Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas" (Warner Bros.)

These are the 25 worst Oscar snubs of all time

As subjective as art is, some masterworks are undeniable — unless, of course, you're the Academy


Rachel Leah
September 30, 2017 7:00PM (UTC)


The Academy Awards often gets it wrong. This goes beyond Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway incorrectly announcing "La La Land" as winner for best picture when "Moonlight" was the clear (and actual) winner. Really, the Oscars have a long history of overlooking, snubbing and outright forgetting to nominate directors, stars and films that deserve praise and reward.

This is especially true for filmmakers and movies starring and about people of color. The social media hashtag "#OscarsSoWhite" drew attention to this disparity in 2015 and 2016 in the lead-up to the awards, after only white actors were nominated in the Academy's most prestigious categories for two years in a row.

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But you don't have to be black to get snubbed. Oh no. "How Green Was My Valley" won the Best Motion Picture Oscar in 1942 over "Citizen Kane," and it was "Citzen Freakin' Kane."

All that's just the tip of a very snubby iceberg. Here's a comprehensive list of Oscar fails.

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"Pulp Fiction," Best Motion Picture, 1995
"Pulp Fiction" was nominated in 1995 for Best Motion Picture, but lost to the inarguably inferior "Forrest Gump." Where "Pulp Fiction" was innovative, remarkable and badass, "Forrest Gump" was — let's face it — conventional, hackneyed and tone-deaf. The former was nonlinear and dynamic in its storytelling and cinematography, and gave us John Travolta and Uma Thurman doing the twist, the rage and coolness of Samuel L. Jackson, and a samurai sword-fighting Bruce Willis. The latter had Tom Hanks hopscotching through America's greatest hits.

Quentin Tarantino didn't need to wrap up the film's ending nicely with a bow, Hollywood-style, or, as in Forrest Gump's case, with a box of chocolates. He embraced the insanity and depth of the gang, drug, gambling, crime, bad romance world it existed in, while delivering some of '90s film's most compelling characters and memorable dialogue. It was a masterpiece that deserved full honors.

 

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"Malcolm X," Best Actor, 1993
Denzel Washington has been nominated just five times for Best Actor and taken home only one in 2002, for his role as a crooked cop in "Training Day." There is an argument to be made about almost any of his starring roles over the years where he did not win, or was not even nominated, by the Academy (thanks for that supporting statue for "Glory," though). No snub, however, was more criminal than his loss  to Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman."

Washington embodied Malcolm X so flawlessly that it's hard to compare his performance to that of any other actor in any other biopic, ever. In Spike Lee's three-and-a-half-hour film, Washington evolves gracefully from hustling Detroit Red, to enlightened Malcolm Little, to fervent Malcolm X, to worldly el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. It's a performance that showcases the complicated, brilliant, thoughtful, radical work and beliefs of a colossal American figure.

Some people, including Spike Lee, believe that the 1993 Best Actor win for Pacino was meant to rectify his repeated snubs from Best Actor in years past. But that does not make Washington's loss feel any less like highway robbery.

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"The Color Purple," Best Motion Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, 1986
The Alice Walker novel turned Steven Spielberg film did not win Best Picture or Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Notably, "The Color Purple" secured the record for most nominations (11) at the Oscars, without winning in a single goddamned category. Whoopi Goldberg's performance as Celie was an outstanding, nuanced portrayal of a shy, meek girl who becomes a wife, mother and then a fully realized woman fighting to find her voice amidst unbelievable trauma and abuse. On the other side of the character and personality spectrum, Oprah Winfrey's role as Sofia was forceful and poignant. Where Goldberg was compellingly subtle, Winfrey was dynamic. Both demonstrated vitality and perseverance.

While some — including the NAACP — criticized the film's portrayal of black men as "stereotypical," that really wasn't the point of the film. "The Color Purple" us about the spiritual richness of black women shown through a story of family, love, sisterhood, friendship, vulnerability, resilience and survival. Even the NAACP couldn't deny the film's acting achievements, and protested their losses post-Oscars in 1986.

 

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"Do the Right Thing," Best Motion Picture, Best Director, 1990
"Do the Right Thing" was not even nominated for Best Picture, nor was Spike Lee nominated for Best Director (the film was only nominated for Best Original Screenplay). Let that sink in.

This is the film that solidified Spike Lee's legacy as one of the most important and poignant contemporary filmmakers. Moreover, its theme and portrayal of racial tension is as relevant today as it was when it first arrived 28 years ago. Indeed, Radio Raheem's murder by cops is a haunting premonition of the videotaped police killings we now encounter regularly.

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Simply, "Do the Right Thing" captures the micro- and macrocosms of racism like no other film has accomplished since. Beyond that, it established a sharp, percussive visual language present in TV, film and advertising to this day.

"Do the Right Thing" demonstrated Lee as a visionary, an artist, a star and damn good director. But the Academy wasn't hearing it. Twenty-five years later, Lee was awarded an honorary Oscar for his groundbreaking independent films, but that does not change the fact that "Do the Right Thing's" omission in 1990 for Best Picture and Best Director is one of the Oscars' most egregious mistakes.

 

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"Goodfellas," Best Picture, Best Director, 1991
The hell, right? Mafia films are not particularly original, which is why they deserve acclaim when they're done well. Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" is exceptional both as a genre example and as a work of art unto itself. But Hollywood needed to scratch its own back, so the problematic, treacly epic "Dances with Wolves" stole the statues for both Best Picture and Best Director. Remarkably, Scorsese didn't secure Oscar wins until his 2007 awards for "The Departed" — probably given in light of this mistake.

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"Jackie Brown," Best Actress, 1997
As representation of women in Hollywood remains an important topic, particularly in expanding the roles designated for women of color and past the age of 30, Pam Grier's starring role in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" was a landmark performance. Grier had to outsmart everyone: the police and her dangerous boss Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), as she balanced how to stay out of prison and stay alive. Throughout, the actor evinces an indelible composure, charm, cunning and spirit.

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"Brokeback Mountain," Best Motion Picture, 2006
"Brokeback Mountain's" loss to "Crash" in 2006 may be the most-referenced Oscar upset in history. Why: "Crash" was that bad and "Brokeback Mountain" was that good. The race relations in "Crash" were depicted as dishonestly basic and one-dimensional, while "Brokeback Mountain" changed the way love looked in Hollywood. But it's not just about "Brokeback's" grounded values and "Crash's" lack of them. It's a matter of art as well. Just watch the films back to back. Actually, don't. Just see "Brokeback" instead.

 

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"Ali," Best Actor, 2002
In 2002, Will Smith lost best actor to Denzel Washington in "Training Day," the contestable result of an unbelievably tough race. But Smith's embodiment of Ali was his greatest acting feat ever. More shockingly, the infinitely charming film and TV star has never won an Oscar.

 

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"The Shining," Best Actor, 1980
"The Shining" was easily qualified to receive nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, but it was Jack Nicholson's thrilling performance that made the Stephen King adaptation actually stick. But Nicholson wasn't even nominated. Dustin Hoffman won for "Kramer vs. Kramer." Ask yourself, when was the last time you quoted that (or even remembered it existed)?

 

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"Selma," Best Director, 2014
"Selma" was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, but director Ava DuVernay was not recognized in the Best Director category in 2014. DuVernay has since proven over and over again her chops as a filmmaker, whether the Academy recognizes it or not. But with "Selma" her direction in telling a more textured, fuller picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s organizing work in Alabama was illuminating — grounded and elevating. It's a rare feat for any filmmaker, and one worthy of recognition.

 

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"Citizen Kane," Best Motion Picture, 1941
"Citizen Kane" is widely considered a great cinema prototype, but in 1941 it lost the Oscar to "How Green Was My Valley." The film was the product of 25-year-old Orson Welles, a brave challenge to publisher William Randolph Hearst and a thrilling dare to the entirety of cinema. "Citizen Kane" demonstrated the power of film to take on public figures and high-profile controversies, which most people speculate is why the film lost. More than that, it spurred the entire industry to reach for loftier perches. Even though it lost the Oscar, it became the template for how to win one.

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"Almost Famous," Best Supporting Actress, 2001
Kate Hudson was nominated for her role in "Almost Famous" but lost to Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock." Fine, we guess. In the semi-autobiographical film of a teenage journalist on the road covering rock for Rolling Stone in the 1970s, Hudson's performance as a groupie (sorry, "band-aid") was deeply authentic, charismatic and multi-layered. A man's vision of a dream girl, to be sure, but a fully realized, fully alive one. It should have been honored.

 

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"It's a Wonderful Life," Best Motion Picture, 1947
How exactly Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" lost Best Picture to the effective, but ultimately inferior army melodrama "The Best Years of Our Lives" is unknown. Post-war sentiment surely played a factor. Yet something about Capra's work and his everyman hero is truly timeless. Year after year, generation after generation return to this Christmas staple. The message of navigating the holidays and finding happiness and perspective amidst sorrow always resonates.

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"Fargo," Best Motion Picture, 1997
Joel and Ethan Coen took home Best Original Screenplay for "Fargo," but the 1990s instant classic failed to secure the big win. Whereas Anthony Minghella's admittedly beautiful (though overly melodramatic and oddly hollow) Best Picture winner "The English Patient" hasn't aged well, "Fargo" remains among the Coen Brothers' best work; its balance among drama, comedy and thriller remains spellbinding and highly, highly influential.

 

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"Saving Private Ryan," Best Motion Picture, 1999
There's a fine line in war cinema between preserving the humanity and strain on soldiers and being overly dramatic and sentimental in a way that comes across as just stiff and inaccurate. "Saving Private Ryan" by all benchmarks wildly succeeded thematically, visually and in its acting. It may be the best American war film of all time (may be). Yet it lost to the fleeting charms of  "Shakespeare in Love." There's no accounting for taste.

 

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"L.A. Confidential," Best Motion Picture, 1998
"L.A. Confidential" lost to the iconic "Titanic," a film many see as grossly overrated. Where "Titanic" bordered on cheesiness, "L.A. Confidential" mastered in grit. More than that, it's impossibly engrossing, an edge-of-your seat thriller that loses no impact with successive viewings. Oh, and the acting in "L.A. Confidential" makes the performances in James Cameron's blockbuster look ever so soggy.

 

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"Fight Club," Best Motion Picture, Best Director, 2000
"Fight Club" generally ignored by the Oscars, even though it has become a cinematic staple and pretty much the blueprint for much of what you see at the movie theater today. Its dialogue is often referenced, and the film still stands as a provocative portrayal of masculinity (toxic and otherwise) in America. The fact that director David Fincher has still not taken home an Oscar for direction is simply appalling.

 

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"The Godfather," Best Director, 1973
"The Godfather" was as highly regarded in 1972 as it is today. The film received 10 Oscar nominations, but Francis Ford Coppola failing to win Best Director is still a shock, and a blatant mistake. Bob Fosse squired the win for "Cabaret" — a brilliant film to be sure, but nothing of the scale of the titanic, game-changing and very human achievement that was "The Godfather." Coppola would win for "The Godfather Part II," but still, what the hell?

 

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"Taxi Driver," Best Motion Picture, Best Director, 1977
Here's another classic Martin Scorsese snub. The fiery challenge to the Hollywood establishment was nominated for Best Picture and three other Oscars — somewhat of an achievement given what an outsider work it was relative to the normal Academy Award slate in that era. Yet Scorsese, the cunning mind behind it, was overlooked for Best Director. The film lost Best Picture, too, even with its nuanced depiction of a depressed war vet turned surprising hero. Both awards went to the lovable, but nowhere near as worthy "Rocky."

 

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"Creed," Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, 2016
Speaking of "Rocky," "Creed" was Sylvester Stallone's comeback story, and he received the nomination, yet lost the win for Best Supporting Actor. It was a surprise not only given the good will Stallone has built up over his career, but his nuanced performance. Otherwise, "Creed" was shut out from the Oscars entirely. Director Ryan Coogler expertly pushed forward the classic Rocky film storyline (the franchise never looked better or hit harder). Also, acknowledging Coogler was an opportunity to honor his stunning and thoughtful work, but also show that the Academy values black-created and -centered movies that were not just about racial struggle — but nope.

 

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"Boogie Nights," Best Supporting Actress, 1998
Julianne Moore was nominated for her multidimensional role as seasoned porn star Amber Waves in Paul Thomas Anderson's electric cinematic treasure "Boogie Nights." Though truly the heart of a truly wonderful film, Moore's standout performance was passed over in favor of Kim Basinger in the aforementioned "L.A. Confidential." While Basinger was good, she wasn't the pillar that held her movie up in the way Moore was. It would take until her 2015 award for "Still Alice" for Moore to take home a little gold man.

 

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"Psycho," Best Director, 1961
How is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock never received a single Oscar for Best Director in his long, legendary career? Though nominated five times, the Academy never recognized his work in creating the bedrock of the thriller genre and much, much more until his 1967 honorary statue. He could have, should have, gotten one for "Psycho" — widely perceived as America's first and greatest "slasher flick" — but really, many of his films were worth the nod as well.

 

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"In the Heat of the Night," Best Actor, 1968
Sidney Poitier's snub for Best Actor in "In the Heat of the Night," is surely the combination of Hollywood politics and racism. Poitier took home the Best Actor award three years before, and while "In the Heat of the Night" was broadly rewarded at the 1968 Oscars, including co-star Rod Steiger for Best Actor, Poitier was not nominated in any category. At the time, its vision of a strong black man standing up to the aggressive racism in the South with dignity and professionalism was searing. Yet it was all held together by his graceful, open acting — landmark work that made the winning performance of his co-star possible.

 

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"Lawrence of Arabia" Best Actor, 1963
The iconic Peter O'Toole was nominated eight times for Best Actor and came up empty-handed every single time. Every time! But it's this loss from more than 50 years ago that is an Oscar fail. Almost every scene of David Lean's masterful epic features O'Toole, and so much of its massive achievement rests on his narrow shoulders. Yes, it is hard to pick between this performance and that of Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird," the one that took the Best Actor Oscar in 1963. Yet, in its complexity and the fact that it made T.E. Lawrence solid and human, O'Toole's acting is the finer.

 

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Stanley Kubrick, Best Director, etc.
Stanley Kubrick has one Oscar. One. In 1969, he won an Academy Award as a part of the team for Best Visual Effects for "2001: A Space Odyssey." He never won for Best Director. His films never won for Best Picture. His screenplays were never honored. And yet he is perhaps the best, most innovative mainstream filmmaker the art has ever produced. As the years go by, his status remains less and less questionable and this snub becomes all the more an indictment of the Academy.


Rachel Leah

Rachel Leah is a culture writer for Salon. You can follow her on Twitter: @rachelkleah.

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