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10 closest Oscar races in the past 20 years

November 22, 2009 |  4:36 pm

One of the shrewdest Oscarologists on the planet is Tariq Khan of Fox News, who often generously shares his views of current and past derbies with Gold Derby readers. Here he takes a nostalgic look  at the past two decades, offering his take on the most competitive derbies. Words below are Tariq's. Thanks, m'friend!

We’ve often discussed those Oscar races that seem just too close to call . . . where it’s clear (or at least seems clear) that the eventual winner will nab the Oscar with only a few more votes than his or her nearest competitor.

While we can never really know for sure (unless we get one of those top jobs at the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers,) we do have some idea of what may have been the closest races in Oscar history. Allow me to present what I believe were the 10 closest acting races over the course of the past 20 years.

Oscars close races Academy Awards movie news

1) Jim Broadbent in “Iris” over Ian McKellen in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for best supporting actor of 2001: It seemed like McKellen had it in the bag. He was the only acting nominee of the 13 nods for “Rings,” he had payback votes from those academy members who felt that he should have won best actor of 1998 for “Gods and Monsters,” and he had claimed the SAG Award just a few weeks before the Oscar ceremony. Yet somehow he was edged out by Broadbent in the indie film “Iris.” There’s no doubt that Broadbent’s showy turn in “Moulin Rouge!” and sympathetic role in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” – both released in 2001 – helped to secure his upset victory. McKellen is probably still smarting from the loss, though he should take comfort knowing that the race was a squeaker.

2) Juliette Binoche in “The English Patient” over Lauren Bacall in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” for best supporting actress of 1996: I knew that Golden Globe and SAG winner (not to mention sentimental favorite) Bacall was vulnerable. She had a small part in a comedy that  was overlooked by the academy in every other major category. Plus she didn’t have a reputation for being the nicest person in show business. I nonetheless predicted her to win, believing that the opposition votes would go into too many directions (namely Barbara Hershey in “The Portrait of a Lady” and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in “Secrets and Lies”) for an upset to occur. Silly me. The academy love for “Patient” spilled over into the supporting actress race, carrying Binoche to a shocking victory. I still that think that Bacall registered lots of votes, and that Binoche just barely sneaked past her.

3) Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” over Ed Harris in “Pollock” for best actor of 2000: After buzz for Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” died down, the contest quickly turned toward Crowe and Harris. Crowe had just lost for “The Insider” and had the advantage of being in a best picture nominee (and eventual winner) – while Harris was a beloved veteran playing a real-life person who suffered endlessly on screen. I eventually settled on Harris, thinking that Hollywood would prefer to see him win – and thought I had nailed it when his co-star Marcia Gay Harden took the supporting actress prize. Sure, I was left eating crow on Oscar night – but I’m certain that Harris lost only by a hair.

4) Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny” over Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” for best supporting actress of 1992: The only question bigger than “how many votes did Tomei win by?” may actually be “who came in second?” – my guess being the sensational Davis as a neurotic New Yorker in Woody Allen’s fascinating comedy-drama. Davis had a strong performance in a semi-leading role, the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and credentials that included a best actress nomination for the prestigious “A Passage to India” eight years earlier. Critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel both named Davis as their choice for the award, pointing to the rare and refreshing intelligence of her character in the film. With the British vote being split amongst fellow nominees Joan Plowright in “Enchanted April,” Vanessa Redgrave in “Howard’s End” and Miranda Richardson in “Damage,” it seemed that the Australian Davis would surely prevail. In the end, the whole Woody Allen-Mia Farrow-Soon-Yi Previn scandal probably tainted the film – and Davis’ Oscar chances. But Tomei couldn’t have won by too much.

5) Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” over Renee Zellweger in “Chicago” for best actress of 2002: While everyone seemed to think that Kidman was ahead in the derby because she was physically unrecognizable and had just come off a stinging loss for “Moulin Rouge,” I sensed that there were real drawbacks to her candidacy for best actress. She had minimal screen time for a lead Oscar (less than co-stars Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore). She had only one strong dramatic scene (and a relatively short one at that). And she had Zellweger and the “Chicago” steamroller heading straight toward her. Zellweger even edged out Kidman at the SAG Awards, suggesting a similar fate at the Oscars. When Denzel Washington finally opened the envelope he pronounced Kidman the winner “by a nose” – and he couldn’t have been more correct. 

6) Kim Basinger in “L.A. Confidential” over Gloria Stuart in “Titanic” for best supporting actress of 1997: Most Oscar pundits projected a win for Stuart for her spellbinding performance in “Titanic,” even though the film wasn’t really about acting. The chance to see the charming octogenarian take to the stage was seemingly irresistible. Here’s where the “Titanic” juggernaut actually worked AGAINST the film. Since academy members seemed to be voting for it almost everywhere on the ballot, the supporting actress race was one of the few places where they could throw a bone to the highly touted “Confidential.” Basinger and Stuart actually tied at the SAG Awards – I dare say that the same thing almost happened at the Oscars. (How nice that would have been.) 

7) Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” over Denzel Washington in “The Hurricane” for best actor of 1999: Washington was the early favorite for his meaty role in “Hurricane,” and the previous supporting actor winner for “Glory” seemed due for a lead statuette. Then controversy hurt his film, leaving him with its sole nomination. As momentum for “Beauty” continued to grow, so did support for Spacey – who emerged victorious on SAG night. The two thesps appeared to be deadlocked, with pundits equally divided over the race’s outcome. The controversial Wall Street Journal poll – which correctly forecast every other race – showed Washington ahead with just the slightest lead. While the Journal was ultimately wrong on the outcome here, it was surely right on just how tight this race was. 

8) Kathy Bates in “Misery” over Anjelica Huston in “The Grifters” for best actress of 1990: In an exciting four-way race that included Joanne Woodward in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge” and breakout star of the year Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” it was surely misery for voters to select one name. While no one seemed certain, Huston was considered the safest bet. She was Hollywood royalty playing a tough-as-nails con woman, and “The Grifters” was nominated in other key categoriesto like director and screenplay. On Oscar night Bates was the unexpected winner, probably because of a split vote between Huston and Woodward. Forget about Jimmy Caan’s ankles. The scariest part of “Misery” is how close Bates came to not winning the Oscar. 

9) Geoffrey Rush in “Shine” over Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade” for best actor of 1996: For most of the awards season it seemed like a Rush victory was a done deal. He had swept the critics awards and the Golden Globe and SAG trophies. He played a real-life person with a disability. And “Shine” was a best picture nominee thought to have an outside shot of defeating “The English Patient.” Suddenly “Sling Blade” entered the picture, and America (and the academy) fell in love with Thornton. As the nominees names were read off one by one by presenter Susan Sarandon, Thornton drew the biggest applause by far. Too bad the applause didn’t translate into votes. Rush was the winner – but in a photo finish.

10) Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton” over Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” for best supporting actress of 2007. Like Tomei’s win for the supporting actress Oscar of 1992, it is unclear here as to just who finished second. While there was much talk of Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There” and even Ruby Dee in “American Gangster,” I can’t help but think that Ryan was Swinton’s chief rival. She had a good-size role with plenty of dramatic, in-your-face scenes, and was hailed by both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics as well as the National Board of Review. At the time I wrote that Ryan’s unsympathetic character and unknown status worked against her, as did the shutout of “Gone” in all other categories. Yes, I predicted Swinton would win – by the narrowest of margins.

Photos: Miramax, New Line

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The comments to this entry are closed.


I remember hearing all the hype for Nicole Kidman in 'The Hours' and wondering why??

Her role was tiny, there was nothing memorable about it (other than the obviously fake nose) and even the critics were a bit iffy about the film and particularly Kidman's performance.

If anything Kidman should have been nominated for best supporting actress and Julianne Moore for best actress for that film, but being that Moore (who played a 50s housewife in both films she was nominated for) was nominated for 'Far From Heaven' it wasn't to be.

Zellweger was fine that year (though I think she was better in 'Bridget Jones' Diary') but the competition should have been between Diane Lane (uttely superb in 'Unfaithful') and the aforementioned Moore (who come on should have won an Oscar by now!!!).

As for Tomei, I do believe that for 'My Cousin Vinnie' she did a great job in an otherwise average film and managed to bring more believability to her role that Joe Pesci, Judy Davis was superb in 'Husbands and Wives' and although I love Miranda Richardson she really only had one great scene in 'Damage' and I question why wasn't she at least nominated for 'Spider' that was a career defining performance.

It was only a matter of time before Roberts won and 'Erin Brockovich' had all the ingredients of Oscar glory long before it was nominated, tough female character, real-life story, single mother, corruption and ultimately an uplifting experience Burstyn in my opinion gave one of the greatest performances of the last 20 years in 'Reqieum for a Dream' but the film was to bleak, experimental and downright hard to watch.

I was happy that Jennifer Connelly picked up the statue for 'A Beautiful Mind' she managed to turn what could have been a cardboard role into a real human being.

Crowe definately didn't deserve the Oscar for 'Gladiator', I thought voters only allowed such performances to win pre-1960 (Charlton Heston for 'Ben-Hur') while wasn't a bad performance it wasn't a great one either and it should have been Hanks for 'Castaway' even if it would have been his third trophy, Crowe should have won a year later for 'A Beautiful Mind' his best performance.

The biggest cop out I find was Renee Zellweger winning for 'Cold Mountain', the film was dire and her performance was as cliched as it gets and seriously every other nominee was far superior to her; Iranian Shoreh Aghashloo for 'House of Sand' picked up the NYFCC, Independent Spirit and Los Angeles film awards prior but missed out tragically, yes no one had heard of her, but her performance was unforgettable in 'The House of Sand and Fog'.

Sean Penn gave an over-the-top portrayal in 'Mystic River' which I don't believe he should have one for but do believe he deserved it for 'Milk'.

2007 is one year I believe everyone I thought should of did; Daniel Day Lewis (what can I say it was one of the greatest performances EVER!), Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard and Tilda Swinton, for once they picked performances that were slightly left of the middle and also none of them Americans (2 Brits, 1 French and 1 Spandiard).

The fact that Julia Robers (in Erin Brockovich) beat Ellen Burstyn (in Requiem For A Dream) is an absolute travesty, as is the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow (in Shakespeare in Love) beat out Cate Blanchett (in Elizabeth). How Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan is beyond me.

What about Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" over Felicity Huffman in "Transamerica". With Huffman winning a Golden Globe for perhaps the best LGBT performance in history, it baffles me that she didn't win the Oscar. I think we'll remember that performance for an eternity, and forget the Witherspoon performance. It seemed that people were rewarding her for her body of work, and her role in WTH was lesser than past performances. As a NYer/San Franciscan, Huffman seemed to convince us that we were watching a man who was becoming a woman. With her natural feminity, I feel that was a extraordinary feat to accomplish...

Four acting races comes to mind, that were not mentioned, that were probably squekers. 1989 Best Actress race, Tandy over Phiefer, shocking, one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. 1990 Supporting Actor, Pesci over Davidson, both were brilliant and very different performances, in fact all five performances were outstanding in that race. 1997 Supporting Actor, Williams over Reynolds, all five performances in that race were top drawer and could have been winners in most other years, but Reynolds' performance was absolutely spellbinding. 1999, Best Actress Award, Swank over Benning, I understand the physicallity aspect of Swank's performance, but I still do not understand the outcome, Benning's performance was neurotically terrific. American Beauty should have been the fourth film to have won the top five Oscars.

In commenting on #10, I do find it head-scratchingly hard to see how Ryan was defeated (on an awards basis. She had won practically EVERYTHING leading up to the cinema's version of the 'Final Four': BAFTA, SAG, Golden Globes and the Oscars. Then Swinton won the BAFTA, Dee won the SAG, Blanchett won the Globe and Swinton won the Oscar, too.) This is just all to say that you can never, ever really "predict" who is gonna win at the Oscars. Anyone with a reputation of consistently getting it right is just plain lucky. Sorry to burst anyone's bubble.

Just to comment/point out on #4, where it says Judy Davis was lauded for portraying a "neurotic New Yorker" in "H&W" and that Marisa's upset win for "My Cousin Vinny" couldn't have won by too much, I think it's fair to point out that Tomei also plays a neurotic New Yorker (although the movie is set in rural Georgia).

personally I think 1990 was the closest race in the last 20 years though I'll always feel that the academy voted how they did just to give a younger actress a chance to take home the golden boy but I also feel as though Ms bates performance in Misery was second rate as compaired to Ms Woodward's in Mr & Mrs Bridge which is more nuanced and subtle a portrail in India Bridge than Bates did in the role of Annie Wilkes though I'm probably biased as Woodward is my favorite actress though some of the ampas voters probably thought that she didn't deserve a second oscar as they most likely felt she'd stolen the first one from Lana Turner Or Elizabeth Taylor 33 years earlier more so from Lana as Ms Turner was only nominated for that lone oscar and Taylor was nominated 5 times and won 2

Michelle was robbed from her Oscar for The Fabulous Baker Boys. She lost to Jessica Tandy... Geez

I don't think recent acting races such as Rourke vs Penn and Cottilard vs Christie were as close as some people would like to believe.

I do think, though, that after taking out next-to every major award, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth would only have lost by the thinnest oldest frailest hair to Gwyneth Paltrow... I mean really!

personally the only one in that list I'm still raving mad over nearly 2 decades later is Kathy Bates winning for her second tier performance in Misery against Joanne Woodward's stunning flawless work in Mr & Mrs Bridge granted like Kathy did that night Joanne had won on her first nomination 33 years earlier for The Three Faces Of Eve granted I'm probably biased as she's my favorite actress and that particular film is also sentimental to me as it was the last thing her and her husband Paul Newman ever appeared in together on the big screen and also at the begining of the film the younger version of India Bridge is played by none other than their middle daughter Melissa so I'll never forgive the academy for that oversite as she retired from the big screen a few years later

I thought it was more like Kidman vs. Moore that year. I don't think Renee was much of a factor at all.

"projected a win for Stuart for her spellbinding performance in “Titanic,” "
Spellbinding performance. Please tell me you are joking. I'm not even sure why she was nominated.
And maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to the 2000/2001 Oscar race/ceremony, but I though it was always between Hanks and Crowe. I didn't hear buzz for Harris until the very end and it was too late by that point.

What about Jamie Foxx vs. Leonardo DiCaprio???? They both had great performances.....even though Jamie won everything else, dicaprio could have easily taken it as an upset.

I think Cotillard's win over Julie Christie should be on the list. Maybe Penn's over Rourke, too.

why do people hate that Tomei won? she was golden in that film!!! no one could play it better. i think her movie choices after that film makes people want to take back that oscar from her.

but i do think oscar needs to get with the times and have a category for comedy/musical and drama just like the golden globes.

comedy never gets any attention!

Just one comment, was the 2002 best actress race really a close one between Nicole Kidman and RENE ZELLWEGER? What about Diane Lane and Julianne Moore, the two best performances by an actress BY FAR in that year? Nicole was OK. Rene would have been a travesty on a par with the win of Roberto Begnini over the vastly superior Ian McKellan in 1998. Is the academy so BLIND to quality that it actually was a race between two INFERIOR performances? Oh, excuse me, this is the group that named Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas, Braveheart over Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility, A Beautiful Mind over ANYTHING. This is a group that knows as much about film as I know about brain surgery.

martin landau (ed wood)over sam jackson (pulp)

How about Hillary Swank for Boys Don't Cry over Annette Bening for American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan and Jodie Foster for The Accused over Sigourney Weaver for Gorillas in the Mist. I think these are the most nail-biting wins in Oscar history

Fargo losing to English Patient? Seriously, was I the only person depressed by that?

Great post. I think it's a real shame McKellan lost for Fellowship. More of a crime that none of the others were ever nominated for the trilogy (especially Andy Serkis and Sean Astin).

I think the academy was right (on this list) and gave the awards to the proper people... except for maybe Marisa Tomei

uh hello last year... Mickey Vs. Sean must have been pretty close too.

Who woulden't like to eat Crowe?

How about Sean Penn vs. Mickey Rourke, and Sean Penn vs. Bill Murray. Probably the two CLOSEST races in that category of the past twenty years.

Also: Cotillard vs. Christie, Arkin vs. Murphy, Brody vs. Nicholson and Day-Lewis, Washington vs. Crowe (01), Halle Berry vs. everybody (01), Swank vs. Bening (99). Does Khan really believe Geoffrey Rush's win was closer than any of these? Crazy talk!

Marion Cotllard over Julie Christie might have been close since voters were more likely to see the latter rather than the former.




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