American actor Mel Ferrer (1917 - 2008) with his wife, actress Audrey Hepburn (Getty)

    Unexpected prize winners from Parasite to Audrey Hepburn

    30 March 2020

    The film ‘Parasite’, winner of the most awards at the Oscars this year, made history for being the first non-English language film to earn the title of Best Picture. It was an unexpected, happy result.

    Oscars ceremonies are certainly not without drama. On first viewing the infamous ‘La La Land’ Oscars mix-up in 2017 you might have thought Warren Beatty was delaying his announcement of the Best Picture deliberately for dramatic effect. So lengthy was his pause that it made his co-presenter Faye Dunaway take the envelope from him in exasperation, and quickly declare ‘La La Land’ the winner. Its cast and crew appeared on stage and took it in turns to give acceptance speeches, until the mistake became clear and ‘Moonlight’ was declared the correct and worthy winner. Beatty explained afterwards that he had been handed the wrong envelope.

    In 1973 Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. But he asked Sacheen Littlefeather, a half-Native American actress, to go on stage on his behalf and explain to the audience that he could not accept the award because of ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television on movie reruns.’ She added that she hoped she had not ‘intruded upon this evening, and that we will, in the future, our hearts and understandings will meet with love and generosity.’ Her wishes for racial equality in the film industry still resonate today.

    One of the difficulties with any award must be picking just one winner. But judges of The Turner Prize were spared those problems last year when the four artists nominated prize urged the judges not to choose any of them as a single winner. So, they agreed, in an unexpected twist, that the prize be shared between Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani, Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

    This seems to have been a theme for prizes awarded in 2019. The Booker Prize was split between Margaret Atwood for ‘The Testaments’ and Bernardine Evaristo for ‘Girl, Woman, Other.’ It has happened before, in 1974 and 1992 but no one anticipated it for 2019.

    The Booker Prize’s stipulations are worthy of examination. There was a great stir when it allowed writers from the US to enter in 2014. But there are a litany of writers who have been shortlisted for the prize, without actually fulfilling the entry requirements. For example, Sybille Bedford, German by birth (and therefore not from the commonwealth despite writing in English) made the shortlist in 1989 for her book ‘Jigsaw’. Alice Munro was shortlisted for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, a collection of short stories, even though the Booker stipulated back then that the prize was for novels. It is well known that the bookies’ favourite rarely wins (with the exception of Hilary Mantel). Madeleine Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ was the betting shop’s favourite in 2016, but it was beaten by ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty. Tom McCarthy was the strong favourite in 2010 but Howard Jacobson won for ‘The Finkler Question.’

    Bob Dylan (Getty)

    But literary prizes are far from alone in dishing up surprises. In 2002, Shaggy beat Bob Dylan in the Brit Awards. But, for Dylan, revenge (if indeed he saw it that way) was a dish best served cold, as fourteen years later, in 2016, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a source of incredulity for many.

    When Zaha Hadid won the Stirling Prize in 2011 for her design for the Evelyn Grace Academy school (the second year running that she had won the prize), the former president of RIBA George Ferguson gave this reaction: ‘This is an appalling result and the worst decision since the Magna Centre beat Girmshaw’s Eden Project to win the Stirling Prize in 2001. It’s a great big own goal […] It makes me angry.’

    It may be a surprise to learn that no one expected Audrey Hepburn to win both an Oscar and a Bafta for her role in ‘Roman Holiday.’

    So it’s not all about the snubs, though they may take some time to process. Sometimes the wins can be just as shocking. We await more surprises every year.