1. Alfred Hitchcock
And the Oscar goes to … the wrong film or person, most of the time. This we know. But for proof of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between quality and the Academy Awards, try this: Alfred Hitchcock never got his mitts on a best director prize. He came within sniffing distance on five occasions. And while it would be unfair to cry foul over the award going in 1961 to Billy Wilder for The Apartment rather than Hitchcock for Psycho (they were both masters of the darkly bitter comedy, after all), it is harder to argue for the superiority of Leo McCarey, who won in 1945 for Going My Way, when Hitchcock was in contention for Lifeboat. He did eventually get a statuette for lifetime achievement but it might as well have had “too little, too late” engraved next to his name. Still, Hitchcock gave it the acceptance speech it deserved. “Thank you, very much indeed,” was all he said before leaving the stage.
2. Stanley Kubrick
Another gobsmacking oversight. Ron Howard, Kevin Costner, Robert Redford and even Tom Hooper all have directing Oscars. But Stanley Kubrick? Nope. He was in the running four times and should have won for Barry Lyndon in 1976, except that was the year of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Fear of flying would have precluded the UK-based Kubrick from attending, but that was no reason to give it instead to Carol Reed in 1969 (a great director, though Oliver! is no 2001: A Space Odyssey) and William Friedkin in 1972 (The French Connection over A Clockwork Orange? Did the voters all get a tolchock on the gulliver or what?)
3. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece is a contender not only for best picture of all time, but also greatest film never to win best picture. At least it was nominated, although it converted only one of its nine nods into an award (for best screenplay) and lost in the best picture category to John Ford’s family saga How Green Was My Valley. The film critic Pauline Kael reported that there were “hisses and loud boos” every time Welles or the film’s name was read out on the night, such was the stench of controversy surrounding it.
4. Myrna Loy
The Thin Man comedies, which follow the sleuthing, smart-talking private eye Nick and his heiress wife Nora, remain one of the enduring delights of vintage Hollywood, but the Academy saw fit to nominate only one half of the double-act (William Powell) that made the series great. The splendid Myrna Loy had to wait until 1991, two years before her death, for – you guessed it – an honorary Oscar, the Academy’s equivalent of flowers grabbed from a petrol station forecourt on Valentine’s Day.
5. Charlie Chaplin
Cold-shouldered by the Academy for most of his career, Chaplin got two honorary awards, one at the start of his career (in 1929) and another at the end (in 1972, for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”), but nothing specifically for the great achievements – the towering comic masterpieces City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator. A special last-minute booby prize came in the form of the Oscar in 1973 for the score he composed for his film Limelight (made in 1952 but not seen in the US for 20 years) – which was a bit like giving Harrison Ford a prize for his carpentry.
6. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese has had a rum old time of it at the Oscars, forever losing out in the best picture category to vastly inferior films: Raging Bull was beaten by the facile psychotherapy drama Ordinary People, Goodfellas by the narcissistic western Dances With Wolves. The most egregious loss has to be his expressionistic character study Taxi Driver being pipped at the post by Rocky: not a terrible film by any means, but hardly in the same class. Typical that when a Scorsese movie was finally named best picture, it was The Departed, his bloated remake of Infernal Affairs.
7. La Grande Illusion
Non-American films rarely see much glory in the best picture category – The Artist was able to win, for example, only because it didn’t contain any foreign language. But it might have been hoped that the deeply compassionate and timely anti-war sentiment of Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion might have overcome any resistance to the reading of subtitles. Alas, non. At the 1939 Oscars, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You took the doorstop instead.
8. Judy Garland
It is incredible that the star of The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis and A Star Is Born garlanded no Best Actress prizes from the Academy, although she was nominated for her gutsy, all-or-nothing performance in A Star Is Born opposite James Mason, and got an honorary juvenile award for all that frolicking on the Yellow Brick Road.
9. There Will Be Blood
Like his latest film, Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 oil-rush drama was a very odd duck indeed: an epic with only two characters of note, and an ending that swaps the rest of the movie’s sweeping canvas for a petty dust-up in a bowing alley. Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor but the rest was all far too weird to take best picture, despite displaying a virtuosity and daring sorely missing from the safe-bet winner, the Coen brothers’ superficial No Country For Old Men.
10. Robert Mitchum
Taciturn hardmen have a hard time getting awards since what they do is so undemonstrative, and not always visible to the naked eye. Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin never got Oscars. Lee Marvin and Jack Palance had to start monkeying around (Marvin in Cat Ballou, Palance in City Slickers) before they were rewarded. No wonder Robert Mitchum had a mantelpiece bare of prizes. As a big man specialising in minimalism, his talents were too subtle for the Oscars.
11. River Phoenix
He died at 23, but Phoenix (older brother of Joaquin) crammed an extraordinary amount of dazzling work into his short acting career. A shame, then, that for his one Oscar-nominated performance – for best supporting actor as the wary, heartfelt son of 1960s activists still on the run from the FBI in Running On Empty – he lost to Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, the sort of dotty vaudeville turn (see also John Gielgud in Arthur) that can sometimes be the wild card in the supporting categories.
12. The Thin Red Line
Some say Saving Private Ryan was the big loser on Oscar night in 1999. But no: it was The Thin Red Line, another second world war story, which marked the magisterial return of Terrence Malick after 20 years in the wilderness. Blame Harvey Weinstein’s notoriously aggressive, bullying Oscar campaign that secured the best picture prize for the insipid Shakespeare in Love.
13. Marilyn Monroe
For sheer comic pizzazz, she should have been a shoo-in for Some Like It Hot, although she wasn’t nominated – for that or anything else.
14. Brokeback Mountain
Its best picture hopes were crushed by Crash. (And not the Cronenberg one, more’s the pity.)
15. The Social Network
David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin turned the story of Facebook into a gripping psychological thriller. The Academy preferred the fusty, stagy period piece The King’s Speech.
16. Bette Davis
She won in 1936 for Dangerous and would have done so for her storming turn in Of Human Bondage a year earlier had she not broken her contract with Warner Bros to make it. “My failure to receive the award created a scandal that gave me more publicity than if I had won it,” she later said.
17. The English Patient
Don’t feel sorry for this Oscar-laden melodrama. But the late Anthony Minghella himself reportedly felt that the achievement of his that should have been recognised – his marshalling of Michael Ondaatje’s mammoth novel into a coherent screenplay – was overlooked.
Michael Haneke’s profound, upsetting masterpiece was beaten by the smug, second-rate Ben Affleck thriller Argo, which was sort-of-but-not-really based on real events.
19. Randa Haines
Children of a Lesser God director Haines was excluded from the nominations while four of her colleagues were recognised. As tends to happen with female film-makers.
20. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
Even Richard Attenborough said ET should have won best picture. And he directed Gandhi – the film that beat it.