Posted by morlockjeff on February 14, 2009
Every year in the annual Oscar race there are always a few surprises, headscratchers 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, B-movies or unprestigious genre pictures.
I’m using 1992 as my starting point and working backwards from there since most of the more interesting oddities occurred prior to that. Of course, there have been a few unexpected entries since then such as 2000′s Shadow of the Vampire (nominated for Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe – & Best Makeup) and “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” (from Hustle & Flow) winning the Best Song of 2005 – how I’d love to see someone like Tom Jones perform a medley of Oscar winning songs including this, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (from Mary Poppins), “Que Sera, Sera” (from The Man Who Knew Too Much), “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah (from Song of the South) and others. But overall, the Academy Award ceremonies have become much more boring and predictable in their nominations since 1992.
1992 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 ran for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing – the fact that a Seagal film was recognized by the Academy is reason enough to smile.
1986 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 explicit 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), 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 weren’t subjected during the ceremony to a clip of at least one of BETTY BLUE’s many sex scenes or Beatrice Dalle in all of her nude glory.
1985 RUNAWAY TRAIN. This enormously entertaining adventure thriller from acclaimed Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade, 1979) surprisingly scored three Oscar nominations – 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).
1979 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 boxoffice hit that momentarily saved AIP from bankrupcy. Regardless of whether the great Lalo Schifrin’s score was deserving of recognition or not, it’s a miracle it was even nominated considering the Academy’s usual snobbery toward the horror genre.
1978 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? Pleaze splain it to me. Irwin Allen’s killer bee disaster epic – disaster at the boxoffice, 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.
1976 Anybody remember THE PASSOVER PLOT, a dramatization of the controversial bestseller? Produced outside the Hollywood film industry by Atlas Films, this one also scored a Best Costume Design nom but that category seems too broad. Maybe Best Loincloth Design? Or possibly Best Toga Design. Best Biblical Wardrobe?
1975 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 concerned itself with sex and reproduction in the animal kingdom with music by Gerald Fried is one of the rare exceptions. Not currently available in any format though I would love to see it.
1974 Here’s 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 mute 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.
1972 Here’s a favorite 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 on the infamous cult leader/murderer (with lots of Manson gang home movie footage and music) was invited into the Best Documentary category.
1970 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 ) specialized in.
1968 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.
1967 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 conspicious. Is she really giving a performance or just being Carol Channing? It’s interesting that Beatrice Lillie is also in it because Channing is, in some ways, an odd, eccentric screen presence in exactly the same way.
1964 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. But 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.
1963 A very offbeat year with my favorite nomination, MONDO CANE, 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, of course, for Best Original Song – “More.” 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 De, 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 (alledgedly a drug overdose but never proven).
1962 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 or what was it really about. In addition, there was little dialogue with most of the so-called story being told by a narrator known simply as X. I think the surviving Academy members who voted for it have some explaining to do.
1961 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. Yet 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 Oscar – a Russian period musical called KHOVANSHCHINA. Is anybody familiar with this movie? It was one of those headscratching entries from another country that would occasionally show up in the almost exclusively Hollywood Oscar race.
1960 It always warms my heart to see a solid little B-movie or exceptionally good genre picture get some Academy love and to my delight I saw THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND score 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). Warner Archives has finally released this on DVD.
Oscar Oddities Part 2 will take us from 1957 on back to the first official Academy Award ceremony of 1927-1928.
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