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The 9 Biggest Oscars Upsets That Still Shock Us

The Oscars for the year’s best films and filmmakers don’t always line up with critical and commercial tastes. When they do, it’s like the stars align, and everyone ends up feeling pleased. But when they don’t, boy, it can get awkward. Such is the case when choosing a winner in any given Oscars category because it feels like the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are always on shaky ground in terms of getting it right. To this day, there are still some big Oscars upsets from years past that still shock us, whether it’s Moonlight being the real winner over La La Land at the 2017 Oscars or Marisa Tomei surprising everyone by nabbing the best supporting actress Oscar in 1993.

Through the years, the academy’s choices on which films and performs to award have sometimes left us confused and shocked, whether it’s overlooking a groundbreaking film in favor of a safe commercial hit or a performance we never thought would get recognized in the first place. Here are some of the biggest Oscar upsets that we still remember.

1978: Star Wars loses to Annie Hall

Star Wars losing best picture to Annie Hall in the late ’70s was a loss that has divided cinephiles and a pop culture fandom for decades. It seems like an audacious idea that an intimate romantic comedy would be pitted against a fantasy film at the Oscars, but that’s where we were in 1978.  Though both films mark huge turning points in the careers of George Lucas and Woody Allen, respectively, the fact that Allen’s Annie Hall won was seen by many as the academy’s resistance to embrace popular films due to their accessibility.

1983: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial loses to Gandhi

These two films couldn’t be any more different from each other, and yet they are now irrevocably linked thanks to their Oscar nominations. One, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, is about a memorable little alien who taught us to be good to each other, and the other, Gandhi, is about civil rights icon Mahatma Gandhi. At over three hours in length, and pretentious and plodding to boot, Gandhi was the safe pick the academy typically loves. But despite the win, Gandhi director Richard Attenborough has confessed he thought E.T.‘s Steven Spielberg was robbed, saying in Steven Spielberg: A Biography, “I put my arms ’round him, and I said, ‘This isn’t right, this should be yours.’”

1990: Do the Right Thing loses to Driving Miss Daisy

Director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing failed to even score a nomination, making it feel like a major upset from the start. Lee gifted cinema with a powder keg commentary on racial issues, yet the powers that be decided that Bruce Beresford’s docile, culturally problematic (under the surface, at least) Driving Miss Daisy, was more deserving of a best picture win.

1991: Goodfellas loses to Dances With Wolves

As a filmmaker, Kevin Costner isn’t exactly known for his brevity — and awarding him trophies for it hasn’t helped matters. Though his three-hour-long epic Dances With Wolves was just the kind of awards bait predicted to win, Martin Scorsese’s electrifying crime drama Goodfells felt like a kick in the pants to the artistry of genre filmmaking. It’s still lauded by critical and commercial audiences as one of the best mobster films ever made.

1993: Marisa Tomei wins best supporting actress

1993’s best supporting actress category was stacked with such strong contenders that no one could’ve predicted a dark horse candidate with a breakthrough, performance like the one Tomei gave in My Cousin Vinny. What more, nobody thought that Tomei, a relative newcomer, could really walk away with the coveted bit of Oscar gold over her more seasoned colleagues Judy Davis (nominated for Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (nominated for Enchanted April), Miranda Richardson (nominated for Damage) and Vanessa Redgrave (nominated for Howard’s End).

1997: Lauren Bacall loses to Juliette Binoche

Occasionally, the Academy likes to award an actor or director with an Oscar as an acknowledgment of their body of work versus a singular performance. Such was the case with the Hollywood veteran Lauren Bacall, whose decades-long career should’ve earned her an Oscar well before 1997 but even when she was nominated that year, she still managed to lose to Juliette Binoche, who was nominated for her performance in The English Patient. 

1998: Dame Judi Dench wins for short appearance in Shakespeare In Love

Sometimes an Oscar win is not about the amount of time onscreen, but about the quality of the work instead. This 1998 best supporting actress win shocked everyone including nominee Judi Dench, who played Queen Elizabeth for a sum total of 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love, when her name was announced. “I feel for 8 minutes on the screen, I should get only a little bit of him,” she joked in her acceptance speech, referring to her gold statuette. 

2006: Brokeback Mountain loses to Crash

Director Ang Lee offered up a beautiful, restrained, gut-wrenching portrait of two men secretly falling in love in Brokeback Mountain, but instead, the academy decided to reward Crash, a film with steeped in pretension and questionable racial politics. There were gasps in the room right after best picture presenter Jack Nicholson read the winner’s name aloud, seemingly confirming this upset He also has an epic reaction to the noise, as you can see for yourself in the clip above.

2017: The infamous La La Land vs. Moonlight best picture mistake

It’s probably the most calamitous moment in Oscars history and it happened only a few years ago. Everyone had assumed that modern musical La La Land would waltz away with the biggest award for best picture, especially because Hollywood loves to reward films that focus on the magic of Hollywood. But it was Moonlight that snuck in there for the win but was almost robbed of its award thanks to a catastrophic envelope mix-up backstage that had best picture presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty reading out the wrong name. The mix-up got solved in real time and watching the moment play out is still one of the wildest things we’ve ever seen.

The 2019 Oscars will air on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 8/7c on ABC.

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