The Oscars are right around the corner, which means our long annual awards-season debate surrounding who should win, who might surprise us, and who got snubbed is almost at a temporary end. But before we bid that red carpet adieu for now, let’s take an appreciative look back at some of the greatest films in Hollywood history that didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination — a list that, as you’ll see, includes more than a few timeless classics. No envelope, please… it’s time for Total Recall!
In a filmography studded with cult classics, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski might be the cultiest — which is to say that when it arrived in theaters, it landed with nowhere near the impact you might suspect today. In spite of a top-notch cast that included Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as an eminently quotable screenplay whose storyline amiably loped between (often equally surreal) moments of comedy and drama, Lebowski eked out less than $20 million during its theatrical run, and although critics were generally kind, they weren’t exactly falling all over themselves to proclaim its everlasting virtues. The Coens had the last laugh in the long run, however — Oscars are nice, but how many movies have inspired their own religion?
When Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless arrived in 1960, there was no way for critics to know they were witnessing one of the most influential works in all of cinema — as well as the arrival of one of the medium’s greatest auteurs. But everyone who saw it — including more than two million French filmgoers — knew they were watching something bold and new, and among cineastes, it was recognized as part of the emerging French New Wave. How it came up empty with the Academy is up for debate, but there’s no arguing its lasting impact; among directors as well as critics, Breathless is regularly cited on lists of the all-time greatest films.
The Oscars are traditionally fairly dismissive of comedies, and the list of classic laughers that deserved a nod from the Academy is long — but Bringing Up Baby, starring Cary Grant as an uptight zoologist and Katharine Hepburn as the ditz who turns his life upside down, belongs at or near the top. Critics were generally enthusiastic about Grant and Hepburn’s second big-screen pairing, but the audience’s response was decidedly mixed; despite strong receipts in a handful of locations, Baby landed with a thud in many parts of the country, and was only ultimately saved from the cultural dustbin thanks to a second life granted by television screenings more than a decade after it slunk out of theaters.
One of a handful of thrillers to make such stylishly effective use of its Los Angeles locations that the city is virtually a character unto itself, Michael Mann’s Heat might be hands down the sleekest cops-and-robbers suspense flick of the ’90s — which is really saying something, considering Mann had to weave a tangled web of plotlines involving a crowded, marquee-topping ensemble that included Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Alas, not even the combined might of two of Hollywood’s greatest thespians could earn this classic heist picture any attention from the Academy. Mann’s next release, 1999’s The Insider, made up for lost opportunities with an impressive seven nominations — none of which, sadly, it won.
A creature feature so massive that its very title can be used as a colloquialism for “big and powerful,” King Kong has been remade more than once over the years — and is being revisited again this year in Kong: Skull Island — yet the original remains one of the few classic black-and-white movies that many modern filmgoers have seen. A critical and commercial success, Kong set a thrilling new benchmark for special effects; unfortunately, the Oscars didn’t have a category for that type of achievement yet, but what it lacks in awards-season hardware, it’s clearly more than made up in lasting cultural impact.
The way we talk about director Fritz Lang today, you’d think he was swimming in awards during his lifetime, but in reality, he racked up an astonishing zero Oscar nominations — and that includes shameful goose eggs for his twin towers of cinematic achievement, Metropolis and M. The latter, Lang’s first talkie, uses sound in a number of inventive ways, including his enormously influential decision to make Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” the recurring theme music for Peter Lorre’s villainous Hans Beckert. It’s gone on to be reissued numerous times, continuing all the while to enjoy near-universal critical acclaim; in fact, it’s one of a small handful of classic films to boast a 100 percent Tomatometer rating. An unfortunate oversight on the Academy’s part, but given that Lang’s name has become synonymous with groundbreaking genius among cinema buffs, it’s safe to say all’s well that ends well.
Martin Scorsese’s long streak of Oscar futility really got going with 1973’s Mean Streets, which found the young director determined to make a personal film after the frustration of working for hire on Roger Corman’s Boxcar Bertha. Emboldened by disappointment and professional desperation, Scorsese drew on his roots in New York City’s Little Italy neighborhood to tell the story of an ambitious but conflicted young gangster (Harvey Keitel) and his fraught relationships with a young woman (Amy Robinson) and her brother (Robert De Niro), a small-time gambler with a volatile streak. Although Mean Streets whiffed at the Academy Awards, it started Scorsese on his way to elite filmmaker status — even if he did end up having to wait until 2007, and through five nominations, to win his first Best Director Oscar.
A mammoth revisionist Western before revisionist Westerns were cool, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West synthesized tropes from the already well-trod genre and fired them back at an audience not yet accustomed to seeing its frontier mythology deconstructed — and represented an artistic leap forward for Leone, who used a much slower pace and more realistic tone to tell the tale of an unsavory hired gun (Henry Fonda) whose campaign of terror against a railroad town is complicated by a lone vigilante (Charles Bronson) with a mysterious vendetta. Better late than never, West has steadily built a devoted following since its release, and influenced generations of America’s most popular filmmakers.
Like comedy, horror hasn’t always found the warmest reception at the Academy, and a horror movie adapted from a bestseller by Stephen King — who hasn’t always been a critics’ darling himself — probably never stood a prayer of receiving Oscars recognition. On the other hand, the big-screen version of King’s The Shining boasted a stellar pedigree, both onscreen and behind the cameras; with Jack Nicholson starring opposite Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick directing, this terrifying descent into snowbound madness could easily have earned a nomination or three. Alas, it came up empty, forever depriving Nicholson the opportunity to stroll up to the podium and shout, “Heeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Oscar!”
David O. Russell’s movies have piled up a number of Oscar nominations and wins over the years, and it’d be hard to argue he’s been unfairly ignored by the Academy. Still, looking back, it’s a little surprising to note that Russell’s Three Kings didn’t pick up a single nomination. A critical and commercial hit, this pitch-black satire of modern warfare and global American politics is the rare message movie that works as pure entertainment — and it found Russell employing a few nifty visual tricks, too. Any or all of the above might have been good for awards consideration; alas, Russell would have to content himself with the awards-season attention he’d generate in later years with movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle.