Define ‘upset’

Posted by · 5:11 pm · February 5th, 2009

Let’s get this straight: an upset and an injustice are two very different things. When a nominee that isn’t widely expected to win beats one that is, that’s an upset. When a highly deserving underdog loses to a less deserving favourite, that’s an injustice. The latter arguably happens more frequently in Oscar history than the former, but that’s no reason to blur the line.

I mention this in connection with a poll that Sasha Stone spotted yesterday, in which the following were named the biggest Oscar upsets of all time in the Best Picture category:

1. “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
2. “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
3. “Dances With Wolves” over “GoodFellas” (1990)
4. “Rocky” over “Taxi Driver” (1976)
5. “How Green Was My Valley” over “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Now I remember the 1990 awards clearly — I was 8 years old, and it was the first Oscar season that I followed keenly from beginning to end. And even I, at that tender age, knew that “Dances With Wolves” was a gimme, a slam-dunk, a no-brainer. However critically acclaimed Scorsese’s masterpiece was, it hadn’t a prayer against the film that swept the Guilds and the Globes — Kevin Costner enjoyed as great a stranglehold on the Oscar as Danny Boyle does today. “GoodFellas” winning would’ve been the upset, not the other way round.

Similarly, reading the Oscar history books will tell you that “Citizen Kane”‘s loss in 1941 wasn’t nearly as surprising as it was unjust — hard as it may be to believe now, Orson Welles’ film was vastly unpopular in the industry, with the mere mentioning of the title at that year’s ceremony eliciting boos from the crowd. And anyone who thinks that “Taxi Driver” was the favourite at the 1976 award has not only forgotten about “All the President’s Men” and “Network,” but the Academy’s taste in general.

I’ll grant “Crash” as a legitimate upset, even if a number of smart pundits saw it coming in the final stretch. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, however, who predicted “Shakespeare in Love”‘s victory back in the day — to be honest, the film essentially defeated “Saving Private Ryan” the day it topped the latter film’s nomination total.)

Overall, however, the inaccuracies of the poll provide an interesting insight into how Oscar history can get distorted through shifts in public perception. Decades from now, will “Slumdog Millionaire” seem as inevitable an Oscar winner as it does today? Or will another nominee grow so much in stature that people will automatically assume it was the favourite? There’s very little way of telling.

→ 46 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

46 responses so far

  • 1 2-05-2009 at 5:20 pm

    Jordan Raup said...

    Nice writeup! I just wrote up a similar feature:

    Top 25 Best Picture Nominees That Didn’t Win:

    I was going to choose Brokeback Mountain, but I just don’t know if it will be remembered that well.

  • 2 2-05-2009 at 5:21 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    I remember the hype about GOODFELLAS. Instant classic, the inevitable coronation of Martin Scorsese. But that was all pre-release; once the film came out, it was divisive — some were enthralled, others less so. Kind of like most Scorsese films.

    And you’re right. The upward trajectory and eventual Oscar for DANCES WITH WOLVES surprised no one, because it had something bigger than Scorsese: the re-launch of an old and beloved genre.

  • 3 2-05-2009 at 5:56 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I’ll Say it, I would have voted for Ordinary People too. what?

  • 4 2-05-2009 at 6:17 pm

    Brian Kinsley said...

    I would honestly be surprised if 20 years from now Slumdog was seen as the year’s BIG film. Of the nominees, only Button really seems to have the chance of overtaking it. But I think, in general, it might just be seen as an off year, where nothing really mindblowing happened.

  • 5 2-05-2009 at 6:43 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    Derek 8-Track,

    While I highly disagree with your opinion, I applaud you loudly for not calling everyone dumb for not seeing things the way you do. Thank you so much.

  • 6 2-05-2009 at 7:12 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    The reason I hold Ordinary People so high is because of its cultural significance to that time period. It was made around the time when people were first starting to be okay with the idea of going to a therapist to solve problems. The Therapy Generation as they are called. I find it to function as “Time Capsule” movie. It gives a glimpse of the issues surrounding the times in which it was made. Much like if Wall-E were to have been nominated and won because of the “Go Green” fad or if Doubt would have been nominated and won or if Milk wins as a response to the issues surrounding Proposition 8 or if Slumdog wins showing the global world/culture (Who wants to be a Millionaire happening everywhere) we live in today. Ordinary People just seemed important to its day… It’s not one that necessarily stands the test of time, but definitely made sense at the time.

  • 7 2-05-2009 at 7:31 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    True, and clearly the Academy saw things then as you do, but c’mon, the greatest work by one of, if not the, greatest director of all time, along with probably the greatest performance from one of the greatest actors ever.

    But still I understand your sentiments. But if people in the Academy are going to want to vote that way, then they need to create a separate category for culturally significant films of the time.

  • 8 2-05-2009 at 7:32 pm

    Patrick said...

    Glad to see Guy call this one. I also remember all pundits predicting “Wolves” over “fellas.”

    I also remember “Rocky” as the favorite along with “Network.” Clearly, “Taxi Driver” remains the best film from that year. It will be remembered as such. However, few thought it was going to win Best Picture that year. MS didn’t get recognized by the Academy either. This is why the Best Picture winners are sometimes unfathomable. But 2 years earlier, they got it right with “G II.”

  • 9 2-05-2009 at 7:35 pm

    Joel said...

    I think it might. They’re both pretty much perfect movies, but Curious Case for me was the more transcendent effort. It just smells like a movie that will be remembered as a classic that didn’t win.

  • 10 2-05-2009 at 7:46 pm

    John Travolta said...

    Slumdog although not my favorite film of the year deserves to win. Years from now it should be looked back on not as an upsetting thing that it won. Curious Case does not deserve it, and neither does frost nixon or the reader. Milk and Slumdog deserve it the most but even then slumdog should still take it.

  • 11 2-05-2009 at 7:48 pm

    Zac said...

    I didn’t get into movies until I saw Schindler’s List in 1994 at age 14, so I missed the Goodfellas/Dances with Wolves controversy. I do agree with Guy though that it really isn’t an upset.

    I can’t imagine anything topping the SIL/SPR debacle though. I still remember watching Harrison Ford coming out to announce the nominees and winners and expecting the words “Saving Private Ryan” to come after “And the Oscar goes to:” and when I heard SIL, I fell off my couch in complete shock. Don’t get me wrong, SIL is a great movie and I own it on DVD, but for me, it didn’t come anywhere near SPR at all.


    I think because of your name and your nationality, I expected you to be a middle aged man. Sorry! :)

  • 12 2-05-2009 at 7:51 pm

    Willa said...

    I really don’t see Ben Button living on years from now, Joel. It’s already sort of come and gone. The hype was huge, and it opened big, but now it’s just kind of fallen off the radar. Its box office take has gone a bit off track, and word of mouth has been sort of “meh” about it. Personally, I think it’s always going to be remembered as a watered down, though technically superior, Forrest Gump.

  • 13 2-05-2009 at 8:42 pm

    Speaking English said...

    How is it “watered down?” Drop the ridiculous “Gump” comparisons… “Button” stands on its own as a tremendous cinematic achievement; wondrous, meditative, thought-provoking, haunting. It will live on in a big way.

  • 14 2-05-2009 at 9:24 pm

    Neel Mehta said...

    The GUMP comparisons aren’t ridiculous. I disliked that movie, and am more fond of BUTTON, but when that hummingbird appears I want to punch Eric Roth in the face.

  • 15 2-05-2009 at 9:38 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Sorry to debate something tangential, but ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is the best film of 1976.

  • 16 2-05-2009 at 9:38 pm

    James said...

    TCCOBB is too hollow to live on in infamy. It will simply be remembered as a tremendous technical achievement, but a messy story that aims to be everlasting and falls short.

    I agree with Pulp Scientology above, that SM and M will be the 2 more memorable BP efforts. This will probably be a year that is love/hate. Many random people like myself will have affection for it, while others will find it overshadowed by last year.

  • 17 2-05-2009 at 9:56 pm

    Glenn said...

    Scott, don’t be somebody who assumes everybody has the same opinion as them. I like “Raging Bull”, I do, but I wouldn’t rank it in my top five Scorcese (that’d be “Taxi Driver”, “Last Temptation”, “GoodFellas”, “King of Comedy”, “Age of Innocence” in some sort of order) and I would have actually voted for “The Elephant Man” if I had a vote that year.

    History has been kind to it, yes, but “Ordinary People” is actually a very fine movie. It’s just not as “auteurish” as other contenders and, thus, doesn’t get ranked as highly these days.

  • 18 2-05-2009 at 9:58 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Out of Africa over The Color Purple

  • 19 2-05-2009 at 10:19 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    You make an interesting point, Derek. There are definitely some Best Pictures out there that haven’t aged well, but are insightful for how they affected their time and culture. Another example of this is Kramer v. Kramer. Today it’s hard to believe that it stood a chance against Apocalypse Now, but the victory makes sense in light of the cultural changes that were going on at the time.

    @ BurmaShave: It’s so hard to really gauge what the best film of 1976 was. All The President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network, even Rocky were all outstanding films in their own way and I could see an argument for any of them. I personally preferred Network, but just barely.

    @ Speaking English: “‘Button’ stands on its own as a tremendous cinematic achievement; wondrous, meditative, thought-provoking, haunting. It will live on in a big way.”

    This hyperbolic praise stands among the largest ever. Exaggerated, flowery, embellishing, it will live on for generations to come and is a towering achievement in overstatements.

  • 20 2-05-2009 at 10:23 pm

    john said...

    hey meeta,

    eric roth would whoop your ass… i promise you

  • 21 2-05-2009 at 10:49 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Hey John,

    Uwe Boll could probably whoop all our asses….what’s your point?

  • 22 2-05-2009 at 11:36 pm

    Michael Rogers said...

    Don’t call me a fanboy when I say that The Dark Knight will be remembered very well for quite some time, so will Brokeback Mountain. Not only because they are great films but because they share Heath Ledger.

    I don’t pretend to be an expert but I think of myself as more knowledgeable than the ‘average movie-goer’ and the only films I remember well from ’55 and ’56 are East of Eden and Giant. Just sayin’

  • 23 2-05-2009 at 11:49 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    @ Robert Hamer
    Good point, I never really thought about it that way for Kramer vs. Kramer. But your right, that was definitely addressing the growing divorce rate of the time period and time before it.

    @Scott Ward
    You have no argument from me that Raging Bull was a better crafted film than Ordinary People. Heck, same goes for The Elephant Man maybe even Coal Miners Daughter. I guess It just depends on what the Academy looks at to define “Best” from year to year, whether it be craftsmanship, acting, cultural significance, daring content, story, epic-ness, revitalizing an old genre, groundbreaking, fresh, etc.

  • 24 2-06-2009 at 12:29 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    Plus is anyone else amazed a movie about NASA or space in general hasn’t won yet. I would have taken 2001:ASO, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 or even StarWars or E.T. for that matter.

  • 25 2-06-2009 at 3:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    @ Zac: Sorry to disappoint you, buddy! (Clearly I need to change my photo to something more youthful-looking.) If by “nationality,” you mean the British thing, allow me to add a healthy dose of South African blood and breeding to confuse you ;)

    @ 3rtfu11: Again, I wouldn’t really call Out of Africa’s win an “upset,” even though Spielberg won the DGA. When he failed to get an Oscar nod, I think the writing was pretty much on the wall for “The Colour Purple.”

    @ various others: All this talk about the 1980 Best Picture nominees, and no one has yet mentioned Polanski’s “Tess?” For me, it’s the only one that even measures halfway against “Raging Bull”‘s scale of achievement.

  • 26 2-06-2009 at 4:36 am

    Glenn said...

    Was “Driving Miss Daisy” considered an upset? I mean, it didn’t have a Best Director nomination and I can’t help but feel “Born on the Fourth of July” was the more logical choice.

  • 27 2-06-2009 at 5:41 am

    RichardA said...

    I agree that Dances With Wolves was not an upset win over Goodfellas. At that time, Dances With Wolves was the leading contender for Best Picture. I still think that DWW was a better film than Goodfellas.

    I also do not think that Shakespeare in Love as an upset over Saving Private Ryan. I clearly remember the divide before Oscar season. I still think Shakespeare in Love was a better all around film (it’s a Tom Stoppard script!) than Saving Private Ryan as a whole. The main argument was that the best part of SPR was just the first 25 minutes of the movie. I also think that the country’s political sentiment back then was very divisive.

  • 28 2-06-2009 at 5:49 am

    RichardA said...

    On defining an upset: the precursors was a completely at odd with the Oscar winner.

    Not an upset: saying “this” movie should have won 5 years from now.

  • 29 2-06-2009 at 6:32 am

    jason said...

    everyone knows that the biggest oscar upset of all time is:

    babe over apollo 13
    best visual effects 1996 ceremony


  • 30 2-06-2009 at 6:48 am

    Scott Ward said...

    @Glenn: Raging Bull didn’t end up as the fourth best American film of all time in the recent poll by AFI by only a few people agreeing with me. But that completely was not my response or intent. I was only saying that while there is nothing technically wrong in liking one movie over another, when it comes to Best Pic, it SHOULD be given to the best film of the year. That’s all.

    And Guy, thanks for giving me another film to seek out.

  • 31 2-06-2009 at 10:04 am

    Henrique said...

    Well, Goodfellas was a great movie, but that doesn’t mean Dances with wolves is a bad one. I think it’s a modern classic…
    And Citizen Kane may be considered the best film ever made, but I don’t think it is so… How Green was my valley is a masterpiece. Kane isn’t even Welles’ best film: that place belongs to either Touch of evil or Macbeth.

  • 32 2-06-2009 at 10:21 am

    Bill said...

    I actually thought Capote was the best film of 2005.

  • 33 2-06-2009 at 12:20 pm

    John Foote said...

    Right you are Guy, Dances with Wolves had al but won it all, the envelopes were nothing more than a formality — an upset is seeing the odd look on Harrison Ford’s face when he sees the best directed, best shot, best sounding and best edited film has just lost best picture — THAT is an upset — Taxi Driver, though a masterpiece was never in the running because it did not have a best director nomination — Rocky caught the imaginations of America and swept the country with Rocky-mainia, though a surprise winner, was it really??? And Crash…yep…I was shocked, still am…

  • 34 2-06-2009 at 12:54 pm

    marco volpe said...

    It’s always useful to remind: Taxi Driver was the “artsy choice”, that year: glad to be nominated, but EVERYONE knew that it had been rewarded enough with the Palme d’Or in Cannes. And Rocky was absolutely the sentimental favorite, ANY other choice would have been an upset. Strange as it may seem nowawadays, when everyone would choose either Taxi Driver or All the President’s Men or Network, back in 1976, Rocky was welcomed as a Frank Capra-esque tale, more than worthy to be considered the best movie of the year.

  • 35 2-06-2009 at 1:03 pm

    John Foote said...

    And a word on “Ordinary People”..a great deal was made over the fact a beloved movie star directed the film and did a fine job — that certainly helped its profile, but watching it today, back to back with ‘Raging Bull” and its no contest as to what the greater film is — there was no doubt which film would win the Oscar, but no one was kidding themselves then that “Ordinary People” was a better film than ‘Raging Bull”…it just won the Oscar is all. It is interesting how the Academy loves to give best director to actors when they direct…do they truly deserve to win? Beatty did for “Reds”, Eastwood for “Unforgiven” or do they win win because they pulled something off, like Gibson for ‘Braveheart”? Mel should have won for “The Passion of the Christ”…that was superbly helmed.

  • 36 2-06-2009 at 2:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    John: I know it was an upset to many, but I still wasn’t remotely surprised when “Shakespeare in Love” won Best Picture. The writing was on the wall on nomination morning when it got 13 nods, including one for its wholly unremarkable sound mixing (!). It sounds like a trivial point, but the second I saw that Best Sound nod, I knew “Shakespeare” had the big prize in the bag.

  • 37 2-06-2009 at 2:50 pm

    Bill said...

    Imagine if Frost/Nixon grew to be thought the greatest movie ever made.

    Milk probably has the biggest potential for post-Oscar growth.

    So now that we’ve established those weren’t really upsets, I have a question for Guy or someone: Has there ever really been an upset in the Best Picture race? I’m not talking Crash over Brokeback, but more of the Marisa Tomei style.

    (I’ve read somewhere Chariots of Fire really through people off…have there been any others?)

  • 38 2-06-2009 at 3:41 pm

    John Foote said...

    Bill — hell yes “Cahriots of Fire” stunned Hollywood (and me) — the film won the NYFCC for best film and Beatty won the DGA and the Oscar for best director — I still smolder at the thought.

  • 39 2-06-2009 at 3:47 pm

    John Foote said...

    Guy — even though the film won for its directing, cinematography, editing and sound you were not surprised?? I still wonder to anyone who will listen how the best directed, best shot, best cut and best sounding film loses best picture…stupid to obsess but it gets my blood boiling — don’t get me wrong, as a former stage director I love “Shakespeare in Love” and the wonderful writing and acting, but not for a moment do I think it was a better film than “Saving Private Ryan”.

  • 40 2-06-2009 at 3:48 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I can only go on what I’ve read in the history books (hell, I wasn’t alive back then), but wasn’t “Chariots of Fire” the widely-liked underdog, while “Reds,” though the technical favourite, had a lot of detractors? I remember Warren Beatty once saying he was nervous of “Chariots” all along.

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s a moot point — “Reds” is better than “Chariots,” but “Atlantic City” is a greater film than both combined.

  • 41 2-06-2009 at 3:56 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    John: Nope, I wasn’t surprised at all. I was sure they’d divvy it up like that — 1998 was actually one of my best ever prediction years. (The only major surprise for me was “Gods and Monsters” taking Adapted Screenplay, but that’s another story.)

    As I’ve said before, I’m not particularly partial on the “Shakespeare” vs “Ryan” issue. Though I marginally prefer the former, I’m not all that keen on either film — I was all about “The Thin Red Line” that year, and still am.

  • 42 2-06-2009 at 5:41 pm

    Patrick said...

    Thanks to Guy for pointing out the only great film nominated in 1981, “Atlantic Ciy.” Brilliant.

  • 43 2-06-2009 at 6:00 pm

    Alex said...

    Why are you talking about upset and injustice, since paste january 22 this Oscar show will be injust. TDK should have been nominated

  • 44 2-06-2009 at 7:51 pm

    Bill said...

    The biggest surprise at the Jan 22 noms was Vicky Christina Barcelona not nominated for Original Screenplay.

    Sally, Nolan, etc could all be seen coming.

  • 45 2-06-2009 at 7:56 pm

    Glenn said...

    Oh jesus christ not another “saving private ryan is better than shakespeare in love” bit. gawd. get the fuck over it already.

    Why does “Private Ryan”s direction, editing sound and cinematography wins mean it immediately trumps “Shakespeare”s screenplay, actress, supporting actress, costume and art direction wins??? Just because a movie has the best editing of the year doesn’t mean it’s the best film, period.

  • 46 2-07-2009 at 3:25 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Yeah, but come on, Glenn, do you honestly believe that the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards for Shakespeare in Love were deserved?