42 Dramatic Facts About Best Picture Winners

Mathew Burke

It doesn’t get any bigger than the Oscars. An award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is still the biggest badge of honor in showbusiness, and every year, they save the biggest prize for last: Best Picture. Some of them are among the greatest movies of all time, some are so forgettable, it’s hard to imagine how they ever won, but every movie that’s taken home a Best Picture Oscar has an interesting story to tell.

Best Picture Facts

1. Blood Money

Steven Spielberg refused to accept his salary for Schindler’s List because he said it felt like “blood money.” Instead, he used the cash to fund his Shoah Foundation, an organization that educates people on the history and impact of the Holocaust.

2. Oh Deer

The Deer Hunter viscerally shows the horrors of the Vietnam War. Most people assumed that director Michael Cimino drew on his own experience in the war—but few realized the director’s dark secret. In reality, Cimino had little experience in the army and flat-out lied about his involvement. He told a reporter that he had enlisted in the army in 1968, at the height of the war, and that he was attached to a Green Beret medical unit that was never deployed.

In fact, he joined the army in 1962, only served for six months, and was never attached to a special forces unit.

3. It Never Ends

The epic 1959 Best Picture winner Ben Hur took a ridiculous nine months to shoot. As if that’s not crazy enough, they spent three of those months just on the chariot race scene.

4. Paging Doctor Pick-Me-Up

Filming Ben Hur was so grueling that the producers hired a doctor to be on set at all times. This doctor’s role was to give vitamin B injections to anyone who needed it. However, many people on set have speculated that there was a “special ingredient” in those shots: amphetamines. I guess that would do the trick!

5. Train Wreck

It Happened One Night, the seventh Best Picture winner, should have been an utter disaster. First, director Frank Capra and lead actress Claudette Colbert did not get along. They had previously worked together on a massive flop called For the Love of Mike. Unsurprisingly, neither was happy to reunite. Then there was Clark Gable, who didn’t want to be there in the first place and who thought the script was garbage.

When the nightmare production wrapped, Colbert told her friend, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Dark storm clouds circled all around the film—which is probably why no one expected what happened next.

6. It Happened…To Win a Few Oscars

After surprisingly positive early reviews, It Happened One Night kept picking up steam. By the time the Oscars rolled around, the film was a massive hit. It swept the Big Five awards, and today, it’s considered one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.

7. I’ll Pass

Even as the movie’s popularity grew, Claudette Colbert was still sure that It Happened One Night was trash. Not even her own nomination for Best Actress could convince her the movie was alright. She was so sure that she’d lose, she didn’t even attend the ceremony (she won).

8. The Big Sweep

Winning Best Picture is a big enough honor on its own, but three movies put the rest of the ones on this list to shame. Just one prize wasn’t enough for It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs. Neither was two, or three, or four. These three films are the only in the history of the Oscars to sweep the five biggest awards of the night: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay (adapted or original).

9. The REAL Drama

In an utterly shocking move, MGM fired the original director of Gone With the Wind, George Cukor, after fewer than three weeks of filming. This was after Cukor had spent more than two years in pre-production preparing for the landmark film. The official reason was a dispute with producers—but rumors abound that there’s a far more scandalous reason for the firing.

Allegedly, Cukor, who was gay, told Gore Vidal that he had encountered a young Clark Gable years earlier. Back then, the struggling actor was working the streets as a hustler. So the story goes, it was Gable who approached the producers and had Cukor fired, all to keep his dark past from getting out.

10. Two Firsts?

Ever wonder which movie won the first Best Picture Award? Well, it was actually two movies…sort of. There wasn’t actually a Best Picture prize at the first ceremony in 1929. Instead, the Academy gave out two trophies, one for “Outstanding Picture” and one for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture.” These awards went to the silent movies Wings, and Sunrise, respectively. Take your pick!

11. The Movie That Ended War…Not

The first few Best Picture winners were fairly forgettable movies that haven’t stood the test of time. On the other hand, All Quiet on the Western Front, the third winner, has since become legendary. Critics considered it revolutionary at the time, and its portrayal of the First World War struck a chord with audiences. In a particularly glowing review, Variety said, “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.”

A nice hope from Variety, but unfortunately, 1930 wasn’t the year that ended war forever…

12. Going Method

Oliver Stone wanted the actors in his film Platoon to get an idea of what it was really like to be in war—and he went to utterly deranged lengths to do so. The cast was sent on forced marches and had to endure phony nighttime “ambushes,” complete with explosions set up by the special effects department. They also had to go through a brutal, 30-day military training program, during which time Stone limited their food and water, deprived them of sleep, and fired blanks near them to keep them awake.

13. Awkward…

How Green Was My Valley won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1942. It’s a perfectly good movie—but unfortunately, people mostly remember it as being one of the worst Best Picture winners in history. Not because the film itself is bad, but because of the movies it beat. Maybe you’ve heard of them: The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane.

14. That’s Plane Ridiculous!

For years, there was a Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior airplane on the Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida. Cinephiles would recognize it as the plane in the background of the final scene in Casablanca. Disney even went so far as to claim it was the real plane from the film—but there was only one problem. Disney had an actual Lockheed Electra Junior. The one in the background of the movie, however, was made of cardboard.

15. Movie Magic

Not only was the plane in Casablanca’s final scene a cardboard model—nothing was as it seemed in that background. The set they were shooting on was tiny, so in order to make it look like a real airstrip, the crew used forced perspective. The plane smaller than life-sized, and all the extras in the scene were little people. Throw in some fancy lighting tricks and a fog machine, and nobody noticed that the background was completely faked!

16. Frankly, My Dear…

Casablanca has one of the most iconic final scenes in the history of cinema—but producers very nearly forced the director to shoot another scene after it. Since the movie was coming out right after the Allied invasion of North Africa, the studio tried to shoot a scene that showed Rick and Renault sailing off to the front. Scheduling conflicts forced them to abandon the idea, and the movie is all the better for it.

Later, producer David O. Selznick admitted that it would have been a “terrible mistake.”

17. The Night We’ll Never Forget

The conclusion of the 89th Academy Awards featured one of the most memorable moments in Oscars history. Faye Dunaway announced that La La Land was the Best Picture Winner, then after several minutes of intense confusion, the truth finally came out. Warren Beatty had the wrong envelope and Dunaway had announced the wrong name. Moonlight was the real winner.

It was a complete and utter fiasco, but how did it all happen? Well, it turns out that there are actually two envelopes for each award—the real one and the backup. Beatty was accidentally handed the backup envelope for Best Actress, which said, “Emma Stone – La La Land.” When Dunaway looked at the envelope, she simply saw the title of the movie, and the rest is history.

18. My Mother is Younger Than Me

1948’s Hamlet is the only Shakespearean movie to win Best Picture, and the film was one of the defining moments of Sir Laurence Olivier’s career. But there’s one awkward aspect of the movie that most people never realized. Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet’s mother in the film, was a mere 29 years old during filming. Olivier, on the other hand, who played her son, was 40.

19. One Heck of a Bender

Actor Robert Newton’s final performance was in the Best Picture-winning Around the World in 80 Days. According to his co-star David Niven, producers forced the famously alcoholic Newton to abstain from drinking for the entire shoot. Niven then went on to claim that the insane binge that Newton went on in celebration of finishing the shoot was the thing that finally killed him! Newton died of a heart attack shortly after filming wrapped.

20. This Is Sparta!

In the Heat of the Night, which won the 40th Best Picture Oscar and spawned the famous line “They call me MR. Tibbs!”, takes place in the city of Sparta, Mississippi, but it didn’t shoot there. In a bizarre coincidence, filming took place in Sparta, Illinois.

21. Betcha Didn’t Notice That

People love to complain about movies today using too much CGI—but that’s probably because they don’t notice all the examples of good CGI. Case-in-point, 2019’s Best Picture winner, Parasite. The Parks’ suburban home seems like a real house, but it was actually a set built on a sound stage and the entire second story was CGI.

22. Russell Crowe Is Still Feeling Gladiator

Russell Crowe gave his all in the role of Maximus Meridius in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. His performance helped the movie land the 73rd Best Picture Oscar—but it took a brutal toll on his body. While filming, he suffered a violent fall, leaving him with a disintegrating hip that still pains him to this day.

23. Draw Me Like One of Your French Girls

One of the most iconic scenes in Titanic is when Jack sketches a nude of Rose. At the height of Leomania, many devoted fans assumed that DiCaprio drew the sketches himself. Sorry ladies, but it wasn’t him. The drawing was actually sketched by Titanic’s director, James Cameron.

24. In Good Company

Slumdog Millionaire was a sleeper hit that ended up bagging the Best Picture Oscar at the 81st Academy Awards. At the time of its release, it was only the second film to win Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Oscars. The only other film to do this? Schindler’s List.

25. Act Through the Pain

Shortly before filming started on No Country for Old Men, the 80th Best Picture Winner, Josh Brolin was in a harrowing motorcycle accident. The crash left him with a painful shoulder injury, and it seemed like he may have had to drop out of the movie. However, by coincidence, and luckily for Brolin, his character gets shot in the shoulder early on, so he didn’t have to bother hiding the damage.

26. We’re Going Streaking

One of the most famous scenes in 2014’s Best Picture winner, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), shows Michael Keaton running through Times Square in only his underwear. Amazingly, this scene was actually filmed in the real Times Square, in front of regular New Yorkers and tourists. Director Alejandro Iñárritu hired drummers to distract tourists from looking directly at the camera or walking into the shot as Keaton ran around.

The diversion worked, and Iñárritu got his long, continuous shot with a natural-looking crowd.

27. The Sound Of Mucus, Really?

Everyone loves The Sound of Music, right? Well, no, actually. In fact, Christopher Plummer, who played Captain von Trapp, hated it! He thought it was so sentimental and gooey that he dubbed it “The Sound of Mucus.” He was also so depressed while playing the role that he drunk his sorrows away; he was even hammered during the music festival scene!

28. “I’m Acting Here!”

Did you know that the iconic New York line “I’m walkin’ here!” is actually from a Best Picture winner? Dustin Hoffman shouts it at a cab driver in Midnight Cowboy. Ok, maybe some of you knew that, but did you know that it was totally unscripted? The scene was shot on actual New York streets with real pedestrians and traffic. After several failed takes, they finally had the one they needed when a cab almost hit Hoffman.

He spit out the line in genuine frustration because they had finally nailed the shot, and the taxi had ruined it. Director John Schlesinger liked it so much he had him re-do it two or three times again to put it in the film.

29. Serial Killer Rolodex

Buffalo Bill, the villain in Silence of the Lambs, was a combination of three notorious real-life monsters; his penchant for wearing women’s skin, luring victims by gaining their sympathy, and killing them in his basement came from Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Gary Michael, respectively. A lovely trifecta of terror.

30. The Real-Life Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump isn’t a true story—but it was inspired by one! Louis Michael Figueroa, who crossed America on foot when he was 16 years old, is sometimes called “the first Forrest Gump.” He made a promise to a friend dying of bone cancer, and trekked from New Brunswick, NJ to San Francisco, California in 60 days. Figueroa even claims his quotes were used in the film, though this has been disputed.

31. Separated

Moonlight, the winner of one of the most dramatic Best Picture Awards ever, is the story of one person, Chiron, told at different times in his life. Yet, despite the fact they were all the same man, director Barry Jenkins wanted each actor who played Chiron to portray him in their own way. To do this, Jenkins completely isolated the child, teenager, and adult versions of Chiron from one another. He wouldn’t even let them watch each other’s performances, so that each actor made the part completely his own.

32. Twice Blessed

The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture at the 1975 Academy Awards, and became the first sequel to win the top prize. There’s only been one other sequel winner since: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I’ll say it: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel got robbed.

33. Some Rivalries are Bigger Than the Movies

Like maybe half of all Best Picture winners, The Departed is set in Boston. And what does every movie set in Boston need? Characters in Red Sox hats of course! But not everyone was down with this detail. Jack Nicholson, a loyal Yankees fan, straight-up refused. He responded by saying, “All things being equal, I don’t want to.”

34. Was It Worth It?

Like Russell Crowe, Sylvester Stallone sacrificed his own body to get through scenes in Rocky, the Cinderalla Story Best Picture winner at the 49th Oscars. During the meat-punching seen, the force with which Stallone hit the frozen meat literally pushed his knuckle into the middle of his hand. He wrote in The Official Rocky Scrapbook (1977): “To this day, I still haven’t seen it. But again, it was worth it…I’ve still got nine other knuckles.”

I just want to point out that Sly counts his thumb knuckles along with the rest of them, and that’s weird.

35. A++

In Hollywood, it’s rare for any movie to go from initial screenplay to final script without a single revision, let alone an Oscar winner. Well, it happened for Unforgiven, the winner of the 1992 Best Picture award. That’s probably the equivalent of getting 100% on a 300-page essay. How is that even possible?

36. Everyone Loves Oreos

On the set of Dances With Wolves, the crew had the opportunity to work with a charming and dessert-loving buffalo named Cody. In one scene, Cody had to charge toward a young boy. On film, it’s utterly harrowing—but on set, it was a different story. The loveable Cody was only enticed to charge thanks to a handler dangling his favorite snack, Oreos, just behind the camera.

37. Record Smashing

Gandhi is not only famous for its Best Picture Oscar, but it also broke an insane record: The film holds the world record for the largest number of extras on set, with over 300,000 individuals used for the funeral scene. These extras were unpaid volunteers who came out because it was the 33rd anniversary of Gandhi’s death.

38. Now That’s Realism

One of the most infamous scenes in The Godfather is when a character wakes up with his prized horse’s head, severed and bloody, in his bed. The scene is gruesome enough—but it’s even more horrifying than most people realize. That was a real horse’s head. The studio wanted Francis Ford Coppola to use a fake, but Coppola wasn’t a fan of the look.

Coppola also reports that he received many letters from animal activists regarding the horse’s head. They thought the filmmakers had killed a horse just for the scene. It was a real horse’s head, Coppola says, but it came from a slaughterhouse where horses were being slaughtered for dog food.

39. Political Panic

Though he didn’t receive credit for it, playwright Arthur Miller wrote the original script for On the Waterfront. However, when Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn read the screenplay, he didn’t like the idea of making a movie about corrupt union officials. He told Miller to make the villains in the movie Communists, and Miller refused. Cohn then sent Miller a letter where he said he found it “interesting” that Miller resisted making the movie “pro-American”—a veiled threat in the days of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

Next, Miller’s one-time friend, director Elia Kazan, asked him to rewrite the script. Miller had never forgiven Kazan for cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee, so he finally left the project for good. Kazan brought in Budd Schulberg, and together, they finally made the film.

40. Someone Actually Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed around actual mental patients at the Oregon State Hospital. The filmmakers hoped that this would lend the movie a sense of realism—but they ended up getting more than they had bargained for. Things got way too real on set when a patient jumped out of a third-story window that the film crew left open.

41. Oscars Are Infectious

Hilary Swank was determined to prove that she was tough enough to star in Million Dollar Babyand it almost killed her. After Clint Eastwood said that she was too skinny, Swank undertook an absolutely brutal training regimen, working out five hours a day and gaining 19 pounds of muscle. She got the part, but paid a terrible price. During training, she got a massive blister, but ignored it. Soon, it developed into a life-threatening and extremely painful staph infection, and Swank almost died.

42. Credit Drama

The intense and powerful 12 Years a Slave took home Best Picture in 2013—but most people don’t know about the dramatic feud going on behind the scenes. Director Steven McQueen felt that he deserved a partial screenwriting credit, but writer John Ridley disagreed. McQueen went to the studio to try and get his screenwriting credit, but they also refused. Both McQueen and Ridley won Oscars for the film, and neither of them thanked the other in their acceptance speeches. Despite the movie’s success, they have never worked together again.

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