What are award ceremonies good for if not arguing? It’s a time for people to place themselves in the shoes of a critic, to question which films had phenomenal cinematography, which directors worked harder than ever, which films blew them away from start to finish. If each year brought clear standouts, then we wouldn’t feel the need to debate whose work is the true best for each category. But we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by talent day in and day out. So with that comes loss — a lot of it.
Choosing the worst losses in Oscar history is near impossible. The award ceremony has been going on for 87 years at this point, and that means there are over 87 losses for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and everything in between. Hell, even choosing 10 from this current century took plenty of debating.
If you don’t believe us, just scroll through past winners. Remember when Joaquin Phoenix didn’t win Best Actor for The Master because Daniel Day Lewis’ stone-cold biopic performance in Lincoln was too critic-baiting? Or when Martin Scorsese lost Best Director for Gangs of New York to Roman Polanski for The Pianist? Then there was the obvious shoe-in where Jean Dujardin won Best Actor for The Artist even though Brad Pitt went above and beyond in Moneyball.
So join us in looking at the losses that truly devastated us. But most importantly, bring your pitchforks. Award season is all about righting the wrongs, and heaven knows there have been undeserving losses (and even, gasp, undeserving wins) aplenty in the last 17 years. So here’s who the Academy Award really would’ve gone to … if we had our way.
Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Lost to… Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich
We won’t pretend as though Roberts’ Oscar-winning take on the titular real-life environmentalist and legal genius is bad. It’s great. But it’s the test of time that sways us here; Erin Brockovich isn’t even Steven Soderbergh’s best film of the year 2000, and it’s not the first of the Best Actress nominees that comes to mind. Not when Ellen Burstyn’s horrifying portrayal of an amphetamine-addled would-be star is in the mix. Of all the depravity chronicled in Requiem, it’s Sara’s descent into celebrity-fueled madness that gives Darren Aronofsky’s iconic film its most painful and resonant moments. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Reaction to Loss:
Best Director: David Lynch
Mullholland Drive (2001)
Lost to… Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind
Look, A Beautiful Mind is fine. It’s a perfectly sound drama about an extraordinary genius and exactly the type of prestige fluff that the Academy has wet dreams about every year. But, it’s no Mulholland Drive. David Lynch’s surreal masterpiece is a once-in-a-lifetime film that was born out of chaos and all the better for it. It’s a puzzling spectacle that was likely too intimidating for voters, though the least they could have done was turned that confusion into sympathy, especially after passing on his previous opus — ahem, 1986’s Blue Velvet — for Oliver Stone’s Platoon. If only they had a visit from the Cowboy. –Michael Roffman
Reaction to Loss:
Best Actor: Bill Murray
Lost in Translation (2002)
Lost to… Sean Penn for Mystic River
Some actors only get one shot. Mickey Rourke comes to mind. So does Bill Murray. What do both have in common? They were bested by Sean Penn at the Oscars. Now, some would argue Penn’s turn in Clint Eastwood’s harsh drama Mystic River is a little more complicated than, say, Murray’s very self-referential turn in Sofia Coppola’s outstanding meditation Lost in Translation … but we’re siding with Venkman on this one. Starting with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Murray began to really embrace his softer side, opting to take out his manic quirks in lieu of a more resilient exterior that apparently was always there. He delivers a very silent performance in Coppola’s film, but it’s one that demands to be called “nuanced.” How the Academy could watch him sing Roxy Music and not consider him a lock is why this writer will always shake his head each and every year. His reaction following the loss captured what we we all wanted to say… (inaudible whisper) –Michael Roffman
Reaction to Loss: