Top 20 Controversial Award Winners

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Top 20 Controversial Award Winners

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
These awards scandals will shock you! For this list, we'll be looking at recipients of various prestigious awards whose wins garnered high amounts of controversy, either at the time or later on. Our countdown includes “Game of Thrones” Wins Outstanding Drama Series, Louis C.K. Wins Best Comedy Album, Will Smith Wins Best Actor, and more!
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Top 20 Controversial Award Winners


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Controversial Award Winners.

For this list, we’ll be looking at recipients of various prestigious awards whose wins garnered high amounts of controversy, either at the time or later on. The controversy itself can be from a political or merely artistic standpoint. We’re not necessarily arguing for or against these controversies so much as recognizing their existence.

Any other faulty winners you can think of? Let us know in the comments!

#20: “Game of Thrones” Wins Outstanding Drama Series

“71st Primetime Emmy Awards” (2019)

Well at least we’re not starting with a touchy subject or something. Sarcasm aside, to say that the eighth season of “Game of Thrones” was contentious would be an understatement. Backlash was abound from the core fanbase, with complaints targeting rushed storylines, poor lighting and most of all an unsatisfying conclusion. While the show was consistently nominated each season for Drama Series and won its previous three outings, many labeled this award a legacy win not based on quality. Voters looking for quality definitely could’ve found it in other nominees like “Better Call Saul,” “Killing Eve” or “Ozark” to name a few. With the franchise’s image still tainted years later, this decision stands out.

#19: “Layla” Wins Best Rock Song

“35th Annual Grammy Awards” (1993)

By all accounts, “Layla” is a classic rock song from the legendary Eric Clapton. But you might be wondering why a song from 1971 won a Grammy in 1993. Well, that’s because Clapton included a version of the song on an acoustic album in 1992, which was recorded on “MTV Unplugged.” Again, we’re not going to criticize Clapton’s performance. But it might shock you to learn just what the acoustic version of “Layla” beat out for Best Rock Song. And no offense to the other nominees, but history will always look back at this as the time the Grammys passed up Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song is the band’s seminal track, not to mention one of the greatest of all time.

#18: “Bohemian Rhapsody” Wins Best Film Editing

“91st Academy Awards” (2019)

“Bohemian Rhapsody” clearly has its fans, as evidenced by its near $1 billion box office draw. But just as many found themselves scratching their heads as it rolled through awards season. While we could focus on some other hardware it won, the win that’s most baffling is arguably the Oscar for Best Film Editing. While Editing is certainly a more niche category, many film fans criticized the decision, claiming the editing isn’t even very good to begin with. Even the recipient, John Ottman - who’s better known as a composer than an editor - recognized the blunder, claiming contrasting reshoots from different directors and studio interference prevented the possibility of a clean cut.

#17: Jeff Daniels Wins Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

“65th Primetime Emmy Awards” (2013)

Don’t get us wrong: we adore Jeff Daniels. But many found his Emmy win for “The Newsroom” to be somewhat reaching. For one thing, the show never took off like it probably should have, so Daniels’s series premiere win could be indicative of the Emmys predicting lasting presence. More importantly, however, were the names he beat out for the award. Hugh Bonneville, for starters, changed his career forever with the advent of “Downton Abbey.” Meanwhile, this was Jon Hamm’s sixth straight time not winning for “Mad Men.” And while he’d won three times before, we’re sure a lot of fans agreed with Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad’s” inner monologue at the ceremony when he dared them to “Say my name.”

#16: Kevin Costner Wins Best Director

“63rd Academy Awards” (1991)

An actor directing themselves to a Best Director Oscar is nothing new; heck, the ‘90s saw it happen two other times. But Kevin Costner winning for “Dances with Wolves” is one the Academy would probably like back. On the whole, the Best Picture winner has been labeled as being not good enough to win numerous awards, but the Director honor is particularly egregious considering who didn’t win. Namely, Martin Scorsese for “Goodfellas.” Plenty of people then and still do consider “Goodfellas” his magnum opus, so to pass up a legend such as Scorsese’s best effort feels like an oversight. So much so, that many attribute his eventual win for “The Departed” to be a makeup award.

#15: “Shape of You” Wins Best Pop Solo Performance

“60th Annual Grammy Awards” (2018)

Ed Sheeran often seems to be America’s sweetheart, but he was public enemy number one after winning the 2018 Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance. Sheeran was nominated alongside Kelly Clarkson, Kesha, Lady Gaga, and Pink, and many people felt that his win was undeserved, particularly in the midst of the #MeToo campaign. Although song content shouldn’t be a factor in a performance category, it inevitably was for some in this instance. Sheeran’s song about the curves of a woman’s body simply didn’t compare to Gaga’s “Million Reasons” or Kesha’s “Praying,” which was inspired by her own troubles. The announcement was booed, as many saw the win as unwarranted and downright insulting.

#14: “How Green Was My Valley” Wins Best Picture

“14th Academy Awards” (1942)

Today, “Citizen Kane” is considered by many to be the “Citizen Kane” of movies; obviously, considering the namesake system of comparison. So the fact that it didn’t win cinema’s highest honor feels downright erroneous. Now, this obviously puts a somewhat unfair onus on the actual Best Picture winner, “How Green Was My Valley,” which can’t help but pale in comparison. By all accounts, the John Ford drama is superb, but the fact that it hasn’t stood the test of time among mainstream moviegoers is indicative of it being relatively undeserving of the top prize. At the end of the day, history will always look back on this decision as the time the Academy passed up the best of the best.

#13: Steely Dan Wins Album of the Year

“43rd Annual Grammy Awards” (2001)

While the Grammy Awards are typically seen as a popularity contest rather than a prestigious ceremony, the fact that Steely Dan won Album of the Year in 2001 is mystifying to many. 2000 was a fantastic year for music. Eminem was stirring up controversy and topping charts with “The Marshall Mathers LP,” and Radiohead was basically redefining music with their stellar album “Kid A.” Either of those two modern masterpieces were shoo-ins for Album of the Year, which is why so many people were left outraged when Steely Dan took the award for “Two Against Nature.” It left a lot of music fans upset and all but ruined the reputation of the Grammys.

#12: “Modern Family” Wins Outstanding Comedy Series

“66th Primetime Emmy Awards” (2014)

In actuality, “Modern Family” won this award five times in consecutive years for the first five seasons. While such a fantastic show certainly had to deserve to win at least one of those years, its last actual accolade in the category most rubbed people the wrong way. On an insular basis, Season 5 is about where many fans mark its inevitable decline in quality, beginning to feel repetitive. Meanwhile, a couple hugely deserving nominees debuted that year like “Silicon Valley” and “Orange Is the New Black,” even if the latter probably should’ve always been deemed a drama. And while “Veep” also lost out, it would thankfully replace “Modern Family” as the Emmys’ go-to winner the next three years.

#11: Marisa Tomei Wins Best Supporting Actress

“65th Academy Awards” (1993)

A lot of people love Marisa Tomei, but even some fans think that her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny” was perhaps undeserved. At the 65th Academy Awards, Tomei was up against many notable actresses, including Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, and Miranda Richardson. Many people believed that Tomei had no chance. After all, she was up against acting titans and besides, “My Cousin Vinny” was a comedy, a genre largely ignored by the Academy. People were left so shocked at Tomei’s win that a conspiracy theory was started, claiming that the only reason she won was because the presenter read the wrong name. That conspiracy theory haunted Tomei for decades.

#10: Louis C.K. Wins Best Comedy Album

“64th Annual Grammy Awards” (2022)

Louis C.K. has always been something of a shock comic, so the fact that he’s divisive is nothing new. However, 2017 saw numerous sexual misconduct allegations toward C.K. come to light, to which he admitted fault. This obviously adds a different kind of distasteful connotation to his material, with many unready to accept C.K. back into the public sphere. Regardless, the Grammys saw to award C.K. for his comedy album “Sincerely Louis C.K.,” in which he addresses his past transgressions. We’ll likely keep having the debate as to whether one can separate the artist from the art for years to come, but the fact that many cried foul over this victory proves many can’t do that with C.K. yet.

#9: Macklemore Wins Best Rap Album

“56th Annual Grammy Awards” (2014)

If Steely Dan’s win was the straw that broke the Grammys’ back, this upset buried its reputation in the ground. The 56th Grammys’ Best Rap Album category was absolutely stacked. It featured some great albums like Drake’s “Nothing Was the Same” and Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” but the fan favorite was undeniably Kendrick Lamar’s modern masterpiece “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” However, the award bafflingly went to radio-favorites Macklemore and Ryan Lewis instead. Even Macklemore knew that the award was undeserved, as he texted Kendrick saying, “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you.”

#8: “Shakespeare in Love” Wins Best Picture

“71st Academy Awards” (1999)

Yeah, the Academy gets it wrong sometimes. While “Shakespeare in Love” is undeniably a great film, many people felt that “Saving Private Ryan” was sure to take home the Best Picture trophy. This seemed even more plausible when Steven Spielberg won the award for Best Director, which is usually indicative of an impending Best Picture win. So some were upset, but not surprised, when the Oscar-bait-y “Shakespeare in Love” won instead. Many felt that the heavy campaigning by Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein resulted in its perhaps undeserved win. It is now seen as one of the biggest Best Picture upsets in Academy history.

#7: Jethro Tull Wins Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental

“31st Annual Grammy Awards” (1989)

This one was so controversial that the Grammys technically only awarded this trophy once. Indeed, when the aforementioned category was created in 1989, many figured it was a way to recognize Metallica’s growing popularity. At the very least, other notable artists like AC/DC or Iggy Pop could’ve won. But instead, Jethro Tull, a band many don’t even consider to be in the same genre, took home the award. That is, they would have had they shown up that night, having been previously told they wouldn’t win. The award was met with heavy backlash - pun intended - with many attributing it to the Grammys’ disconnect with the music public. The category was promptly split afterwards, henceforth recognizing both Hard Rock and Metal separately.

#6: “Crash” Wins Best Picture

“78th Academy Awards” (2006)

While the “Shakespeare in Love” / ”Saving Private Ryan” debacle is infamous, it has nothing on the “Crash” / ”Brokeback Mountain” upset of 2006. Many people thought that “Brokeback Mountain” was the movie to beat, as it had swept the preceding awards season. Even presenter Jack Nicholson was visibly stunned when “Crash” was announced as the Best Picture winner. It was immediately called the biggest upset in Oscar history, and some people blamed the conservative members of the Academy for choosing the comparatively safer option. A 2015 poll of a portion of voters later crowned “Brokeback Mountain” the winner. The movie’s writer and director Paul Haggis has openly admitted his belief that “Crash” was undeserving of the win.

#5: Will Smith Wins Best Actor

“94th Academy Awards” (2022)

The controversy around this one has nothing to do with performance quality, as Will Smith was already the odds-on favorite to win for his impressive performance in “King Richard.” However, it was Smith’s behavior at the ceremony prior to his victory announcement that sullied the proceedings. After presenter Chris Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife Jada, Smith took to the stage and slapped the comedian on live television before angrily cursing him out. Obviously, the Best Actor ballot was already set in stone, but many criticized the decision to let him stay and accept the award. As of this publication, the fallout is still developing, but Smith’s subsequent resignation from the Academy speaks volumes as to how damaging his actions were.

#4: Adele Wins Album of the Year

“59th Annual Grammy Awards” (2017)

A lot of people love Adele, but they were left upset when she won over Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammy Awards. The Album of the Year category contained Sturgill Simpson, Drake, Justin Bieber, Adele, and fan favorite Beyoncé, whose “Lemonade” was one of 2017’s biggest pop culture releases. It was Metacritic’s second-highest ranking album of the year, and it won a prestigious Peabody Award in the entertainment category. After Adele won for “25,” she stated that she couldn’t accept the award and spent a majority of her acceptance speech praising Beyoncé and “Lemonade.” Chalk it up as just another egregious Grammys upset.

#3: Casey Affleck Wins Best Actor

“89th Academy Awards” (2017)

In a wide break from tradition, this Best Actor win isn’t controversial because people think it should have gone to someone else, but because of Affleck’s past and personal life. Casey Affleck won the prestigious Oscar in 2017 for his stellar performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” but many people felt it was undeserved due to allegations by co-workers of sexual, physical, and verbal misconduct in 2010. Presenter Brie Larson even refused to clap when Affleck won the award, stating that her intentions were obvious. The topic grew even more controversial following the #MeToo campaign, and Affleck pulled out of presenting the Best Actress award at the 2018 Oscars due to the fervent backlash.

#2: Milli Vanilli Wins Best New Artist

“32nd Annual Grammy Awards” (1990)

Regardless of the controversies, the recipients in every other entry can at least say they actually contributed to the material that got them nominated in the first place. Milli Vanilli, however, cannot. Indeed, in what’s hands-down the greatest controversy in Grammys history, the German-French R&B duo was awarded Best New Artist at the 1990 ceremony. About seven months later, however, it came to light that neither performer had actually sang on their North American debut album, “Girl You Know It’s True.” Not only did this spark the artists’ downfall, but their award was promptly rescinded, marking the first time the Grammys have ever done so.

#1: Roman Polanski Wins Best Director

“75th Academy Awards” (2003)

Polanski won the award for Best Director in 2003 for his work on the admittedly fantastic “The Pianist.” However, Polanski couldn’t come to the U.S.to accept the award, due to long-standing charges of sexual misconduct with an underage teenager. In the late ‘70s, Polanski was facing up to fifty years in prison, so he fled to France and was protected from extradition. However, many figures in Hollywood defended Polanski, and he received a standing ovation after winning the Academy Award. Many people saw the win and enthusiastic reaction as one of the most disgusting moments in Hollywood history, and it has been a major target of the #MeToo campaign.
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