We’ve now got a little under a month until the Academy Awards ceremony, and this year’s contest continues to twist and turn, with “Birdman” now moving into the presumptive front-runner slot after surprise victories over “Boyhood” and “The Imitation Game” at the PGA and SAG awards. Everything is up in the air, but any nominee might consider caution should they assume their place in the history books is assured.
Of course, there are some Oscar winners that are memorable for good reasons as well as bad. But others, particularly in technical categories, have a tendency to fade from memory for all but the most obsessive Academy Awards-watchers, and the result is that there are more than a few movies that you’d be surprised to learn have little golden men in their trophy cabinets.
So, with the 87th Academy Awards sneaking up, we’ve delved into the archives (from 2004 backwards, figuring you might have better memories for those films in the last decade) and picked out thirty movies that you might have forgotten, if you ever knew, were Oscar winners. Take a look below, and let us know your own favorite obscure Academy Award victors in the comments.
“Black Narcissus” (1947)
The glorious films of Powell & Pressburger weren’t always big Oscar performers: only “49th Parallel” and “The Red Shoes” were Best Picture nominated, and Powell himself only received one nomination. But it’s gratifying that one of their strangest and darkest pictures, the sexually fraught Tibetan nunnery drama “Black Narcissus,” would be recognized by the Academy: the film won awards for Jack Cardiff’s unfathomably beautiful Cinematography and Alfred Junge’s Art Direction.
“The Naked City” (1948)
Even in the 1940s, it was common for realistic, docu-drama type pictures to get overlooked in favor of more lavish affairs. Which is why it’s refreshing to remember that in a year otherwise dominated by Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” Jules Dassin’s grippingly gritty noir won awards for Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography (Black & White).
The idea of a movie called “Titanic” winning Oscars shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe it should be when James Cameron isn’t involved. This 1953 film of the same name is mostly overshadowed by Cameron’s blockbuster and “A Night To Remember” (which was released five years later), but still got some Academy glory, picking up Best Screenplay for Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett and co-writers Walter Reisch and Richard Breen.
“The Red Balloon” (1956)
Albert LaMorisse’s 1956 family classic is hardly the kind of film that wins Best Screenplay (even in the 1950s). For one, it’s French, and Foreign Language winners in the category are few and far between. For another, it’s a film driven by action rather than dialogue. And for another still, it’s only a thirty-five minute short. Yet against the odds, Lamorisse took the trophy against stiff competition from Fellini’s “La Strada” and Ealing classic “The Ladykillers,” among others.
“Divorce Italian Style” (1962)
Speaking of Foreign-Language Original Screenplay winners, 1962 was something of a banner year for the category, with Resnais’ “Last Year At Marienbad” and Bergman’s “Through A Glass Darkly” competing. But the prize curiously went to Pietro Germi’s now-overlooked (perhaps rightly?) sex-farce/noir hybrid “Divorce, Italian Style.” Hard to imagine something like that happening these days…
“Grand Prix” (1966)
Though you’d think it would be one of the more exciting sports to shoot, motor racing almost never works in a movie. One exception, technically at least, was John Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix” —the film’s pretty thin on actual dramatic content, but high on thrillingly-shot Formula 1 race sequences. And the Academy were clearly impressed: the film took the Editing trophy at the 39th Academy Awards along with Best Sound and Best Sound Effects.
Clearly, the editors’ branch of the Academy were really into cars in the 1960s: two years after the success of “Grand Prix,” Frank P. Keller won the Best Editing Oscar for Peter Yates’ seminal cop thriller “Bullitt,” likely on the back of the film’s still-classic San Francisco car chase sequence (a similar scene would help “The French Connection” score the same award three years after).
Had you heard of “Cromwell,” director Ken Hughes’ follow-up to hit family film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” starring Richard Harris as the famous British puritan who deposed King Charles I (Alec Guinness)? We certainly hadn’t, and so were doubly surprised to learn that the film was an Oscar winner, picking up the award for Best Costume Design (it was also nominated for Best Original Score).
“The Hospital” (1971)
Arguably the closest American cinema has ever come to a screenwriting auteur, Paddy Chayefsky is best known for his Oscar-winning scripts for “Marty” and “Network,” but in between came a third award-winner “The Hospital.” Nominally directed by Arthur Hiller but with Chayefsky achieving an unusual level of creative control (he even narrates the film), it’s a scathing, scabrous satire set in a teaching hospital that beat “Klute” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday’ to the win in 1971.
“Butterflies Are Free” (1972)
A hit adaptation of a stage play by Leonard Gershe, “Butterflies Are Free” has mostly disappeared into the annals of screen history for all except the most die-hard Goldie Hawn fans. But the film registered with the Academy at the time: veteran character actress Eileen Heckart won Best Supporting Actress for playing the overbearing mother of blind Don (Edward Albert), who’s in a romance with Hawn’s free-spirited Jill.
“The Towering Inferno” & “Earthquake” (1975)
The all-star disaster movie was the superhero movie of the 1970s: massive box-office hits that sometimes quietly cleaned up with technical Oscars. This reached something of a peak at the 47th Academy Awards, when “The Towering Inferno” picked up eight nominations, including Best Picture, and won three, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Original Song —more than any other film that year bar “The Godfather Part II.” Charlton Heston vs. tectonic plates picture “Earthquake” also got in on the act, with four nods and a win for Best Sound.
“Harry & Tonto” (1975)
The late Paul Mazursky was terminally underrated for much of his career, but even by the standard of his work, “Harry & Tonto” is somewhat passed over by modern-day critics, despite its Oscar-winning status. Revolving around the relationship between an elderly widower and his cat, it’s a sweet-natured film that picked up the Best Actor prize for “Honeymooners” star Art Carney as the human half of the central partnership.
“The Omen” (1976)
Horror and the Oscars rarely go together, and you’d think that a pulpy movie about Satan’s spawn featuring bloody skewerings and decapitations like “The Omen” wouldn’t have much luck with the Academy. But the 1970s were a different time, and Richard Donner’s picture won an Oscar for Jerry Goldsmith’s sinister score (the film also picked up a nod for Best Original Song, oddly).
“Thank God It’s Friday” (1978)
The Best Original Song category has been the home to more than a few ignominious winners, but “Thank God It’s Friday” might take the biscuit. A very, very poor disco cash-in picture that’s remarkable mostly for providing early breakthrough roles for Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum, and for being nakedly cynical in its motivations for existing, it nevertheless won an Academy Award for Donna Summer’s tune “Last Dance.”
The year after he fled America after sexual assault charges involving a 13-year-old girl, Roman Polanski returned to filmmaking with Thomas Hardy adaptation “Tess,” and Hollywood didn’t show any signs of objection to the director’s wrongdoing and fugitive status. The film, which starred Nastassja Kinski, was nominated for six awards including Best Picture and Best Director and won for Art Direction, Cinematography and Costume Design.
“The Woman In Red” (1984)
The 1980s were a time where movies that otherwise wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the Academy (“Flashdance,” “White Nights,” “Top Gun,” “Dirty Dancing”) ended up with a little something in their trophy cabinet thanks to the Best Original Song race. Perhaps the worst of these was the Oscar won by Gene Wilder’s “The Woman In Red.” The sleazily dull sex farce is regrettable on a number of levels, but particularly for giving the world Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You,” a song so bad that it inspired a whole scene in “High Fidelity.”
“The Fly” (1986)
It’s not totally unheard of for a David Cronenberg film to get Oscar nominations (both “A History Of Violence” and “Eastern Promises” got acting nods), but it’s gratifying that the director’s only film to actually win one is one of his grossest. The slimy, grisly make-up in his classic remake of “The Fly” is pure Cronenberg, which makes it all the more satisfying that the film picked up the Best Make-Up Oscar and against strong work from Rob Bottin on “Legend” as well.
The Best Visual Effects category has always been the most blockbuster-friendly of the categories, but Joe Dante’s “Innerspace,” a comedic riff on “Fantastic Voyage” (which also won the same prize) still feels like a bit of an outlier in the category. Admittedly, the category was thin (“Predator” was its only competition, though films like “Robocop” went un-nominated), and ILM’s work is very strong, but it’s positively quaint when compared to the kind of films that win today.
“Harry & The Hendersons” (1987)
Perhaps better known now for the TV show it inspired (and a pretty inspired extended “30 Rock” riff featuring John Lithgow), “Harry and the Hendersons,” a comedy about a human family who adopt a Sasquatch, nevertheless made a slight impression at the Oscars, winning Rick Baker the second of his seven Academy Awards to date for the work on the ersatz Bigfoot of the title.
“Dick Tracy” (1990)
Which comic book movie was the most successful at the Oscars? If you answered “The Dark Knight,” you answered wrong, because it was actually Warren Beatty’s 1990 revival of comic strip hero “Dick Tracy.” Despite being a box-office disappointment, the yellow-coated detective picked up seven Oscar nominations (that’s one more than “Goodfellas” the same year…), and won three: Art Direction, Makeup and Best Original Song for Stephen Sondheim’s torch song for Madonna.
“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)
Sure, we’ve come to expect Oscars to swoon for James Cameron after the mammoth hauls for “Titanic” and “Avatar,” but the director’s awards success had actually begun earlier: soon after “The Abyss” won one and was nominated for four, blockbuster sequel “Terminator 2” picked up six nods and won a whopping four —two Sound prizes, Visual Effects and Makeup. Only Best Picture victor “Silence Of The Lambs” took more.
“A River Runs Through It” (1992)
Now really only notable for helping to launch Brad Pitt’s career, and for somehow still being against some stiff competition the most boring movie Robert Redford’s ever directed, fly-fishing drama “A River Runs Through It” still managed to cause an upset at the 65th Academy Awards: Phillippe Rousselot beat out the work on “Howard’s End” and “Unforgiven” to take the Cinematograpy Oscar.
Jan De Bont‘s bomb-on-a-bus actioner, which cemented Keanu Reeves‘ career as an action star and launched Sandra Bullock to stardom, is mostly remembered as a commercial hit. But in the year when “Forrest Gump” dominated the Oscars, the film won awards for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing (and also picked up a nod for Film Editing too, though was beaten by ‘Gump’).
“Blue Sky” (1994)
Normally, a film being held on a shelf for several years is an immediate sign that it’s not going to be heading for awards success. But “Blue Sky” was something different: stuck on a shelf after the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and the death of helmer Tony Richardson in 1991, it finally saw the light of day in 1994, and though the film did negligible box office, Jessica Lange won her second Oscar for the film, and her first in Best Actress, for playing the mentally troubled wife of a nuclear scientist (Tommy Lee Jones).
If you’ve got a mid-level British costume drama looking for extra recognition, the design categories of the Academy Awards is the place to be. Paving the way for more modern films like “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” “The Duchess” and “The Young Victoria” was “Restoration,” Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of Rose Tremain’s novel starring Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening, which, though mostly lost to the mists of time now, won for both Costume Design and for Art Direction.
“The Ghost & The Darkness” (1996)
As far as ‘“Jaws” with lions and also Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer‘ movies go, “The Ghost & The Darkness,” penned by the great William Goldman and directed by Stephen Hopkins, isn’t half bad. But it’s still odd to think of it as an Academy Award-winning movie: the film picked up the trophy for Best Sound Editing at the 69th Oscars. It could have been much worse: its competition in the category were Sylvester Stallone-starring tunnel-set disaster movie “Daylight” and ropey Arnie vehicle “Eraser.”
As has been pointed out by people smarter than ourselves, the Academy has stopped sharing the wealth so much in the acting categories: it’s rarer to find even acting nods from movies that aren’t Best Picture contenders. And rarer still to find a winner, like James Coburn in 1999 for “Affliction.” Paul Schrader’s Greek tragedy-like drama was a tiny film that today would most likely to be dismissed as ‘not an Academy movie,’ but the chance to honor a legend like Coburn was too good for voters pass up, and the actor beat the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Ed Harris to Best Supporting Actor only four years before he died.
“The Red Violin” (1999)
For a brief period in the late 1990s, the Academy experimented with re-expanding the Best Original Score category, splitting the music award Golden Globes-style between Dramas and Comedy/Musicals. The category was re-integrated in 1999, but the first winner on the unified system kept the surprises coming, being taken by famous classic composer John Corigliano for the little-seen Canadian drama “The Red Violin,” only his third-ever feature score (after “Revolution” and “Altered States”).
Should “The Imitation Game” take home a trophy this year, it won’t be the first Enigma machine-themed project to do so. Fourteen years earlier, Jonathan Mostow’s submarine actioner “U-571,” where a pre-McConaissance McConaughey, Bill Paxton and Jon Bon Jovi set out to capture a code machine from the Nazis, won the Oscar for Best Sound Editing. It’ll be pretty embarrassing if Morten Tyldum’s film can’t match it…
“Lemony Snicket’s An Unfortunate Series Of Events” (2004)
The last eyebrow-raising Oscar victor to land before our ten-years-earlier cutoff point was “Lemony Snicket,” Brad Silberling’s somewhat underrated adaptation of Daniel Handler’s cult children’s novels. Against the more highbrow competition of “The Passion Of The Christ” and “The Sea Inside,” the film took the Best Makeup trophy, the second time in five years that a film had won for putting a rubber face on top of Jim Carrey’s rubber face (“The Grinch” was victorious five years earlier).
There are perhaps obviously all kinds of other surprising curios in the annals of Oscar victors, from the original “Miracle On 34th Street” and “The Dirty Dozen” to “Pearl Harbor” and “Sleepy Hollow.” So many that we thought we might save them for another installment down the line. But let us know in the comments what your favorites are, and we’ll take them into consideration as and when Part 2 arrives. And check back in four weeks or so to discover this year’s Oscar winners.