It’s looking increasingly likely that this year’s Oscars will be, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. The predictability of this season hasn’t been as strong as previous years, but we’re still stuck with the weary inevitability that comes with realizing how many of the major prizes will be handed out to films that are, on a purely creative level, less than spectacular. Such is the endless exhausting cycle of this charade, one I’m so very used to but remain gripped by year after year. Hey, I don’t do sports, this is what I do instead. So why stick with it?
Because now and then, we are truly surprised in the best and most baffling ways possible. Sometimes, a film or actor or figure gets a major nomination that makes you wonder if the entire membership of voters was drunk, high, or taking part in some strange bet. Those moments when you check out the nominations, having already prepared yourself to see the same list of names, and are genuinely stunned to see that one inclusion are what make the season so fun. Alas, it doesn’t happen as often as one would like it to. This may be because the major awards bodies - not only the film ones like the BAFTAs, Oscars, Golden Globes, etc, but Grammys, Emmys, and so on - are intensely keen on being part of an overriding narrative of the season. They’re less concerned with bucking trends than they are with establishing and following them. Then again, that seeming predictability of the season makes it all the more interesting when everyone’s predictions end up being wrong. Remember when Moonlight won Best Picture?
So, in that spirit, here are some of my personal favourite baffling awards nominations and wins. By ‘baffling’, I mean choices where I genuinely cannot fathom how they were made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean said choices are bad. Some of them are all-time highlights for me.
The 2001 BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor nominations
Once upon a time, the BAFTAs used to be super interesting. The ceremony took place after the Oscars and their focus was clearly more on celebrating British talent. Now, the show is part of the big Oscar cycle so they seem more determined than ever to adhere to that narrative. As a result, they’re mostly dull and desperately pandering to Americans. That’s a shame for many reasons but it hurts the most in regard to those acting nominations because they used to be genuinely risky. Those supporting nominees are an amazing time capsule of cultural moments and a true willingness to embrace the mainstream in ways the Oscars have desperately tried to recreate for over a decade. There are more famous examples - Alan Rickman won for playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Bill Nighy took home the same award for Love Actually - but my personal favourite comes with the 2001 slate. Jim Broadbent won for Moulin Rouge!, which is a great bombastic performance of knowing camp (that same year he won the Oscar, but for the more respectable Iris). Iris is represented here for Hugh Bonneville. But then you have Robbie Coltrane getting nominated for playing Hagrid in the first Harry Potter film. And Colin Firth getting one for playing Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary. And, my personal favourite, Eddie Murphy for Shrek. Yes, the BAFTAs actually nominated a voice performance. And the thing is I don’t disagree with that. It’s a great performance, certainly one of Murphy’s funniest and most iconic. To date, Murphy is the only performer nominated for a BAFTA for a voice-over performance, and the Oscars have yet to do so. Sometimes, the BAFTAs were truly ahead of the game. Speaking of Shrek…
The first two Shrek films compete for the Palme D’Or
I think we’ve collectively forgotten just how big a deal the first Shrek film was. It was Dreamworks’s giant F*ck You to Disney, a scathing take-down of Uncle Walt’s business model (as well as that of Michael Eisner) that promised to be the sarcastic older cousin to Mickey Mouse’s guileless optimism. Critics and audiences loved that movie! It was the 4th highest grossing film of 2001! It won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature! It was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay! And on top of all that, it played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. I am not kidding: The same year that Mulholland Drive, Moulin Rouge!, The Piano Teacher, and a new Jean-Luc Godard film competed for the Palme D’Or, Shrek was right there. Even better? The second one played in competition as well! 2004 was a very weird year for Cannes: Sure, you had the expected auteurs like Wong Kar-wai, Paolo Sorrentino, and Emir Kusturica, but then you had the Coen Brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers, a new Ghost in the Shell movie, and of course Shrek 2. That was also the year the Palme D’Or went to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, which in and of itself is one of the weirder moments in movie awards history. For the record, both Shrek films went home empty handed.
Borat gets a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination
We may all now be in the throes of Sacha Baron Cohen fatigue but he was a major force of the zeitgeist for a solid few years. Borat fever was a minor phenomenon, with everyone and their vaguely out-of-touch dad making ‘My wife’ jokes and pretending they knew everything about Kazakhstan. That shtick wore very thin very quickly, but it won Baron Cohen plenty of friends in the right places at the time. The Oscars are notoriously hesitant when it comes to acknowledging that comedy exists, so the ones they do choose to shine the spotlight on say a lot about the industry and what captures their attention. Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan made a lot of money and made a lot of people very angry but it was also maybe one of the best examples of the time of how to pull off as close to a wholly improvised story as one can. So it getting a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay was a curiosity. Improvised films get Oscar nominations - the works of Mike Leigh famously fit this mould - but as an adapted story? That happened because Borat was a pre-existing character. Yeah, it still doesn’t make much sense. In The Loop also landed a nomination in adapted screenplay because of this technicality but at least that had a full script.
Ellen Burstyn nominated for 14 seconds
Ellen Burstyn is a legend of the big and small screen. She won an Oscar for her work in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and has appeared in work as varied as The Exorcist, Requiem for a Dream, Big Love, and Political Animals. She won her second Emmy for the final project, but she received perhaps her strangest nomination for a made-for-TV movie called Mrs. Harris. Her run-time in this project? 14 seconds. She speaks a grand total of 38 words. The nomination was such a controversial move that it forced the Emmys to change their rules. For her efforts, Burstyn was delighted to be recognized, joking, ‘My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and, ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don’t even appear.’
The endless madness of the Grammy for Best New Artist
It’s long been discussed how winning the Grammy Award for Best New Artist is kind of a curse. Some of the most legendary personalities in music have been overlooked in favour of one-hit wonders and gimmicks. Remember the year Men at Work beat The Human League and Jennifer Holliday? Or that time Milli Vanilli took home the prize (and later had it removed)? My personal favourite is when Marc Cohn won. You know Marc Cohn. The Walking in Memphis guy? And basically no other song ever? And let’s not forget the Starland Vocal Band of Afternoon Delight fame. That song was a hit!
Header Image Source: Grammys