The most unexpected Oscar winners of all time: From 'Crash' to Olivia Colman
The Academy Awards are different in many ways this year, making a surprise victor or two likely – so here are the ones that came before them
This year’s Academy Awards promises to be a rather unusual ceremony. Not only will it unfold nearly two months later than intended, but, owing to Covid-19, not every nominee will be able to attend in person.
On the bright side, however, there were also a number of unexpected nominations that makes this the most diverse Oscars yet.
This is the first year two women, in the shape of Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao and Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell, have been nominated in the Best Director category. Minari’s Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American to be nominated for Best Actor, while Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim.
It’s also the first time since 1973 that two African-American actresses have been nominated for Best Actress, with Viola Davis of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Andra Day of The United States vs Billie Holiday receiving nods.
Whatever happens on Sunday, April 25, let’s hope there are plenty of surprises, as an underdog picking up an Academy Award instantly makes the ceremony more fascinating.
Need proof? Here are the 10 greatest examples of surprise Oscar-winners.
'Parasite': Best Picture (2020)
While Parasite being recognised as the best film of 2019 shouldn’t be a surprise – since it was, indeed, the best film of 2019 – the success of Bong Joon-ho’s black comedy thriller still startled movie experts. Lest we forget, before Parasite, no South Korean film had ever been nominated by the Academy, not even in the Best Foreign Language Feature category. At the end of last year’s Oscars, Parasite had won four gongs, the most triumphant of which was Best Picture, making it the first non-English-language film to do so.
Marisa Tomei, 'My Cousin Vinny': Best Supporting Actress (1993)
At this point, everyone who has seen Marisa Tomei on screen can’t help but be charmed by her. She is Aunt May in Marvel’s Spider-Man films, after all. But, back in 1993, when the-then-29-year-old won Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny, it caused something of an uproar. Comedies are still roundly ignored by the Academy, while Tomei beat legendary actresses Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and Judy Davis to claim the trophy. Her victory was such a surprise there was even speculation that Jack Palance read out the wrong name when he opened the envelope, an allegation the Academy has since disproved.
'Crash': Best Picture (2006)
It really does boggle the mind that Crash is a Best Picture Academy Award-winner. Even now, 15 years after it picked up the prize, Crash is widely criticised for its simplified approach to racism, which was deemed so offensive critic Ta-Nehisi Coates named it the worst film of the decade. Brokeback Mountain was the clear Best Picture favourite at the start of the night, and it seemed like a shoo-in after Ang Lee was named Best Director. It’s been alleged that the Academy picked Crash because its members saw it as the safer choice. Since then, movie experts have regularly named it the most undeserving Best Picture winner in recent history. Even its writer and director, Paul Haggis, has admitted it wasn’t the best film of the year.
'Rocky': Best Picture (1977)
It makes sense that, as the ultimate underdog film, Rocky should secure a place on this list. This isn’t because the film didn’t deserve the prize, it’s just that it had to beat some of the greatest movies ever made to become Best Picture, namely All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver. Rocky proved to be so powerful that even the Academy couldn’t put up a fight. Not only did it claim Best Picture, but John G Avildsen overcame the likes of Sidney Lumet and Ingmar Bergman to be named Best Director, too.
Robert Donat, 'Goodbye, Mr Chips': Best Actor (1940)
The 12th Academy Awards is primarily remembered as the year Gone With the Wind swept away the competition to pick up eight Oscars. But this didn’t include Best Actor. Even though Clark Gable was nominated, he lost out to Robert Donat (for Goodbye, Mr Chips). Donat’s success looks all the more remarkable when you consider his fellow nominees included Gable, Mickey Rooney, Laurence Olivier and James Stewart, each of whom are still regarded as household names.
Olivia Colman, 'The Favourite': Best Actress (2019)
Glenn Close looked set to finally pick up an Academy Award in 2019, at the eighth time of asking. Even though it was widely agreed that her turn in The Wife wasn’t the best of her career, the Academy had long built up a reputation for rewarding certain actors for their careers. So when British actress Olivia Colman’s name was read out, there was genuine shock. Thankfully, Colman’s heartfelt speech immediately endeared her to those watching at home.
Art Carney, 'Harry and Tonto': Best Actor (1975)
As it was with Donat, it’s hard to criticise Carney’s emotional performance in the sentimental road movie about an elderly widower and his cat. It’s simply astounding to see that Carney beat such prestigious competitors to win the prize. These included Albert Finney for Murder on the Orient Express, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, and Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II. It wasn’t a surprise, however, when Tonto won that year’s Patsy Award for Best Animal Performer in a Feature Film.
Roberto Benigni, 'Life is Beautiful': Best Actor (1999)
Roberto Benigni cemented his place in Oscars folklore after he beat Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, Ian McKellen in Gods and Mosters, Nick Nolte in Affliction and Edward Norton in American History X for Best Actor. Benigni was in such shock that he started to run around the auditorium. And yet that was much safer than his response to Life is Beautiful winning Best Foreign Language Film, after which he leapt on to the back of the chair in front of him, and then jumped from chair to chair all the way to the stage. Benigni’s actions instantly made up for the fact that Hanks was arguably a more deserving winner.
Kevin Costner, 'Dances With Wolves': Best Director (1991)
It feels wrong to describe Dances with Wolves as an underdog. Not only did it gross $424.2 million when it was released, and star Kevin Costner at the height of his popularity, but it’s also the sort of American epic the Academy still loves to celebrate. The film also marked Costner’s directorial debut. As awards season began to take shape in 1991, it became clear the two front runners for Best Director were Costner and Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas. Much to the anger of many film fans, Costner managed to pick up the gong at the first time of asking, while Scorsese had to wait until 2007, finally winning for The Departed.
'Moonlight': Best Picture (2017)
There’s no denying that Moonlight was the best film of 2016. But, going into the ceremony, it was felt the Academy wouldn’t be able to resist the old-school charm of La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, did end up winning the most Oscars on the night, but Moonlight was named Best Picture. Well, eventually, as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway initially read out La La Land, only for its producer, Jordan Horowitz, to recognise they had the wrong envelope, and then famously beckon Moonlight’s cast and crew to the stage.
Updated: April 6, 2021 12:20 PM