On Oscars: The best often don't win

On Sunday, Hollywood celebrates itself and honors its own. All eyes (or most of them anyway) will be on the presentations of the Academy Awards.

But do the Oscars always end up in the right hands? Opinions abound on this topic, and what follows is only one man's personal opinion. In any event, it makes for some interesting discussion.

Let's start by rewinding the historical clock back to 1941. That was the year of "Citizen Kane,"a movie judged by most critics as belonging in the all-time top three, along with "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca."

But did "Kane" prevail at the Oscars? Nope. That award went to "How Green Was My Valley." Orson Welles had hit his peak at 26, and from there it was all downhill.

Fast-forward to 1952, when Cecil B. DeMille's big top blockbuster "The Greatest Show on Earth" was voted Best Picture. Probably deserved, but where was the flick generally ranked among the best musicals of all time? Alas,"Singin' in the Rain"wasn't even nominated.

Perhaps the Academy, in its infinite wisdom, rebelled against the idea of two Gene Kelly musicals winning back-to-back Oscars. The previous Best Picture winner, in 1951, was "An American in Paris."

Speaking of musicals, if Judy Garland ever truly deserved an Oscar it was for the 1954 picture "A Star is Born." On Oscar night, news cameras gathered at her bedside (she was ailing) only to swiftly depart after the announcement that Grace Kelly had won for "The Country Girl."

In 1955, the year that James Dean burst onto the screen in "East of Eden" and Frank Sinatra mesmerized audiences as a drug addict in "The Man With the Golden Arm," voters turned their backs on both and opted for Ernest Borgnine's regular guy in "Marty."

Few actresses have delved as deeply into their soul as did Nancy Kelly in the 1956 drama "The Bad Seed," repeating her Broadway performance. Yet Ingrid Bergman prevailed for "Anastasia."

In 1961, Maximilian Schell won for "Judgment at Nuremberg" as the war crimes defense lawyer, yet a strong case could have been made for his opposite number, Richard Widmark, who wasn't even nominated. Paul Newman was nominated as Fast Eddie Felson in"The Hustler," but he would have to wait a couple decades before winning for playing that same character in"The Color of Money."

Jack Lemmon won two Oscars in his lifetime, but he surely deserved another for his best-ever performance in "Days of Wine and Roses" back in 1962. So did Peter O'Toole for "Lawrence of Arabia" (he has, to date, eight seven nominations, zero wins, but one honorary Oscar). But few could argue with the academy's choice that year: Gregory Peck for"To Kill a Mockingbird."

The most blatant of Oscar crimes occurred in 1965 when Rod Steiger delivered his greatest performance in "The Pawnbroker." He was up against Laurence Olivier ("Othello"), Richard Burton ("The Spy Who Came in From the Cold") and Oskar Werner ("Ship of Fools"). So who won? That eminent thespian Lee Marvin for his staggering (literally) achievement in "Cat Ballou."

Burton made a valiant attempt for the prize the following year in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"But, in 1966, the voters opted for Paul Scofield's less-emotional performance in "A Man for All Seasons," which also, inexplicably, beat out "Woolf."

The year 1967 will be remembered as the year they gave the Oscar to the wrong Hepburn. Audrey electrified audiences in "Wait Until Dark," but the academy favored Katharine, giving her a third statuette for her more casual showing in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

To my mind, the best movie ever made was "The Last Picture Show" in 1971, and indeed it earned Oscars for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman. But at Best Picture time, the voters went for the decidedly unworthy cop caper "The French Connection." Unforgivable.

In 1979, the academy turned its back on Francis Ford Coppola's searing Vietnam war epic "Apocalypse Now" in favor of "Kramer vs. Kramer," which earned a supporting Oscar for an up-and-coming young actress named Meryl Streep.

Two years later, "On Golden Pond" not only lost, but was beaten by a cinematic nonentity called "Chariots of Fire," even though Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn both won for "Pond."

The sleeper (and sleep-inducing) "Out of Africa" was named best picture of 1985, even though "The Color Purple" was in the running.

Glenn Close's bunny-boiling madwoman in "Fatal Attraction" took a back seat to Cher in "Moonstruck" in 1987. Perhaps Close finally will get redemption this year, but Streep looms large as well.

It would be difficult to imagine a better performance than Tom Cruise's in 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July." Academy voters differed, pickingDaniel Day-Lewis for "My Left Foot." A paraplegic is trumped by a quadriplegic.

In 1996, the voters should have elevated"Fargo,"the Coen brothers' masterpiece, rather than the yawner "The English Patient." Adding insult to injury,William H. Macywas nominated as a supporting actor for "Fargo" (so who was the leading actor in that picture?) — and didn't win.

"Shakespeare in Love" was an enjoyable enough movie, but it paled in comparison to "Saving Private Ryan"in 1998. Steven Spielberg won for directing "Ryan," but the war drama lost to "Shakespeare."

Granted, 2007 wasn't a vintage year for movies, but surely there must have been one worthier than the putrid "No Country for Old Men." Or were the Academy voters just making it up to the Coen brothers for overlooking "Fargo" a decade earlier?

And in that same year, Amy Ryan gave an electrifying performance in "Gone Baby, Gone," yet inexplicably lost to Tilda Swinton for "Michael Clayton." Perhaps a few years down the road, Ryan will get a "make-up" Oscar for a lesser effort.

"Make-up" Oscars have been common over the years, as Newman's illustrates. Elizabeth Taylor should have won either for "Suddenly, Last Summer" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but was given a consolation award for the dreary "Butterfield 8." Likewise, Steiger missed out for "Pawnbroker," but won for "In the Heat of the Night" a few years later.

Alas, Burton went to his grave 0 for 7, a statistic close to O'Toole's. They join formidable performers like Dean and Widmark, as well as Garland and Barbara Stanwyck, who may be legends but their mantels are bare.

As for this year's crop of pictures and performers, who knows? If your favorite doesn't win, or is bested by a less-deserving contender, be advised that there is plenty of precedence.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for The Daily Pilot.

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