From The Player to Trumbo, the best movies in which the Academy Awards play a leading role

With their tears, cheers and opportunities for unscripted mayhem, the Oscars are often more exciting than the movies they are supposedly honouring. Small wonder, then, that the Academy Awards should feature as a plot-point in so many films.

Across the decades, the Oscars have functioned as a heavily symbolic dramatic device for cautionary tales about the rise and fall of the famous and/or terminally self-destructive, while also sprinkling Hollywood glitz on otherwise formulaic storylines. Here are 10 features which memorably press-ganged those iconic gold statuettes into service. 

A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)

Starring: Judy Garland and James Mason

James Mason and Judy Garland in A Star is Born Credit: Everett Collection / Rex Features

Synopsis: Naive young singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) enters a romantic relationship with self-destructive matinee idol Norman Maine (Mason) only for her career to eclipse his. They marry but his drinking grows increasingly ruinous. After vowing to turn his life around, Maine takes a late night swim and drowns. 

Oscar scene: On a crazed bender Maine arrives late at the Oscars where his wife (now with the stage name "Vicki Lester") has worn Best Actress for her turn in a musical. He interrupts her acceptance speech, Kanye West-style, and begs the assembled great and good of the industry to take him back.

Oscar success: Garland and Mason received Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Actor. Both won Golden Globes in the same categories (yes, there were Golden Globes before Ricky Gervais).

Fascinating fact: The studio had a hard time casting washed-up Norman Maine, with Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart rejecting the role lest it be misinterpreted as a comment on their status in Hollywood. Mason had the last laugh – as noted above, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Rating: Garland was never better as a wide-eyed young woman torn between ambition and loyalty, while Mason was magnetic as a washed-up A-lister marinaded in bitterness and booze. 

In & Out (Frank Oz, 1997)

Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Matt Dillon

Synopsis: In & Out was inspired by Tom Hanks's real-life 1994 Oscar Best Actor acceptance speech (for Philadelphia), during which he outed his high-school drama coach as gay. Kevin Kline plays Howard Brackett, a popular English teacher engaged to be married to mousy Emily (Joan Cusack). When a former pupil wins an Oscar and asserts from the podium that Brackett is gay, his world is turned upside down. 

Oscar scene: Matt Dillon is perfect as Brackett's airheaded former student, who has received the Best Actor award for portraying a gay soldier. Holding the statuette in one hand, he leans into the mic, thanks Brackett for his inspirational teaching, adding…"and he's gay".

Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack in In & Out Credit: Film Stills

Oscar success: Cusack was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, losing out to Kim Basinger for LA Confidential. 

Fascinating fact: The Academy Award featured in the film actually belongs to Kline. He won Best Supporting Actor for A Fish Called Wanda in 1989.

Rating: A frothy, feel-good comedy with smart things to say about the people we are and the people we want the world to think we are. 

The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scaachi, Fred Ward

Synopsis: Griffin Mill (Robbins) is a slick Hollywood executive sleazing his way to the top. But his golden future is threatened when he starts receiving death threats by postcard. He assumes the missives have been dispatched by a screenwriter whose work he rejected. 

Oscar scene: Mill tries to boost his standing within Hollywood by convincing a rival that a stillborn thriller, "Habeas Corpus", has the potential to win big at the Oscars. His plan is to have his competitor preside over this disaster waiting to happen, allowing Mill step in at the final moment and save the production. He does just this by tacking on a hokey feel-good ending and cramming the cast with recognised stars. 

Tim Robbins in The Player Credit: Everett/Rex

Oscar success: Altman was nominated for Best Director. In all he would receive five nominations over his career, and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2006, eight months before his death.

Fascinating fact: The Player set a record for the number of (past or future) Oscar-winning actors (12) in its cast: Jack Lemmon, Marlee Matlin, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Louise Fletcher, James Coburn, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Joel Grey and Anjelica Huston. And that's not counting the cameo by Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack. 

Rating: One of Altman's finest moments. The Player is a gimlet-eyed skewing of Hollywood – a place where nice guys finish last.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014)

StarringJulianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson

Synopsis: This searing movie industry satire features Moore as a declining actress with a terrible secret and Wasikowska as a would-be assistant to the stars who sustained terrible burns in a fire. Both are scarred in their ways – carrying old pains with devastating future consequences. 

Oscar scene: Moore is desperate to win an Oscar by playing her dysfunctional actress mother in a biopic. In the process she is plunged into a past riven with psychological and sexual trauma. In the end she is beaten to death by Wasikowska's Agatha with one of the actress's own, Oscar-like statuettes. 

Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars

Oscar success: Moore was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe (bizarrely, in the comedy or musical category) but Maps to the Stars, alas, received no Oscars love. 

Fascinating fact: Though revered as one of the most influential directors of the past 40 years, Cronenberg has never received an Academy Award nomination. 

Rating: Widely considered a "minor" Cronenberg, Maps to the Stars's deployment of incest, sexual violence, murder and drug use as plot points make it an acquired taste. 

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006)

Starring: Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer

Christopher Moynihan, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Parker Posey in For Your Consideration Credit: Film Stills/Warner Bros

Synopsis: On the set of a low-budget melodrama, rumours of Academy Awards buzz are circulating. This has a devastating effects on the brittle egos of cast and crew as they struggle with their own vanity and the eccentric directing style of Jay Berman (Christopher Guest).

Oscar scene: The actors gather around a TV as the Oscar nominations are announced. To the shock of everyone, only under-the-radar supporting player Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) is shortlisted for a gong – but, having slept late, is oblivious to the good news. 

Oscar success: For Your Consideration received lukewarm reviews and did not gain Oscar traction. 

Fascinating fact: In a bizarre case of life imitating art, Catherine O'Hara's portrayal of an actress rumoured to be in line for an Academy Award nomination did in fact generate rumours that she was in line for an Academy Award nomination. Just as in the film, the speculation proved unfounded. 

Rating: A gently eccentric comedy that yields surreal chuckles, but only if you're prepared to step into Guest's oddball alternative reality. 

California Suite (Herbert Ross, 1978)

StarringMaggie SmithMichael Caine

Synopsis: Smith plays Diana Barrie, a British thespian up for a Best Actress Oscar. Her career is on the slide but she hopes against hope that an Oscar might turn things around. Meanwhile, her marriage to the gay Sidney (Caine) is becoming ever more of a sham as, shacked up at a Los Angeles hotel, they count down to the Academy Awards. 

Oscar reference: The scene in which Diana and Sidney arrive on the red carpet was filmed at the actual 1978 ceremony. The characters' names are announced to the waiting crowd, who seem baffled as to why they should cheer a pair of unknowns. 

Oscar success: The film received three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Adapted Screenplay nod for Neil Simon.

Fascinating fact: Life imitated art as Smith was nominated for Best Actress. Unlike the benighted Diana, however, she actually won. 

Rating: A typically slick screwball farce from playwright Neil Simon, with Smith excelling among an ensemble cast that also featured Walter Matthau, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. 

The Naked Gun 331/3: The Final Insult (Peter Segal, 1994)

StarringLeslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, OJ Simpson

Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult Credit: Snap / Rex Features

Synopsis: Bumbling detective Frank Drebin (Nielsen) is summoned back from retirement amid rumours that a deranged bomber is plotting a major atrocity in the United States. 

Oscar reference: The evil Rocco (Fred Ward) plans to firebomb the Academy Awards, with the explosives triggered when the envelope revealing the winner of the Best Picture is opened. In attempt to foil the dastardly scheme, the disaster-prone Drebin ends up literally crashing the Oscars.

Oscar success: The Academy has never been enamoured of slapstick satire and the final Naked Gun movie was predictably overlooked. However it did receive two Golden Raspberries, with OJ Simpson and Anna Nicole Smith "winning" for their supporting roles.

Fascinating fact: The Final Insult was the last movie to star OJ Simpson before the former star athlete's arrest for murder. 

Rating: The laughs are broader than a knock-knock joke – but Nielsen's mugging is irresistible. 

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015)

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

Synopsis:  In Fifties Hollywood, the career of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is derailed because of his vocal support for organised labour. With anti-communist paranoia sweeping America, Trumbo is imprisoned over his refusal to testify at a Congressional hearing. Blacklisted by Hollywood, Trumbo is reduced to ghostwriting scripts for a living. 

Oscar reference: When Trumbo's ghosted script for Roman Holiday wins Best Screenplay at the 1954 Oscars, Trumbo is contacted by a studio head who wants to know if the rumours of his authorship are true. 

Oscar success: Cranston has received a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Trumbo, though he's regarded as a long shot for the statuette. 

Fascinating fact: The real Dalton Trumbo indeed won two best screenplay Oscars in the 1950s but was unable to accept the awards as the scripts had been credited to others. 

Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

Rating: A fascinating, if often self-consciously showy, rumination on Hollywood's past sins. The tone can be sanctimonious – yet Cranston is always watchable. Read our review

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Starring: Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Mara Hobel

Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest Credit: Film Stills / Paramount

Synopsis: Adapted from the memoir by the adopted daughter of Hollywood Golden Age star Joan Crawford, the biopic traces the famous actress's abusive and bullying relationship with her children. 

Oscar reference: One of the movie's tensest scenes has Crawford glued to the radio as the Oscar winners are announced (Crawford really did stay away from the 1946 ceremony, feigning illness). "God I hate this night – it turns every year into a crisis," she says. Jitters turn to joy as she wins Best Actress for Mildred Pierce.

Oscar success: Mommie Dearest was seen as a prestige feature for Dunaway (not least by the actress herself, according to rumour). Her failure to be nominated for Best Actress was perceived as a snub. 

Fascinating fact: Having watched Dunaway's eye-rolling turn, Crawford's daughter Christina regretted optioning the rights to her memoir. "My mother didn't deserve that. Miss Dunaway's performance was ludicrous. I didn't see any care for factual information. Now I've seen it I'm sorry I did."

Rating: A soapy melodrama, with Dunaway so over the top it is hard to take seriously. 

The Bodyguard (Mick Jackson, 1992)

Starring: Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner

Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard

Synopsis: Oscar-nominated singer Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is receiving death threats. When a bomb disguised as a doll explodes in her dressing room, former secret service agent Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) is hired to guard her. 

Oscar scene: The would-be murderer is unmasked as Marron steps on stage to receive her Academy Award. Farmer dashes from the wings, intercepting the shot and taking care of the killer – who turns out to be one of his former pals from the Secret Service.

Oscar success: The Bodyguard received two nominations in the Best Original Song category, for I Have Nothing and Run To You. 

Fascinating fact: The script had circulated around Hollywood since the mid-Seventies, with Diana Ross and Steve McQueen initially suggested as leads. 

Ratings: A disposable piece of early Nineties bubblegum, distinguished by a surprisingly nuanced Houston. Costner was as huffing and grumpy as ever, however.