Oscar Oddities: A Look at Strange Academy Award Nominations

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.” This is the sort of modest, self-effacing statement that Academy Award nominees will often make to assure the public, the media and perhaps even themselves that they’re not desperately, fervently hoping to take home one of the little golden men. In point of fact, one could almost make the case that it’s an honor never to be nominated, particularly when you consider the legendary actors and actresses, past and present, who fit that description. After all, what can you say about a movie acting award where Carol Channing has more nominations than John Barrymore, Steve Buscemi, Mia Farrow, Errol Flynn, Richard Gere, Jean Harlow, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara, Tyrone Power, Dennis Quaid, Edward G. Robinson, and Donald Sutherland…COMBINED?

Now, my purpose here is certainly not to rail against Ms. Channing or her 1967 Best Supporting Actress nom for Thoroughly Modern Millie (If I wanted to criticize her, I’d mention her striptease the following year in Otto Preminger’s hippies vs. mobsters “comedy,” Skidoo). Nor do I wish to go into lengthy analysis of some of the deserving films and people passed by over the years; Movie FanFare already has two fine pieces on that subject, “I Would Not Like to Thank the Academy: Oscar Snubs Over the Years” (article) and “When the Best Picture Isn’t the ‘Best Picture'” (article). I’m just here to point out that, looking at the complete list of the thousands of Academy Award nominations over the last 80-plus years, there are a few names and titles whose “for your consideration” status sticks out like a sore thumb. The following examples are some of the more interesting ones I’ve come across:

1928 – Coming as they did at the dawn of the sound era, the very first Academy Awards were the only one where a silent film–the WWI drama Wings–won Best Picture, while The Jazz Singer was given a special technical award (“For the life of me I don’t see what Jack Warner can do with one of them,” star Al Jolson quipped. “It can’t say yes.”). But the most curious aspect of the evening was that, for the first and only time, a writing category for Best Title Writing  (the on-screen cards that displayed actors’ dialogue and elaborated on the action) was voted on. Unfortunately, no print of the winning film, a William Haines action/comedy called Telling the World, survives for us to look at. Even more unfortunately, award recipient Joseph Farnham died two years later, and Haines left acting by 1935 because he couldn’t “tell the world” he was gay.

1941 – This was the year that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Oscars, but won only Best Original Screenplay. One of its noms went to composer Bernard Hermann, in a crowded Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture field that included–among others–eventual winner All That Money Can Buy, Ball of Fire, How Green Was My Valley, Sergeant York and…King of the Zombies!? How the music (mostly voodoo drums) from a horror/comedy by Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures wound up on the Academy ballot is anyone’s guess. Black magic, perhaps?

1944 – A lot has been said over the decades about the studio politicking that goes on to get an actor or actress’s performance in whichever category–lead or supporting–the filmmakers think they have the best shot at winning in (For example, why was Denzel Washington in the Best Actor field for Training Day, but co-star Ethan Hawke in Best Supporting Actor)? Well, Paramount managed to have it both ways in 1944, when beloved character actor Barry Fitzgerald garnered noms as both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for his turn as old-school priest Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way. Call it good planning, divine intervention or both, because Fitzgerald took home the supporting statue, while co-star Bing Crosby managed to snag the Best Actor award.

1956 – Authors like to leave any drama on the printed page, but there were quite a few plot twists to the 1956 screenwriting nominations. One of the films vying for Best Adapted Screenplay, the Gary Cooper anti-war drama Friendly Persuasion, couldn’t mention writer Michael Wilson’s name on the ballot because he had been blacklisted for refusing to talk to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Meanwhile, one of the five films under Best Motion Picture Story, the MGM musical High Society, was not eligible because it was a remake of The Philadelphia Story, and a red-faced Academy pretended that the High Society script it actually meant to nominate was a Bowery Boys movie released the year before! That film’s producers graciously withdrew it from consideration. Things got more tangled when the eventual story winner, Robert Rich for The Brave One, didn’t appear at the ceremony and was later revealed to be another blacklisted scribe, Dalton Trumbo. The following year was nearly as convoluted, as the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai–credited to Pierre Boulle, writer of the original novel–was really the work of Wilson and fellow exile Carl Foreman (who scripted 1952’s High Noon for Cooper). Oh, and Trumbo was finally presented with his long-delayed Brave One statue in 1975, a year before his death. Whew!

1961 – Remember the Alamo?  Most Americans do. Remember the epic–if overblown–historical saga The Alamo, starring and directed by John Wayne? The Academy voters sure did, because they gave it seven nominations, including a somewhat controversial Best Picture nod that meant bypassing–among other films–Inherit the Wind, Psycho and Spartacus. The Duke would go on to mount a Texas-sized publicity campaign for his paean to frontier heroism, only to eke out a single Best Sound award. His efforts, however, inspired one of the film’s co-stars, veteran character actor Chill Wills, to push his own Best Supporting Actor nomination with a series of ads listing every Academy member by name and telling them, “Win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you all.”  This prompted a follow-up ad from Groucho Marx which simply stated, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo.”  (Read more about The Alamo here.)

1967 – Carol Channing, Best Supporting Actress nominee for Thoroughly Modern Millie. ‘Nuff said.

1976 – The statement “The movie King Kong won a special Oscar for its visual effects” shouldn’t raise anyone’s eyebrows. That is, not until you realize that it doesn’t refer to the 1933 classic and animator Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion menagerie (which got bupkis from the Academy), or even Peter Jackson’s CGI-packed 2005 film. No, we’re talking about the bloated, campy 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake whose much-ballyhooed centerpiece–a 40-foot-high, six-and-a half-ton mechanical Kong–was on-screen for less than a minute. The majority of the simian action came courtesy of make-up genius Rick Baker in a none-too-convincing gorilla suit. The award’s announcement led effects guru Jim Danforth to resign from the Academy, saying that Baker “was not in any way…to be considered a ‘special visual effect,’ no more than Bert Lahr could be considered a special effect when he played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.”

1978 – Lush, sweeping gowns and sophisticated tuxedos; meticulously re-created historical outfits; exotic wardrobes from around the globe…since its inception in 1948, the Best Costume Design category has been emblematic of the beauty and pageantry that the Oscars like to celebrate. How, then, do you explain the Best Costume nomination given to producer Irwin Allen’s “killer bees on the rampage” thriller The Swarm?  It was a contemporary drama whose costumes basically consisted of lab coats, military uniforms and everyday, off-the-rack clothing. Were Academy voters really infatuated with beekeeper outfits? Or maybe “Master of Disaster” Allen had some friends in the sartorial wing, because two more of his apocalyptic actioners, 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure (waterlogged New Year’s Eve wear) and 1980’s When Time Ran Out (lava-covered South Seas togs), also received noms in that field.

1982 – And speaking of clothing, did the loincloths of Gandhi really deserve a Best Costume nomination, to say nothing of the Richard Attenborough epic’s eventual triumph over fellow contenders La Traviata, Sophie’s Choice, Tron and Victor/Victoria?

1996 – I’m certainly not going to fault any of the seven nominations that Joel and Ethan Coens’ snow-covered suspenser Fargo earned, but I would like to point out that the film marked the first nom in the Best Editing category for Roderick Jaynes, whose name would also turn up a decade later with 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Problem is, Roderick Jaynes doesn’t exist;  The name is a pseudonym used by the Coen Brothers, who edit their own films. Still, it doesn’t keep the Academy from putting Mr. Jayne’s name, the official on-screen credit, in contention.

2002 – Now, I’ll be one of the first to admit that it would take some sort of make-up genius to make Salma Hayek look unattractive. But, really, a Best Make-Up nomination (and win) for the biodrama Frida, with Hayek as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo? Giving Salma a unibrow merited an Oscar?