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The biggest Oscars surprises of all time

As we gear up for the 93rd annual Academy Awards, which will take place with a limited in-person crowd, as well as virtually, due to COVID-19, we thought it might be fun to look back at some of the most surprising wins (and losses) in the biggest award categories. While many argue that awards ceremonies like the Oscars are predictable, every once in a while, we’re thrown for a loop when a movie wins big when no one saw it coming or an actor gets snubbed. Which are the biggest Oscar win and loss surprises? Here’s a look back in history.

Tomei wins Best Supporting Actress (1993)

Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
Twentieth Century Fox

Back at the 65th Academy Awards, the industry spiraled into a world of conspiracy theories and questions when Marisa Tomei, then a newcomer, won the golden statue for her role in My Cousin Vinny. Some believe her name was announced incorrectly and the Academy did not want to admit the error. How could Tomei, after all, who had only been in five movies by that time, have possibly won? Especially when she was competing against seasoned actresses like Judy Davis and Vanessa Redgrave in far more sophisticated films like Husbands and Wives and Howards End, respectively? While the award should have catapulted Tomei to success, it has always been marred with controversy.

Crash takes Best Picture (2006)

Crash (2004) Official Trailer # 1 - Don Cheadle

Crash is still considered one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscars history, and is also often referred to as one of the least deserving, if not the least deserving. Considering the movie, which contained various intertwining stories and themes of racial and social tensions in Los Angeles, was up against prestigious movies like Capote,  Munich, Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, it was considered the ultimate underdog. As a result, when the movie’s named was called at the 78th Academy Awards, jaws dropped.

Colman edges Close (2019)

Olivia Colman 2019 Oscars Acceptance Speech

With an enduring career that has featured many classic performances, it’s a wonder that Glenn Close has still not won an Oscar. In fact, if she loses again this year, she will be tied with Peter O’Toole for the most acting nominations without a win. She is also one of the five most nominated actresses in the history of the Academy. It’s this fact that made Olivia Colman’s win for The Favourite during the 91st Academy Awards so surprising. Many observers thought that Close was a shoo-in for the win, or that Lady Gaga would be called on stage for her incredible performance in A Star is Born. While there’s no denying Colman’s tremendous acting talents in that movie and others, many believed that particular award should have gone to one of the other two ladies. Interestingly, Colman and Close will face off again at the 93rd Academy Awards for their roles in The Father and Hillbilly Elegy, respectively.

Paquin wins at age 11 (1994)

Anna Paquin winning Best Supporting Actress for "The Piano"

Anna Paquin became the second-youngest winner for a Best Supporting Actress role at the tender age of 11 (Tatum O’Neal remains the youngest) thanks to her fabulous turn in The Piano. Also at the 67th Academy Awards, Holly Hunter took home the Best Actress award for her role in the same film. More impressive than her age was the fact that Paquin beat well-known industry names for the award, including Winona Ryder, who was nominated for The Age of Innocence, Hunter (nominated for The Firm), Rosie Perez (Fearless), and Emma Thompson (In the Name of the Father). She has proven her tremendous acting talent in the decades since, starring in movies like Jane Eyre and series like True Blood and, most recently, Flack.

The King’s Speech takes Best Picture (2011)

The King's Speech Trailer

The King’s Speech was a fantastic movie that truly showcased the talents of actor Colin Firth. So, it was no surprise that Firth took home the Best Actor award at the 83rd Academy Awards. But what did surprise was when the movie itself won for Best Picture, despite being up against stiff competition like The Social Network, The Fighter, and 127 Hours, which were all considered more likely to win.

Kelly defeats Garland (1955)

A Star Is Born (1954) Official Trailer - Judy Garland, James Mason Movie HD

Judy Garland surprisingly never won an Oscar. And her most shocking loss was when Grace Kelly won for The Country Girl when Garland was a favorite to win for A Star is Born. While there is no question that Kelly was also a wonderful actress, the role for which she won seemed an odd choice compared to Garland’s tremendous performance in A Star is Born. Kelly also appeared in massive hit movies like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder that same year, which might have been an easier pill to swallow had she beat out Garland for one of those roles instead.

Bacall’s heartfelt loss (1997)

Lauren Bacall the mirror has 2 faces
TriStar Pictures via Sony Pictures

Lauren Bacall, nominated for The Mirror has Two Faces, was so upset over her Best Supporting Actress loss to Juliette Binoche at the 69th Academy Awards that she even wrote about it in her autobiography. Bacall believes that it was the aggressive studio campaigning for The English Patient by Harvey Weinstein that led to Binoche’s win instead of hers. Sadly, Bacall died in 2014, never having won an Oscar beyond her Honorary Award in 2010.

Carney tops Pacino and Nicholson (1975)

Jack Nicholson as Jake in Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

When you think about the best actors in Hollywood, names like Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson probably come to mind. And when you think about some of the best movies of the early ’70s, Pacino’s The Godfather Part II and Nicholson’s Chinatown are certainly up there. Yet somehow, some way, Art Carney won the Best Actor award for his role in Harry and Tonto over Pacino and Nicholson during the 47th Academy Awards. Carney was best known for his role as Ed Norton on the sitcom The Honeymooners. While he went on to star in many more movies, the last of which was Last Action Hero in 1993 prior to his death in 2003, this statue remains Carney’s only Academy Award.

Coppola falls to Fosse (1973)

Cabaret (1972)
ABC Pictures & Allied Artists

At the 45th Academy Awards, everyone believed that it would be a clean sweep for The Godfather. Indeed, the iconic film did win Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Yet there was shock when Bob Fosse was announced as the recipient of the Best Director award for Cabaret instead of Francis Ford Coppola, whom everyone was expecting would win.

Brody’s enthusiastic win (2003)

adrien brody in the pianist
Focus Features & StudioCanal

Everyone became so focused on Adrien Brody’s enthusiasm when he won Best Actor for The Pianist at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, expressed through a passionate and surprising kiss with presenter Halle Berry, that it’s easy to forget why he was so enthused. Brody not only won the most prestigious award an actor could win, he also beat out Academy favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Caine for it. Everyone was shocked by the win, none more so than Brody himself.

Rocky scores a knockout (1977)

United Artists

No one suspected that Sylvester Stallone’s little movie about a second-rate boxer who rises to the top would become something worthy of an Academy Award. But that is exactly what happened when the movie not only won for directing and film editing, but also for Best Picture, at the 49th Academy Awards. That came against some pretty hefty competition with movies from All the President’s Men and Network. Perhaps the Academy felt a movie about the ultimate underdog deserved to become one in true meta fashion as well.

Three 6 Mafia’s puts rap on Oscars map (2006)

"It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" Wins Original Song: 2006 Oscars

Three 6 Mafia made history when they took home the award for Best Original Song for Hustle and Flow at the 78th Academy Awards, marking the first-ever win for a rap group and legitimizing the musical genre in the eyes of the Academy and beyond. While the win is most notable because of the historical significance, there’s no denying that it was a surprise when the song It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp topped tunes like In the Deep from Crash and Dolly Parton’s Travelin’ Thru from the movie Transamerica.

Benigni’s joyous celebration (1999)

life is beautiful
Image used with permission by copyright holder

No one saw Robert Benigni’s Best Actor win for Life is Beautiful coming, especially when his competition included Edward Norton in American History X, Nick Nolte in Affliction, Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters, and Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Yet when his name was called at the 71st Academy Awards, Benigni was so excited, he balanced on the edges of chairs while running all the way up to the stage to accept the award.

Citizen Kane loses Best Picture (1942)

Citizen Kane (1941) Official Trailer #1 - Orson Welles Movie

Can Mank, the movie that chronicles screenwriter’s Herman J. Mankiewicz’s effort to make the movie Citizen Kane, win Best Picture when the movie it tells the story of didn’t win at the 14th Academy Awards? The loss comes as an even bigger surprise given that Citizen Kane is now considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made, if not the greatest. Yet it lost to How Green Was My Valley, a decision that some feel might have been influenced by the fact that the main character, Charles Foster Kane, was inspired by Willian Randolph Hearst, an outspoken and controversial figure at the time.

Goodfellas’ Scorsese gets snubbed (1991)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Goodfellas is one of the most iconic movies ever to be made, yet Martin Scorsese did not win Best Director for it at the 63rd Academy Awards. Rather, Kevin Costner took home the statue for Dances with Wolves, which came as a shock to nearly everyone. Interestingly, while Scorsese is the most nominated living director, having earned nine Best Director nominations, he did not win until more than 15 years later when he took home the award for The Departed in 2007. That remains his only Best Director win.

Moonlight shocks La La Land (2017)

"Moonlight" wins Best Picture

Featuring one of the most talked-about Oscar blunders ever, this surprise win came as a further surprise after Warren Beatty mistakenly proclaimed La La Land as the Best Picture winner. When host Jimmy Kimmel came on stage to verify that Moonlight had indeed won at the 89th Academy Awards, viewers were completely shocked not only at the events that transpired, but also that the underdog independent film took home the win over the Hollywood favorite.

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Christine Persaud
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