Odd Oscar Winners
Since the Academy Awards are just around the corner and this site specializes in the weird and unusual in cinema, I decided to put together a look at some odd Oscar winners from the past. Whether we’re talking western comedies, quirky biopics, or scathing satires of American broadcasting, the following entries all have two things in common: each falls well outside the Hollywood norm due to content and/or delivery, and each has been awarded one or more Academy Awards.
While there’s nothing wrong with popping Avatar or The Dark Knight into the DVD player, these selections offer an evening’s entertainment that’s decidedly different and often more challenging. So the next time you’re feeling adventurous, pick one of these odd Oscar winners and have yourself a ball. And if you don’t like it…hey, there’s always The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
- Cat Ballou (1965) – Jane Fonda stars as Catherine Ballou, a schoolteacher who runs afoul of greedy businessmen intent on taking away her father’s land. When they bring in hired killer Tim Strawn, aka Silvernose (Lee Marvin), Catherine counters by forming a gang of outlaws and changing her name to Cat Ballou. Lee Marvin gets to play both with and against type thanks to his dual roles as Silvernose and drunken gunslinger Kid Shelleen, and his efforts won him a Best Actor Oscar. The film was also nominated for Best Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Song, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) – The second Jane Fonda movie on the list, this Sydney Pollack directorial effort revolves around a grueling dance contest where desperate, Depression-era individuals go to any lengths to win a $1500 cash prize. An epic tale of human misery, the film managed to get nine Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor win for Gig Young as the thoroughly exploitative MC in charge of the competition.
- The Tin Drum (1979) – Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Tin Drum offers a darkly comical and frequently disturbing look at the life of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), a youngster living in the Free City of Danzig during the first half of the 20th century. After receiving a tin drum for his birthday and becoming generally disgusted by the adult around him, young Oskar throws himself down the stairs and simply stops growing. Banging on his prized drum when things become too much to cope with–including the rise to power of the Nazi party–Oskar also has the ability to emit screams capable of shattering glass. As WW II breaks out, Oskar continues to bang away on his drum and deny the changing state of the world. Filled with controversy upon its release, including being banned in Ontario and Oklahoma City on charges of child pornography, The Tin Drum has since received its own release as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection.
- Fargo (1996) – While every project from sibling filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could be described as weird, this Oscar-winning movie helped catapult them into their current role as critical darlings and perpetual award nominees. Frances McDormand stars as Marge Gunderson, a Minnesota police chief on the trail of kidnappers and killers while seven months pregnant. Filled to the brim with eccentric characters and the Coen’s trademark black humor, Fargo was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won for Best Actress (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay (Joel and Ethan Coen).
- Ed Wood (1994) – Tim Burton lends his oddball esthetic to this biopic about the life of Edward D. Wood , Jr. a cross-dressing filmmaker often regarded as the worst director to ever sit behind the camera. Johnny Depp plays the lead role with appropriate madcap gusto, depicting Wood as an eternal optimist who believes in his projects despite the limits on money and talent. Martin Landau co-stars as the morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi, while the rest of the excellent supporting cast includes Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, and Jeffrey Jones. Despite an underwhelming performance at the box office, Ed Wood managed to snag Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) and Best Makeup (Rick Baker, Ve Neill, and Yolanda Toussieng).
- Being There (1979) – English comedic genius Peter Sellers displays his ability to keep a straight face in this Hal Ashby comedy-drama about a naïve, middle-aged gardener named Chance who’s cast out into the world following the death of his benefactor. But the appropriately-named Chance lands on his feet, charming the social elite with simple-minded observations that are interpreted as sage-like wisdom. While Sellers lost in the Best Actor category to Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer), co-star Melvyn Douglas won a Best Supporting Actor award for his role as a businessman who mistakes Chance for a fellow upper-class individual.
- Harvey (1950) – Jimmy Stewart stars as Elwood P. Dowd, a good-natured drunk who pals about with a giant, invisible rabbit named Harvey. Okay, the creature is technically called a “pooka,” but that’s just splitting hares (thanks, I’ll be here all week). When his well-meaning sister (Josephine Hull) tries to have Elwood committed to a sanatorium, it sparks a hilarious and frequently touching chain of events which lead to more and more people seeing Harvey. Stewart received a Best Actor nomination for his role, while co-star Hull won for Best Supporting Actress.
- Network (1976) – A scathing satire that skewers network news on every front, it holds up surprisingly well thanks to the modern-day presence of amoral giants such as FOX News. As their ratings fall into the toilet, the struggling (and fictional) UBS Network finds unexpected success in the form of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a longtime anchor who rants, raves, and clearly suffers from multiple mental conditions. Throw in an ambitious young producer (Faye Dunaway) who develops a show focusing on terrorists (and later The Mao Tse-Tung Hour), and you’ve got yourself a classic to rival Dr. Strangelove. Nominated for 10 Oscars–including Best Actor (William Holden), Best Director (Sidney Lumet), and Best Picture–Network would pick up trophies for Best Actor (Finch), Best Actress ( Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), and Best Original Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky).
- Melvin and Howard (1980) – Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) is a man in pursuit of the American dream. When he picks up a stranded motorist in the Nevada desert who turns out to be reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), it leads to a series of legal battles over whether or not Hughes left the good Samaritan $156 million in his revised will. But this comedy-drama isn’t about the legal wrangling over a man’s fortune. Instead, it’s a look at the life of Dummar, a gas station attendant who dares to dream big and indulge himself in spite of numerous personal setbacks and limited talent. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the film won Oscars for Mary Steenburgen (Best Supporting Actress) and Bo Goldman (Best Original Screenplay), while Jason Robards was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – This indie hit took the movie business by surprise in 2006, racking up four Academy Award nominations and over $100 million at the box office. Abigail Breslin stars as Olive Hoover, a seven-year-old who gets a last-minute opportunity to compete in a beauty pageant. Determined to support her, the dysfunctional Hoover family (including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano) piles into their less-than-reliable Volkswagen Microbus and hit the road. Featuring a feel-good climactic musical number and plenty of familial bonding and bickering along the way, Little Miss Sunshine captured Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin) and Best Original Screenplay, while also being nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Breslin) and Best Picture.
The next time you’re looking for award-winning films on the bizarre end of the spectrum, be sure to give these odd Oscar winners a try. Most should be readily available at your local video store, while films like The Tin Drum and Melvin and Howard can be found by subscribing to an online rental service such as GreenCine or Netflix.