At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in "The Godfather." She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

15 controversial Oscar wins—and how they've aged

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April 8, 2022
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15 controversial Oscar wins—and how they've aged

The most common source of controversy over Oscar winners is that viewers believe there were better contenders that year. While the Academy Awards can be criticized as predictable by viewers, some award winners pulled upsets that put the voting process by the Academy into doubt. Awards season campaigning has been prevalent in recent decades, leading the cynical to believe that the Oscars are given out as a result of producers shaking hands with voters behind the scenes rather than objective quality.

Personal factors weigh in on observers' unease with Oscar winners too, like tumultuous production drama, misdeeds by actors or filmmakers, or controversial public statements. These Oscar wins have spurred discussions of separating the artist and the art, which was the case at the 2022 ceremony. At the 94th Academy Awards, Will Smith took home the prize for Best Actor for his performance in "King Richard" as the titular Richard Williams, the father and longtime coach of tennis superstars Venus and Serena. Smith's acting had earned him acclaim in the months leading up to the awards, but during the ceremony, before the Best Actor winner was announced, Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock who'd made a joke at the expense of Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The show went on, and Smith apologized during his acceptance speech, but the fallout came in the weeks after. Smith ultimately resigned from the Academy and was banned from attending the Oscars for the next decade.

While Smith's win was immediately met with backlash, other Oscar wins may not have been controversial at the time but become questionable in retrospect. Sometimes the wrongdoings of individuals involved in decorated films are later unearthed or are resurfaced after such a win. Meanwhile, other films tend to age poorly with audiences due to changing social norms in the present day compared to different cultural standards in the past. Stacker revisited some of the most controversial Oscar wins in the history of the Oscars. Keep reading to learn more about the most highly criticized wins, and how they've aged.

2019: 'Bohemian Rhapsody' wins Best Editing

The Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" was already entering the Oscars with several controversies, including the firing of director Bryan Singer after he was accused of sexual assault and the film's perceived lack of attention to Mercury's sexuality and the larger AIDS crisis. Upon the release of the final film, one particular scene with the members of Queen speaking to their manager went viral for a high number of erratic cuts. The film's nomination for Best Editing sparked mockery, which increased when the film went on to win; even the film's editor John Ottman doesn't believe that the film is his best work.

[Pictured: John Ottman, winner of Best Film Editing for "Bohemian Rhapsody."]

2013: Ang Lee wins Best Director for 'Life of Pi'

Critics and pundits predicted Ben Affleck would be honored with a Best Director nomination for his well-received work in "Argo." However, the actor-director was surprisingly absent from the list of nominations. Instead, the winner of that year's trophy was Ang Lee, who had won the same award for "Brokeback Mountain," this time winning for "Life of Pi." The surrealist survival film had already caused a stir for the bankruptcy of the film's visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues, and this was seen as a symptom of a large problem within the effects industry. Adding insult to injury to the movie's visual effects artists was the lack of gratitude for the company in Lee's speech for his Best Director award.

1986: 'Out of Africa' wins Best Picture

With a director with the pedigree of Sydney Pollack and stars like Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, "Out of Africa" seemingly had all the right ingredients for an Oscar-worthy picture. But upon release, the romantic drama film ended up with more of a lukewarm reception due to a long running time and for Redford's performance. Even today, critics are baffled by how "Out of Africa" took the top spot that night, especially over Steven Spielberg's adaptation of "The Color Purple."

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1978: 'Annie Hall' wins Best Picture over 'Star Wars'

The space opera film "Star Wars" (retroactively renamed as "Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope") by George Lucas came into the Academy Awards with a lot of momentum. "Star Wars" won several technical Academy Awards, but what many believe is one of the most influential films of all time lost to Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." While the classic film is still highly regarded, contemporary filmmakers like James Cameron have argued that the win supports the notion that the Academy does not like genre pictures. "Annie Hall" is, however, the exceptionally rare comedy to win Best Picture, a category that overwhelmingly goes to serious dramas. The past few years have also called attention to sexual misconduct in the film industry, with old allegations against Woody Allen brought up yet again when discussing any of his work.

1971: George C. Scott declines Best Actor for 'Patton'

In an unprecedented move, actor George C. Scott declined an award for Best Actor for his work as George S. Patton in the film "Patton." While Scott's work in the film was highly praised, with his opening monologue going on to be a memorable and iconic scene, Scott disliked the awards process, already warning the Academy months in advance to not nominate him. Despite this, Scott—who didn't show up at the ceremony—was nominated and won.

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2017: 'Moonlight' wins Best Picture after presenter flub

The win for Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age drama "Moonlight" wasn't particularly controversial, but rather how the win during the televised ceremony came to be. Initially, presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty accidentally announced the winner of Best Picture to be the musical film "La La Land." However, that was the result of a mixup by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, who was in charge of tallying up the votes and handing envelopes to presenters. "La La Land" producer Jordan Horowitz announced the real result to the confused audience. The musical film had been previously predicted to be the winner but was criticized for its whitewashing of American jazz.

2019: 'Green Book' wins Best Picture

The Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali-starring movie "Green Book," based on a true story, had already received extensive criticism before the Oscars rolled around. The family of Ali's character, jazz pianist Don Shirley, condemned the film, which was produced by Nick Vallelonga, the real-life son of Mortensen's character Frank Vallelonga. Director Peter Farrelly, who was accused of sexually inappropriate pranks while making previous films, was also criticized for what viewers interpreted as a "white savior" narrative. Immediately after the film's win, "BlackKklansman" director Spike Lee attempted to storm out of the ceremony in outrage.

1940: Hattie McDaniel wins Best Supporting Actress for 'Gone With the Wind'

Actress Hattie McDaniel made film history by becoming the first black American to win an Academy Award, winning for her role as "Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind." While the award was an honor, McDaniel had to face racism and segregation. McDaniel was only allowed into the ceremony upon the intervention of the film's producers. Even then, McDaniel was seated away from the rest of the creative team at a segregated table, making this historic win an example of racism.

1990: 'Driving Miss Daisy' wins Best Picture

Unusual for the Best Picture category, 1990 winner "Driving Miss Daisy" did not even receive a nomination for Best Director, making the win an odd one out, especially against competition that included "Dead Poets Society," "Field of Dreams," and "My Left Foot." Today, the film's depiction of race relations is considered to be lowkey, safe, and derivative, with retrospectives questioning why Spike Lee's highly charged "Do the Right Thing" from the same year was not even nominated for Best Picture in the first place. "Driving Miss Daisy" has been likened many times over to the more recent but also controversial "Green Book."

1973: Marlon Brando declines Best Actor for 'The Godfather'

Famed actor Marlon Brando had previously won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in "On the Waterfront," but took a different approach with his win for "The Godfather" in the wake of the Wounded Knee incident. Instead of accepting the award for his role as Vito Corleone in-person, Brando sent Apache actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who gave a speech in Brando's place to announce his intention to decline the award for "poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry."

Littlefeather received a mix of cheers and boos from the audience. Years later, she told "Variety" that John Wayne was restrained during the incident. "I found out that he had been restrained by six security men from assaulting me while I was on that stage," she said. "That was the most violent moment that had ever taken place at the Academy Awards." Today, the incident is looked back upon as a significant moment in recognizing indigenous rights in the United States.

1995: 'Forrest Gump' wins Best Picture over 'Pulp Fiction'

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" was a counterculture hit that inspired fervor and several copycat films in the years to follow, and it was an obvious favorite at the Academy Awards. While the film won Best Original Screenplay, "Pulp Fiction" lost to "Forrest Gump," a film about a slow-witted man and his participation in several American historical events. Both films are still loved and referenced continuously to this day, but many cinephiles lament the loss of the edgier "Pulp Fiction" to the more sentimental "Forrest Gump."

2003: Roman Polanski wins Best Director for 'The Pianist'

When Roman Polanski won the Academy Award for Best Director with "The Pianist," he did not walk up on stage to accept the trophy; in fact, Polanski was not in the United States at all, as stepping foot in the U.S. would have resulted in his arrest. Even after his guilty plea for statutory rape, Polanski's peers in the filmmaking community supported him at the time. In the wake of Time's Up and Me Too, however, Polanski's work and accolades have been reexamined. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Polanski from its membership in 2018.

2017: Casey Affleck wins Best Actor for 'Manchester by the Sea'

Actress Brie Larson handed Casey Affleck his Academy Award for Best Actor, but many observed that she did not applaud for his win. This was seen as Larson, who portrayed a sexual assault victim in "Room," silently protesting Affleck, who was accused of sexual harassment on the set of his film "I'm Still Here." Affleck dropped out of presenting in the following year's Oscar ceremony.

1999: 'Shakespeare in Love' wins Best Picture over 'Saving Private Ryan'

Steven Spielberg's war drama "Saving Private Ryan" is considered by critics and viewers to be not only one of the best war films of all time but one of the greatest films period. Imagine their surprise when period romantic-comedy-drama "Shakespeare in Love" pulled an upset win for the most prestigious film prize. The win is attributed to producer Harvey Weinstein's aggressive campaign for the film, which has set the tone for Oscar campaigning since then. But the win didn't age well due to the accusations of rape and sexual harassment toward Weinstein that garnered much attention in 2017.

2005: 'Crash' wins Best Picture over 'Brokeback Mountain'

The same-sex love story "Brokeback Mountain," which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger, had both critical and financial success and became an early favorite to win the Best Picture award. To the shock of many, the ensemble film "Crash" pulled an upset win, prompting discussion for years afterward, particularly about whether the Academy was reluctant to award a film that featured gay protagonists. The win is often remembered as one of the Academy's "biggest mistakes," with the film's depiction of race relations considered now more than ever to be outdated and based on stereotypes. The film's director Paul Haggis even considers the film to be unworthy of the honor.

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