The Definitive Best Picture Losers

screenshot from Double Indemnity

screenshot from Beauty and the Beast

40. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Lost to: Silence of the Lambs

1991 was the first time an animated film ever grabbed a nomination for Best Picture with Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.” The film also picked up nominations for sound, Original Score (for which it won) and three – count ’em THREE – for Best Original Song, the Oscar going to the title song. The film never really had a chance of winning (though this was one rare year where the Academy went exceedingly dark with their winner), but its inclusion was the first step toward a wider range of films getting a chance and the creation of the eventual Best Animated Film category.

screenshot from The Maltese Falcon

39. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Lost to: How Green Was My Valley

1941 would one day become one of the most notorious Oscar upsets, but not because of this film, however brilliant it is (the other film is much higher on the list). “The Maltese Falcon” grabbed three nominations for Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Sidney Greenstreet – no wins. Humphrey Bogart wasn’t even recognized for what would become one of his signature performances. Throw in another great supporting performance from Peter Lorre and you’ve got a cast that deserved more than one measly acting nod. Apparently the Academy didn’t consider it to be the stuff dreams are made of (I couldn’t resist).

screenshot from Reds

screenshot from On Golden Pond

37 (tie). Reds (1981)
37. (tie) On Golden Pond
Lost to: Chariots of Fire

Now, for my first tie. 1981 was easily one of the stranger years for the Oscars. Five films – one from a budding filmmaking master named Steven Spielberg (you’ll see it later), one a modern classic from Louis Malle. Then, you have a story about aging starring two iconic performers (Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda), both winning Oscars for their work. Plus, an epic story of communism and idealism put on screen by an actor-turned-director named Warren Beatty who took home the Oscar for his work. Alas, the winner came in the form of a tiny British film about a long distance runner. “Reds” took home Best Director and Cinematography (not to mention ten more nominations and one more win). “On Golden Pond” had ten nominations, winning Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. In the end, they seemed to split the vote and all that gold meant nothing.

screenshot from Dr. Strangelove

36. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Lost to: My Fair Lady

Sometimes a film is just way too ahead of its time. Sometimes a movie is so cutting and satirical that it proves too much for the Academy to deal with. Enter Stanley Kubrick’s darkest of dark comedies, “Dr. Strangelove.” Kubrick’s film was never expected to take home the trophy, but still pulled in four nominations – Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor for Peter Sellers and his multifaceted, mind-blowing work. In the end, the crowdpleaser won again, as the award went to “My Fair Lady” (which I love, too). The bigger snub was probably Rex Harrison over Sellers for Best Actor, but that’s another list for another time. “Dr. Strangelove” has gone down in history as one of the most ingenious political satires to ever hit the big screen.

screenshot from Double Indemnity

35. Double Indemnity (1944)
Lost to: Going My Way

If I were to do this again, I’d probably slap a tie in here, too, with a fellow loser from 1944, “Gaslight.” Regardless, Billy Wilder’s iconic film noir is one of the most layered, fascinating pieces of filmmaking in his stellar repertoire. Starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, the movie pulled in seven nominations (Picture, Director, Actress, Screenplay, Score, Sound, and Black-and-White Cinematography), but went home empty-handed. Instead, the award went to a musical starring Bing Crosby as a young priest. MacMurray was never better, Stanwyck was the definition of a femme fatale, and Wilder once again proved he’s one of the best there has ever been. To this day, “Double Indemnity” is the still one of the measuring sticks for the genre of film noir.

screenshot from The Color Purple

34. The Color Purple (1985)
Lost to: Out of Africa

In 1985, the job of directing one of these most beloved African-American novels of all time fell to Steven Spielberg (weird, huh). What he created was a landmark in cinema – the first film to be nominated for Best Picture with an African-American producer (Quincy Jones). Starring essentially an all-black cast, with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover, “The Color Purple” also holds one other distinction: it was nominated for eleven Oscars (Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress (2), Makeup, Score, Original Song, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Art Direction) and it won…NOTHING. Call it a race issue. Call it tough luck. Call it insanity. But when you lose to an incredibly boring film about a plantation owner’s love affair with a hunter in Kenya in an already weak field, something is wrong.

screenshot from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

33. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Lost to: Gone with the Wind

It was one of, if not the best year for movies in history. It’s trademark Frank Capra – an America where good always triumphs over evil and the common man will always find a way to succeed. This time, it’s Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith, a small town man called into duty for the United States Senate, only coming face-to-face with political corruption. This gives way to the greatest filibuster in movie or political history. It’s typical idealistic Capra and today may feel a little “put on,” but it’s inspiring and hopeful in a world where dreams sometimes die a quick death. It grabbed eleven nominations, but only took one home, for Original Screenplay.

screenshot from To Kill a Mockingbird

32. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Lost to: Lawrence of Arabia

Above all, the brilliant adaptation of Harper Lee’s read-by-fifty-million-high-schoolers novel suffered from nothing more than bad luck. Not many films would be able to take down a film as epic as “Lawrence of Arabia,” no matter how boring its third act is (yawn). “To Kill a Mockingbird” is anchored by Gregory Peck’s incredible Oscar winning performance as southern lawyer Atticus Finch and grabbed eight total nominations, winning for Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Art Direction. It’s a film that stands the test of time and, in the long run, may have a better shelf life than the film it lost to.

screenshot from A Clockwork Orange

31. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Lost to: The French Connection

It’s Stanley Kubrick again, this time giving the world only the second X-rated film to be nominated for Best Picture (“Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, which won). Unfortunately, “A Clockwork Orange” didn’t come out on top, in a relatively difficult field which included eventual winner “The French Connection,” plus “The Last Picture Show” and “Fiddler on the Roof” (that doesn’t even include non-nominees “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Klute,” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”). Adapted from the incredibly visceral and convoluted Anthony Burgess novel about violence and individualism in future London, the four time nominated film was driven by a sinister performance from Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, one of the most charismatic villains in cinematic history.

— Joshua Gaul

Part One  / Part Two  / Part Three  Part Four  / Part Five 




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