10 Most Controversial Oscar Winners of All Time

The Oscars, like every awards ceremony in the history of forever, have found themselves mired in controversy time and time again over their nearly 90 year history. Sometimes, it's the plucky underdog stealing the win from the fan favorite, while other times a dumbfounded audience is left swearing that there'd been some sort of clerical mix-up.

Here are the 10 Most Controversial Oscar Winners of All Time.

10 My Cousin Vinny (1992) - Best Supporting Actress

Marisa Tomei - My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny wasn’t exactly a favorite at the 65th Academy Awards, given that it was both a comedy and almost a year old and thus firmly placed outside of Oscar season. The list of nominees for Best Supporting Actress was filled with more experienced actresses, surprising practically everyone when it was Marisa Tomei who scooped up the award. She was inexperienced and starring in a comedy film, making it a clear-cut underdog story.

Then the rumors began to circulate that the presenter for that year, Jack Palance, was either drunk on stage or just reading from the wrong place, causing Tomei to win an award that was never meant to be hers. The rumor has since been debunked — as there are supposedly meant to be people waiting in the wings to stop this sort of thing from happening — but Marisa Tomei remains a controversial name in relation to the Oscars. Not that any of it was her fault, though.

9 Three 6 Mafia - Best Song (2005)

Controversial Oscar Wins

Hip-hop isn’t ordinarily a hot topic at the Oscars, particularly given the aging demographic of the judges. That’s why it came as a shock to practically everyone when Three 6 Mafia managed to bag themselves the Best Song award for ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’ from Hustle and Flow.

The group had no acceptance speech and had to cut some course language from the actual performance of the song, now that it was suddenly being sung to an audience of millions. Still, it proved that even a song with controversial themes can be recognized for where it appeared in a movie, and the impact it had on the scene.

8 Life is Beautiful (1999) - Best Actor

Life is Beautiful screenshot

The 1999 Oscars were filled with big name pictures like Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, which is why Life is Beautiful, a somewhat obscure Italian film, caused such a stir when it picked up three major awards. One was the more obvious Best Foreign Language film, but director and lead actor Roberto Benigni also managed to score the Best Actor win. He then proceeded to accept the award in a speech that made him seem like he was completely high on sugar.

While the subject matter of the movie was controversial enough (as are most films concerning The Holocaust), the fact that Benigni beat out so many more traditionally ‘Hollywood’ films, then proceeded to get to the stage by walking over the tops of the seats, has made his win memorable in ways both good and bad. Some fans still cry foul over Edward Norton being passed over for his mesmerizing performance in American History X, but Benigni's win was undoubtedly one for the ages.

7 The Matrix (1999) - Best Visual Effects

The Matrix - Code Hallway screenshot

The Star Wars prequels are great for dividing opinion and causing flame wars, but in one respect, people will generally agree: they had some great visual effects for their time. With the lukewarm reception of The Phantom Menace, fans were at least hoping to pick up an Oscar in that department. These hopes were dashed when The Matrix came along and won instead, along with the awards for sound effects editing, film editing, and sound.

Given how colorful Phantom Menace was, what with all the lightsabers and spaceships, it came as a surprise to most when the comparatively-drab Matrix received the Visual Effects accolade. Still, this was a clear high for the trilogy, since Reloaded and Revolutions didn’t even manage a single nomination between them.

6 The Pianist (2002) - Best Actor

Adrien Brody - The Pianist

It was no surprise when Roman Polanski's 2002 Holocaust film, The Pianist, garnered multiple Oscar nominations, given that it was a wartime drama with all of the soulful camera angles and tormented performances that the Academy loves so much. Even so, Adrien Brody’s Best Actor win surprised audiences who were expecting a different winner; big names like Jack Nicholson and Daniel-Day Lewis were in the running, after all. A few even remarked that it was the role, not the actor, who truly won the award.

Brody’s performance has remained somewhat divisive, though The Pianist itself continues to be remembered fondly — and maybe sometimes, the role is only as good as the surrounding film.

5 Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - Best Picture, Best Song

Slumdog-Millionaire ending

Most people would know Slumdog Millionaire as the movie that served as star Dev Patel's coming out party and the big Bollywood dance at the end. It ended up winning quite a few awards across the board (though notably none in the acting department); quite an achievement for a film where half the dialogue is in Hindi.

The controversy mostly stems from either the lacking nuances typically seen in Oscar winners — it was up against favorites such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk — or from the divided opinion of the plot. It was touted as a ‘feel-good' film, but some found it hard to feel any sense of goodness when the entire thing hinged on a set of coincidences and revolved around a shaky love story. "Jaiho" also received criticism for not quite being up to scratch, and snagging a Best Song award (supposedly) based on the success of the rest of the movie.

4 Joan Crawford Upstages Bette Davis, Rivalry Intensifies

Crawford and Davis together

Not your typical Oscar controversy, but a controversy nonetheless: it was common knowledge that actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis loathed each other, for unspecified reasons. 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? famously brought them together portraying…two people who hated each other, and it involved vicious face kicks and intentional spinal sabotage on both sides during filming.

Meanwhile, Bette Davis was nominated for her role and Crawford was not, which didn’t go down too well, understandably. Behind closed doors, Crawford contacted the other four nominees, informing them that she’d be happy to accept the awards on their behalf if they were unable to attend. The winner turned out to be Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Work, which allowed Crawford to leave Davis in the wings while she went on and thoroughly upstaged her with her own acceptance speech.

Joan Crawford may not have actually won any awards that night, but the chance to one up her bitter rival was probably satisfying enough.

3 As Good as It Gets (1997) - Best Actor

As Good as It Gets - Jack Nicholson

Properly portraying a person with either a physical handicap or mental illness can be a huge challenge, so when it’s done right, Oscar nominations often follow. This was the case for Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, who gave a solid performance as a man with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a host of other problems. While not a poor performance by any means, critics were quick to point out that Nicholson had won the Best Actor Oscar in the past, and perhaps a relatively standard Jack Nicholson-esque performance as a man with strange mental issues didn’t quite qualify as monumental enough for repeat award, particularly since many of his character's behaviors didn’t correspond with true OCD.

Regardless, this was the year of James Cameron’s Titanic; while its performances were nothing to be ashamed of, its sweep of the Oscar board fortunately didn’t include an undeserved Best Actor/Actress trophy.

2 Scent of a Woman (1992) - Best Actor

Scent of a Woman - Al Pacino screenshot

Al Pacino’s win for Scent of a Woman was his first since he was nominated two decades beforehand, and in one sense, it wasn’t a bad performance. He was up against big names such as Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood, but their respective films just didn’t carry the necessary gravitas.

And yet, as critics have pointed out, Pacino’s performance was fairly obvious Oscar-bait: a disabled character (blind, in this case) in an intentionally-overacted performance filled with a recurring series of melodramatic moments for the benefit of the Academy. Still others have said that Pacino’s performance in Scent pales in comparison to what he'd accomplished with his work in The Godfather trilogy. Regardless of whether this was his strongest performance to date, Pacino fans (along with the man himself) were mostly just happy to see him break the dry spell.

1 Life of Pi (2012) - Best Director

Life of Pi promotional image

Life of Pi managed to nab itself four important Oscars, including Best Director for Ang Lee. The notable controversy here was the fantasy adventure's failure to nab the Best Picture award, which instead went to Ben Affleck's Argo. While these two awards don’t always go hand in hand, it caused a bit of a stir, particularly since Argo was the more typical choice for directing accolades, while Life of Pi was more likely to garner awards for cinematography and special effects, thanks to its spectacular use of 3D.

Life of Pi also failed to impress in the acting department. A relative newcomer in the lead role combined with the general feeling that the film was overly reliant on visual effects (rather than its human element) was likely to blame. Up against it in the Oscars race was Steven Spielberg's historical drama Lincoln, which certainly got these aspects right and was a strong contender for Best Picture. Nevertheless, stiff competition saw Spielberg's Civil War-era biographical film garner only two wins: Best Actor (for star Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Production Design. Sometimes, a film is just made in the wrong year.


Do you know of any Oscar wins controversial enough to add to the list? Let us know in the comments!

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