best picture nominees

Forgotten Best Pictures: 6 Oscar-Winning Films You’ve Never Heard Of

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.

Cimarron (1931)

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.

Cavalcade (1934)

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.

How Does ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Fit the Biopic Mold?

Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of rock band Queen and iconic frontman Freddie Mercury, has already won Best Drama at the Golden Globes and is a contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s also the latest in a long line of biopics about famous 20th century musicians, including Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose, Get on Up, and Straight Outta Compton.

How does Bohemian Rhapsody fit the mold? Here are some of the most important ingredients to gather into making a successful biopic:

The Roots

Many biopics start with at least a scene from the subject’s childhood, and if they don’t, they usually at least include flashbacks. Bohemian Rhapsody is no different, giving us a look where Mercury is originally from.

The Love Interest

Biopics tend to distill the love life of their subject to one or two key relationships that define and drive the character’s motivations and keep them grounded as their fame and world explode. The focus around Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin is prominent among the rest of Mercury’s several romantic partnerships, men and women alike. The real-life Austin approved the script but didn’t want to be involved in interviews or in any promotion of the film whatsoever.

The Music

While some biopics avoid playing the hits of their subject due to expensive or inaccessible music rights, many rely on their iconic soundtracks as a huge selling point for the film. Queen’s hits are numerous, catchy, and famous, so of course Bohemian Rhapsody includes as many as it can. Indeed, much of the film is shot as if it were concert footage to mimic what it was like to be at an actual Queen show.

Lookalike Stars

Hollywood has no shortage of talented stars, so often casting a biopic depends heavily on physical looks–to help sell the idea that audiences are watching true events unfold. Rami Malek not only physically transforms into Freddie Mercury, but is a strong talented actor–it’s no surprise he’s nominated for Best Lead Actor at this year’s Academy Awards, especially after winning the Golden GLobe for his performance.

The Title

Most biopics avoid naming themselves after their subject–that would be too on the nose. Instead, most go with a song title from the artist, often one of their bigger hits. This includes Beyond the Sea, Walk the Line, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, Get on Up, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and of course, Bohemian Rhapsody.

So what’s next for the Hollywood biopic? Well for one, later this year in theaters we’ll see an Elton John biopic titled, naturally, Rocketman. In the meantime, we’ll find out soon if Bohemian Rhapsody is not only a hit biopic, but also this year’s Best Picture!