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The Academy vs. Rotten Tomatoes: Remembering the Lowest-Rated Oscar Nominees

If Cats gets an Oscar nomination, it will join the ranks of the worst-rated films recognized by the Academy. Photo: Universal Pictures

Cats. That’s it. That’s the tweet. Cats has arrived and showed itself in all its jellicle strangeness, and with every exposed hand, garish visual display, and wan Taylor Swift original song, the reviews kept getting worse and worse. At the moment, Cats holds a shabby 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the imperfect but nevertheless widely accepted metric for critical approval. That number doesn’t make Cats the worst-reviewed of 2019 (though … it’s really down there), but it does put a major crimp in some of the plans for Cats going forward. Like, for example, Oscar nominations.

No, nobody was harboring any real expectations that Cats would take the Best Picture category by storm — even though director Tom Hooper’s track record at the Oscars has been relatively criticproof, having earned Picture/Director/Actor/Screenplay wins for The King’s Speech, Best Supporting Actress (plus Picture and Actor nods) for Les Miserables, and a Supporting Actress win for The Danish Girl. But musical adaptations are always good for a few Oscar nominations in some categories, whether it’s production design, costumes, sound, or song. Surely Team Cats must’ve had visions of a Sound Mixing nomination dancing in their heads. Those dreamers are in danger of a rude awakening, though. Last week, the Oscar shortlists were announced in nine categories, and Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts,” which many people assumed was Cats’ easiest route to a nomination, was left off. Cats was one of the ten films shortlisted for Best Visual Effects, but with reports of wonky CGI and an unprecedented rerelease strategy, that nomination seems far from secured.

If a Cats Oscar nomination does come to pass, the film will rank among the least critically acclaimed films to receive one in the Rotten Tomatoes era (RT debuted in 1998). But it wouldn’t be the lowest! Here’s a rundown of worse-faring films:

Hollow Man (2000)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 28 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Visual Effects

Paul Verhoeven’s take on The Invisible Man involved a lot of attempted sexual assault on the part of an undetectable Kevin Bacon. Critics were repulsed by everything but the cutting-edge VFX, which included a sequence in which Bacon’s body disappears layer by layer, an anatomy lesson in horror-film clothing.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 27 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Makeup/Hairstyling [WON]

Not only did a dearth of more overtly impressive feats of movie makeup in 2016 mean the critically maligned Suicide Squad was able to eke out a nomination, it meant the film was able to eke out a win, as Academy members held their noses and voted for the DC superhero movie — meaning, yes, DC won an Oscar before the MCU won any.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 25 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Original Song (“Earned It”)

Before we all knew we loved Dakota Johnson, we came down like a ton of bricks on Fifty Shades of Grey for being unsexy Twilight fanfiction. That 25 percent is probably worse than the film deserved, but a Best Song nod (the Weeknd nabbed the nomination ahead of Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik’s “I Don’t Want to Live Forever”) is probably the best it was ever going to get.

Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad, an Oscar-winning film. Photo: Warner Bros.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 24 percent
Oscar nominations: (4) Best Sound Editing [WON], Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Song (“There You’ll Be”)

While four Oscar nominations and one win is not exactly coming up empty-handed, there was quite a bit of speculation (fear?) that a hyperpatriotic ode to the Greatest Generation might actually sneak Michael Bay past the usual gatekeepers and into Best Picture/Director contention. Then critics saw the movie and delivered a grade that would live in infamy.

Country Strong (2010)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 22 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Original Song (“Coming Home”)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s attempt to follow the Sissy Spacek/Jessica Lange/Reese Witherspoon path to Oscar success for playing a country-music woman was stymied once people laid eyes on the movie. The Original Song nomination it received should be accompanied by an asterisk that reveals what a famously weak year 2010 was for the category.

Patch Adams (1998)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 22 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Original Musical/Comedy Score

Robin Williams as a clown-nosed doctor healing sick children with the power of laughter was ripe for skewering from critics for being a pandering, irritating comedy. But that Marc Shaiman sure can write a comedy score!

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 20 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Sound

Michael Bay again, this time for the second of his five Transformers films, which earned seven Oscar nominations all told, almost all of them in the Sound categories — because the Academy’s sound-designers branch cannot get enough of that squick-clang-zip-zonk effect when the robots move. Cool.

Cats (2019)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 17 percent
Oscar nominations: ???

Okay, here’s where Cats comes in, with its best chances being Best Sound (movie musicals do very well in this category historically) and Visual Effects. At 17 percent, it would be among the worst-reviewed movies in recent history to receive a nomination. But there are three others that managed to walk that Oscar red carpet with even worse ratings.

Eddie Murphy in Norbit, which earned a Best Makeup nomination. Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Affair of the Necklace (2001)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 15 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Costume Design

Two years after Hilary Swank won Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry, she starred in this film directed by Charles Shyer (yes, Nancy Meyers’s ex-husband … so, yes, Alec Baldwin from It’s Complicated, probably), in which she played a French thief who plans a heist of a valuable diamond necklace alongside Adrien Brody and Simon Baker. Swank was wildly miscast, and critics hated it, though Milena Canonero’s period gowns were reliably worth a nomination.

W.E. (2011)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 12 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Costume Design

It’s almost hard to believe critics didn’t line up for Madonna’s multitiered love letter to Wallis Simpson, Edward VIII, and their proto–tabloid romance, which nearly toppled the English monarchy. Despite the dynamite cast (Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy as Wallis and Edward; Abbie Cornish and Oscar Isaac as their modern-day analogues), the movie was a mess, and since Madonna’s failures are reliably judged more harshly than others’, there you have that 12 percent rating. The Academy made like Aretha Franklin, however, and appreciated the great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Norbit (2007)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 9 percent
Oscar nominations: (1) Best Makeup

Here it is. The all-time most despised movie that made its way to an Oscar nomination anyway and, in the process, became a (however dubious) urban legend/cautionary tale about not following up career-best work with a career-worst film: Eddie Murphy was a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Dreamgirls and was potentially headed to a win when Norbit emerged. One look at that trailer, with Murphy resorting to Klumps-style fat suits and juvenile punch lines, and Oscar voters ran screaming to vote for Alan Arkin. Or so the story goes. The reality is probably far less of an Aesop’s fable about career choices, but the fact remains that this Best Makeup nomination, enshrining Norbit forever among the worst Oscar-nominated films, felt like rubbing the nose of a paper-training dog in its own mess so it’ll never make that mistake again.

Let’s Remember the Lowest-Rated Oscar Nominees Ever