How many films can you name that won the Academy Award for Best Picture? Probably quite a few, if you think hard enough, but could you name most of them? Or even half of them?
Among the ninety films that won the Best Picture Oscar, many have been forgotten by modern movie audiences, even if being the toast of Hollywood for one glorious night, or even several years after before fading from cultural memory. Here’s just a few:
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Directed by F.W. Murnau, this movie won Best Unique and Artistic Picture at the first ever Academy Awards in 1929 (Wings won for Outstanding Picture; both categories were replaced by the modern Best Picture category.) It also helped Janet Gaynor, who later played the lead in A Star is Born (1937), win the first ever Best Actress Oscar. If you’re curious to see cinema history, the film is available to watch on YouTube in its entirety.
Starring Academy Award-nominees Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, this pre-code western was RKO studios most expensive project up to that date. In addition to Best Picture, the film took home two more Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay (for Howard Estabrook who later adapted David Copperfield in 1935) and Best Art Direction (for Max Rée who later worked on John Ford’s Stagecoach.)
Grand Hotel (1932)
Adapted from a Broadway play by by William A. Drake, this lavish romantic drama was Hollywood’s biggest film of the year and one of the first production to bring together an ensemble of several A-list actors — in this case, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford! It was remade twice in the first two decades after its release, and screenwriting juggernaut William Goldman tried unsuccessfully to adapt it in the 1970s. To date, it is the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category.
In addition to Best Picture, Cavalcade won Best Director for Frank Lloyd and Best Art Direction for William S. Darling at the Academy Awards. Diana Wynyard was nominated for Best Actress but lost out to up-and-coming star Katherine Hepburn. The epic drama depicted the life and times of English citizens in the first quarter of the 20th century as the world transitioned into a more modern society. In 2002, Cavalcade was preserved by the Academy Film Archive.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
The second biopic to win Best Picture was The Life of Emile Zola, the 19th-century French novelist who penned J’Accuse in response to the imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. The film received ten Academy Award nominations, winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Joseph Schildkraut, who portrayed Dreyfus. The lead role of Zola was played by Paul Muni, who had already won the Oscar for playing Louis Pasteur a year prior.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Lost Weekend is probably not the first film that comes to mind when people think of Hollywood legend Billy Wilder. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for seven Oscars and won four: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Wilder, who shared the latter with co-writer Charles Brackett. These were the first two Academy Awards Wilder won, but not his last. The film noir also shared the Grand Prix at the first Cannes Film Festival.
Ludovic Coutaud is a NYFA alum and writer. For more information, click here. ]