the gold rush

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

Hillbilly Elegy is the new Cats, and we’re tempted to just leave it at that and let you draw your own conclusions. This time last year, we were all wondering if Cats — the Tom Hooper–directed musical fiasco that pulled a 17 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating (currently it’s up to 19 percent!) and had the moviegoing world agog about digital-fur technology and the possibility of a secret edit of the film with visible buttholes — could end up as an improbable Oscar nominee anyway. After all, musicals did have a great track record in the Sound categories, and Taylor Swift was in contention for an Original Song nod. Fortunately for all (well, except Taylor), Cats was shut out of the Oscar nominations and left to somewhat rehabilitate its reputation through rowdy screenings in what turned out to be the waning pre-pandemic days of gathering in movie theaters. Less fortunately, we got a new Cats for 2020, and that was Hillbilly Elegy, the terribly reviewed Ron Howard adaptation of the J.D. Vance memoir, which scored Glenn Close her eighth nomination and will probably (we think? maybe?) finally garner her a win.

With an anemic 26 percent rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Hillbilly Elegy ranks as the worst reviewed of any of the 2021 Academy Award nominees. Worse than Lee Daniels’s divisive The United States vs. Billie Holiday (53% RT), which earned Andra Day a Best Actress nomination. Worse than George Clooney’s snoozy sci-fi The Midnight Sky (50% RT), a Best Visual Effects nominee. But it would not be the lowest-rated Oscar nominee of all time. Not even (Glenn?) close! 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.

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 26 percent
Oscar nominations: (2) Best Supporting Actress, Best Makeup/Hairstyling

Despite being bad — and not the good kind of badHillbilly Elegy trudged on dutifully with its Oscar campaign and got Glenn Close back in contention for either a win or yet another crushing defeat. And watch out for a possible win in that makeup/hairstyling category, too. Worse films have taken that avenue to an Oscar win (see above).

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.

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