Robin’s Top 10 Most Baffling Oscar Nominations of All Time

The nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards are officially going to be announced tomorrow and I have no doubt that during the next month or so, many opinions will be expressed on The Back Row about the nominations and the eventual winners. I’m sure there will be outrage about who you got shafted and who didn’t deserve to get nominated, but if you’re upset with some of the selections, I’ve got a solution for that. If there are any nominations this year that really leave you scratching your head, all you have to do is take a look at this list and remember that it could be a whole lot worse. I’ve been researching the entire history of the Academy Awards, studying the list of nominees for each year, and I’ve assembled what I consider to be the “Top 10 Most Baffling Oscar Nominations of All Time”. This column is not going to focus on the subject of the Academy awarding an Oscar to an undeserving winner. If you want a rant about Shakespeare in Love winning “Best Picture” in 1998 instead of Saving Private Ryan, you’ll have to look elsewhere. With one exception, none of the nominees on this list wound up winning their award, nor were they really expected too. However, while one can usually understand the logic and rationale of the Academy when they hand out undeserving nominations, these selections are just flat-out confusing.

10. Star Wars – Best Original Screenplay – 1977:

One of these things is not like the other…

First off, let me clarify that this is not a complaint about Star Wars getting recognized at the Academy Awards. It deserved every Oscar it did win that year and I would have been perfectly happy to see Star Wars defeat Annie Hall for “Best Picture”. However, knowing what we know now about George Lucas, I think you’ll all agree that the guy should NEVER, EVER come close to winning any awards for his writing! You may argue that Lucas simply got a “Best Original Screenplay” nomination because Star Wars fever was sweeping the nation at the time and its massive success blinded the Academy. However, let’s put this into perspective here: Titanic wound up tying a record by winning eleven Oscars in 1997, but the one category it never even received a nomination for was “Best Original Screenplay”. As spectacular and successful as Titanic may have been, the Academy at least didn’t delude themselves into thinking that James Cameron’s script was a writing masterpiece. Ditto for Avatar, which also didn’t receive a nomination for its screenplay. Granted, Lucas’ screenplay for Star Wars now looks like Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown when compared to his screenplays for the prequels, but that doesn’t mean it was worthy of an Oscar nomination. By now, everyone knows that Star Wars isn’t exactly a work of great originality as Lucas took most of his story ideas from old Saturday matinee serials and Akira Kurosawa films (most especially The Hidden Fortress) and translated them into an outer space setting. Oh, and check out this Cracked article to read some excerpts from a very early draft of the Star Wars screenplay and get an idea of how horrible the whole thing could have been. While there are no other credited screenwriters on the film, I’m more than willing to believe that Lucas had some outside help in order to turn that script into one of the greatest movies of all time. Give Star Wars all the credit in the world for changing the face of cinema and pop culture forever, but do not confuse it with being a template of great screenwriting. Just think… these are the words of an Oscar-nominated screenwriter:

9. Ethan Hawke, Training Day – Best Supporting Actor – 2001:


“I’m getting an Oscar nomination for this?! WHY?!”

While looking through eighty years’ worth of Oscar-nominated performances, I could find an awful lot of selections that really didn’t deserve their nominations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like many of these undeserving nominees delivered bad performances, and in most cases, I could at least understand why the Academy felt compelled to nominate them. However, the one selection that just made me go “HUH?!” and left me completely baffled was when Ethan Hawke was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor” for Training Day. Now, we could debate all day whether Denzel Washington really deserved his “Best Actor” Oscar for Training Day. Since Halle Berry was the favourite to win “Best Actress”, it’s pretty obvious the Academy wanted to create an historic moment that year where two African-American actors wound up winning both major acting awards for the first time ever. However, while Washington at least gave a memorable performance playing a very flashy and colourful character, Ethan Hawke’s performance in that film pretty much defines the term “nondescript”. He does a decent enough job, but the role is incredibly bland and thankless, and there’s nothing that really distinguishes Hawke’s work from the dozens of other leading man action movie roles that you see every year. As hard as I try to rationalize a reason behind the decision, this Oscar nomination continues to stump me. And, of course, there’s the Academy’s weird classification of the “Best Actor” and “Best Supporting Actor” categories. Since Hawke had more screen time than Washington in Training Day, why is he considered the supporting actor? But that’s a rant for another day…

8. Hamlet: Best Adapted Screenplay – 1996:

I’m definitely not trying to knock Kenneth Branagh’s massive four-hour version of Hamlet as it certainly deserved the nominations it received in categories like “Best Art Direction” and “Best Costume Design”. However, do you remember the reason this version of Hamlet wound up being four hours long? Because Kenneth Branagh decided to include every single of line of dialogue from Shakespeare’s original text and chose not to change a thing. So, yeah, essentially, Branagh picked up an Oscar nomination for writing down scene descriptions and camera angles. The reason the Academy has its own separate category for “Best Adapted Screenplay” is because adapting previously published material into a feature film is a difficult challenge, as the writer has to make difficult choices about what material to change, what material to leave out, and what steps need to be taken in order to best translate the material to the cinematic medium. However, by consciously choosing to leave Shakespeare’s text exactly the way it was, Branagh didn’t have to undertake any of those challenges. As a director, he deserves all the praise in the world for effectively bringing those scenes to life on screen, but even the film’s biggest fans had to admit that giving him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay was a bit of a stretch. If Branagh had actually won, this is probably who he should have dedicated the award to:

7. Airport: Best Picture – 1970:

Sometimes, when looking at old Academy Award nominations, you’ll see a selection that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but just seems ridiculous today. Airport was a hugely popular and successful film when it was originally released in 1970, but the idea of it being worthy of an Oscar nomination for “Best Picture” is laughable. In fact, Airport managed to garner a whopping ten nominations altogether, and Helen Hayes even took home the “Best Supporting Actress” award for her role as a lovable elderly stowaway. The film’s massive box office success helped launch the hugely popular “all-star disaster movie” genre of the 1970s and it also spawned three less-than-stellar sequels. As you can imagine, Airport is an incredibly clichéd and campy soap opera, and has not aged well at all, especially since the film wound up being parodied so hilariously by Airplane! ten years later. However, you can’t just simply blame the film’s problems on the fact that it’s dated. A lot of the same criticisms that are directed towards it today were still directed towards it by critics when Airport was originally released and they also questioned the film’s recognition at Oscar time. Airport certainly has entertainment value, but I think its huge box office receipts and all-star cast really blinded the Academy in 1970 and this definitely still stands as one of their goofiest “Best Picture” nominations of all time. Let me put it this way… the modern equivalent of this would be 2012 garnering a nomination for “Best Picture”!

6. Beverly Hills Cop: Best Original Screenplay – 1984:

Banana-in-the-tailpipe gags = OSCAR!

For those of you who still consider Beverly Hills Cop to be one of the best cop movies ever made, my question to you is… have you actually watched it lately? Some of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s will stand the test of time forever, but in my opinion, Beverly Hills Cop is not one of them. The problems I’ve always had with it stem mostly from the screenplay, but ironically, it’s the screenplay that garnered the film its only Oscar nomination! When it was released, Beverly Hills Cop became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time because of its neat premise, but I think that may have fooled the Academy into thinking the film actually had a great script. When you watch Beverly Hills Cop today, the writing seems incredibly flat, as the story is filled with every cop movie cliché in the book and is really hampered by its cardboard characters and dialogue. You get the sense that the most of the clever, genuinely funny moments in the film were completely ad-libbed and improvised by Eddie Murphy himself and that really isn’t far from the truth. In fact, check out this Wikipedia entry about the production:

The shooting script was literally pasted together from the half dozen or so scripts written for this project over the years. Police Chief Hubbard (Stephen Elliott) walks into his first scene carrying some rolled-up sheets of paper. It is actually one of many reworked scripts, which was given to him to memorize and rehearse only minutes before the shooting of the scene started. When they were stuck during production, Eddie Murphy would improvise dialogue or create a scene. Eddie Murphy improvised much of his comic lines, as did John Ashton and Judge Reinhold.

Yes, it’s nice to know that the Academy finally took the time to recognize a screenplay that was pasted together from several different scripts.

5. Jon Voight, Ali: Best Supporting Actor – 2001:

Okay, we all know the Academy is a sucker for nominating actors who impersonate famous real-life figures, but this one was just ridiculous! This selection shared the exact same category as Ethan Hawke’s baffling nomination for Training Day, so you have to wonder if something screwy happened during the tabulation of votes for “Best Supporting Actor” in 2001. Jon Voight played the role of Howard Cosell in Ali and while he undeniably did a great impersonation of the famed sportscaster, the title of the category is “Best Supporting ACTOR”, not “Best Celebrity Impersonation”. And he wasn’t exactly required to do much ACTING in the role. Just because you put a rubber mask on Jon Voight and made him completely unrecognizable doesn’t mean that this was a fully-rounded performance. The fact of the matter is that Voight’s role is pretty much a glorified cameo as he has a limited amount of screen time, and while the film does a convincing job at recreating Cosell’s television interviews with Ali, it doesn’t exactly give him much character development to work with. To make a comparison, look at Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Landau also wore a lot of makeup and did a phenomenal impersonation of Lugosi, but in this case, Lugosi was actually a fully fleshed-out character with his own story arc, so the performance was completely deserving of its award. It also didn’t help that right around the same time the Oscar nominations were announced, a made-for-cable movie named Monday Night Mayhem was released where Howard Cosell was the main character. John Turturro delivered a very strong performance in the role which, yes, required a lot of ACTING on his part, and it only made Voight’s nomination look even sillier.

“I had my own damn movie and all I got was an ESPY Award nomination!”

4. Borat: Best Adapted Screenplay – 2006:

Oscar-nominated screenwriting at its finest!

Don’t get me wrong, I think that Borat is one of the funniest films of the past decade, but I also think one of the most important qualifications a film should have in order to earn a “Best Screenplay” nomination is, you know… an ACTUAL SCREENPLAY! Unless Sacha Baron Cohen and company made a closed-door confession to the Academy that their entire film was staged and pre-scripted, there’s no rational explanation behind this nomination. It’s going to be debated until the end of time how much of Borat was real and how much of it was staged, but I think the uncertainty alone should have kept it out of this category. Yes, certain things in the movie were planned and scripted beforehand, but I know most of the scenes were done with nothing more than the barest outline. The formula was simple: Sacha Baron Cohen would just approach or conduct interviews with people while pretending to be Borat, and if their reactions produced comedy gold, then they would be used in the final cut of the film. Some people have speculated that the Academy just didn’t feel comfortable with giving Cohen an acting nomination for his remarkable job at fooling so many people, so the screenplay nomination was their way of compromising. Yes, there is a “screenplay by” credit listed in the film’s closing titles, but that’s only because the Writer’s Guild of America requires it. You’ll notice that whenever they announce the “Best Screenplay” nominees at the Oscar ceremony, they often like to read an excerpt from the script while displaying a picture of the page they’re reading from. But when a movie doesn’t actually have a physical copy of the script to display onscreen, that should probably disqualify it from being nominated, don’t you think?

3. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost: Best Supporting Actress – 1990:

I wasn’t going to put any nominees who actually won an Oscar on this list, but in this case, I’m willing to make an exception. I recently re-watched Ghost for the first time in years and while I still enjoyed the film and I still enjoyed Whoopi Goldberg’s performance, my first thought was “Why in the hell did she win an Oscar for this?!”. In fact, I really don’t understand how she even got nominated, let alone won. Of course, the Academy is notorious for handing out undeserving Oscars to actors in order to atone for not giving them the award in the past. Some people thought Goldberg was robbed when she didn’t win the “Best Actress” award for The Color Purple, so maybe the Academy thought they had to make it up to her. But watching Ghost twenty years after the fact, it just seems really bizarre to me that anyone would consider her performance to be Oscar-worthy. I think my main problem is that Ghost is mostly intended to be a dark supernatural romantic fantasy, but Whoopi Goldberg’s character seems to belong in an entirely different movie. Maybe it’s because the film was directed by Jerry Zucker, but Whoopi’s broad comedy scenes look like they would be more at home in his Naked Gun films than in Ghost. That’s not to say that the actress doesn’t do a good job, but come on, is her performance really all that much different than the ones she’s given in her regular comedy films, like Sister Act? Yet because Ghost was such a hugely popular movie, her style of acting suddenly deserves an Oscar?! Come to think of it, maybe they gave her the Oscar simply Patrick Swayze wouldn’t stop doing this:

2. Doctor Dolittle: Best Picture – 1967:

We all know it’s a given that the Academy will constantly hand out “Best Picture” nominations to films that don’t deserve them, but very rarely will they go so far as to give one to the biggest flop of the year! The 1967 musical version of Doctor Dolittle had a very troubled production history and it almost wound up bankrupting 20th Century Fox. It was a huge box office disappointment and made nowhere near enough money to recoup its inflated budget. Reviews for the film were mostly lousy and even its intended target audience didn’t seem to like it that much. Leonard Maltin once wrote: “The movie has one merit: If you have unruly children, it may put them to sleep”. The film did actually wind up winning a few Oscars in such categories as “Best Visual Effects” and “Best Song”, which wasn’t that much of a shocker, but everyone was completely baffled when it wound up garnering a nomination for “Best Picture”! Well, it turns out that Miramax and the Weinstein Brothers didn’t invent the concept of campaigning and kissing ass in order to secure Oscar nominations. 20th Century Fox were accused of doing just that with Doctor Dolittle as they campaigned like crazy with the Academy and succeeded at earning the film a total of seven nominations. So, yeah, I guess there may be a halfway understandable reason behind the Academy’s baffling decision here, but think of it this way: how do you think people would react if M. Night Shyamalan successfully campaigned the Academy to secure a “Best Picture” nomination this year for The Last Airbender?! Hundreds of films have been nominated for “Best Picture” since the invention of the Academy Awards, but I don’t think you’ll ever find one that’s more maligned and seems more out-of-place than Doctor Dolittle.

Doctor Dolittle bribes the Academy with a pushmi-pullyu.

1. The Swarm: Best Costume Design – 1978:

I really didn’t want to include any nominations on this list from films I’ve never actually seen, but the Academy Award nomination for The Swarm is one of the most baffling unsolved mysteries in the history of mankind and it wouldn’t be fair to neglect it. I mentioned earlier that Airport popularized the “all-star disaster movie” in the 1970s and The Swarm is widely considered to be one of the worst entries in the genre, involving big-name actors like Michael Caine and Henry Fonda being terrorized by a large swarm of killer bees. Now, while The Swarm is an infamously terrible film, it’s not uncommon for bad movies to receive Oscar nominations in the technical categories. As terrible as Norbit was, no one really thought that giving it a nomination for “Best Makeup” was that outrageous. However, for reasons that no one could possibly understand, The Swarm wound up garnering an Oscar nomination for “Best Costume Design”! Yes, it’s true that bad movies can sometimes have great costumes, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what the hell is so special about the costumes in The Swarm! I mean, it’s not like the movie was a period piece or anything. I may not have seen The Swarm, but I have watched the trailer and a few clips of the film on Youtube. From what I saw, absolutely nothing stands out about the costumes at all, unless someone at the Academy REALLY liked Michael Caine’s brown turtleneck or Bradford Dillman’s orange bio-suit!

This is the one time where I honestly believe that the Academy realized at the last minute that they didn’t have enough nominees in this category, so they just threw a bunch of random movie titles into a hat and happened to draw The Swarm. In closing, I’ll sum everything up by naming a couple of famous films and listing the number of Academy Award nominations that they’ve each received.

Reservoir Dogs: 0

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: 0

The Big Lebowski: 0

Kill Bill Vol. 1: 0

Kill Bill Vol. 2: 0

Scarface: 0

Sin City: 0

The Swarm: 1!!!!

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