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Here Are the Five Worst Oscar Snubs in the History of the Academy Awards

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
Raging Bull’s 1981 Best Picture loss to Ordinary People is widely seen as one of the greatest snubs in Oscar history.
United Artists

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony will be held Sunday, and film-lovers the world over are holding their breaths, hoping that the Academy gets it right this year—or at least does a better job of not getting it wrong. As Oscar buffs know, the institution doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to recognizing the greatest work of the year, even when the presenters are handed the right envelope. In defense of the Academy’s voters, it can be hard to tell in the moment what art will still be important in five minutes, never mind five years or five decades. But sometimes the disconnect between quality and acclaim is so severe that cinephiles start groaning the second the award is announced.

The Academy knows this, naturally: In fact, the concept of Oscar snubs is built into the system. Honorary Academy Awards are sometimes given to recognize people whose exceptional contributions to cinema slipped through the cracks over the years, from stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham to action star Jackie Chan. But career achievement awards won’t heal all wounds, and, looking over Oscar’s long and storied history, it’s clear that some of the Academy’s mistakes can’t be fixed. Here are the most groan-worthy, shortsighted, appalling snubs in the history of the Academy Awards.

1985: Sally Field Wins Best Actress

Sally Field’s acceptance speech for her Best Actress win in 1985 became an instant classic when an exuberant Field declared, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me right now, you like me!” But while Field’s speech was undoubtedly the best of the year, her performance in Places in the Heart has a slightly more contested status. Field was up against Judy Davis for A Passage to India, Jessica Lange for Country, Vanessa Redgrave for The Bostonians, and Sissy Spacek for The Mirror. Any one of those would have been a respectable choice, but the boldest and most daring performance by an actress that year wasn’t even nominated.

By 1985, Shirley MacLaine had been been nominated for Best Actress four times—1958 (Some Came Running), 1960 (The Apartment), 1963 (Irma la Douce), and 1977 (The Turning Point)before finally winning in 1984 for Terms of Endearment. Maybe that long-postponed triumph was the reason she wasn’t in the awards conversation the next year. She should have been: the actress followed up Terms of Endearment with a performance that was every bit as good as the ones she built her reputation on. As Veronica, a nun torn between the demands of her order and worldly temptations, MacLaine navigated deep spiritual waters with intelligence and conviction, making surprising choices that are nevertheless right for her character. It’s a pity the Academy didn’t chose to recognize her extraordinary performance in one of the year’s forgotten masterpieces, Cannonball Run II.

1985: F. Murray Abraham Wins Best Actor

It must have stung for Shirley MacLaine to have to present the Best Actor Oscar in 1985, even as the Academy ignored her own work that year in favor of Sally Field. It must have stung even more to have to hand the statuette to F. Murray Abraham for his performance as Salieri in Amadeus. As MacLaine well knew, the award rightfully belonged to Burt Reynolds, for his showstopping work as charming scoundrel J.J. McClure in Cannonball Run II. Reynolds is in top form from the very first frame, and unlike Abraham, Reynolds did his acting through a mustache.

But audiences and Academy voters just weren’t ready to accept the star of Smokey and the Bandit, Stroker Ace, The Cannonball Run, and Smokey and the Bandit II in the role of a man driving a car. It would be another 14 years before the Academy saw the error of its ways, handing Reynolds a nomination for Boogie Nights in an effort to make up for this legendary Oscar snub. But if Cannonball Run II taught us nothing else, it taught us that it second place is the first loser. No consolation Oscar can change that now.

1997: Stanley Donen Wins an Honorary Academy Award

Sometimes even when it’s trying to correct its own mistakes, the Academy inadvertently snubs someone new. That was the case in 1997, when Stanley Donen won an Honorary Academy Award.

Stipulated: It was a great historical error for the Academy to wait until the late 1990s to honor the director of masterpieces like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Further stipulated: Donen’s acceptance speech, a musical number in which he sings “Cheek to Cheek” to his Oscar statuette, is an all-timer. But there is a fly in the ointment: Donen was given his Honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, wit, and visual innovation.” If those were the qualities the Academy sought to recognize, shouldn’t they have finally honored the long-overlooked 1984 film Cannonball Run II? You want grace, wit, and visual innovation? Well, get a load of this!

Now that’s what I call cinema!

1985: Stevie Wonder Wins for Best Original Song

It’s true that Stevie Wonder is a musical genius who deserves all the acclaim that’s come to him over the years. It’s also true that “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (as heard in The Woman in Red) was released in 1984, the same year as Cannonball Run II. That film featured a little band called Menudo, whose song “Like a Cannonball” has proved to have the kind of staying power that Wonder’s flash-in-the-pan hits have lacked. Plus, check out the music video:

That’s right: Menudo took the themes of Cannonball Run II and reimagined them inside of a gigantic pinball machine. It’s a cinematic achievement in its own right, worthy of being discussed in the same breath as great movies like Cannonball Run II. Meanwhile, the video for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” doesn’t even have a woman in red, much less a giant pinball machine. Do better, Academy.

1985: Amadeus Wins Best Picture

The year is 1985. The place? Los Angeles’ own Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The year? Still 1985. And as the Best Picture award approaches, the audience is blissfully unaware that they’re about to witness one of the greatest injustices in Academy history. By the time Laurence Olivier opens the last envelope of the evening, Miloš Forman’s Amadeus has already won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. In any other year, Amadeus would have been a respectable choice for Best Picture, too, even over stiff competition like The Killing Fields. But 1984 wasn’t just any year in film history. As any Oscar buff will tell you, 1984—colloquially known as “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”—was the year Cannonball Run II hit theaters, revolutionizing Cannonball Run movies for years to come. And yet if Cannonball Run II had taken home Best Picture, it would have been just as much of an injustice as Amadeus’ win, because at the 57th Academy Awards, Best Picture belonged to one movie and one movie alone.

That movie is Rhinestone, in which Dolly Parton tries to turn Sylvester Stallone into a country music star. Here’s Academy Award-winner Sylvester Stallone performing a song called “Drinkenstein,” in which he must sing the lyric, “Budweiser, you created a monster, and they call me Drinkenstein.”

Until the Academy retroactively strips Amadeus of its Best Picture award and gives it to Stallone’s performance of “Drinkenstein,” the entire ceremony—indeed, the entire concept of cinema—sits atop a burning throne of lies. Still, best of luck to this year’s nominees!