By how many votes did Barack Obama beat John McCain in the 2008 presidential election?  9,522,083.

By how many votes did Hilary Swank beat Annette Bening in the 2000 Oscar race?  That’s top secret information.  We will never know.  Ever.

Don’t even waste your time trying to find out.

The motion picture academy strictly enforces its policy of keeping the final Oscar tally under wraps.  (Votes are counted by hand in a securely locked room.)  But through the years, some of us would have bet serious Bernie Madoff money on who placed second.  We obviously can’t know for sure, but educated guesses can be made:

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (after Sean Penn, Milk)

Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give (after Charlize Theron, Monster)

Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver (after Peter Finch, Network)

Jessica Lange, Frances (after Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice)

Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (after Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote)

Julie Christie, Away From Her (after Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose)

Jack Nicholson, Chinatown (after Art Carney, Harry and Tonto)

Michelle Pfeiffer, The Fabulous Baker Boys (after Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy)

Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got To Do With It (after Holly Hunter, The Piano)

Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie (after Ben Kingsley, Gandhi)

Annette Bening, American Beauty (after Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry)

Annette Bening, Being Julia (after Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby)

The academy members get it right about seventy-five per cent of the time.  Not a bad average.  But when they’re wrong, the mistakes can be colossal.  In 1998, Saving Private Ryan lost the Best Picture award to Shakespeare in Love.  Years later, most serious movie lovers (with the possible exception of Harvey Weinstein) would agree this was an egregious error that probably happened because of a humongous publicity push by Miramax.

Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash.  This likely happened because conservative members of the academy were a wee bit skeptical about a gay cowboy love story as its Best Picture.

In 2005, Sideways garnered five nominations in five major categories including Best Picture, but the central performance of Paul Giamatti was overlooked.  As if recognizing this sinful omission, the following year the academy nominated Giamatti for his supporting performance in that stellar work of cinematic art, Cinderella Man.

In 1982, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial nabbed nine nominations.  Henry Thomas, with those big soulful eyes, gave one of the best child performances in movie history, but the poor kid was passed over for a nomination.

In 1997, almost everyone on the Titanic was recognized except its leading man, the heart and soul of the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio.(Since then, Leo’s been nominated twice.)Similarly, almost everyone in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received Oscar nods except its leading lady Cate Blanchett who matched Brad Pitt (nominated) every step of the mesmerizing way.  When My Best Friend’s Wedding was released in 1997, critics couldn’t come up with enough superlatives to describe Rupert Everett’s performance, but the academy neglected to nominate him.  Why?  Maybe because it was more of a comedic turn than a dramatic one, and we all know the academy discriminates against comedy.

My Fair Lady received thirteen nominations back in 1965, but the fair lady herself Audrey Hepburn was left out, presumably because Marni Nixon dubbed the vocals.  Singing seems to be an important consideration in Oscar history.  Let’s be real: Jennifer Hudson took home the supporting actress award (Dreamgirls) for singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”  If that song had been dropped from the movie or if Marni Nixon had dubbed her voice, do you really think Hudson would have won?  Doubtful.

Does the box office failure of a film mean a great performance isn’t as great as people thought it was?  Judging from the academy’s history, the answer is a resounding yes.  For the few dozen of us who saw Being Julia, it was clear Annette Bening deserved to win, but the picture fizzled while Million Dollar Baby sizzled right up until Oscar night, and it was Hilary Swank’s name that was announced.  In 2004, critics called the performances of Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger in The Door in the Floor the best of their long, impressive careers.  But the movie tanked at the box office, so both were ignored come Oscar time.  Other highly praised performances that were passed over for any number of reasons:  Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction.  Steve Martin in All of Me.  James Stewart in Vertigo.  Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire. Vanessa Redgrave in Prick Up Your Ears.  Both Diane Keaton and Albert Finney in Shoot the Moon.  Jim Carrey in, take your pick:  The Truman Show, The Man in the Moon, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

As the most nominated performer in Oscar history with sixteen nods, Meryl Streep certainly hasn’t been ignored.  But she hasn’t taken home the statuette since 1982 (for Sophie’s Choice), and members of the academy have been wanting to present her with a third award for years.  (Her first win was in the supporting category for Kramer vs. Kramer when anybody under thirty who’s reading this hadn’t been born.)  Unfortunately, each time she comes close to copping the gold, another performance creeps up, sometimes at the last minute, to overshadow her:  Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, Helen Mirren in The Queen, Kate Winslet in The Reader.  It 1988 it was Jodie Foster in The Accused who snatched the statuette from Streep for her work in A Cry in the Dark, one of the all time great screen performances.  Rent it.

This year, conventional wisdom tells us to bet on the three Bs: Bullock, Bridges and Bigelow (Sandra, Jeff and Kathryn) for Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Director.  In the supporting categories, it would be a startling upset if either Mo’Nique or Christophe Waltz  leaves the Kodak Theatre without clutching the little golden guy.

But don’t be shocked if Meryl (for Julie & Julia) makes her way across the finish line and Sandra (The Blind Side) is the first to congratulate her.  Best Actress will be the tightest race of the night.

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GARRETT SOCOL created and produced the cable TV shows Talk Soup, The Gossip Show, and numerous others for the E! Network. His short stories have been published in journals including The Barcelona Review, 3:AM Magazine, Hobart, PANK, Pequin, Perigee, nth Position, Spork, Underground Voices, JMWW Journal and Duct's. He's also written for Cosmopolitan, Movieline, Genre and McCall's. Two of his plays have been produced (Berkshire Theatre Festival, Pasadena Playhouse). This native New Yorker currently finds himself in a city where the sun shines practically every day. He really misses rain.

24 responses to “The Blind Side of the Oscars”

  1. Mary says:

    It’s funny about E.T. You almost never hear references to Henry Thomas, but Drew Barrymore? You betcha.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    Interesting post, Garrett, and welcome to TNB.

    My guess is that they don’t run the numbers so that the egos of the five nominees (or ten, now, which is ridiculous) aren’t publicly bruised.

    What’s also fun is making a list of the best movies of all time, and seeing how many of them did not win the statue. Casablanca, no Oscar. Driving Miss Daisy, Oscar. Huh?

    I was actually really glad Shakespeare in Love won. Yes, it wasn’t as “big” as the Spielberg flick, but it was a perfect movie for what it was. I have major issues with Saving Private Ryan, starting with the ridiculous framing device, which more or less ruined the thing for me.

    Also of note: I forgot than Annette Bening didn’t win for American Beauty. In my mind, she did. She’s one of the best actresses alive. Better than Streep, even. There, I said it.

    • Matt says:

      I think they should just give Streep a Lifetime Achievement award and be done with nominating her already. A.) she deserves it, and b.) she does an “Oscar-worthy” film every other year, at least. There’s nothing to be gained with all the repeat nominations.

    • Dude, I am so with you on Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan.

      I will disagree about Benning, though; she deserved the Oscar for The American President, a great movie in which she delivered an awesome performance. Then again, I thought American Beauty was terrible.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Welcome to the fold, Garrett,

    I can’t watch the Oscars. No one I want to win ever does. Pisses me off.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    For some weird reason – I always pick what is going to win Best Sound.
    Yep, Best Sound. Every year. Without fail.
    if only I could find a way of making this talent work for me.

  5. Matt says:

    As far as I can tell the Oscars are really nothing more than a popularity contest/beauty pageant. They may not have started out that way, but that’s what they’ve become. Not too disparage the talent, by any means; plenty of good work does get recognized. But those votes (and the members who cast them) are a secret–though what’s not so secret is that those votes, in one form or another can be bought. Not with cash, per se, but there are plenty of studio PR types that pitch all sorts of woo for any given film.

  6. Mary says:

    I feel a need to add that Meryl Streep pretty much saved Julie and Julia. Without her, it was just a movie about a blogger. With her as Julia Child, it was magical.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    I loved Jon Stewart’s line when they drew the Academy for Best Sound one year – ‘And somebody has just leaped ahead in their Oscars pool!’

    • Garrett Socol says:

      I agree, Simon. I think all office pools should only consider the major categories. Who the heck knows about the shorts, documentaries, sound mixing, etc. Those predictions are based purely on luck.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    Here’s my question for you, Garrett: In 1980, “Ordinary People” won the Best Picture Oscar over “Raging Bull.” A lot of people think this is a complete and utter travesty. I, however, love “Ordinary People.” I think it’s underrated because it’s not as flashy or masculine as “Raging Bull.” What say you?

    • Ducky Wilson says:

      Marni – OP is one of the best movies ever written, and I am a Scorsese nutjob. OP was right to win.

    • Garrett Socol says:

      You’re right, a lot of people think “Raging Bull” should have won, but I actually loved “Ordinary People” too. It’s an emotional powerhouse of a movie, especially for anyone who has contemplated suicide. De Niro won for Best Actor, and that was right.

      Also, Timothy Hutton won for Supporting Actor when it was obviously a lead performance, but he would have lost to De Niro if he’d been put in that category. My beef is that Donald Sutherland should have been nominated, too. His performance wasn’t the least bit flashy (you tend to focus on Hutton and MTM), but keep your eyes on him the next time you see the movie. His performance is brutally honest and heartfelt.

    • Welcome aboard, Garret!

      Marni, I admire both films, but I know what you mean: somewhere along the way it became conventional wisdom that Ordinary People is a flawed picture when it actually remains deeply compelling. And when Donald Sutherland tells Mary Tyler Moore (both of whom were characteristically superb), “You’re determined, Beth, but you’re not strong,” it still slays me.

      • Marni Grossman says:

        I’m not alone! So exciting! And yes- I think Donald Sutherland is fabulous. I’ve also often had a fantasy in which Judd Hirsch is around to hug things out with me.

  9. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I’ve always loved the Oscars, even with the sometimes monumental displays of poor judgment. I still haven’t gotten over the year that Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction. Also, who remembers anything about A Beautiful Mind?

    • Garrett Socol says:

      Don’t get me started on “Forrest Gump.” OF COURSE “Pulp Fiction” should have won.

      Speaking of Tarantino, don’t be surprise if “Inglourious Basterds” does a lot better next week than anyone expects.

      • Greg says:

        Garrett I sure hope you are an Academy member and will vote for “Basterds” . I thought it was a masterpiece, and I’m not even a big Tarantino fan.

        I agree that Annette Bening should’ve won for “Being Julia”, but Swank definitely deserved the win for “Boys Don’t Cry”. Her performance was incredible.

        I loved your post!

  10. Ducky Wilson says:

    Garrett – welcome. What a great post. Right up my alley. And I agree with every one of your picks, though I really want Tarantino to win best director (I know! Blasphemy coming from a female director – I should want Bigelow, right? But I just adore Tarantino and I’m still mad PF didn’t win. Or Jackie Brown.)

    • Garrett Socol says:

      Thank you!
      Just before I read your comment, I sent a response to someone else about Tarantino. Wouldn’t it be amazing if he wins for Best Director and “Basterds” takes Best Picture? It’s a real longshot and I wouldn’t bet on it, but stranger things have happened.

  11. Joining everyone in welcoming you to TNB, sir. Nice post. Plenty of discussion fodder, for sure. For example:

    I’ve begun to have mixed feelings about the Oscars, if only because they seem to be so irrelevant lately. There’s movies the Academy recognizes as “good” and movies the general public recognizes as “good” (by way of their wallets), and rarely do the twain meet.

    Then again, I’m a weird movie lover. I’m the guy who thinks Shakespeare in Love was, in fact, in terms of structure, plot, performances, stories, and execution, far better than Saving Private Ryan, which had some okay performances but nothing actually exemplary. While I remember nearly every frame of SiL, the thing I remember most about Saving Private Ryan is dudes walking. And Tom Hanks’ hand shaking.

    I also think the more important movie that lost to Crash was Goodnight, and Good Luck. Which was better, in myriad ways, than nearly everything that came out that year, and especially Brokeback Mountain. Then again, I’m the guy who remembers Ang Lee managed to make The Hulk boring even though he could have gone with a two-hour shot of Jennifer Connelly and at least made a decent image.

    I’ve now watched four and a half of the ten best pic nominees (Avatar, The Blind Side, Up, and Up in the Air; I shut off The Hurt Locker after forty or so minutes), and so far, I’ve thought Avatar the strongest, though not the best movie of the year; I’d go with Taken for that one, which was taut, dynamic, and tightly plotted while held together solely by one of the single most badass performances I’ve ever seen in Liam Neeson. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t eligible (I think it was released in foreign markets last year).

    It’s worth noting that’s why Fiorentino wasn’t nominated for The Last Seduction, which was an HBO movie that debuted (at least here in the US) on cable.

    I have this really bad feeling that Precious: Based on the Novel Push, by Sapphire is going to snag a best picture after Cameron and Bigelow split the votes and everyone decides to give Up the Best Animated flick pic (instead of Coraline, which was, at least as a movie/story, much better). I’d rather have it go to The Blind Side, though, which I enjoyed a hell of a lot, if it can’t be Avatar.

    And can I just ask: if Up got two best pic noms, in best pic and best animated pic, why didn’t Avatar? It had to have included as much CGI, if not more, than Up (and I’d wager the CGI was more difficult, too, as Avatar had to be photorealistic, whereas Up was quite obviously aiming at cartoon).

    • Garrett Socol says:

      Hey Will,
      I really don’t think you have anything to worry about. “Precious” won’t win Best Picture.
      It’ll be “Avatar” or “Hurt Locker,” and if any other film is the big surprise winner, it will be “Inglourious Basterds.”
      It’s funny, I remember NOTHING about “Shakespeare in Love” except for that one genius line. TWO lines actually:
      “The show must….must…”
      “Go on.”
      And I remember dozens of things about “Private Ryan.” That opening Normandy beach scene, riveting. The mother washing dishes when she sees the official cars approaching…I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it. The officer explaining why they need to find Ryan by reading that letter. I don’t usually go for war movies, but this was just plain spellbinding.
      You’re right about Fiorentino. I’d forgotten that.
      Thanks for your comments.

  12. Tom Hansen says:

    I could care less who wins. I’ve been waiting for thirty-five years for someone to pull another Brando and reject the award on principle. But these actors today are a bunch of kiss ass wimps more worried about their “celebrity persona” to even try to alter their appearance in movies anymore. Exhibit A: Tom Cruise as a Nazi-we all were able to suspend disbelief on that one right?

  13. […] Socol has work in the second issue of The Medulla Review and two essays at The Nervous Breakdown. Garret is joined in The Medulla Review by David LaBounty, Diane […]

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