• James Kunovski

An Honour to Be Nominated...

Such is the phrase echoed when an Oscar nominee becomes an Oscar loser. Each year, a film that has garnered varied recognition will go home empty-handed. They are still worthy achievements, weighed down by a mixture of competition clutter, chance, campaigning, and wrong timing. From the films that received the most Oscar nominations without a single win, which deserved a trophy or two?



The Little Foxes | 1941 | directed by William Wyler



9 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



The incomparable Bette Davis, here in glorious form, leads this biting tale of a vicious and cunning drive for wealth. For a picture riddled with backstabbing poison and an anti-Southern hospitality, we can’t help but indulge in this cold, ruthless and malevolent feast.


The Little Foxes kept great company that night. In its ranks were Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, (which would win Best Picture), and Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Wyler’s film rings like a true winner, so the snub of Davis and notably, supporting actress Teresa Wright, remain surprising. In her career, Bette Davis pulled off more than a few roles that fit her temperament like a glove -- they hardly won her extra Oscars, though. Between All About Eve, Baby Jane and this, a win for The Little Foxes would have perfectly framed Davis' screen career. Given it makes more sense than her win for Mrs. Miniver, Wright's loss to Mary Astor in The Great Lie is upsetting. Just like the whirlpool of resentment in that Southern estate, heavily publicised disagreements between the original Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead, Davis and Wyler may have tainted the film’s polish.


 

Peyton Place | 1957 | directed by Mark Robson



9 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



In the steamy yet prim New England community of Peyton Place, newcomer Michael Rossi (Lee Philips) becomes involved with glamorous shop owner Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner). Amidst engagements and school graduations, Michael discovers damning suburban undercurrents that would make David Lynch knowingly grin.


David Lean’s World War II epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai swept that ceremony with seven awards. Five of Peyton’s nominations were for acting -- a win would have likely come from one of these performers. My vote goes to Hope Lange. As Selena, Constance's tragedy-stricken daughter, Lange reels in a surprisingly layered and deep performance, relaying how the town's incessant gossip itches at taboo. Peyton Place's melodramatic and soapy style could have been its downfall, especially against such timeless powerhouses like River Kwai, Witness for the Prosecution and 12 Angry Men.


 

Gangs of New York | 2002 | directed by Martin Scorsese



10 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



Silver screen's master of immigrant identity and Catholic guilt missed the mark on this titanic historical drama. Set in the spectacularly gritty 1860s New York, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), avenges the death of his father, by the hands of Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). The premise is intriguing, and there is some substance to be found, but the film never really delivers past its dramatic opening sequence and loses out to misguided casting and shallow characterisation.


Scorsese's twenty year-long production was plagued with issues, most of them from rocky artistic clashes between Scorsese and Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein (big surprise). These issues became press junket business and marred Gangs' reputation come awards season. Harvey heavily campaigned for the then-Oscar-less Scorsese to clinch best director. He did not. It served as the gauge that any aggressive campaigning on the producer’s part had failed. In the end, Miramax, with their ruthless studio power, still owned the 2003 Oscars with Chicago ultimately taking home the most prizes. Gangs of New York has the hallmarks of a Best Picture winner, though only its production design should have won. That's the most I can go -- who doesn't love Day-Lewis, but for his turn as Bill, I'm not entirely in the camp of bestowing him.


 

True Grit | 2010 | directed by The Coen Brothers



10 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



The Coen Brothers have a keen eye for nurturing the richness of midwestern America. Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men accentuated their heartlands. This superior reimagining of the classic relationship between a hopelessly rugged Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and headstrong Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) brings their fine love for environment, and partiality for dark humour to brilliant light.


Roger Deakins' framable cinematography should have won, though I can think of a few films that should have given him his first Oscar. From my perspective, True Grit's losses don't correlate with inferiority (even if there are some on this list that do), but tough competition definitely got in its way. The 2011 awards were largely divided between Inception, The King’s Speech and The Social Network. The former two each won four, while the latter won three. Seventy-percent of True Grit’s nominations were awarded to these three films. Even in categories where they led with a strong footing, there was always a nominee that was just that little bit better. Sometimes, that’s just how the award cookie crumbles.


 

American Hustle | 2013 | directed by David O. Russell



10 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



Russell’s tonally uneven '70s banquet of forgery, grifting and con was well received by critics but divided its audience. For all its shortcomings, which include an ostentatious approach to the era and muddled plot lines, the cast, headlined by Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, hold their weight.


That Lawrence and Lupita Nyong'o were neck and neck during awards season gives me cold sweats. It didn't need to be that close! American Hustle is a wordy film with a little bit of *wit*. Bagging a screenplay win would have probably pushed its chances elsewhere, but I wish it won for those costumes. Eight years later and I'm still obsessed with the designs. Like True Grit, Hustle got lost in the competition bustle. It had award trajectory, winning that year’s most Golden Globes. It was nominated in every acting category, but lack of recognition at the SAG Awards fizzled those chances. It was also up against 12 Years a Slave, an inevitable winner, and the seven-trophy sweep of Gravity. Or, at the end of the day, it equalised with its polarising reputation.


 

The Irishman | 2019 | directed by Martin Scorsese



10 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



Scorsese’s second entry on the list, this Netflix-backed crime epic stars his usual gang and tells the sprawling chronicle of a hitman’s rise, and fall, through initiation with the mob and the Teamsters. The number of Oscar winners among the company is impressive. They include the director, four actors, its writer, costume designer and editor.


The Irishman’s award trajectory stunningly burned out. The film, with is 210-minute runtime, would have been difficult for Academy members to digest on repeat viewings. Although good, perhaps the expectation of a magnum opus hindered its long-term reception. In the lead up to the Oscars, it went home empty-handed at all other major award shows. Was discontentment with Netflix’s nouvelle industry ideas a key motivation? Roma losing Best Picture might suggest this resentment, but that also took home three awards. It is still unclear how the Academy perceives streaming services, and a streamer is yet to win Best Picture, but The Irishman deserved just a sprinkle of gold for its craft. Namely, Thelma Schoonmaker's editing. It feels formulaic, maybe a little too TV-like, but it both breaks the gigantic run-time into digestible chapters while gradually creeping towards a powerful conclusion with ample breathing space, or a claustrophobic lack thereof.


 

The Turning Point | 1977 | directed by Herbert Ross



11 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



The tied record for most nominations without a win goes to this histrionic backstage study of a ballet company and its tormented dancers. This handsome piece of entertainment is riotously sentimental but admittedly a step backward from the science-fiction explosion of its time. It fashionably serves its purpose as a star vehicle for its leads, Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and acclaimed ballet dancer Mikahil Baryshnikov.

1977 was an exciting year for film. It’s reaching to include The Turning Point in that list. It lost the majority of its categories to either Annie Hall, (the Best Picture winner), or Star Wars, which would go on to win six. In a year that embodied the era of New Hollywood coming to a head, representatives of old Hollywood style, in the form of Julia and The Turning Point would have been direct competitors. Julia, another maxim for female connection, also received eleven nominations, and would go on to win three. Maybe The Turning Point deserved an Oscar, but I'm at a loss. Anyone care to chip in?


 

The Color Purple | 1985 | directed by Steven Spielberg



11 nominations resulting in 0 wins.



Probably the most upsetting entry on this list and the most deserved winner. Steven Spielberg directs this triumphant adaptation of Celie’s coming-of-age as she connects with her identity and the people who surround her. It is a classic, and an exemplar of Spielberg’s offerings, holding two superb debut performances through the likes of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

What plagued The Color Purple’s Oscar chances? Out of Africa, a romantic epic that boasted a period setting, impressive scenery, a lush John Barry score, and starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in usual candour. It represented everything the Academy loved, especially during the epic fever that would last well into the '90s. Despite opening to a lukewarm critical response, it would also receive eleven nominations. Five of its seven wins would be in categories shared with Spielberg’s work. Newcomer Goldberg would lose to the sentimental favourite and overdue Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful. Oprah, in the supporting category lost to Anjelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor.

The Color Purple's upset was traced back to race, a statement the Academy denied, citing its initial eleven nominations. Instead, they would resort to Out of Africa, the safe choice, set in the problematic thresholds of African colonialism. Were members aware how sheepish this proves in comparison? All-in-all, a damn shame.


Let's say I have more than one hypothetical Oscar to give away. I'm going all in on The Color Purple. On IMDb, we should see a caption that reads "won 5 Oscars," (at least). I'm voting for picture, Goldberg, Winfrey (Avery is delightful too), writing and cinematography. Perhaps, as time goes by, The Color Purple can hold its own in film legacy with that bestowed honour to be nominated, but who can deny that the 58th Academy Awards should have been entirely its own.