Countless times throughout the years, viewers have been shocked and disappointed by the Academy Awards’ choices for Oscar winners. Established film critics take to their blogs and magazines to explain why the Academy was wrong and X should have won instead of Y.
While a list of Oscars upsets could really be thousands of pages long, I thought I’d compile some of the most disappointing moments, especially those that garnered the most public backlash.
In my humble opinion, here are the top six biggest Oscars upsets of all time.
6. Marlon Brando Declines Oscar For Best Actor
In 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for his career-reviving performance in The Godfather. While the win was well-deserved, Brando refused the win and sent Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Littlefeather waved away the statuette from the presenters and read an excerpt from a long letter Brando wrote, explaining that he “very regretfully” could not accept the award, using it as an act of rebellion to protest Hollywood’s inaccurate and offensive portrayals of Native American people in films.
When Littlefeather gave Brando’s reasoning for declining the award, several audience members tried to boo her off the stage, while others clapped and cheered her on. This moment brought criticism and backlash to both Brando and Littlefeather, but also helped shine a light on the offensive stereotypes and lack of proper representation of Native Americans in film. It remains one of the most powerful moments in Oscars history.
5. Bob Fosse Beats Francis Ford Coppola For Best Director
In the same night, Bob Fosse unexpectedly won Best Director for Cabaret, although many thought The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola was a shoo-in to win.
In Fosse’s acceptance speech, he remarked that winning awards “turn [him] into some kind of hopeful optimist and ruin [his] whole life.” And he wasn’t joking – shortly after becoming the first person in history to win a Tony (for directing and choreographing Pippin), an Oscar, and an Emmy (for directing Liza with a Z) in the same year, Fosse checked himself into a psychiatric clinic for depression. Fosse believing that he didn’t truly deserve these awards just goes to show that imposter syndrome can affect even the best of the best.
Coppola got his redemption when the sequel, The Godfather, Part II, won the Best Picture award in 1975, becoming the first sequel to ever win the award.
4. Art Carney Wins Best Actor Over Al Pacino And Jack Nicholson
Also in 1975, Art Carney won the award for Best Actor for his role as Harry Coombes in the film Harry and Tonto, which is about an elderly man going on a road trip with his pet cat, Tonto. This win confused audiences everywhere, especially since Carney was up against other powerhouse actors like Al Pacino (The Godfather, Part II), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Dustin Hoffman (Lenny), and Albert Finney (Murder On the Orient Express).
Some theorize that Carney’s win was one last hurrah from the “older” generation of Hollywood and the Academy; an act of defiance against the up-and-coming young directors and actors who were set to flood Oscar nomination ballots for years to come. Others maintain the view that 54-year-old Carney playing a 72-year-old retiree cat lover was simply a better performance than his competitors. I guess we’ll never know the truth.
3. The King’s Speech Beats The Social Network For Best Picture
In 2011, two films that were polar opposites went head to head for Best Picture: The King’s Speech, a period piece about British royalty, and The Social Network, a timely film about the controversial creation of the world’s most popular social network, Facebook.
In a move that shocked movie buffs everywhere, The King’s Speech took home the award for Best Picture, despite The Social Network being the clear audience favorite. Many critics blamed it on the age of the voters in the Academy – these were people outside of Facebook’s target age demographic who were less likely to appreciate the intense story of how it came to be, but were right inside the target demographic for The King’s Speech.
2. Brokeback Mountain Loses To Crash
Many still regard this as the biggest screw-up in Oscars history, although this was no mistake. After Ang Lee won Best Director, and Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won Best Adapted Screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, you’d think it was definitely going to win Best Picture, right? Wrong. Instead, Crash won, making it the second film ever to win Best Picture without also being nominated for a Golden Globe Best Picture award.
After this underwhelming win, many critics accused the Academy of homophobia, claiming that Crash was the “safe” alternative to Brokeback Mountain. Other critics brushed off these claims, insisting that Crash was just the better movie and the win had nothing to do with the fact that people just weren’t ready for a movie about gay cowboys.
Although it unfairly lost, Brokeback Mountain did pave the way for LGBT+ representation in mainstream media, and in 2018 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
1. La La Land Wins Best Picture By Accident
Undoubtedly the biggest upset of all time happened at the very end of the 2017 Oscars. This time, it wasn’t because of the underdog winning the award over who should have been the obvious winner – it’s because the wrong winner was announced on live TV and millions of people watched it go down.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the Best Picture nominees, and when it came time to read the winner, Beatty glanced at the envelope confused before handing it to Dunaway to read the film on the card. She announced La La Land as the winner, and the cast and crew team started walking onstage while the entire auditorium gave a standing ovation.
However, La La Land didn’t actually win. Somehow, the presenters were given the envelope for Best Actress, which Emma Stone had already won earlier in the night for her performance in La La Land.
But it doesn’t end there. To add to the cringe-worthiness and embarrassment of the whole situation, producers Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt had finished their emotional acceptance speeches before an Oscars producer ran onstage with the correct envelope. Producer Fred Berger was midway through his speech when he heard the commotion going on behind him, before awkwardly breaking off his speech by saying “We lost, by the way, but, you know…”
Horowitz ran back to the microphone to fix the colossal error by saying “I’m sorry, no, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke! Come up here,”
The Moonlight production team was clearly confused, so Horowitz took the Best Picture card and showed it to the cameras. As they poured onstage and began their speeches, everyone remarked how weird the whole situation was, but how thankful they were to have won, and how grateful they were to the La La Land team for being so gracious and kind in the face of such a whacky TV disaster.
A statement was released three hours after the incident that read “The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.”
Nobody can explain how that envelope was given to the presenters instead of the Best Picture envelope, but it did make for great television and will go down in history as undoubtedly the biggest Oscars screw-up of all time.
Think the 2021 Oscars will offer another big upset? Bet on it—Check out our guide to 2021 Oscar Odds.