutely major filmmaker.
“The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Right from the moment of its Christmas Day release, Martin Scorsese’s maximalist, excessive, gaudy Wall Street extravaganza polarized critics and audiences alike. A far cry from the safe middlebrow prestige drama that, rightly or wrongly, is regarded as the Academy’s cup of tea, its obviously Oscar-friendly elements—Scorsese, DiCaprio, topicality—were offset by the film’s unapologetic garishness, something a few viewers apparently confused with the filmmakers condoning the behavior they showed. But really, what the pre-nomination debate boiled down to, was an argument that often dogs the Oscar race: one of “worthiness.” There is a sense in which a film that tackles a serious topic should be difficult, it should be a bit of a slog, it should be hard to watch and you should come out feeling thoroughly taught, maybe angry, but certainly not entertained. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is outrageously entertaining, which, even for those who weren’t offended by their own misinterpretation of its point of view, threatened to discount the film from the Oscar discussion on the grounds of lightweight-ness: the Academy has never favored comedies, and while ‘WOWS’ is technically a drama, it’s certainly the funniest drama we’ve seen in a while. It’s undoubtedly true that in a five-nomination year ‘WOWS’ wouldn’t have been a contender, but for our money that proves the wisdom of the category change of itself: purely by its presence in the mix (no matter how little chance it has at actually winning) the film expands a little our idea of what an Oscar film could be. And let’s not forget that its respectable five nominations are in fact across five major categories too, so it does seem to indicate a level of widespread Academy acceptance that the initial reaction might not have suggested possible.
Why Was It Nominated? Leaving aside the unlikelihood of anyone but Scorsese making this film (it’s a remarkably Scorsese-ish picture after all) it’s highly unlikely that if it didn’t bear his name, we’d be looking at a five-times nominated movie. Outside of the Best Picture nod, this will be Scorsese’s eighth Best Director nomination, with just the one win, for the relatively minor-feeling “The Departed” under his belt, and we don’t think the wellspring of goodwill toward a director who’s become little less than the patron living saint of American Cinema can be overstated, especially as everyone kind of knows in their heart of hearts that his Directing Oscar was wildly overdue and came for the wrong movie. But back to Best Picture: the subject matter reflects well on the Academy for being relevant, it stars and is produced by golden boy-turned-power-player Leonardo DiCaprio, and it marks a welcome return to controversy for Scorsese after the relative stateliness of “Hugo.” Come to think of it, why did we ever doubt it would make it in?
How Does It Hold Up Now? Well, with the benefit of just under two months of hindsight we’re still fans—some more than others, it should be said—and it’s been interesting to watch the initial furor die down and to see what’s left in its wake. Some might argue that, shorn of its controversy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a somewhat empty experience, while others have enjoyed the opportunity to savor its quieter pleasures, like some of the tremendous smaller performances, not least from Kyle Chandler whose scene on the yacht with Belfort is powerhouse, and doesn’t get enough props. We’ve the feeling that this is a film whose retrospective reputation will change as we get further away from the events it satirizes and start to look at it in terms of craft and in terms of its place in Scorsese’s body of work, but right now it just feels good to have Marty, at 71, turn in a film so exuberant and vital.
Of course, an organization with the Academy’s long history has had a few more surprising moments than that. A few Best Picture nominated films whose nominations were surprising for reasons sexual, political or social and that we thought about for this piece included, in roughly chronological order: “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932), a social issues drama starring Paul Muni which actually effected the release of the man on whose story it was based; “La Grande Illusion” (1937) Jean Renoir’s French-language masterpiece; 1945’s “The Lost Weekend,” a pretty unflinching film about alcoholism; “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947) which dealt overtly with anti-semitism and racial prejudice just a couple of years after the end of WWII; 1948’s “The Snake Pit” which was set in a women’s insane asylum; Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) which, while a courtroom drama, addressed sex and rape in pretty graphic terms; classic literary adaptation “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962); Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) which, being a pitch-black comedy was in a genre the Academy seldom recognizes; two 1967 films “The Graduate” and “In the Heat of the Night” which for different reasons seemed controversial choices for Oscar; three Bob Fosse movies—musicals “Cabaret” (1972) and “All that Jazz” (1979) and scorching biopic “Lenny” (1974) were all outside the Academy wheelhouse; while the overtly political “Reds” (1981) and the homosexual love story “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985) were also anything but obvious Oscar picks. “Goodfellas” (1990) nomination was kind of a surprise at the time for its violence and profanity—of course the real surprise now is that it lost out to “Dances With Wolves”; and then over the last few years, changes in the category have meant smaller films like ”District 9,”(2009) “Winter’s Bone,” (2010) and “The Kids are All Right” (2010) have seen their way in, where previously these films would have been most hopeful of festival recognition rather than Academy kudos. “Inglourious Basterds” also got in to 2010’s awards, but by the time “Django Unchained” picked up its nod in 2013 we had ceased being surprised by the Academy’s embrace of all things Tarantino.
If nothing else, these films, among others should maybe convince us to at least qualify the rhetoric around the Academy’s conservative tendencies—surprising choices are a minority, but they’re there. Anything else in the Best Picture category through the years make your jaw drop? Tell us below. —with Jessica Kiang (who would like to respectfully disassociate herself from the “Pulp Fiction” assessment).