For good or ill (almost certainly ill) The Academy Awards are widely considered the most prestigious recognition that can be bestowed on a film. Unfortunately, the award for Best Picture rarely goes to the greatest artistic achievement but to the film that challenges the fewest voters, films that look nice and seem “important” but require little consideration after a first viewing. As of this writing, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s mostly lifeless The Revenant seems poised to win Oscar upon Oscar over George Miller’s vital, enrapturing Mad Max: Fury Road, largely because the former film is more “Oscar-y” than the latter. The following is a breakdown of the Academy Awards “Best Picture” category over the last fifty years.
Note: Each Academy Awards ceremony recognizes the films released the previous year, so the years listed in this article will represent the year of release, rather than the year the awards ceremony takes place. While the Academy Award for Best Picture is given to the producer(s) of a film, the names listed with each title are that film’s director.
Darling (John Schlesinger)
Doctor Zhivago (David Lean)
Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer)
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise)
A Thousand Clowns (Fred Coe)
The Winner: The Sound of Music
Should Have Won: Doctor Zhivago. Few films are as universally beloved as The Sound of Music, which is odd since it’s mostly a tedious mediocrity. Doctor Zhivago is, at least, excellent in its tedium.
Alfie (Lewis Gilbert)
A Man For All Seasons (Fred Zinneman)
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (Norman Jewison)
The Sand Pebbles (Wise)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols)
The Winner: A Man For All Seasons
Should Have Won: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Man For All Seasons may well be the second-best adaptation of a play released in 1966. Mike Nichols’ searing, acidic adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the greatest play adaptation of all time.
Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
Doctor Doolittle (Richard Fleischer)
The Graduate (Nichols)
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Kramer)
In The Heat of The Night (Jewison)
The Winner: In The Heat of The Night
Should Have Won: Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate. In The Heat of The Night is a fine film, but its selection over two of the most revolutionary and influential films in the history of American cinema feels like the Academy seizing upon an opportunity to pat itself on the back for its progressivism.
The Nominees :
Funny Girl (William Wyler)
The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey)
Oliver! (Carol Reed)
Rachel, Rachel (Paul Newman)
Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zefirelli)
The Winner: Oliver!
Should Have Won: The year should be stricken from the record, as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski) wasn’t even nominated.
Anne of the Thousand Days (Charles Jarrott)
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill)
Hello, Dolly! (Gene Kelly)
Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger)
The Winner: Midnight Cowboy
Should Have Won: They got it right! Apparently in 1969 the AMPAS forgot who they were and voted the gritty, x-rated tale of a gigolo and his sickly conman pal the best picture of the year.
Airport (George Seaton)
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
Love Story (Arthur Hiller)
M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman)
Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
The Winner: Patton
Should Have Won: Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H* are better films. Patton had the advantage of being a war movie for which both pro and anti-war Academy members could vote.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
Fiddler on the Roof (Jewison)
The French Connection (William Friedkin)
The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich)
Nicholas and Alexandra (Schaffner)
The Winner: The French Connection
Should Have Won: The French Connection. Absolutely. Credit where credit is due, the Academy hit a hot streak in the 70’s.
Cabaret (Bob Fosse)
Deliverance (John Boorman)
The Emigrants (Jan Troell)
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
Sounder (Martin Ritt)
The Winner: The Godfather
Should Have Won: The Godfather is The Godfather, not even the Academy could miss that layup.
American Graffiti (George Lucas)
Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman)
The Exorcist (Friedkin)
The Sting (Hill)
A Touch of Class (Melvin Frank)
The Winner: The Sting
Should Have Won: The Sting is one of the most joyful films ever made, The Exorcist has proved to be vastly more influential.
The Conversation (Coppola)
The Godfather Part II (Coppola)
The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin)
The Winner: The Godfather Part II
Should Have Won: The Godfather Part II is sublime, so is Chinatown. Unfortunately, there are no ties in the assignment of self-congratulatory awards.
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)
Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Foreman)
The Winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Should Have Won: This is an incredibly strong field of nominees, it’s hard to begrudge the Academy choosing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s not the film that Jaws or Dog Day Afternoon are.
All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula)
Bound For Glory (Hal Ashby)
Rocky (John G. Avildsen)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorcese)
The Winner: Rocky
Should Have Won: Another incredibly strong field: Rocky is an all-time great that Academy voters probably choose for its uplifting ending, rather than the darker, truthfully superior, All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver.
Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross)
Star Wars (Lucas)
The Turning Point (Ross)
The Winner: Annie Hall
Should Have Won: Annie Hall, one of the great comedies of all time, was the right choice. Star Wars didn’t go unnoticed.
Coming Home (Ashby)
The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino)
Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry)
Midnight Express (Alan Parker)
An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky)
The Winner: The Deer Hunter
Should Have Won: The Deer Hunter, two in a row!
All That Jazz (Fosse)
Apocalypse Now (Coppola)
Breaking Away (Peter Yates)
Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)
Norma Rae (Ritt)
The Winner: Kramer vs. Kramer
Should Have Won: Apocalypse Now seems like an obvious choice, maybe the Academy felt like it couldn’t honor two masterpieces about the Vietnam War in a row? This is the year that the academy takes a real turn toward maudlin “Oscar-y” movies.
Stay tuned for Part 2- the 80s and 90s, and Part 3: the 2000s