Every year in the annual Oscar race there are always a few surprises, head scratchers or genuinely odd contenders that make you wonder how they were ever selected. Was it politics? Was it a fluke? Did good taste or bad taste actually triumph? Here is a list of my favorite oddities, some of which deserved their nomination though I never expected the Academy to acknowledge them because they were either low-budget indies, big budget genre pictures or under the radar movies that were barely noticed by moviegoers. I’m using the 1990s as my starting point and working backwards from there, cherry picking specific Oscar races, since most of the more interesting anomalies occurred prior to the 21st century.
Yes, there have been a few unexpected contenders since then such as 2000’s strange and mesmerizing Shadow of the Vampire (nominated for Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe) and Hustle & Flow featuring the Oscar winning Best Original Song of 2005 – “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.” In fact, the Best Original Song Oscar category is usually the place to look for oddball entries such as “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) by the demented director-writer team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone or “How Do I Live,” written by Diane Warren and performed by Trisha Yearwood in Con Air (1997), an outrageous over-the-top action thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But, in general, the Academy Award nominations from 1999 on back to the beginning were quirkier and more fun.
Danish director Lars von Trier has made some of the most critically acclaimed and controversial films of his generation since he first entered the film industry in 1967 but the Academy has never acknowledged him in the Best Director or Best Picture category. Emily Watson, the star of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, however, managed to score a Best Actress nomination for her brave, uninhibited film debut in that operatic morality tale, which could be a polarizing experience for moviegoers. (Strangely enough, von Trier would later share a songwriting credit with Icelandic songwriters Bjork and Sjon for “I’ve Seen It All,” the Oscar nominated Best Original Song from Dancer in the Dark in 2000.)
One of the big complains of this year was the omission of Hoop Dreams from the Best Documentary category. A moving account of two inner city kids trying to escape their poverty-ridden lives through careers in pro basketball, the film was selected as the Best Non-Fiction film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, The National Board of Review, The National Society of Film Critics and numerous other organizations. Weirdly enough, it did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing.
Did you ever expect to see a Steven Seagal movie in the Oscar race? Even if Under Siege didn’t snag a Best Picture or Best Actor nom, it did run for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing. The fact that a Seagal film was even recognized by the Academy is reason enough to smile. Directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), the film was an unexpectedly entertaining action thriller enhanced by a great sporting cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Patrick O’Neal, Bernie Casey, Erika Eleniak and Gary Busey in drag.
Anne Ramsey was a character actress who toiled for years in bit parts with screen credits like “Battleax” in Up the Sandbox (1972), “Lady with Cat” in Rhinoceros (1974), “Massive Woman” in From Noon to Three (1976) or “Old Witch” in Love at Stake (1987). She finally got a breakout major role in Throw Momma from the Train, a black comedy inspired by Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and directed by Danny DeVito. Ramsey plays the grotesque, overbearing mother of DeVito in a role that often seems to be exploiting her physical repulsiveness but it stood out in a year where The Last Emperor and Moonstruck were winning all the Oscar gold.
Betty Blue. The title is appropriate for this nominee for Best Foreign Language Film which opens with a long, explicit sex scene (it was originally even longer in the original French cut of 185 minutes as opposed to the 120 minute U.S. release). Definitely more pornographic than the softcore 1974 favorite Emmanuelle but also a fusion of art film and exploitation flick, Betty Blue was a visually dazzling road movie about two wildly passionate mismatched lovers and it stood out like some rare exotic bird among its co-honorees that year which included two Nazi-themed films – The Assault (from the Netherlands and the Oscar winner) and 38 (from Austria) plus My Sweet Little Village (from Czechoslovakia), and the witty but dialogue-driven comedy-drama, The Decline of the American Empire (from Canada), where sex is the main subject but it’s all talk and no action. Too bad the Academy members and television audiences didn’t get to see a clip of at least one of Betty Blue’s many sex scenes or Beatrice Dalle in all of her nude glory at the ceremony.
Runaway Train, an enormously entertaining adventure thriller from acclaimed Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade, 1979), surprisingly scored three Oscar nominations in major categories – Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Supporting Actor (Eric Roberts), and Best Film Editing (Henry Richardson). Why surprising? Because in a year of typical big budget contenders such as Out of Africa, The Color Purple, Cocoon, and Witness, Runaway Train was a true eccentric. Emotionally overwrought, at times even laughable, it was nonetheless a powerful experience with a philosophical slant that still delivered the goods to action fans and faded out on a poetic note. No Hollywood studio could have produced this (believe it or not, it was a Golan-Globus production, distributed by the Cannon Group). Rebecca De Mornay, covered in grime and disheveled, deserved a nomination too and was a brave attempt on her part to try to escape the glamorous, sex goddess stereotype that was bound to haunt her after Risky Business (1985).
An American International Picture gets the red carpet treatment? Even horror film buffs found Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror a plodding, mediocre adaptation of the bestselling book. The critics panned it too but it was a huge box office hit that momentarily saved American International Pictures (AIP) from bankrupcy. Regardless of whether the great Lalo Schifrin’s score was deserving of recognition or not, it was a miracle it was even nominated considering the Academy’s usual snobbery toward the horror genre.
Best Costume Design for The Swarm? Are we talking special bee-covered fashions or the tailored, conservative wardrobes of such veteran stars as Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer and the remaining A-list cast members? Irwin Allen’s killer bee disaster epic – disaster at the box office, that is (made for approximately $21 million and only grossed $10 million) – probably received a token nomination since Allen employed almost every technician, crew member and extra in Hollywood during its production.
Anybody remember The Passover Plot, a dramatization of the controversial bestseller? Produced outside the Hollywood film industry by Atlas Films, this conspiracy theory favorite scored a Best Costume Design nom but that category seems too broad. Maybe Best Loincloth Design? Or possibly Best Sandalwear? Best Biblical Wardrobe?
It’s not that often that a documentary feature manages to get nominated for Best Original Music Score but Birds Do It, Bees Do It, which concerns itself with sex and reproduction in the animal kingdom with music by Gerald Fried is one of the rare exceptions. A colorful array of insects and mammals mate in glorious close-ups in what would be a great sex education tool for classrooms but good luck finding it on DVD or Blu-ray. Instead, check it out on Youtube.
Here’s another one I never thought I’d see. An Oscar nomination for a William Castle film. Not Rosemary’s Baby in which he served as producer, not director, but one of his rare misfires – Shanks, a bizarre, macabre fantasy about a deaf puppeteer (Marcel Marceau) who learns how to revive and manipulate the dead via an electrical gizmo. Alex North’s music was nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score.
Here’s a bizarre year, one where a Crown International Picture – The Stepmother – snagged a nomination for Best Song (“Strange Are the Ways of Love”) by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster – and Manson, a creepy, insider documentary by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick on the infamous cult leader/murderer (with lots of Manson gang home movie footage and music) was invited into the Best Documentary category.
Merrick was later murdered in 1977 and for many years rumors persisted that he was killed by a Manson family member. The real murderer was caught in 1981 and turned out to be a mentally ill former actor who studied under Merrick in his acting academy.
Chariot of the Gods for Best Documentary? The nonfiction bestseller about early visitations to this planet by aliens was a West Germany production that was really an exploitation film in disguise, a more “scientific” and respectable version of the sort of thing that Sunn Classic Pictures (The Mysterious Monsters , The Lincoln Conspiracy ) or North American Film Enterprises (Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot ) served up to non-discriminating audiences who were well versed in National Inquirer stories.
Yes, another Oscar nomination for American International Pictures and it’s one of their more famous drive-in hits of the sixties and a cult item today – Wild in the Streets. Nominated for Best Film Editing. It should have also scored a nom for the irreverent, tongue in cheek screenplay by Robert Thom that presented a United States run by a 24-year-old rock ‘n roll star who banished everyone over the age of 30 to concentration camps where they were served LSD-spiked water. I think the Academy members were on acid this year too.
Carol Channing as Best Supporting Actress for Thoroughly Modern Millie. This lavish, overproduced slapstick musical-comedy romance set during the Roaring ’20s was a surprising hit for Universal and managed to earn seven Oscar nominations (though many critics treated it as if it was a bomb). Of those seven noms, Channing is the most conspicuous. Is she really giving a performance or just being Carol Channing? It’s interesting that Beatrice Lillie was her co-star in it because she is an equally odd, eccentric screen presence better suited to the theater.
Based on the memoirs of famous madame and brothel owner Polly Adler, A House is Not a Home is a tawdry, low-budget melodrama with Shelley Winters in the role of Adler and not the sort of film that receives Oscar nominations. Yet it did for Best Black and White Costume Design by Edith Head.
Another surprise was seeing The Lively Set, a James Darren-Pamela Tiffin-Doug McClure sportscar-racing trifle, earn a Best Sound Effects nod. Fun trivia: The film score was composed by singer/musician Bobby Darin and it was directed by Jack Arnold, who is famous for directing so many iconic Universal horror/sci-fi films of the 50s like Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
This was very peculiar year with my favorite nomination, Mondo Cane (which was actually released in 1962) a surprise art house sensation from Italy which was the documentary that inspired a whole new genre of nonfiction film exposes, many of them faked, and coined a new term for itself in the process – “shockumentaries.” Mondo Cane was nominated for the Best Original Song – “More” by Riz Ortolani, Nino Oliviero and Norman Newell.
This was also the year that Joseph Strick’s stylized indie production of Jean Genet’s play The Balcony (with Shelley Winters, Peter Falk, Ruby Dee, Leonard Nimoy and Lee Grant) received a nomination for Best Black & White Cinematography.
Also unexpected was Nick Adams’ Best Supporting Actor nod for Twilight of Honor, a courtroom drama that introduced Joey Heatherton to movie audiences. I was never a fan of Adams’ sweaty, overly intense acting style which was heavily under the influence of James Dean, his co-star in Rebel Without a Cause. Twilight of Honor turned out to be his peak. Only two years later he was appearing in low-budget genre films such as Frankenstein Conquers the World and Die, Monster, Die! He died under mysterious circumstances in 1968 (It was rumored to be a drug overdose but later thought to be an accident caused by a reaction to paraldehyde and promazine).
Last Year at Marienbad – an Academy Award nominee for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen? This one always cracks me up because most of the controversy swirling around this enigmatic French film from director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet involved critics and moviegoers arguing over what the damn thing was supposed to mean. In fact, there was little dialogue with most of the so-called story being told by a narrator known simply as X. I think surviving Academy members who voted for it have some explaining to do.
Cult director John Waters (Polyester, Hairspray) claims Claudelle Inglish is one of his all-time favorite trash movies and from the poster it certainly doesn’t look like Academy Award material. Still, it managed a Best Black and White Costume Design nomination. Based on a novel by Erskine Caldwell, it featured Diane McBain (in probably her best role) as a farm girl gone bad after being abandoned by her soldier boyfriend.
The same year also yielded an unlikely candidate for the Best Scoring of a Musical Picture – a Russian period musical called Khovanshchina. Is anybody familiar with this movie? It was one of those head scratching entries from another country that would occasionally show up in the almost exclusively Hollywood Oscar race.
It always warms my heart to see a solid little B-movie or first rate genre picture get some Academy love and to my delight I saw The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond win a nomination for Best Black and White Costume Design. Directed by the great Budd Boetticher, this is a low-budget but dynamic, fast-paced account of the notorious Prohibition-era mobster (played by Ray Danton).
Oscar Oddities Part 2 will take us from 1959 on back to the first official Academy Award ceremony of 1927-1928.
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