The Oscars’ 9 Biggest Acting Upsets of All Time

More often than not, the Academy Awards are predestined, and The Oscars go to whom everyone expected from the start. The acting nominations typically consist of a frontrunner and four “also-rans” who are “just happy to be nominated.” Occasionally, the race boils down to two frontrunners with three invited to the ceremony to watch. But sometimes – just sometimes – a dark horse steals the show. With everyone waiting for the envelope to be read, certain of the name inside, once in a blue moon that name inside is a complete shock.

In the acting categories, Supporting Actress has historically been the spot for an upset throughout the years, as evidenced by the following list. Of the 9 upsets, FIVE are in said category:

Grace Kelly wins for The Country Girl, beating Judy Garland for A Star is Born (1955) – Most consider Garland’s performance in A Star is Born as transcendent, still celebrated over sixty years later. Meanwhile, very little is said about The Country Girl, or Kelly’s performance. It’s seen these days as a sort of year-long reward for Kelly’s work here, in High Noon, and in Hitchcok’s Rear Window. After The Oscars that night, Groucho Marx called this stunner “the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”

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Marcia Gay Harden wins for Pollock, beating Kate Hudson for Almost Famous (2001) – The stage was absolutely set for Hudson to take home The Oscar for her heartwarming performance in Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece. Meanwhile, Marcia Gay Harden was a mere afterthought in the category, making her win one of the biggest shockers in recent memory.

Anna Paquin wins for The Piano, beating EVERYONE ELSE (1994) – Paquin’s victory came entirely out of left field, as the young actress beat out the likes of Emma Thompson, Rosie Perez, Winona Ryder, and Holly Hunter. Regardless of who may have deserved the statue, Paquin’s acceptance speech was one of the sweeter moments in Oscar history.

Robert Benigni wins for Life is Beautiful, beating EVERYONE ELSE (1998) – This one is still completely baffling. Benigni shocked the world, winning for his ham-fisted, on-the-nose holocaust drama Life is Beautiful. In the category was Ed Norton for American History X, Nick Nolte in Affliction, Ian McKellan for Gods and Monsters, and someone named TOM HANKS for something called SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Absolutely criminal, funny acceptance celebration be damned.

Juliette Binoche wins for The English Patient, beating Lauren Bacall for The Mirror Has Two Faces (1997) – This was a night for Bacall, who had never… NEVER… been nominated for an Oscar in his illustrious career. That’s astonishing enough, but what was even more astonishing was Juliette Binoche sneaking in and winning for The English Patient, much to the chagrin of a bitter Bacall. Never underestimate the power of Harvey Weinstein.

Beatrice Straight wins for Network, beating EVERYONE ELSE (1977) – Straight turned in solid work in Network, but there was one small issue with her victory at The Oscars: she appeared in five minutes of Sidney Lumet’s film. FIVE MINUTES! That, on top of the fact Jodie Foster was nominated for Taxi Driver and Piper Laurie for Carrie, makes this a surprising and ultimately confusing decision by the Academy.

Adrien Brody wins for The Pianist, beating EVERYONE ELSE (2003) – The shock was all over Adrien Brody’s face, who then seized the moment and planted a major kiss on Halle Berry when he got on stage. Brody’s win was deserving, but unforeseen with a field including Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York), favorite Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), and Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt).

Marisa Tomei wins for My Cousin Vinny, beating EVERYONE ELSE (1993) – Tomei’s nomination for Supporting Actress was a charming story in its own right. The success of My Cousin Vinny had catapulted her to leading lady status, but everyone figured she’d lose to any of the other nominees (mostly Vanessa Redgrave or Miranda Richardson). The win was such a surprise, rumors abounded that Jack Palance read the wrong name on the card (side note: He didn’t. Tomei deserved it).

Tommy Lee Jones wins for The Fugitive, beating Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List (1994) – Look, Jones was solid as Sam Gerrard in The Fugitive, the perfect pursuer to Harrison Ford’s man on the run. But, let’s be serious here… Ralph Fiennes delivered a towering performance in Schindler’s List, one of the most incredibly devastating films of all time. Fiennes is a monster, evil incarnate, and was absolutely robbed here.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.