15 Most Shocking Oscar Moments in History (Ranked)

The Oscars are probably the best-known film award in the world. They are also, the oldest entertainment award in the world, being awarded since 1929. Now, you can imagine that in what is soon to be a century-old tradition, there have been numerous controversies, scandals, affairs, and shocking moments.

The recent one happened several days ago when actor Will Smith assaulted his colleague Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife while presenting one of the awards. Inspired by that, here is a list of the most shocking Oscar moments in the 93-year-old history of the award.

15. Crash beats out The Brokeback Mountain

Year: 2006

Ang Lee’s The Brokeback Mountain was the favorite to win Best Picture and it was, arguably, the best film of the year. Whether you think that Capote or Munich are better, you probably don’t think that Crash is the better movie. No one did. We honestly think that the guys behind the movie did not think that Crash was the best of the year. But, when the legendary Jack Nicholson came to the stage to read the winner, even he was surprised to read Crash on the piece of paper.

No one can really explain this. Some suggest that a movie about two gay cowboys was a bit too avant-garde for 2005 since it tackled a lot of delicate topics, but we don’t really know what the reason is and why the Academy members voted for Crash, a movie that might be good, but is below the Oscar-level of quality. Whatever it may be, it is to blame for one of the biggest shocks in Oscar history.

14. Marisa Tomei mistakenly wins?

Year: 1993

Marisa Tomei’s Supporting Actress win from 1993 (for My Uncle Vinny) is certainly one of the most shocking moments in the history of the award. Marisa Tomei wasn’t really considered to be a contender for the award and most people actually thought that her name was there just to fill the spot. Tomei is not a bad actress, far from it, but when compared to the other contenders from that year, the role was simply too trivial.

Still, when acting legend Jack Palance came to the scene and read Tomei’s name, many did not believe their ears. Marisa Tomei won the Oscar in one of the most shocking surprises in the history of the award.

There have been theories that Palance got confused or simply read the wrong name, and that the Academy simply did not want to make a scene, but these have been consistently debunked since then. True or not, the fact remains that Tomei’s win is one of the most shocking events in Oscar history.

13. Cher

Year: 1986

Well, this one’s just Cher being Cher. Yes, the singer did win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Moonstruck, but even if she had not won, her choice of attire would have made her the star of the evening. Cher won, but most people still remember the ceremony for her shocking attire and not her deserved win.

12. How did How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane?

Year: 1942

This year was supposed to be a true celebration of cinematic art, as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was the forerunner at the Awards with nine nominations in total. We all know that Welles’ movie is by most considered to be the best movie ever made and it certainly influenced a generation of filmmakers that came after. So, naturally, the movie beat out the competition at the Oscars that year, right? Right?

Nope. The movie that won in 1942 was How Green Was My Valley. You know it, right? You’ve seen it, right? A classic? Nope? Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, How Green Was My Valley triumphed that year with five Awards, beating out Citizen Kane for both Best Picture and Best Director; Welles and Mankiewicz would go on to win a screenwriting Oscar, the only Award for Citizen Kane that night. No one knows how this happened and no one knows why, but this is probably the biggest shock and injustice in the history of the Award.

11. Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn share the Award

Year: 1969

And with this surprise event, we close off the part of this list dealing with shocking twists and turns in the Awards categories. Namely, in 1969, Barbra Streisand and the legendary Katherine Hepburn both received exactly 3,030 votes for Best Actress. In such a rare turn of events, both actresses won the Award. Hepburn won for her role Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, while Streisand won for her debut in Funny Girl. 

Streisand’s name was more surprising than that of Hollywood’s legend, but the night turned out to be all about Barbra, as Katherine Hepburn did not attend the ceremony at all. Deservedly or not, this went down in history for several reasons.

10. Rob Lowe feat. Snow White – “Proud Mary”

Year: 1989

Like a lot of names from the so-called “Brat Pack” generation, Rob Lowe had a very turbulent career and he never really did find a balance between the fame he had achieved and the normality of being a human being. But, all of that aside, the guy has had some very cool roles over the years and one cannot deny that this enfant terrible is actually a solid actor. Too bad his ego got the better of him. But, we’re not here to talk about that.

What we are going to talk about here is his performance at the 1989 Oscars. “Proud Mary”, a well-known song, Rob Lowe, a household name, and Snow White, one of the most famous fairy tale characters ever. What could go wrong, right? Well – everything. This is probably the worst act in the history of Oscars; it was so bad that it ruined producer Alan Carr’s career. Just look at it – it’s horrible.

As said, this is probably the worst act in the history of the Oscars and luckily enough, nothing similar was ever repeated. Oh, Disney also filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement as they did not want one of their star characters to be associated with this horror.

9. Björk and the swan

Year: 2001

The year is 2001 and Icelandic singer, songwriter, composer, record producer, and actress, Björk, was nominated in the category of Best Original Song for “I’ve Seen it All”. Björk had performed the song in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, a musical drama in which she also starred as the female lead. Björk eventually lost to Bob Dylan that year (Wonder Boys), but she outclassed the whole ceremony that year, Dylan included.

Namely, Björk came to the Oscars wearing her famous “swan dress”, which was not only very revealing but it also had a swan around her neck. Whether you like it or not, this shocking fashion choice for the Icelandic artist went down in history and is still remembered as one of the Oscars’ most iconic moments.

8. “Adele Dazeem

Year: 2014

We have no clue what went through John Travolta’s head at the time, but he was probably in a weird period for him (as he has been so often in his career). Anyhow, John Travolta was supposed to announce Idina Menzel performing “Let it Go” from Disney’s Frozen. You know the song, right? It’s been drilling in our heads like a brainwashing mantra ever since. Yeah, that thing. And Travolta really had only one job – and an easy one at that – and yet he messed it up.

Instead of announcing Idina Menzel on stage, he announced a certain “Adele Dazeem”, whoever that might be. Perhaps it’s a cross between Adele and a character from Aladdin? Anyhow, Idina Menzel actually came on stage so we never found out who the enigmatic “Adele Dazeem” was, but this certainly remained one of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history.

7. Angelina Jolie and too much brotherly love

Year: 2000

Back in 2000, Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role of Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted. And while that, in itself, is not an issue at all and is one of the more deserved Oscars from that period, the controversy surrounding what happened later is a bit tricky. Namely, one of the guests at the ceremony was Angelina’s brother, James Haven.

And while it is perfectly normal to kiss one’s brother, even on the lips, the French kiss shared between the two and accompanied by Angelina’s famous statement of love ( “I’m so in love with my brother right now”) was probably a bit too much. Now, Angelina has had her fair share of scandals over the years so the was probably just a stunt, but it still went down in history.

6. Dudley Nichols and the Screen Writers Guild (SAG)

Year: 1936

The Academy Awards were not broadcast on television until 1953, so we don’t have a record of this event. Be that as it may, Dudley Nichols was given the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on The Informer in 1935. He became the first person to decline the Academy Award but he did it for very noble reasons.

Namely, it was part of an ongoing dispute and boycott to get more recognition for the Screen Writers Guild, of which he was a founder. The SAG would go on to play a major role in the industry in later years and Nichols finally accepted his Oscar in 1938, when he was given the famous golden statuette for his work on the movie.

5. George C. Scott declines his Award

Year: 1971

George C. Scott is one of Hollywood’s best actors. Known for his portrayal of stern, but complex, authority figures such as prosecutor Claude Dancer in Anatomy of a Murder, General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Herbert Bock in The Hospital, Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist III, and General George S. Patton in the biopic Patton, he was finally given an Oscar for the latter role in 1971.

But, as you could’ve seen on the video – Scott was not there to accept it. He did not even come to Los Angeles and opted to stay in New York, at home, as he did not wish to accept the Award. A shocking and unique moment in Oscars history. Reason? He did not think it possible to compare artistic achievements in such a way, saying: “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.”

4. Sacheen Littlefeather declined the Award in Marlon Brando’s place

Year: 1973

Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he 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 – excuse me… [boos and cheers] and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.

This speech was given by one Sacheen Littlefeather in 1973, while declining the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando. She had come into contact with Marlon Brando before the ceremony and he asked her to appear on his behalf. Brando, one of Hollywood’s greatest names ever, boycotted that year’s ceremony because of the way that Native Americans were represented in American films.

Instead, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the Award on his behalf and that is how a shocking turn of events became one of the Oscars’ most memorable moments.

3. David Niven and a naked Robert Opel

Year: 1974

On April 2, 1974, Opel apparently snuck backstage and posed as a journalist to get onstage at the 46th Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles CA. He walked naked past David Niven and flashed a peace sign while Niven introduced Elizabeth Taylor.

After briefly bursting into laughter, Niven recovered, turned to the audience, and joked, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen… But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

Evidence later surfaced suggesting that Opel’s appearance was set up as a gag by the show’s producer, Jack Haley, Jr. Robert Metzler, the show’s commercial director, believed the incident was planned in some way. Be that as it may, “The Streaker” is certainly one of the best and most hilarious scandals in Oscar history.

2. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announce the wrong Best Picture winner

Year: 2017

Although imperfect, Moonlight was a better, deeper, and more meaningful movie than La La Land, which cannot be denied. But, while the movie itself went down in history, the Academy’s cock up surrounding it became an even bigger affair. In a shocking turn of events, after almost all of the producers of La La Land had already given their speeches and thanks, it turned out that it was all a dream (which might even fit the movie quite well).

The guys at the Academy gave Warren and Faye the wrong envelope. Warren’s bewilderment was visible as he opened the envelope with Emma Stone’s name on it, and it was actually Faye who said the movie’s title without checking. Now, this was somewhat similar to the possible Marisa Tomei mix-up, but not completely – namely, Warren and Faye did not read the wrong name, they have simply gotten the wrong envelope so it was easier to fix it.

Luckily, this one will go down as one of the funnier moments in Oscar history.

1. Will Smith slapping Chris Rock

Year: 2022

We, of course, had to leave the 2022 incident for last because it is absolutely the most shocking, vile, and disgusting moment in Oscars history. Not only did this moment show the whole hypocrisy of the Oscars establishment, but also how important freedom of speech is. Jim Carrey said it when he said that it was a vile act, and it truly was.

Chris Rock did not insult Jada, he made a joke. And a good one, at that. Regina Hall picking up single (and non-single) men like they were lollypops in a candy store and Amy Schumer calling Jessie Plemons’ wife a seat-filler (and all that while she was nominated for an acting award that night) were far worse and more disrespectful jokes than Rock’s.

Assaulting anyone for making a joke is inexcusable and the only right thing that the Academy should have done was to remove Smith out of the Hall during a commercial break and not give him the Oscar, because assaulting someone for a joke is horrible. What is even more horrible was the standing ovation that the man got, a man who proved himself a bully (while at the same time being a wimp and listening to his wife explaining how cheating on him helped both of them on live TV) and played a bully.

Richard Williams was an abusive husband and an abusive father who did help his daughters become the best, but out for selfish reasons. He cheated on his wives, he destroyed families and King Richard not only portrays him – wrongfully – as a saint, but also as the sole reason for the Williams Sisters’ success. And the Academy gave him an award. They gave the award to an abusive bully for playing an abusive bully. This fact might be even more shocking than the slap itself.