Ever been surprised or devastated by an Oscar win? Are you one of those still angry that Shakepeare in Love took Saving Private Ryan’s Best Picture, that it took forever for Martin Scorsese and others to get an award, or that Crash won anything? Well, as these Oscars wins and nominations will make clear, it could be a whole lot stranger.
Rin Tin Tin
Award: Best Actor (Reportedly Won but Declared Ineligible)
How must it have felt for every other performer that the first performer to win Best Actor looked for awhile like it wouldn’t even go to a human? In fact, though Rin Tin Tin was said to have won the popular vote that would have won him Best Actor in 1928, in fact it would have been a pack of dogs that won the award instead of any individual canine, as the main dog was bred like mad and very heavily doubled like most animal performers. It would be interesting if something like this happened today and we say the actors of today trying for roles where they had to simulate a pack of dogs, though I’m sure we’d see more movies like The Grey then.
Award: Best Animated Short(Nominated)
It’s not so much that it’s bizarre that such a film got an 1988 Oscar nomination. It’s bizarre that it was even made. Bill Plympton’s first commercially released short (one of two Oscar nods he got) is about a man crooning a song entitled “Your Face” while sitting in a chair. For almost the entire film, he remains static except for his head. But that part is the furthest thing from static. It twists, rolls away, disintegrates, melts, pops, etc. Either you can get into the spirit of the animation, in which case it’s one of the trippiest things you’ll ever see, or you won’t and you’ll wonder how something so technically threadbare got so much as a second screening. Two final notes: Bill Plympton was sure that the movie would bomb when it was first screened since he was showing it to an audience of industry professionals and he’d just made this silly experiment and the other note is that the music featured in it is not a man singing but Plympton’s long time collaborator Maureen McElhorn with her voice slowed down so that Plympton wouldn’t have to hire a male singer.
King Kong (1976)
Award: Best Visual Effects (Won)
The production of this remake of King Kong was plagued with problems, most of them the fault of producer Dino De Laurentiis. His decision to have Kong rendered as a giant robot instead of the stop motion figure that the original had utilized resulted in a number of comically embarrassing errors. Probably the most notable was when the the hydraulics on the thing (which cost $2 million dollars just to build) malfunctioned in such a way that “fluid was trickling down it’s hairly leg” which of course prompted people to claim the monster had peed itself. To the rescue came Hollywood makeup expert Rick Baker, who both made the suit which substituted for the monster for almost the whole movie and played Kong. But Laurentiis’s reputation was at this point so married to the idea that the mechanical Kong was the only one in the film that Baker wasn’t credited for playing Kong, even though the suit use was nominated for an Academy Award! Even big time reviewers for the movie like Vincent Canby for the New York Times wrote their reviews clearly under the impression it was all a robot. It’s not often that a human being is passed off as a robot outside of films like Real Steel, so even if Baker hadn’t won seven awards of his own, that surely would have been eligibile to be nominated for “most unique oscar for a human being to be nominated for” on it’s own.
Moscow Strikes Back
Award: Best Documentary (Won)
Moscow Strikes Back is a 1942 Soviet propaganda film about the defeat of the 1941 Nazi invasion, specifically when the Wehrmacht was stopped from taking Moscow. What’s strange about this win is that, while of course the Soviet Union had just joined the Allies against the Third Reich the year before, it was hardly something the U.S. and Britain had entered into willingly, and of course there were plenty of American anti-Nazi propaganda films to award instead (four of them were nominated, after all.)
On top of that, the narration by Edward G. Robinson, as noted by critic Phil Hall, seems to be weirdly making fun of the action on screen. A scene in peacetime Moscow of a dancing festival is called “Mongolian Jive” and that sort of thing. Less of a joke was how in the aftermath of the war when the Red Scare kicked in, Moscow Strikes Back was a film used by the House on Un-American Activities to blacklist him and other persons involved for taking part in a project sympathetic to communism.
Dancer in The Dark
Award: Best Song (Nom.)
Many times on programs like The Simpsons and in films the unnatural nature of musical numbers and the awkward nature of transitioning back to more natural acting has been lampshaded. “I’ve Seen It All” in Lars Von Trier’s controversial Dancer in The Dark raises that awkwardness to daring new heights. While Bjork’s voice when she sang in English back then was always an acquired taste and the movie’s tone and content made it clear it wasn’t meant to be a conventional slick musical, the meter and cadence of their singing voices is clearly dreadful. It’s a feeling reinforced by the moments of lush orchestral accompaniment, and however intentional the effect, it’s still quite awful, especially for something that was considered for the 2001 Academy Awards. Of course the song was completely overshadowed in the popular press by her infamous swan dress, but this piece really is much tackier than any dress could manage.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Award: Best Editing (Nominated)
An adaptation of a novella by Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull manages to be both one of the weirdest and most formulaic movies of the 1970s. The formula is in the plot line: an outsider among seagulls doesn’t want to eat the garbage everyone else is any more, gets thrown out of the community, questions the nature of reality, and ends up leading his own flock. It’s like Milo and Otis meets the early part of Battlefield Earth. The weirdness is that it’s a live action film where shots of seagulls flying, standing around, and eating garbage overlaid with voiceover are supposed to represent characterization and storytelling. The film was not a commercial success when released in 1973, was critically savaged (Roger Ebert claimed to have left barely a third of the way into it) and both author and musician Neil Diamond sued producer/director Hall Bartlett for misuse of their material. Given how poorly done some shots of superimposed seagulls are and how haphazardly scenes such as the one above are edited as well, lord knows why anyone thought this movie needed that pity nomination (We concede that it’s a gorgeously shot movie, though, so that other nomination makes sense.)
Award: Best Documentary Feature (Won)
For those unfamiliar with the Scared Straight Program, it’s where delinquents are taken to a prison and threatened by prison inmates. What I just wrote almost completely comprises the action in Scared Straight! the 1978 film. Shot in less than an afternoon on one location, it looks much more cheapjack that a news segment from the time on the same topic would be. With the brief interviews of the kids that get told they’ll be sexually assaulted if they go to prisons at the beginning and end, it actually looks more like an episode of the later reality television series. Probably the Academy felt it was more “socially conscious” to give it an award or they were taken aback at the sight of adults threatening to take out the eyes of children. The rotten cherry atop this cardboard sundae is that, in fact, the Scared Straight program was statistically shown to not work.
Award: Best Song (Nominated)
Mondo Cane (Dog’s World) is a 1962 film about novelty sights from around the world of a shocking nature. Upscale restaurants serve the sort of food people would have been dared to eat on Fear Factor, animals are slaughtered (these scenes were staged and the deaths were real), an artist uses human “brushes” for a few paintings. As you might imagine, for the time period it was quite a shocking film. But that didn’t stop it’s main musial piece, “More”, from being nominated for an Academy Award. On top of that, it actually was covered by singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. It’s really hard to imagine something like that happening today, like if Adele did a cover of a song from Jackass.
Award: Best Animated Short (Nominated)
You know those youtube cartoon clips where the joke is that some character curses at another or bleeds a lot and it all seems juvenile and half-assed? Don Hertzfeld’s Rejected is about 5% more sophisticated than those on a technical level and maybe 15% more on a conceptual level, with the main difference being that he shot on 35 MM film instead of using Adobe flash software. The premise of this 2000 film composed mostly of crudely drawn humanoids in white voids is that some animator made a series of the worst cartoons ever and sent them to various companies as pilots for animated shows, and in the end the cartoon environments collapse because the rejection drove the cartoonist insane. Supposedly a big part of the movie’s appeal is that the characters say quotable non sequiturs such as “MY ANUS IS BLEEDING!” or scenes like ticks flying out a character’s nipples. It’s enough to make you think that for one nomination the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mixed up an entry with the MTV Movie Awards.
Bill & Coo
Award: Honorary (Won)
Who would have thought coming into this that there would be more than one movie in here composed almost entirely of footage of birds? Bill and Coo has the birds (parakeets this time) living in a miniature town called Chirpendale and being menaced by a crow. This time all the voiceovers consist of Ken Murray describing the emotions the characters are supposed to feeling, which makes their oblivious expressions slightly more tolerable than in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Instead of just being screened to Ken Murray’s bewildered and troubled friends and family like you would have expected to happen with a film that had that premise, this one netted an honorary 1948 Oscar with the citation “In which artistry and patience blended in a novel and entertaining use of the medium of motion pictures.” It’s not often that an award is said to be given on the basis of “what you did must have been annoying, frustrated, and have took forever, so we feel sorry enough for you to give you an award.”
Dustin Koski is the author of Please, God. He admits that if a movie made based on it got an Academy Award, that would be pretty weird.