1 | Bette Davis 1934

Davis’s vicious performance in the pre-code adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage was critically hailed as a landmark – yet Warner Bros studio politics (she broke contract to make the picture) cost her a best actress nomination. The outcry prompted a (since-revoked) rule change: voters could overrule the nominees by writing in an alternative on the ballot paper. Davis’s “write in” hype actually saw her enter the ceremony as the favourite, though she lost to the official nominee, Claudette Colbert, for It Happened One Night; later, voting tallies revealed Davis only placed third. She won the next year for negligible work in the hoary melodrama Dangerous – a transparent makeup award if ever there was one.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/RKO

2 | Citizen Kane 1941

A routine entry on these lists, certainly – and one that has led to How Green Was My Valley, John Ford’s gentle, often lovely portrait of a Welsh mining village, being needlessly disparaged in “worst Oscar winners” roundups. But even at the time, its victories for best picture and director (Ford’s third) represented a clear vote against a new generation. They respected 26-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles’s scorching media treatise enough to give it nine nominations, but on the night, could only muster up a screenplay win for Herman J Mankiewicz and Welles — a collaboration so famously brittle that merely rewarding Welles for it seemed something of a jab in itself.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Photograph: Alamy

3 | Marlon Brando 1951

In 1951 no one had seen a screen performance quite like Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire: as Stanley Kowalski, his sweat-stained sexuality and method mumbling announced a new generation of Hollywood leading man. The Academy was certainly impressed by the acting in the Tennessee Williams adaptation: Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter all took home the gold, making it the first film in Oscar history to win three acting awards. But what of its freshest, most forward-looking performance? There, the old guard won out, as Brando’s best actor campaign was stalled by a sentimental surge for the never-honoured Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. He’d get his due for On the Waterfront three years later.

Judy Garland in A Star Is Born in 1951.
Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

4 | Judy Garland 1954

Garland had won a miniature Oscar for her youth performance in The Wizard of Oz, but she craved the real thing – and when rave reviews rolled in for her gutsy tragic-musical turn in George Cukor’s definitive version of backstage chestnut A Star Is Born, it seemed she would get it. Unable to attend the ceremony, having just given birth, Garland was sufficiently confident of victory to have a camera crew set up in her hospital room for the announcement. But she reckoned without the Academy’s predilection for bright-eyed ingenues, as Grace Kelly scraped a win for capable glammed-down work in The Country Girl.

Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady in 1964.
Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

5 | Audrey Hepburn 1964

Julie Andrews’s Tony-winning stage performance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady made her a star, but she was deemed insufficiently famous to repeat the role on screen, as Jack Warner enlisted Hepburn’s gracious (albeit less golden-voiced) services instead. Andrews’s seemingly lesser consolation prize was the title role in Disney’s family film Mary Poppins – no match, surely, for Warner’s lavishly produced blockbuster. Yet while My Fair Lady duly notched up eight Oscar wins, including best picture, Hepburn was shut out of the best actress race, allegedly penalised by voters for failing to do her own singing. All of which greased the wheels for Andrews’s victory for Poppins: among the crueller cases of karmic logic in Academy history.

Spike Lee in 1989’s Do the Right Thing.
Spike Lee in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

6 | Do the Right Thing 1989

Hashtags weren’t a thing a quarter-century ago: had they been, #OscarsSoWhite might have been coined way back then, when the Academy took major industry and media heat for largely failing to acknowledge Spike Lee’s incendiary cross-section of racial tensions over one steaming Brooklyn afternoon. The Los Angeles Critics’ Association named it the year’s best film, yet Oscar voters deemed only Lee’s screenplay and Danny Aiello’s supporting performance worthy of nominations; it lost both. Adding insult to injury, the year’s big winner was the whitest civil rights fable imaginable, Bruce Beresford’s cornball Driving Miss Daisy. At least Lee received an impromptu, riled-up tribute at the ceremony — from the unlikely source of presenter Kim Basinger.

Lauren Bacall in 1996 in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

7 | Lauren Bacall 1996

Bacall was the unassailable best supporting actress frontrunner in 1996, or so everyone thought. Her performance as Barbra Streisand’s acidic mother in the dreary The Mirror Has Two Faces may have been diva-by-numbers stuff, but at 72, the Old Hollywood legend had never so much as been nominated. Who was going to deny Bacall her belated moment in the sun? Juliette Binoche, that’s who. In perhaps the biggest upset in Oscar history, the startled 33-year-old Frenchwoman surfed a wave of acclaim – and expert Harvey Weinstein campaigning – for The English Patient all the way to the podium. Had Bacall’s prickly industry reputation cost her? “Where are you?” Binoche called out from the stage after paying apologetic tribute. Bacall did not identify herself.

Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Heath Ledger, in Brokeback Mountain. Photograph: Kimberly French/AP

8 | Brokeback Mountain 2005

It’s a moment that will live for ever in clip reels of Oscar low points: Jack Nicholson’s raised eyebrows as he opened the best picture envelope and read, in a tone of arch incredulity, “Crash.” Everything was set up for Ang Lee’s aching cowboy-meets-cowboy romance to score an LGBT milestone by taking the top prize: mass critical acclaim and mainstream media coverage, more than $80m at the US box office, a near-clean sweep of the precursor prizes. But rumblings emerged that many of the greying Academy’s more conservative members were uncomfortable with the film’s gay content – and were proven correct when Paul Haggis’s ham-fisted, everyone’s-a-little-bit-racist parable emerged victorious. Losing at all was painful enough. Losing to one of the category’s clunkiest winners? A needless twist of the knife.

Heath Ledger, left, and Christian Bale in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Heath Ledger, left, and Christian Bale in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

9 | The Dark Knight 2008

Superhero adventures – much less sequels to superhero adventures – have never really been the Academy’s cup of tea, but after Christopher Nolan’s stylish, grimmed-up Batman adventure became a critical and commercial phenomenon in the summer of 2008, many pundits thought an exception was in order. Many branches of the Academy agreed, as the film notched up a formidable eight nominations – only to be squeezed out of the best picture race by Stephen Daldry’s tepidly reviewed Holocaust drama The Reader. Academy bosses heard the loud ensuing complaints about their out-of-touch snobbery: months later, in a blatant grab to accommodate more populist fare, it was announced that the top category would be expanded from five to 10 nominees.

David Fincher
David Fincher, director of The Social Network. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

10 | David Fincher 2010

The best director race in 2010 was an all-star gallery of revered American auteurs on the indie-mainstream precipice: Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, the Coens for True Grit, David O Russell for The Fighter and that year’s critical favourite, David Fincher for The Social Network. As Fincher racked up one precursor award after another, including the Golden and Bafta, it seemed to be his year – until a journeyman outlier, the British TV director Tom Hooper, scored the crucial Directors’ Guild prize for his workmanlike handling of The King’s Speech. Oscar followed suit, and has seemed sheepish about it ever since: Hooper was conspicuously omitted when Les Miserables piled on the nominations two years later, and never got a whiff of traction for The Danish Girl.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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