Awards like the Oscars are fodder for so much whining and moaning: Who got absolutely snubbed? Who shouldn’t have been nominated? Who should or shouldn’t have won? But, as we sit and nitpick the decisions of a single year’s Oscars over the next few weeks (months, even?), let’s remember that there were decades of questionable decisions made well before we had Facebook comments to spew hogwash and argue about.
For that reason, we developed a list of 10 iconic films that you would swear had been massive critical successes and won dozens of awards — except they didn’t win a single Oscar. In compiling this list, we narrowed down the offerings to legendary movies that were nominated for Academy Awards but didn’t win a single one.
So, before you get into the comments and start griping about how The Big Lebowski should have won a bunch of awards, man (we get it, the film really would’ve tied this list together, har-har), remember that these are the movies that could’ve won little gold statues but came up short. It’s a maddening collection, alright.
Hitchcock’s Greatest Hits (1950-1960)
Nominations: Strangers on a Train — Best Cinematography; Dial M for Murder — None; Rear Window — Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Screenplay (John Michael Hayes), Best Cinematography, Best Sound; Vertigo — Best Art Direction, Best Sound; North by Northwest — Best Screenplay (Ernest Lehman), Best Art Direction, and Best Editing; and Psycho — Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Janet Leigh), Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction
The fact that Alfred Hitchcock never won a single Best Director Oscar and yet Three Six Mafia has a trophy sitting at home is all the proof you need to know that the Academy Awards is full of shit. But man, what a political move, huh? Not one goddamn win? Given his handful of advantageous nominations (see above), he must have either fucked someone over royally behind the scenes or simply suffered from bad luck at award ceremonies. After all, even then it was hard to dispute that he wasn’t the most iconic visionary to grace Hollywood, turning his productions into sweeping events that seemingly froze the nation.
Today, his string of greatest hits, most notably 1954’s Rear Window, 1958’s Vertigo, 1959’s North by Northwest, and 1960’s Psycho, remain some of the most influential films of all time, taught in colleges all across the world and critiqued by generations of film critics. He’s responsible for the modern thriller, he gave new meaning to the word “auteur,” and he essentially paved the way for DePalma, Carpenter, Nolan, Spielberg, and Fincher. So, when you watch Cary Grant run through the cornfields or follow Jimmy Stewart around San Francisco as he tails Kim Novak, try not to forget that the Oscars never once found any of it to be genius enough for their ridiculously dubious standards. That should put any future upset into perspective. –Michael Roffman
12 Angry Men (1957)
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Lumet), and Best Screenplay (Reginald Rose)
In many ways, it’s not surprising that Sidney Lumet’s 1957 adaptation of Reginald Rose’s acclaimed teleplay 12 Angry Men left the 30th Academy Awards empty-handed. Credit Oscar for nominating the unlikely film at all. After all, apart from its opening and closing moments, the film’s action, mostly fidgeting in chairs and rehashing testimony, takes place in a single stuffy deliberation room. But it’s what those 12 men bring into the room with them – different experiences, prejudices, and worldviews – and what our system of justice ultimately requires them to set aside that creates a film so compelling and explosive that it threatens to blow the windows clean out of that jury room.
Credit Lumet for using his camera to create a moral claustrophobia that still suffocates 60 years later, Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 for holding a mirror up to our own souls, and arguably the greatest ensemble cast of all time for one rich, gritty, epiphanic performance after another. 12 Angry Men is one of those rare films that shifts the cargo in our hauls without our consent. That it remains so relevant and beloved more than half a century later speaks to something invaluable and eternally hopeful about both the American and human spirit. –Matt Melis
Easy Rider (1969)
Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Original Screenplay (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern)
Some films capture a generation. Other films capture a moment, but few often do both. Easy Rider led the charge, no pun intended, for the late ’60s counterculture movement. Decades later, the late Dennis Hopper’s salient portrait on the psychedelic underbelly of America still feels real, thanks to its documentary-style approach, which was largely part of a counterculture in itself: the New Hollywood era. As such, it’s not exactly surprising that the traditionally unhip Academy was totally square and only gave the film a Supporting Role nomination and a nod for Original Screenplay.
Granted, nobody’s going to argue against John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, which rightfully took home Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s admittedly decisive Oscars (ahem, the ever-flawless Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was also in the running), but c’mon, Hopper wasn’t even nominated in those categories and neither was star Peter Fonda. The least they could have done was give Nicholson the Supporting Actor award. Though, to be fair, his performance here only opened more doors for him in Hollywood, and he’s done just fine for himself.
Nevertheless, Easy Rider has since impacted every generation in its wake, haunting college dorm rooms with its iconic poster and outstanding soundtrack that ropes together the likes of Steppenwolf, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Byrds, and Joe Cocker. “Don’t bogart that joint.” Words to live by, my man. Words to live by. –Michael Roffman
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick), and Best Editing
For a guy on the short list of the greatest director/writers of all time, Stanley Kubrick sure lost a lot of Oscars. In fact, of the 13 awards he was nominated for, the Academy only decided that the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey were worth a statue. One element of that astonishing fact is that the thrilling, esoteric late-night favorite A Clockwork Orange lost all four of the Oscars it was nominated for. There are twin factors that explain that seemingly stunning fact.
First is the challenging nature of the subject matter. When you think of the voters in the Academy, you’re not typically thinking of some hip, edgy folks hungry for a film full of rape, ultra-violence, and its own fictional dialect. But those are the very factors that make A Clockwork Orange stand out in the first place, the way Kubrick unflinchingly looks at a possible dystopic future and the muddy waters of morality and cognitive conditioning on the societal scale.
The other factor leading to the film’s shutout is the critical buzzsaw that A Clockwork Orange faced at the Oscars: The French Connection. Kubrick and co. lost Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay to the Gene Hackman-starring, William Friedkin-directed crime thriller. The fact that the same film won out in every matching category (and another novel adaptation at that, meaning they went head-to-head there instead of other writing categories) meant that Kubrick would go home empty-handed, losing out to the easier-to-digest film.
That’s not to say that The French Connection isn’t great; it’s just a shame there wasn’t room for two winners. –Lior Phillips
Taxi Driver (1976)
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Jodie Foster), and Best Score (Bernard Herrmann)
The Academy loves to be a bunch of dicks. Case in point: Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was nominated for all the essentials — Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Score — except Best Director. That’s just plain cold. That’s just straight-up evil. Could you imagine sitting there at the ceremony, trying to smile and wave at the camera, all while knowing damn well that you were hideously snubbed? Awful stuff. Though, in hindsight, it doesn’t matter much since nobody walked home with gold that night. To be fair, the competition in 1977 was incredibly stiff: Best Picture went to Rocky, Best Actor went to Network’s Peter Finch, who had died earlier that year, Best Supporting Actress went to Network’s Beatrice Straight, and Best Score went to Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie compositions for The Omen.
Still, Taxi Driver is one of Scorsese’s finest hours behind the camera and, as we argued recently, De Niro’s greatest role. And although the Academy has since been more economical amid its harder years, splitting the awards accordingly among various areas, Mr. Travis Bickle had zero fares on March 28, 1977, which is just baffling. On the plus side, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and has since been featured in countless best-of critics lists. Plus, everyone involved has won their share of the gold: Scorsese for 2006’s The Departed, De Niro for 1980’s Raging Bull (he also has previously won Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II), and Foster twice for 1988’s The Accused and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. As for Herrmann, the legend only won once for 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster; let’s not forget, he was a large part of the Hitchcock curse. Shame! –Michael Roffman
The Color Purple (1985)
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Whoopi Goldberg), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Margaret Avery), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Oprah Winfrey), Best Screenplay (Menno Meyjes), Best Cinematography (Allen Daviau), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design), Best Original Song (Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, and Lionel Richie), and Best Original Score
While all of the films on this list failed to win a single Oscar, none of them lost as many as The Color Purple. The Alice Walker-adapted stunner tied an all-time record for the most Academy Award nominations without a win at 11.
Director Steven Spielberg’s nuanced look at racism, sexism, incest, domestic violence, and other raw topics not taking home the hardware certainly deserves to be called a snub, but this film more egregiously stands in the long line of miscues along the path to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. While African American actors, especially black women, so often get overlooked, even in terms of nominations, Whoopi Goldberg, Margaret Avery, and Oprah Winfrey each received nominations — though of course they all lost.
In terms of the big picture awards, The Color Purple lost out to the ironically titled Out of Africa, set in British East Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. While some have called out the problematic potential of Spielberg’s eye as the frame set around the ways in which black men in the film treat women, The Color Purple gave voice to themes and people and managed to wring beauty and power from the darkness. –Lior Phillips
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Danny Aiello), Best Screenplay (Spike Lee)
For all its critical acclaim, academic attention, and power to spark debate, I still don’t think we have an entirely firm grasp on what exactly Do the Right Thing achieves or means. And I don’t expect that the Academy did in 1990 when they gave Best Picture to another film that dealt with issues of race, Driving Miss Daisy. That film depicts and capsulizes a single relationship in a particular time and place in a comparatively easy-to-digest manner; we understand how it intends to make us feel. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, on the other hand, never goes down smooth like that, not even three decades later.
Audiences step into Lee’s bright orange, sneaker-melting Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where its inhabitants live atop a racial powder keg and hold ideas about community, justice, dreams, personal responsibility, and ethics that can’t be neatly packaged into a moral or message. While most films tend to age as static representations of a location and era, Do the Right Thing remains fluid, allowing us to bring our current ideas about race and other social issues with us into Lee’s world. In that way, it not only retains its relevance but acts as a tool for ongoing thought. –Matt Melis
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Morgan Freeman), Best Screenplay (Frank Darabont), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Original Score (Thomas Newman)
Seven nominations. Count them. It’s not the sheer number of nods The Shawshank Redemption received at the Academy Awards that surprises, but the fact that it didn’t win a single one. Frank Darabont’s 1994 drama is still considered one of the greatest movies of all time (or, according to IMDB, the greatest movie of all time) for all that it packs — corruption in the prison system, the power of trustworthy friendships, self-worth in a world all too eager to belittle it — and the way in which its cast and crew delivers that with grace, subterfuge, and ingenuity.
The Stephen King adaptation shoots chills down your spine for reasons you don’t expect. It does so when tiny triumphs tug at the heart, when the darkness of reality never quite leaves the frame, and when the endurance of the human spirit speaks just as loudly as “The Marriage of Figaro”. The Shawshank Redemption is an American classic. Thankfully, it didn’t need Academy Awards to be acknowledged as such. —Nina Corcoran
Boogie Nights (1997)
Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Burt Reynolds), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Julianne Moore), and Best Screenplay (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Turning pleasure into art is as much of a process as it is creating a story around the act. Paul Thomas Anderson established his trademark tone and undeniable talent with 1997’s Boogie Nights, his second feature film and first to gross millions at the box office.
Perhaps the ’90s weren’t ready for a film to chronicle the rise of a porn star or his fall a decade later with such glossy ambition. But with a cast like Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, and more telling the tale, what more could the film have done to wow those viewing it? Elevated the soundtrack past its already perfect blend of disco and pop? Held the camera still and lost those gorgeous pans?
To date, it remains the highest-scored Paul Thomas Anderson film on Rotten Tomatoes and is talked about with as much fanfare as it was upon its release, which makes it even more mind-boggling that it never won a single Oscar. Perhaps it was Anderson’s ability to remove sensationalism from the actors’ stories that prevented it from sweeping the Academy Awards the way it swept away movie theaters. After all, it’s the simple pleasures, right? —Nina Corcoran
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Nominations: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ellen Burstyn)
After his darkly surreal debut, Pi, Darren Aronofsky solidified his position as one of the more adventurous, artistic auteurs in the game with 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Thanks to Aronofsky’s compelling script (co-written with Hubert Selby, Jr., who wrote the novel on which the film is based) and deft directing hand, as well as rich performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and Marlon Wayans, the film became an instant classic in dorm rooms around the world for its unflinching look at drug abuse and the desperate ends that people will go to to fuel their habits — not to mention a healthy dose of existential dread and weary apathy.
The film feels very “of its time,” reflecting the turn of the century in its bleak feelings, quick-cut montages, tight closeups, and extreme themes. As a woman who becomes hooked on amphetamines in an attempt to regain her previous weight for a dream appearance on a game show, Burstyn received the film’s sole Oscar nomination, and her descent into a glazed-over well of addiction truly deserved that attention. However, the film’s lack of nominations (let alone wins) in other categories likely came from more traditional Oscar bait like Gladiator and Erin Brockovich not spending extended time on heroin use or live sex shows. –Lior Phillips