What defines an Oscar upset? Is it merely going against the seemingly perennial conventions that make the Academy Awards so predictable? I mean, yes, a ‘Spotlight’ might take out a ‘The Revenant’ or a Denzel Washington might beat a Russell Crowe once in a while but no one’s coming near something like a ’12 Years A Slave’ or a ‘Schindler’s List’, now, are they? The industry has gotten accustomed to crowning the favorite, the front-runner with such frustrating regularity, that rarely do they go the unexpected way, allow merit to be the bigger consideration than a consensus feeling that, with the proliferation of the precursor award shows and the prediction business, starts forming around one nominee.
Seriously, looking back, could the Academy have taken the risk of not voting for, say ‘The Departed’ or Daniel Day-Lewis any of the three times he won? They’re undoubtedly worthy but a more inspired choice like ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ or Joaquin Pheonix (‘The Master’) would have shaken up the buzz of what is already the most buzzed-about film event of the year. With that, here’s the list of most shocking Oscar upsets ever, ranked in order of how game-changing they were in terms of the conversation they incited:
10. Juliette Binoche wins Best Supporting Actress for ‘The English Patient’ (1996)
Why was it an upset?: As you might conclude from reading this list, Best Supporting Actress is clearly the one category that most frequently befuddles Oscar-watchers. Take Anna Paquin, the 11-year old winner of the category for ‘The Piano’ or Beatrice Straight who won for 5 minutes of screen-time in ‘Network’. But when Juliette Binoche toppled the heavyweight Lauren Bacall, who had not only won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Award, but had also been the one of the most iconic film stars of all time, and this being her only chance at Oscar gold, everyone agreed with Binoche who started her speech with “I’m so surprised. I thought Lauren was going to get it.”
Was it deserved?: The most universally agreed-upon explanation for this upset is the amount of love the Academy felt for ‘The English Patient’ which, beside this one, took home 8 Oscars that night including the top prize. But considering how heartfelt and understated Binoche’s performance is in comparison with Bacall’s theatrics in ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’, she might have won out just on caliber.