Top 10 Oscar Winners Who Won In Unexpected Categories

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This Sunday, Ben Affleck is likely to win the Best Producer Oscar for Argo, especially since the Director’s Branch didn’t nominate him for their particular award. Not everyone wins in the categories they expected to win for, or were best at. Here are ten examples of people winning in the wrong category:

10. Christine Lahti, Peter Capaldi (Actors) Martin McDonagh, Terry George, and Taylor Hackford (Directors) Win Best Short Film

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You know those short films no one has heard of, but somehow take up a good 20 minutes of the Oscar telecast? Some are won by actual successful directors or actors. In the case of Martin McDonagh, he demonstrated his serio-comic take on the gangster genre well enough, with the Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter (2004,) that he got the financing to make the sleeper hit In Bruges four years later.

In contrast, director Terry George, who was almost named Best Director for Hotel Rwanda in 2004, and was nominated twice for Best Screenplay, won an Oscar last year for The Shore, about a childhood friendship strained by political problems in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, director Taylor Hackford (Proof of Life, Ali, Ray), TV actress Christine Lahti (best known for Chicago Hope) and Peter Capaldi (best-known as the foul-mouthed British diplomat from In The Loop) have also won in this category. Capaldi’s film, Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, won the Oscar in 1995, as well as our own personal award for Absolute Greatest Title Of All Time.

9. Billy Bob Thornton Wins For Best Adapted Screenplay

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Billy Bob Thornton was a 41-year old actor without much success, when he wrote and directed his own 25-minute film in 1993 called Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, about a mentally absent man in an asylum, who discusses the double murder that led him there. He based the character on a part he had in a soap opera.

A New York-based production company gave him $1 million to make the film and, as it was moving along, it got an extra $10 million from Miramax, along with a shortened name that you better be able to guess. The film barely broke even by Oscar night, with a mere $12.5 million, but the reviews of the film were glowing. Elizabeth Taylor became a big champion of the film, writing “I think about that movie every day and it’s been a month since I’ve seen it,” and urged everyone in sight to check it out, including gossip columnist Liz Smith who started championing it in her articles.

While the work was entirely original, it was thrown into the Best Adaptation category, because it was based on Billy Bob Thornton’s own previous work, which meant that it went up against the year’s big juggernaut The English Patient, but his popularity and positive buzz pulled him through. When he upset  Patient to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award, Billy Bob Thornton personally thanked Elizabeth Taylor in her speech.

8. Robert Redford Wins For Best Director

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Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner and Robert Redford have a combined 27 appearances on Quigley Publishing’s annual Top Ten Money-Making Stars Poll. In other words, they’re big stars who can regularly pull in tons of bread any given year. Yet, when they have those reunions for Oscar-winning actors, they’re not allowed to join the party, because they have only won Oscars for directing, and not acting.

Of these four, Redford is our pick for the guy who really should have won an acting Oscar by this point. From intrepid reporter (All The President’s Men,) to two-bit hustler (The Sting,) to a revenge-seeking frontiersman on an Indian rampage (Jeremiah Johnson), Redford has taken on a number of challenging leading man roles that never went recognized by the Academy, save for one nomination for The Sting.

Redford won an Oscar in his directorial debut though, for his melodrama Ordinary People, which beat out Martin Scorsese’s all-time classic Raging Bull. Many considered this a baffling choice, and a huge upset. Nonetheless, the Academy’s decision is final, and Redford will forever be an Oscar-winning director. Not so much for acting though, unfortunately.

7. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck Win For Best Screenwriting

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The story of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s rise to fame is one of the most familiar narratives in Hollywood, although stars writing their own screenplays is nothing new by any means. The only reason the Damon/Affleck story was such a big deal was because of the marketing acumen of Miramax, who planted glowing reviews, like this one by Janet Maslin: “Everybody loves a Cinderella story and Good Will Hunting has two of them: one on screen and one behind the scenes.”

Nonetheless, Damon and Affleck were childhood friends and frustrated actors, who decided to write their own roles so they could get a better choice of scripts. The original story was written by Damon in a Harvard creative writing class, and they prioceeded to tweaka nd expand it into a full-fledged script. By the time the film was actually released, Damon’s career was taking off, as he had just appeared in Courage Under Fire and The Rainmaker. Damon and Affleck both took their mothers as dates, and had a famously enthusiastic acceptance speech upon winning. Their award was presented to them by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, Hollywood’s original BFFs.

6. Michael Douglas Wins Best Producer

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Michael Douglas became one of cinema’s biggest stars in the 1980’s, with roles in Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, and Wall Street, for which he would win an Oscar for the iconic role of merciless super-capitalist Gordon Gecko. Lesser-known is that the son of Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas won a Producing Oscar a decade earlier, when he was just a budding star who had just four film credits to his name, and a role on the TV series Streets of San Francisco.

Kirk Douglas (a 3-time Oscar nominee himself) had great confidence in counter-culture writer Ken Kesley, and bought the rights for his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before it was even published. After several unsuccessfully attempts to turn it into a movie, aspiring actor Michael bought the rights from his father, and teamed up with jazz record company executive Saul Zaentz to produce the film. Both got to take home Oscars of their own, when the film won Best Picture.

5. Emma Thompson Wins Best Screenplay

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The film was a passion project of producer Lindsay Doran, who felt that the humor and universal appeal of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility could make the romantic comedy genre popular with a wider audience. She was impressed by Emma Thompson’s work as both an actor and writer in her sketch comedy series Thompson, and hired Taiwanese director Ang Lee. Despite never having made an English-language film, Lee had previous experience with films that combined complex family dynamics with humor, so Doran took a chance.

Thompson took four years to write the screenplay, winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1992 in the  interim. To date, Thompson is the only person ever to follow an Acting Oscar with one for Screenwriting.

4. Orson Welles Wins For Sharing A Screenplay

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26-year old wunderkind Orson Welles made the American masterpiece Citizen Kane during his first outing in Hollywood. He was nominated for Best Producer, Actor, and Screenwriter. Orson being Orson, he was somewhat insulted to have only collected the Screenwriting Oscar, which he shared with Herman Mankiewicz. Herman then went on to attack Orson for exaggerating his contributions to the screenplay. Herman went so far as to say that Orson didn’t write a single word of the script. After all, Herman wrote a stage play with a concept similar to Citizen Kane, and had been to a yacht party hosted by William Randolph Hearst, the man whom the titular character was based upon.

So in the end, Orson Welles, who is possibly the best director of all time, only won a Best Screenplay award, for a screenplay his partner said he didn’t write. That must have stung.

3. Director Ed Zwick Wins For Producing Shakespeare In Love

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Zwick’s films come in two varieties: serio-romantic melodramas cut from the same mold as his hit TV show Thirtysomething, or the action/adventure film imbued with a message. His best examples of the latter include films such as Blood Diamond (2006.) He hasn’t been the most disrespected director in terms of Oscars; Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his film Glory, and Blood Diamond also amassed a significant number of  nominations. Still, for a guy whose films regularly achieve that rare trifecta of critical acclaim, popularity, and ambition, Zwick himself has yet to get nominated for any of his films.

He has, however, won an Oscar as one of the five producers of the 1999 Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love. Now, according to modern-day Oscar rules, a film is rarely allowed to submit more than two producers, so would Zwick still have made the cut?

According to Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar 2, which details the creation of all Oscar-nominated films between 1995 and 2000, Zwick’s role in production was as follows: he lived next door to the eventual film’s screenwriter and, when the guy casually mentioned the idea to Zwick, he helped him pitch the script to Universal Studio, later shopping it to its eventual home at Miramax, who had Harvey Weinstein take over as main producer. In other words, probably not.

2. Stanley Kubrick Wins Best Special Effects

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Nearly every one of Stanley Kubrick’s 13 films has a cult following, and he has been nominated for Directing, Producing and Screenwriting Oscars for Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, but lost a combined 12 times in those categories.

Kubrick, however, was a perfectionist and micromanager. For 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was highly focused on the special effects. Kubrick took 18 months to complete the film, spent $6.5 million of his $10 million budget on effects, and personally supervised every detail. For that, he was awarded a Best Special Effects Oscar even though, as previously mentioned, he lost in every other category for that film. Still, it clearly pays to be meticulous.

1. Movie Producer/Acting Instructor, John Houseman, Wins Best Supporting Actor

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A Romanian immigrant, John Houseman had a long career in theater and film, doing practically everything except act. He was originally a theater producer, where a number of opportunities came to him through his collaborations with Orson Welles. He eventually became a producer for Paramount, where he oversaw the production of nearly twenty films.

If that wasn’t enough, he became the director of the American Shakespeare Company in the late 1950’s, the professional theater troupe of UCLA in 1960, and the founding director of the acting program at a then-little-known school called Julliard. One of his interns at the UCLA theater program, James Bridges, wrote a script about a Harvard law student navigating the pressures of school with an especially thorny professor. When all of his casting options backed out, Bridges, who had consulted with Houseman for advice, called him up and asked if he would screen test for the part. Despite having never technically acted himself, Houseman passed the test, got the part, and eventually won an Oscar for it.

He later stated, in his autobiography, that he was somewhat embarrassed over winning an Oscar. Whereas others had worked their whole lives for the honor, all he had to do was spend ten days in Toronto with a good friend.


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5 Comments

  1. How about Jennifer Hudson? She won the award for best supporting actress in 2006 for her role in the movie “Dreamgirls” in her very first acting credit.

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