The Nine Most Modest Best Picture Oscar Winners

Going My Way

Most Best Picture winners are "typical" Oscar winners in some way: war movies (The Best Years of Our Lives, Platoon, Schindler's List), sweeping epics (Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Titanic), gritty suspensers (The French Connection, Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men), "important" contemporary dramas (The Lost Weekend, Midnight Cowboy, American Beauty), glossy musicals (Gigi, Oliver!, Chicago), or crowd-pleasing froth (The Greatest Show on Earth, The Sting, Forrest Gump). Then there are the oddballs, the quiet chamber pieces that never asked for much attention. Should The King's Speech win Best Picture of 2010 - and it's likely - it will join the ranks of these sweet (and often excellent) little movies that took home the award in times past:

  1. It Happened One Night (1934). Frank Capra's comedy was a cute road movie about a boy (Clark Gable) and a girl (Claudette Colbert) reluctantly falling in love. It beat Cecil B. DeMille's epic Cleopatra and the "message picture" Imitation of Life - both of which also starred Colbert!
  2. You Can't Take It With You (1938). Capra again. Interestingly, his more enduring James Stewart-starring classics Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life did not win - well, Mr. Smith was up against Gone With the Wind and Wonderful Life lost to The Best Years of Our Lives, so you can't blame them. But this screwball comedy was ultimately just a charming ancestor of Meet the Fockers.
  3. Going My Way (1944). Owing its success mostly to Bing Crosby's enormous popularity at the time, this low-key musical about two Catholic priests in a poor neighborhood swept the Oscars the year that several more significant classics came out, including Double Indemnity, Laura, Lifeboat, Arsenic and Old Lace, To Have and Have Not, and Gaslight. Well, it did give us the pop standard "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?"
  4. Marty (1955). You can't get more modest than Marty. Ernest Borgnine plays the titular character, a lonely butcher who woos a plain girl despite his friends' and mother's disapproval. The whole story takes place over a couple of days and was originally written for TV. 1955 was a fairly slight year for movies, though it did leave us with Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and The Night of the Hunter.
  5. The Apartment (1960). Fun Billy Wilder comedy about Jack Lemmon doing the dirty work for his shady boss (Fred MacMurray) and falling for Shirley MacLaine (a real cutie back then). It's a classic in its own right, but come on: 1960 also produced Psycho, Spartacus, La Dolce Vita, Breathless, Village of the Damned, and Peeping Tom - none of which were even nominated.
  6. Annie Hall (1977). During the late '70s, quiet domestic movies were in vogue at awards time, but my late stepfather's cry of "God almighty!" as Woody Allen's idiosyncratic romantic comedy beat Star Wars at the Oscars sums it all up.
  7. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). What I said above. This made a star out of Meryl Streep, but it's neither seen nor discussed as often today as other 1979 releases such as Apocalypse Now, Alien, The Life of Brian, Being There, and Mad Max.
  8. Ordinary People (1980). The kitchen sink drama vogue spilled into the following year. But Robert Redford's therapy movie, despite good work by its cast, surely can't hold a candle to 1980 giants like Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, The Shining, or The Empire Strikes Back.
  9. Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Maybe the most modest film since Marty to take home the Oscar, this sentimental drama was so inconsequential that the Academy hasn't since give Best Picture honors to anything nearly as unassuming - and I'm including Shakespeare in Love and A Beautiful Mind in that assessment.