The First Oscar Snubs

Oscar snubs are not new. In fact, their legacy goes all the way back to the beginning of the Academy Awards. We explore in our new column, Origin Stories.

Lonely Oscar

This is part of our series Origin Stories, a biweekly column that uses film history to understand the hot topics of today. 


Snub. It’s a term that is unavoidable when reading about the Oscar nominations. There are always as many lists announcing the movies and performances snubbed as there are announcing the actual contenders. However current the debate about representation or diversity in nominations may be, the history of snubbing more “deserving” filmmakers and performers goes back to the conception of the Academy itself. To understand why snubs continue to happen even today and how we can possibly overcome them, let’s take a step back in time.

In 1927, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was formed by Hollywood powerhouses Louis B. Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, Sid Grauman, Joseph Schenck, and Mary Pickford. Awarding their peers was not the first concern of the Academy, as the industry was dealing with larger issues. The first recorded union recognition in Hollywood occurred in 1926, which changed the conditions of workers in the film industry forever. The Academy extended that union agreement and formed an alliance where everyone in the industry could create cohesive standards for productions and filmmaking technology.

The true reason for the creation of the Academy Awards boils down the main concern of anything in Hollywood: money. Mayer commented on his decision to add the awards to the Academy’s slate of causes, “I found the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them…If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” Many of us believe that the Oscars are for honoring the most talented and deserving, but it really came down to being a way of making more money, mainly for the powerful people who already had it.

Another influence on the creation of the Oscars came after a string of scandals (Fatty Arbuckle’s rape and murder trial, the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor, Thomas Ince’s mysterious death, and many more) during the silent era. Hollywood was tasked with reconstructing its image in order to make the public believe filmmaking was a reputable industry and not void of standards. One way to do that was to award the best and brightest in the industry. Those nominated for Academy Awards were a representation of the entire industry, so they needed to reflect how the industry wanted to be seen. Because of that, a pattern emerged in who was nominated and the kinds of films recognized.

The scandals made a mockery of Hollywood, and to combat that, studios elected the most serious and glamorous of their lot to represent them at the awards. Early winners included Janet Gaynor, Norma Shearer, and Lionel Barrymore, all known for their dramatic roles and elevated screen presence. They were what studios wanted movie stars to be: polished, elegant, and behaved. Therefore, they were a safe bet to campaign for. A lot of people believe that Oscar campaigns are a relatively late thing, beginning with Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive campaigns, but they existed since the beginning.

Publicity is what Hollywood did best (besides movies), and studios took out ads in magazines, booked public appearances, and did anything else to get the public and voters to think about their actors and actresses. That campaign money needed to go towards performers they knew wouldn’t also end up in magazines for their questionable personal lives. Most performances that showcase that strictly professional persona are dramatic performances, which many people consider to require more work and talent to pull off. They also project the image of seriousness that Hollywood needed to recover from the silent era’s debauchery. Comedic performances were hardly the winners for Best Actor and Best Actress, which is something that hasn’t changed today.

“Oscar bait” is not a new concern either, especially if you look at the early winners and nominations. Films like The Story of Louis Pasteur, Kitty FoyleGentlemen’s Agreement are not far off from the serious dramas we see nominated currently. There are the lavish period pieces that are very expensive to make and show off Hollywood’s ability to create an entirely different era right before our eyes. There are the political dramas that address current affairs but only safely enough to still appeal to conservative audiences and voters. Lastly, there are the kinds of performances that require the actor or actress to transform for their role, either physically or mentally. All of these types of films and performances are present in this year’s nominations and years’ past because they are cemented in what the Academy was created to represent.

Since these kinds of films and performances are always represented in Oscar nominations, they replace other films and performances that many people consider more deserving. Comedic performances are overlooked, daring or unconventional performances are overlooked, mostly everything involving a person of color is overlooked, and some of film history’s most influential films are overlooked in order to maintain the aura of sophistication at the Oscars. This has led to a slew of films and performances that have been “snubbed” or excluded over the course of Academy Awards history.

One clear exclusion is anyone who is not white. Hollywood has a long history of disrespecting and misrepresenting people of color, so it is not a surprise that the Academy excluded them from the industry’s biggest night in every way they could. Many people believe that because Hattie McDaniel won in 1940 that the Oscars have been progressive, but it took over 20 years for them to recognize another African American, Sidney Poitier. As the world progressed and diverse filmmakers found commercial success, you would think that the Oscars would reflect that.

Just as most of the winners still follow narrative trends from the conception of the awards, most winners are still white. Oscar winners have pleaded for more diversity as they accept awards and influential celebrities have boycotted the ceremony until it happens, but the inherently racist bias from voters is still in control of the Academy. Just this year, an anonymous voter admitted not voting for films or performers because they weren’t American. It’s hard not to think of the exclusion of people of color as a deliberate choice now that there are plenty of viable nominees. The Academy is supportive of new technology in the film industry and speaking on current issues through film, so why not want to better reflect the industry as it evolves?

While it’s unclear when exactly the word “snub” became synonymous with the Oscars, outrage over “undeserved” wins and nominations is not new either. As early as 1934, the buzz around a certain nominee proved to predict the wrong winner. Many people believed Bette Davis would win the Best Actress award for her performance in Of Human Bondage, even though she was not on the official ballot. When she was snubbed for a nomination, the outcry was so overwhelming that voters were allowed to write in their vote if their choice wasn’t on the ballot. Even with that effort, she lost to Claudette Colbert for her comedic role in It Happened One Night. The Oscar ceremony hadn’t even been 10 years old at that point, but voters and fans were already outspoken about who should have a shot at winning.

The first ceremony gave nominations to actors and actresses for multiple performances throughout the year in consideration. Their nomination was not based on a singular performance, but about their work as a whole. Janet Gaynor won for her performances in 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise. Emil Jannings won for his performances in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. This rule changed after the first ceremony, but it’s hard not to consider the actor or actress and their talent as a whole when considering if they deserve an Oscar. Some historical Oscar snubs have been the result of actors and actresses’ whole filmography coming into consideration.

Marlon Brando was the frontrunner for the Best Actor award in 1951 for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. However, the award went to Humphrey Bogart for his role in The African Queen. While the performance is still a good one, it is clearly not Bogart’s best or most-remembered. The fact that he went over 20 years without a win is unbelievable knowing his place in film history. His penultimate role as Rick in Casablanca did not win him the award, and his memorable performances in To Have and Have Not, The Maltese Falcon, and Kid Galahad weren’t even nominated. Many people believe that tainted voters when he was nominated late in his career in 1951.

Big-picture-wise, Bogart deserved an Oscar, but in order to make up for lost time, the Academy had to overlook one of the most impressive performances in Hollywood history. There have been wins after Bogart’s that feel the same way and have snubbed actors that may have deserved it more for their specific performance. Perhaps those snubs have been in part because of how the first ceremony was conducted or how campaigns spin a story around those actors in order to get that win.

Even though there have been public campaigns since the Academy Awards began, the aggressiveness of award campaigning is relatively new. Harvey Weinstein is now a black-listed name for his sexual assault history, but his reputation also involves his determination to get his films recognized by the Academy. The most famous instance of his campaigning involved his tactics used to get Shakespeare in Love the Best Picture award in 1999. At the height of his reign, Weinstein used his power and money to influence voters in any way he could. One way he influenced how voters thought about his film was tarnishing the buzz for its competition, mainly Saving Private Ryan. He launched a “whisper campaign” that spread a criticism “that Saving Private Ryan was all in the first 15 minutes.” He threw parties and invited Academy members to dine and mingle with those involved with Shakespeare in Love. He called voters personally and made sure they received their VHS screeners for his film, a new thing for the Academy. His efforts worked and his film won Best Picture in 1999, but that changed the way Oscar campaigns worked forever.

Today, campaigns are as aggressive as the Academy allows with the rules they have in place. A good campaign is what gets voters to wade through the hundreds of screeners they get in order to make sure they see a certain movie. Campaigns are incredibly important for films that are not made by filmmakers and studios that have a reputation that gets them immediate attention. The impact of these campaigns have on voting makes it extremely hard for independent films to have any definite shot at a nomination, let alone a Best Picture win. Honey Boy director Alma Har’el wrote about her experience as an independent filmmaker thrust into the awards campaign:

“How much money your film can ‘raise’ for an awards campaign, and how many hands you are willing to shake while wearing clothes you can’t afford, are often connected to the results at awards shows. We all feel morally compromised, but we have to campaign. What other choices do we have? If we don’t have awards, people may not discover lesser-known independent films.”

Unfairly, the pressure is put on the filmmakers themselves to get the nomination and not on the voters who have the real power and responsibility to seek out other films. It’s one of many walls put up to keep different kinds of filmmakers out of the winners’ circle.

The issues in the Academy are systemic problems with years of history behind them. That history is important to consider, not to recognize how far it has come since 1929, but to figure out how to keep moving forward. Perhaps the answer to continuous and deliberate snubs is more than just the small protests we’ve done in the past. It’s clear that the old guard still voting every year is not listening to the passionate speeches that call for action. Radical change may ruffle the feathers of older members that refuse to grow, but it has the future of filmmaking in mind.

Future cool librarian. Current film history lover.