As the Oscars roll around again, it's inevitable that we look back at Academy Award wins and losses past. For the most part, award winners are expected, or at least unsurprising. After all, the term "Oscar bait" – sometimes used to refer to prestige movies that ticks all the boxes in terms of what the Academy likes – doesn't come from nowhere.
The awards ceremonies themselves often have surprises of their own – for instance, in 2017, Warren Beatty wrongly announced that Damien Chazelle's musical drama La La Land had won Best Picture instead of Barry Jenkins' coming of age movie Moonlight. But, in the below list, we're more interested in the winning movies and actors that took the world by surprise. We've compiled a list of the most unexpected Oscar wins in recent history, from Rocky to Wallace & Gromit. As for this year's Oscars, we'll have to wait and see if there are any surprises on the night – in the meantime, you can check out our list of all the nominees.
Rocky won Best Picture in 1977, and while the boxing movie may be a classic, it's not exactly held in the same critical regard as Taxi Driver and All the President's Men. However, Sylvester Stallone defied the odds and beat both of those flicks. John G. Avildsen also nabbed Best Director over Martin Scorsese, Alan J. Pakula, and Ingmar Bergmen. The first installment of what would become the Rocky franchise, the movie follows the rags to riches story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), a small-time club fighter who gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship. In total, the movie was nominated for 10 Oscars and won three. To some surprise, Rocky remains a favorite among the Oscar voters, with Stallone picking up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the same role for his part in 2015's Creed.
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an Academy Award-winning movie. The first feature-length adventure for the claymation duo won Best Animated Feature in 2006. A parody of classic monster movies, it follows Wallace and his dog Gromit in their latest venture as pest control agents as they come to the rescue of a village plagued by rabbits before an annual vegetable competition. The voice cast includes Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter.
American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and that fake baby, won an Oscar back in 2014 for Best Sound Editing (not for Best Prosthetic Infants). It received six other nominations, too, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Cooper as Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in US military history. Although the movie was successful at the box office, it received mixed reviews. "The reason why American Sniper is not going to win is because of the plastic baby," one critic said (opens in new tab).
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Did you know that the Grinch's iconic green get-up is critically acclaimed? The movie won the award for Best Makeup in 2000. Based on Dr Seuss' children's book, Jim Carrey stars as the titular scrooge who attempts to put an end to Christmas by stealing gifts and decorations from the homes of the nearby town of Whoville on Christmas Eve. Taylor Momsen plays Cindy Lou Who and Anthony Hopkins narrates the movie, while Christine Baranski, Jeffrey Tambor, and Bryce Dallas Howard also star.
Yes, the poorly received Suicide Squad is an Oscar-winning movie. It won the award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling in 2016. The Joker's "damaged" tattoo, seen on Jared Leto's forehead? That's Academy Award-worthy, baby. To its credit, though, Suicide Squad is also the first (and only) DCEU movie to win an Oscar, although other movies featuring DC characters, like 2019's Joker and 2008's The Dark Knight, have taken home gongs in other years.
The Nutty Professor
Another Best Makeup win given to another crowd-pleasing-yet-critically-mauled movie. The Nutty Professor won the award in 1996. The movie sees Eddie Murphy don a fat suit to play the titular university professor (and six other characters) who tests an experimental weight loss drug that he's invented on himself. A parody of the classic Jekyll and Hyde story, his new, thinner self adopts an evil alter ego. Jada Pinkett Smith and Dave Chapelle also star in the slapstick comedy.
OK, so it's not a huge surprise that The Piano won an Oscar. Jane Campion's period drama was a critical and commercial success when it was released in 1993 –Campion is the first and only woman to win the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes Film Festival. However, what is surprising is the age of the winner – 11-year-old Anna Paquin beat big names like Emma Thompson and Holly Hunter to take home the Best Supporting Actress gong in 1994.
Babe, a heartwarming comedy-drama that follows the adventures of everyone's favorite sheep-pig may seem like an unlikely Academy Award contender, but it won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 1995. The movie follows Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh), an orphaned piglet who is bought by a farmer and raised by a motherly sheepdog (Miriam Margolyes). After discovering that he can herd sheep too, Babe must attempt to fit in on the farm despite not conforming to the social hierarchies.
My Cousin Vinny
Marisa Tomei won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1993 for her breakthrough role in My Cousin Vinny. She plays Mona Lisa, the girlfriend of hapless, New York lawyer Vinny (Joe Pesci) who's tasked with defending his cousin (Ralph Macchio) and a friend (Mitchell Whitfield) who are wrongfully charged with murder while road-tripping through Alabama. She beat fierce competition, including Vanessa Redgrave for her performance in Howards End and Judy Davis for Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives.
Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999, beating Steven Spielberg's epic war movie Saving Private Ryan – a decision that was widely criticized by critics. In fact, in a 2015 poll, Academy members indicated that if they were given a second chance, they would give the award to Saving Private Ryan. However, the late '90s were a weird time in Hollywood, and Harvey Weinstein (yep, him) spent millions aggressively pushing his movie, Shakespeare in Love, to the forefront of voters' minds. The movie was nominated for 13 Oscars in total, winning seven. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, it depicts a fictional love affair that William Shakespeare (Fiennes) was involved in while writing Romeo & Juliet.
Make sure you're up to date with all the Oscar buzz ahead of this year's awards ceremony – check out our list of the best movies of 2020.