Awards season has just wrapped up with the 92nd Academy Awards: I always have mixed feelings about this time of year because on the one hand, it can be overwhelming to keep up with everything and the prognostication can get a bit tiresome, but on the other hand, I’m not into sports at all so this is my sport. I get to tell friends which movies I think might win, giving the impression that I know enough about what I’m talking about.
The Oscars are still the most prestigious awards in the film world. While many debate their actual merit, having “Oscar-winning” as a prefix to one’s name or a movie title still carries weight. Bragging rights still come with having the most Oscar wins of any film that year.
While Oscar nominations bring prestige, they also bring great expectations. There have many films which have garnered multiple nominations but walked away empty-handed for a variety of reasons. The competition of that given year typically has a lot to do with it. It’s also worth remembering that the Oscars are voted for by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: people active in the film industry and usually, those who have been nominated for an Oscar in that category before. This leads to results that sometimes differ from the general audience consensus and even the critical consensus.
We look at six films that were nominated for multiple Oscars but came away from Hollywood’s biggest night sans little golden men.
LADY BIRD (2017) - 5 nominations
Actress Greta Gerwig made her solo directorial debut with this semi-autobiographical comedy-drama. The film is set in 2002 in Sacramento, California, and stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. We see Lady Bird navigate high school, friendships and romance, as she often clashes with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Gerwig became only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for Best Director. While the Academy has made efforts to increase the diversity of its voting base, the voting body is still 68% male, and said voters might have had little interest in a coming-of-age story told from a young woman’s point of view. At the 90th Academy Awards, flashier films and performances also eclipsed Lady Bird – most notably Allison Janney’s performance in I, Tonya, which won over Metcalf’s performance in Lady Bird. In a year dominated by the beguiling and strange The Shape of Water, Lady Bird’s honest, funny relatability was not enough to sway Academy voters. Gerwig’s next film as writer-director after Lady Bird was Little Women, which garnered six Oscar nominations and won Best Costume Design.
NEBRASKA (2013) - 6 nominations
This comedy-drama tells the story of elderly Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte), who undertake a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar lottery prize that Woody is convinced he has won. The film is presented in black-and-white and was critically acclaimed, with Dern winning the Best Actor prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Director Alexander Payne has won screenwriting Oscars for Sideways and The Descendants but isn’t one to covet the award. “I don’t want everything to be about the f**king Oscars,” Payne told Canadian publication Maclean’s before the Oscars, while adding that he understands how awards attention helps his career. “The thing I lament is that we see good films only in the light of whether they get an Oscar. Where are those films throughout the year? Not just eight of them bunched up at the end, expected to gird for battle.” Sometimes, an unwillingness on the part of filmmakers to play the whole awards season game can hurt a film’s chances at the Oscars. At the 86th Academy Awards, the modest comedy-drama lost in several categories to bigger, flashier films like Gravity and more overtly socially conscious films like 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) - 7 nominations
This drama about two inmates in a Maine prison who form an unlikely friendship is often called one of the best films of all time: it has topped IMDb’s user-generated list of the 250 best movies ever since 2008. In 2015, the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, a rare honour. Therefore, it might be surprising to recall that the film walked away empty-handed at the Oscars. The film was nominated in categories including Best Picture, Best Actor for Morgan Freeman, Best Adapted Screenplay for Frank Darabont (based on the short story by Stephen King) and Best Editing for Richard Francis-Bruce. In all four categories, The Shawshank Redemption lost to Forrest Gump, which captured the imagination with its sprawling, nostalgic Americana and a tour de force lead performance by Tom Hanks. Forrest Gump’s victory at the 67th Academy Awards over The Shawshank Redemption has led to it being regarded as overrated, whereas The Shawshank Redemption is near-universally beloved. Shawshank also faced heady competition from Pulp Fiction, which was also nominated for seven Oscars and won one.
GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) - 10 nominations
THE IRISHMAN (2019) - 10 nominations
Set in 1863 in the slums of the titular city, Gangs of New York is a historical crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese. The film was a passion project of Scorsese’s that he spent 20 years trying to get made. That year, the musical Chicago won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Esteemed thespian Daniel Day-Lewis lost the Best Actor prize to Adrien Brody for The Pianist, while Scorsese lost Best Director to Roman Polanski, also for The Pianist. In the lead-up to the Oscars, veteran Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman wrote an op-ed in Variety slamming Gangs of New York, opining that it was far from Scorsese’s best work and that it did not warrant the aggressive Oscar campaign being carried out by producer Harvey Weinstein. Perhaps other Academy voters felt the same way.
History repeated itself with the 92nd Academy Awards, when The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as truck driver-turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, received 10 nominations and came up empty. Like Gangs of New York, this was also a film that took years to come to fruition. While The Irishman received critical acclaim, there were many who thought it saw Scorsese re-treading old territory, with the Academy rewarding the fresher and more socially relevant Parasite. That film’s director Bong Joon-ho made sure to tip his hat to Scorsese when accepting the Best Director prize. The Irishman scored Best Supporting Actor nominations for both Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, but they were beaten by Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. The film has also taken some flack for what many perceive to be unconvincing or even creepy digital de-aging effects used on its main cast – The Irishman lost the Best Visual Effects Oscar to 1917. It is speculated that animosity from Academy voters towards the streaming platform Netflix, which released The Irishman, affected its chances at winning Oscars.
THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) - 11 nominations
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple is a historical coming-of-age drama set during the 1910s. The film tells the story of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), a young woman from an abusive household who is forced into an abusive marriage. Celie meets and forms a bond with Sofia (Oprah Winfrey) and Shug (Margaret Avery). The film was Goldberg’s second feature film appearance and her mainstream movie debut. While Goldberg’s performance was highly acclaimed and won the Golden Globe, she lost the Best Actress Oscar to Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful at the 58th Academy Awards. In a shocking snub, Steven Spielberg was not even nominated for Best Director that year. Some felt that the director, who at that point in his career was still primarily known for directing Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and two Indiana Jones films, was ill-suited to make a film about the injustices endured by African American women. The film was also criticised for downplaying the relationship between Celie and Shug, which in the novel is an overtly romantic one. Spielberg would go on to win the Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for Schindler’s List and the Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan.