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10 Biggest Upsets in Golden Globes History

By Jennifer Hassan in Entertainment and Novelty
| December 5, 2020 2:47 am PDT
The 10 Biggest Upsets in Golden Globes History

The Golden Globes have been around for 76 years, and this history award continues to honor luminaries who have created excellence in television and film. Best Director, Best Original Song, and Best Actress in a Miniseries are just a few of the dozens of categories awarded every January in a gala celebration in Beverly Hills.

The best awards ceremonies are those that contain a surprise or two, and the Golden Globes have not disappointed over the years. Here are some of the biggest upsets in Golden Globes history, from the award’s early days to the present.


  • Award: Best Picture–Drama
  • Year: 2020

Critics and theatergoers alike were shocked when this World War I film won the Golden Globe in early 2020 for Best Picture, Drama.

In a year already fraught with tension and global drama, many anticipated that a different type of film would grab the big prize. Furthermore, with Netflix becoming such a big player on the feature film scene, some anticipated a win for that studio. Nevertheless, the World War I tragedy produced by DreamWorks Pictures took the prize.

Other films up for the same award were Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson, and The Irishman, featuring a crowd of heavy hitters in DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci.

Many in film circles thought Marriage Story would take the award this year. This film gave a cinematic view of the heart-wrenching tragedy every divorced couple experiences (and creates). Because it is common, does not make the pain commonplace, and this film displayed this fact brilliantly.

The Joker was also up for the award, but because of its socio-political aura of threat and gun violence, one could hardly have expected the movie to win, despite the occasional brilliance of Joaquin Phoenix.

Two Popes was also nominated, but hadn’t garnered the viewership or buzz required to make it a real contender.

No one expects the winner of a drama picture to be lighthearted, or to provide any type of solace in the gloom and doom of an election year, but the 2020 batch was particularly dreary.

The film 1917, in which Brit superstars Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are supporting cast members, highlights the carnage and political disarray of the first World War.

Ellen Burstyn

  • Award: Best Actress in a Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy
  • Year: 1979

The film Same Time, Next Year is considered by many writers to be the most well-written film script of all time. Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn were ideal choices for casting this comedic story of a once-a-year extra-marital relationship. Burstyn is innocence personified, and Alda plays the jaded, Hawkeye-type character we came to know and love in MASH.

However, in a year that had such movies as The Deer Hunter, Grease and Midnight Express on the nominee list, the mellow and understated Same Time, Next Year could have easily been overlooked in favor of the noise, hype and violence of other options.

Thus, honoring Ellen Burstyn’s role as an American housewife who evolves through the decades along with the country’s values as it navigated the Vietnam War and other social upheavals, surprised many who thought the honor would go to Olivia Newton-John (Grease) or Goldie Hawn (Foul Play).

As you can see, no film, actor or musical score is a guaranteed win at the Golden Globes. A film lover has just as much chance as a professional critic in guessing who will win the award.

In the Heat of the Night

  • Award: Best Picture—Drama
  • Year: 1968

The mighty Sidney Poitier was in two of the films nominated for Best Picture—Drama in 1968. One of them was the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? which challenged racial biases at a time when the entire nation was still coming to terms with desegregation and racial inequality.

Supporting actors in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner include Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, making this movie a multi-generational favorite. Furthermore, the great Spencer Tracy barely lived long enough to make this movie, dying just weeks after filming wrapped up. This gave the film added importance to cinematic history.

However, it was Poitier’s other film that was nominated that year that garnered the Best Picture award. In the Heat of the Night involves a Mississippi murder and an African American detective from Chicago who must assist local Mississippi law enforcement solve the case.

The film is a complex and dark glimpse into fear and manipulation and, of course, all of the racial implications of a black professional working in the South in the late 1960s. This film has been deemed a treasure by the National Film Registry and will be preserved by the Library of Congress for its cultural and historic significance.

The Hours

  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Drama
  • Year: 2003

In a year in which we had Gangs of New York, which showcased all of the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis, and the quirky “slice of life” film About Schmidt, starring the inimitable Jack Nicholson, the movie The Hours should not even have received a nomination, much less the award.

The Hours is not without merit. The central theme is Virginia Woolf and her struggles as she writes Mrs. Dalloway. It is this story that loosely connects three women in three different eras, all of whom suffer from the similar malaise of wanting something different without being able to articulate what it is they are seeking.

The slow, dreary pace of the movie did justice to the theme of how empty, slow and dreary are the lives of women who have been relegated to a supporting role in their own lives. However, without any redeeming epiphany or social change, the film has no arc, no resolution.

Woolf scholars may find enough value in the movie to watch it more than once, but as a Golden Globe winner the choice was a shock.

Green Card

  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy
  • Year: 1991

Green Card, starring Andie McDowell and Gerard Depardieu, is a charming movie, but so, so predictable. A foreigner pays an American woman to marry him so he can live and work in the U.S. The woman is beautiful and charming Andie McDowell. Naturally, a love affair will develop; why else would moviegoers pay for overpriced popcorn if this were not guaranteed?

However, other contenders up for the award in the same category that year had more merit. Ghost, Pretty Woman and Home Alone all experienced more popular appeal and theater turnout.

Granted, none of these scripts were Shakespearean in their depth or erudition, but in the comedy sector, that is not required.

What is required is creative entertainment, and the other three contenders (I’m leaving out Dick Tracy, which was also nominated, but which was not a qualitative contender) were all far more creatively entertaining than the film that took home the award.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

  • Award: Best Picture—Drama
  • Year: 2004

This installment in the Lord of the Rings series was visually stunning—filmed in the misty wilds of New Zealand–and cleverly used all of the archetypes that we expect from a fantasy tale. This could very well have been a reasonable winner if the movie were not up against other, more worthy candidates.

Seabiscuit is not a movie about a horse, it is a movie about the Great Depression, and the stalwart character that was typical of the American spirit for a century, and the limitless horizons of one man with the vision and daring to step into the modern age. It is also a film about the disappearance of a “slow America,” before barbed wire reshaped the West, and automobiles took over the road.

This movie should have been a shoo-in for the Best Picture award, if only for the triumphant “rise of the underdog” theme that resonates even more powerfully in a true story.

However, Seabiscuit was not the only choice for Best Picture—Drama. Master and Commander was an excellent retelling of Patrick O’Brien’s seafaring tales of the Napoleonic Wars. The casting of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin was inspired, and the film is utterly re-watchable.

But Cold Mountain was also among the nominees in this category, and this movie was such a powerfully haunting homage to the sickening shift in the moral landscape that was the American Civil War, that it should not have come in as a runner-up. Not a date night movie by any means, this cinematic retelling of the bestselling book was a far more worthy contender for the award than Lord of the Rings.

Lost in Translation

  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy
  • Year: 2004

It isn’t that this movie did not deserve an award—it did. However, not in this genre. This movie purports to be a comedy, but is, instead, a modern tragedy of loneliness and displacement.

Yes, there are a few jokes thrown into the script, and the mere presence alone of Bill Murray makes a person want to categorize it as comedy. But such a categorization actually undermines the true meaning of the film.

Here is a man who is a celebrity, visiting Japan to make a whiskey commercial because apparently he has the Hollywood-chic demeanor that will sell whiskey to recent Asian converts to the beverage, and he can’t find or figure out a solid human partnership to support him in his life. He is the ultimate “stage design” element; ultimately a mirage, and easily torn down for the next scene.

He befriends a young woman who is supposed to be enjoying the peak experiences of life: newly married and traveling the world with her successful husband. But there is no connection between her and her betrothed, simply a slightly confused affection that can’t understand why it isn’t enough.

This film should have won in the drama category. The other comedy titles up for the award in this year (Bend it Like Beckham and Love, Actually) were better options for the win.

The Social Network

  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Drama
  • Year: 2011

This story of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook empire and the challenges it faces and the enemies he has made is…how does one put this…certainly meritorious as a snapshot of the times.

However, compared with the quality of other nominees in the category–the nearly tangible threat in the film Black Swan and the riveting performance of Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech—the choice of The Social Network for winner of Best Picture seems jarring.

Toy Story

  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy
  • Year: 2000

Adults who don’t go to watch animated films are doing themselves a great disservice. There are jokes, pop culture references and soundtracks that elevate some in the genre to true classics. However, as delightful as Toy Story 2 is, it simply cannot compare to the comedic joyride of Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. Another nominee in the same category is the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts film Notting Hill.

Notting Hill was not as consistently entertaining as Analyze This, but either film would have stood in better stead as the winner of best comedy picture of 2000.

Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey, was also nominated in this category. While not having the wide appeal of the other films listed, even this title would have been a better choice for best comedy picture, given the well-tended humanity of a look inside eccentric subject Andy Kaufman.


  • Award: Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy
  • Year: 1997

There were several great movies nominated in this category in 1997: Jerry McGuire and Fargo among them. Evita was lushly visual, but didn’t contain the star quality required of a category winner.

Most importantly, one of the other nominees should have swept the awards. The Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, was intoxicating in its hilarity, its star power, and its utter silliness.

A comedy of modern manners in a Midwest-meets-Miami kind of way, this film inspired repeat visits to the theater among fans and delighted reviews from critics.

A Final Word

Movie quality is subjective; one person’s Casablanca is another person’s Waterworld. Although the Golden Globe awards are an American institution, and award winners are the product of a consensus among the Hollywood Foreign Press, they still represent a handful of personal choices selected by a small group of like-minded individuals.

Thus, except in very rare instances where everyone agrees on one stellar performance (think Geoffrey Rush winning Best Actor in Shine) there will be shock and surprise when a winner is announced.



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