"It's an honor just to be nominated," goes the acceptance-speech cliché. But is it really, considering some of the duds that have been up for Oscars? The A.V. Club decided to put together a theoretical movie marathon based on some of the less-honorable nominations the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences has come up with over the years. It isn't a very pretty evening. Like the ceremony, we begin with…
Gloria Stuart, Titanic
Appearing during Titanic's maudlin framing sequences as the elder version of Kate Winslet's protagonist, Stuart brought some class to a limited role, but her Oscar nomination speaks more to her long history as a Hollywood contract player. The Academy loves a good story, and Stuart's career, which to that point had spanned an astonishing 70 years (though with a 30-year break in the middle), provided the Academy with a sentimental reason to acknowledge its past. But how much acting does Stuart really do in this movie? Most of the time, she sits in a chair and simply tells her character's story in an engaging tone. Then, in what must be considered her "big scene," she launches a honking big diamond into the Atlantic.
Runner-up: Anne Ramsey, Throw Momma From The Train
Older ladies doing things that older ladies don't do are a comedy staple. Director Danny DeVito is the primary culprit here, thanks to his taste for baroque grotesquerie, but Ramsey fails to redeem her one-note monster.
Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile
Duncan is a talented actor who rarely gets to show his range, and he deserves wider recognition. But not for his cringe-inducing role in The Green Mile, which made him one of cinema's most egregious examples of the Magical Black Man stereotype. The Academy traditionally loves characters with overwhelming physical, mental, or social handicaps, and Duncan's character has them in bulk: He's a black man in Louisiana in the 1930s, which seems like handicap enough, but he's also mentally retarded and wrongly accused of multiple pedophilic rape-murders. The script and the story get much of the blame, with all their pandering plays for sympathy and transparent Christ metaphors, but Duncan's wide-eyed, groveling, yassah-mastah performance is still embarrassing, undignified, and painfully unnuanced.
Runner-up: Bobby Darin, Captain Newman, M.D.
As part of a wave of "kinder, gentler psychiatrist" movies that swamped cinemas in the early '60s, Captain Newman, M.D. offered up a cast full of quirky misfits, occupying an Army psych ward. Looking to shake up his benign pop-crooner image, Darin signed on as a shell-shocked Southerner who has to take a dose of truth serum before he'll admit he has a problem. Darin isn't awful, but it's a stunt role and a stunt performance, balancing his natural smarminess with an over-the-top rage that must've seemed impressive at the time, given his background. It's a classic "talking dog" kind of Oscar nomination.
Grand Canyon, by Lawrence & Meg Kasdan
In Grand Canyon, the Kasdans serve up a handful of finely observed scenes that capture the anxieties of Los Angelinos, but they're overwhelmed by an ambitious, pretentious, inadvertently arrogant attempt to comment on race relations, via a contrived story about the accidental friendship between a well-meaning white guy and a misunderstood black guy. The dialogue hammers every point too hard. Kasdan can't even let an anecdote about a man in a Pirates cap pass without reminding the audience that the Pirates are his hero's favorite team, because of Roberto Clemente, his favorite player, whom he named his son after, and so on. Further overkill: the final scene, where all the characters convene at the Grand Canyon and stare deeply into its gaping metaphor.
Runner-up: Chicago, by Bill Condon
The Maurine Dallas Watkins/Bob Fosse/Fred Ebb/John Kander book and music for Chicago remain one of the crowning achievements of American musical theater, but aside from some unnecessary rejiggering that makes the heroine nicer and the musical numbers part of her delusion, Condon's script adds nothing. This is one of the many cases where the Academy wanted to recognize the excellence of the original material, and was forced to give a nod to the person who merely transcribed it.
Arthur Hiller, Love Story
Ladle a bunch of already-clichéd French New Wave tricks over a manipulative tragic romance with a few suggestions of social relevance, and what have you got? An Oscar nomination! Hooray!
Runner-up: Stanley Kramer, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
The Academy consistently rewarded Kramer for his message-y social dramas, but even if the movie wasn't a toothless, leaden affair, the direction still wouldn't be worth wowing over.
Sean Penn, I Am Sam
Penn has rightly been acknowledged as one of the best actors of his generation, but lately, his Method theatrics have gotten the better of him, from his mannered turn in Mystic River ("Is that my Oscar in there?!") to his over-the-top demagogue in All The King's Men. But his awards-trolling was especially shameless in I Am Sam, in which he stars as a mentally challenged Starbucks employee who tries to overcome his limitations as a father. Much like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, he gives a performance that's technically sound, impressively focused, and utterly impenetrable. Just the fact that he didn't win, in spite of the Academy's weakness for the subject matter, suggests a serious folly.
Runner-up: Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society
It's hard to choose just one of Williams' many undeserved nominations, but his alternately wacky and maudlin Dead Poets turn as an edu-tainer is but a clown nose removed from Patch Adams.
Bette Midler, For The Boys
It's likely that Midler was penciled in as a nominee before this movie was even in production. Who better to play a singer-dancer commissioned to entertain the troops in World War II? She's big, she's brassy, she'll make you cry, and she's been doing it for so long that it's high time the Academy gave up what it denied her for The Rose. Add to that James Caan's presence and the director of On Golden Pond, and the film seemed like a surefire winner. But only die-hard Midler fans could possibly withstand the treacle on display, and even they might have a hard time grappling with some of the cruelest old-age makeup ever slathered on an actress.
Runner-up: Melina Mercouri, Never On Sunday
Like Hollywood itself, the Academy Awards in the '60s were overrun with foreign-born actresses who could barely act in their original language, let alone in heavily accented English. To Mercouri's credit, she does bring a spark of originality and ebullience to her role as a Greek prostitute bewitching an American scholar. But that's just about the only note she hits, and she hits it over and over. Also, she and Brigitte Bardot should shoulder much of the blame for convincing Hollywood studios that the European New Wave was all about sexy starlets, not cinematic bravura. The result was film after film in which legendary American actors play against long-forgotten, blank-faced, incomprehensible blondes.
Scent Of A Woman
In 1993, Scent Of A Woman piggybacked onto Al Pacino's Oscar-friendly exercise in egregious overacting and grating self-parody all the way to an utterly unwarranted Best Picture nomination. In retrospect, Martin Brest's lumpy, tonally incoherent direction feels like an extended warm-up for his similarly dreadful work in the elephantine follow-ups Meet Joe Black and, yes, Gigli, both of which were understandably overlooked in the Best Picture category come Oscar time. Brest's shapeless, bloated comedy-drama owes its Best Picture nod exclusively to Pacino, whose one-note shouting-marathon of a performance dominates the film as thoroughly as his "hooha!"-ing blind lieutenant dominates callow upstart Chris O'Donnell.
The Oscars aren't the Golden Globes, but if ever there was a nomination bought and paid for, it was the one granted this faux-Shakespearean turkey. Don't even watch it on a dare.