5 Biggest Best Actor Oscar Upsets

The Oscars 2017 are around the corner. A lot has been discussed about this year’s nominations and potential winners, and most are aware that, deep inside, La La Land could break several long-standing trophy records. Nevertheless, the two categories this film isn’t expected to win in is its acting – given that “musicals” (despite Juan Dejardin’s barnstorming win in 2012 for The Artist) aren’t quite popular with the voters for performance art. Traditionally, the more ‘serious’ contenders walk away with these lead-acting awards. This time, Casey Affleck is the favorite in the male category for Manchester by the Sea, while Natalie Portman for Jackie and Isabella Huppert for Elle are neck-to-neck in the female category. Anyone else winning would be a downright upset, like the following instances mentioned below:

Richard Dreyfuss, Best Actor (Goodbye Girl, 1977)


All roads that year led to the legend Richard Burton in his seventh nomination for Sidney Lumet’s stunning horse-blinding drama, Equus. Surely Burton had to win after missing out on the coveted prize every single time. Yet, it was “youngster” Richard Dreyfuss who walked away with it for the comedy Goodbye Girl. Though it was only his first nomination, he rode the wave of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the previous Jaws, becoming the youngest Best Actor winner back then. He went on to have a distinguished career himself, and suffered an upset of his own when he – touted as the critical favorite for Mr. Holland’s Opus in 1995 – lost out to the suicidal ‘choco pop’ role of Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas

Adrien Brody, Best Actor (The Pianist, 2002)


Guess who beat Dreyfuss’s age record for the title? Adrien Brody, 29, when he shocked everyone by winning for Roman Polanski’s bleak performance-art war drama, was as surprised as anyone in the auditorium that night. He planted a huge kiss on Halle Berry’s unprepared lips on stage, genuinely delighted that the voters hadn’t gone in for the more accomplished Jack Nicholson (as a solo widower in About Schmidt) and the forever-academy-favorite Daniel Day-Lewis for Martin Scorsese’s period gangster flick, Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis has seldom been nominated to NOT win in this category, as he would go on to demonstrate a few years later with There Will Be Blood and then Lincoln, which is why Brody should consider this instance an anomaly – even though he wasn’t undeserving of the award per se.

Julia Roberts, Best Actress (Erin Brockovich, 2000)


Even a career-best performance by Hollywood sweetheart Roberts, who was till then known for her dazzling smile and several enjoyable rom-coms, wasn’t half as good as veteran Ellen Burstyn’s stunningly frightening turn in the psychedelic drug thriller, Requiem for a Dream. Soderbergh’s biographical drug drama was a box-office success and a frontrunner to win this award all year, because conventional Oscar knowledge meant that the less glamorous choice would rarely walk away in such a resounding “upset”. As a result, Roberts won her one and only award for a film whose director actually won for Traffic in the same year.

Sean Penn, Best Actor (Milk, 2008)


It was the fairytale interrupted by stubborn Oscar templates. The unlikely veteran Mickey Rourke, who had walked away with the Golden Globe for his tragic hard-feeling role as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler, was the favorite for the Oscar too, with everyone prepared to shed a tear and a standing ovation for one of the most heartwarming career comebacks in recent history. Instead, Penn won his second lead acting Oscar for playing gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s biographical drama. A superb performance, but not the best that year.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Best Actress (Shakespeare In Love, 1998)


Perhaps the most famous of upsets in contemporary Oscar history, this one. Paltrow walked away with the top prize for her role opposite Joseph Fiennes playing the young Bard in John Madden’s super-hit period rom-com Shakespeare In Love – furthering the belief that the voters had begun to tilt towards young, upcoming ‘stars’ instead of grizzled, deserving artists. Cate Blanchett, another ‘young’ actress, was favored to win it this year for Shekhar Kapur’s sprawling biopic, Elizabeth. But Maddens’ film’s overwhelming success in America meant that the Academy went in with popular sentiment, even as Meryl Streep and Emily Watson were nominated in the same category.

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