The Academy Awards (a.k.a. the Oscars) are an intriguing awards ceremony—often thought to be Hollywood's most prestigious night and an enormous honor for the nominees and winners, it's also known for some controversial decisions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has gone through changes since its formation in the 1920s, but lots of cinephiles argue that more change needs to happen. Some of the biggest Academy Award controversies stem from certain movies winning over others—like when a movie that in retrospect doesn't seem that good wins Best Picture over a movie with a more longstanding and critically positive legacy. But of course, since this is a live ceremony, there are also a ton of things that can (and do) go wrong during the multi-hour-long ceremony, as you'll see.
Below, the 32 most controversial moments at the Oscars.
Richard Gere, 1993
Richard Gere was banned from the Academy Awards for two decades after he went off-script on stage, criticizing the Chinese government, saying (in part), "With the knowledge of the horrendous human rights situation in China and Tibet, I wonder every day if we could send love, truth and sanity to Deng Xiaoping."
Paul Haggis, 2006
Also known as "the year Crash won over Brokeback Mountain," the Ang Lee Western romance film was on track to win a lot of Oscars but faced homophobic backlash—and thus, Crash prevailed. According to Variety, critics debate whether this is the worst Best Picture winner of all time.
Peter Farrelly, 2019
Green Book took over earlier "worst best picture ever?" debates when it won over Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which was critically acclaimed and won Oscars for director, cinematography, and international feature. The Academy was reportedly opposed to giving Best Picture to a Netflix movie.
'The King's Speech' Cast and Crew, 2011
When The King's Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network, as well as Best Director (Tom Hooper won over David Fincher), film fans were...nonplussed, let's say. (If you're unfamiliar, King's Speech is a pretty standard historical drama.)
Tom Hanks and 'Forrest Gump,' 1995
Cinephiles still debate about whether Forrest Gump deserved all the critical love it got at the time, but particularly its Best Picture win over the much more violent Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction) but Pulp Fiction is considered one of his best-directed films.
Robert Redford, 1981
Martin Scorsese has been nominated for a number of Oscars (he won once, for The Departed), but one that must have particularly stung was him losing (for his masterpiece Raging Bull) in favor of Robert Redford's directorial debut Ordinary People.
Kevin Costner, 1991
Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves would net him 12 Oscar nominations and a win for Best Director...except Martin Scorsese had also been nominated that year, for Goodfellas no less. That particularly Academy choice has been criticized.
Rami Malek, 2021
Bradley Cooper, whose work on A Star Is Born was acclaimed (yet he was snubbed completely in Best Director), was hoped to nab a win in Best Actor. And then Rami Malek, whose film Bohemian Rhapsody received mixed reviews, won the coveted trophy.
Barbra Streisand (and Katherine Hepburn), 1969
Before this moment, the Academy had never had a tie (i.e., the same number of votes for two of the nominees). That changed in 1969, when Barbra Streisand and Katherine Hepburn both won Best Actress (Hepburn rarely attended the awards ceremony and was not present).
John Travolta and Idina Menzel, 2015
When John Travolta got on stage in 2014 to announce Idina Menzel, and subsequently called her "the wickedly talented...Adele Dazeem," it instantly became a meme. The following year, they came out together—and then he caressed her face. Interesting.
Angelina Jolie and James Haven Voight, 2000
Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted. In her speech, she said, "I’m in shock, and I’m so in love with my brother right now...He just held me and said he loved me, and I know he’s so happy for me." And then in photos afterwards, they briefly kissed on the lips, although Jolie later called it "brotherly."
Al Pacino, 1973
Al Pacino was apparently so insulted that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor for The Godfather, he decided not to go to the Oscars. Later, Pacino would say that this was during a more "rebellious" phase in his career.
Goldie Hawn and Frank McCarthy, on Behalf of George C. Scott, 1971
Suffice to say, George C. Scott did not care for the Oscars, and had tried to withdraw from a nomination before he won the Supporting Actor award in 1970. Scott didn't even attend, with Goldie Hawn gasping at the podium, "Oh, my God, the winner is George C. Scott!”
Rob Lowe, 1989
Mere weeks before being embroiled in a sex scandal, Rob Lowe was part of a surreal, confusing, thoroughly underwhelming musical number that featured Snow White, a samba, Lowe appearing as her blind date for the night and then singing "Proud Mary" with her.
Andrea Riseborough, 2023
The rules around Oscar campaigning can get thorny, and the Andrea Riseborough-led To Leslie (which didn't have a wide release) fell mired into controversy. Celebrities including Kate Winslet and Edward Norton gave a last-minute surge of support, and supporters may have called Academy members and held gatherings (in violation of the rules)—and then, Riseborough was nominated.
Giorgio Gregorini, Alessandro Bertolazzi, and Christopher Nelson, 2017
Most people agreed: the first Suicide Squad was not a terribly good movie. So when it won a (makeup and hairstyling) Oscar, movie fans felt particularly depressed, especially since three movies had only been nominated in the category that year.
James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich, 2021
The Best Documentary category can often skew towards the film(s) that have been seen by the most people (instead of the films with the most critical acclaim)—and My Octopus Teacher, with a run on Netflix, was the most notable example of this.
Throughout its long history, the Academy has had to contend with race—recently in 2016, after 20 actors nominated in the lead and supporting acting categories were all white (the second year in a row that had happened). The trending hashtag (created by April Reign) was born.
Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck, 1990
In a year where Spike Lee's visionary Do the Right Thing was almost completely ignored by the Academy and the (now seen as highly dated) film Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, other snubbed films included Dead Poets Society and Born on the Fourth of July.
Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow, 1999
One of the most controversial upsets in Oscars history was when Shakespeare in Love triumphed at the Oscars over Saving Private Ryan (now felt to be one of the better historical dramas ever). Harvey Weinstein was known for some ruthless campaigning—and this was the result.
What happens when you get snubbed for an Oscar for a film you're proud of? Well, if you're Cher, you call up your designer friend Bob Mackie, you create the most scandalous dress for the "black tie formal" dress code, and you go to the Oscars.
Two years after her over-the-top ab-baring dress, Cher was back at the Oscars (actually nominated this time) but in the strange position of having to try and outdo her own wild outfit. The solution was this sequin and sheer Bob Mackie number.
Jennifer Lawrence, 2013
As Jennifer Lawrence raced up the stairs to collect her Oscars, she went splat. Hugh Jackman helped her up, and people gave her a standing ovation. "You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell,” she gasped/laughed—and everyone loved her for it.
Adrien Brody (and Halle Berry), 2003
Adrian Brody reacted to being named Best Actor (The Pianist) by bounding on stage and spontaneously kissing presenter Halle Berry. As she later recalled thinking, "‘What the (expletive) is happening right now?’ That was what was going through my mind...And because I was there the year before and I know the feeling of being out of your body, I just (expletive) went with it.”
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 1999
One way to cement your status as counter-culture icons (and make everyone in Hollywood mad)? Make like the South Park creators and drop LSD, go to the Oscars in dresses (looking like J. Lo and Gwyneth Paltrow, no less), and refuse to answer any questions about why you did it.
Marisa Tomei, 1992
After Jack Palance, who may have been inebriated, paused before he announced Marisa Tomei as Best Actress winner for My Cousin Vinny (it was rare for comedies to win such an award), a rumor began to spread: that he had read the wrong name as the winner. It wasn't true, but the rumor spread anyways.
Elizabeth Taylor (and Streaker), 1974
Streakers were more common in the 1970s, and the Academy Awards was not immune. Robert Opal ran across stage flashing a peace sign, and presenter David Nevin retorted with, "Isn't is fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings?" (Elizabeth Taylor won the Oscar and had a giggle about it as well.)
Hattie McDaniel, 1940
When Hattie McDaniel was nominated for an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (as the controversial Mammy), the ceremony was being held at the segregated Ambassador Hotel. Producers had to petition to have her attend, and she had to sit at a separate table—even though she won.
Sacheen Littlefeather, 1973
After Marlon Brando won the 1973 Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, he instead sent a White Mountain Apache Actor, Sacheen Littlefeather. She came onstage and read a prepared speech, including, "(Brando) very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award...And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
'La La Land' to 'Moonlight,' 2017
Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were there to present Best Picture—but they were handed the envelope that contained the winner for Lead Actress (Emma Stone in La La Land). So, the presenters accidentally named La La Land Best Picture, and the snafu had to be corrected live on air (Moonlight had actually won).
Will Smith and Chris Rock, 2022
Now known as "the Oscars slap," Chris Rock took to the stage to present the Best Documentary Feature award. He made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith's bald head—then Smith walked onstage, slapped Rock across the face, then told him to keep his wife's name out of his (expletive) mouth.
Will Smith, 2022
Very shortly after smacking Rock across the face (40 minutes, to be exact), Smith won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in King Richard. He did not apologize to Rock, but did apologize to the Academy and talked about the need to protect his family. He received a standing ovation. (He later apologized to Rock on social media, and was banned from Academy events for a decade.)
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Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.
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