The Academy Awards turn 86 this Sunday, and just like any 86-year-old, some parts of it have aged well (like awarding Citizen Kane with Best Screenplay in 1941) . . . and some others not so much (like awarding How Green Was My Valley Best Picture of 1941 instead). There are two central problems with attempting to evaluate the thinking process of past Oscar voters: Firstly, they lacked the luxury of hindsight when they cast their ballots, and although that isn’t a great defense for those who voted for An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, those voters were undoubtedly influenced by factors unrecognizable to modern movie audiences (such as popular tastes, genre conventions, and reputations of individual filmmakers and performers of the time). The second problem is that critiquing movies is inherently a personal, subjective act. I love Kramer vs. Kramer and I think it’s probably the best film ever to win Best Picture, but I also don’t deny that I’m in the minority there.
Therefore, in order to attempt to erase as much annoying subjectivity as possible, I’ve structured this article in a particular way. I will use each of the major eight categories (Original/Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor/Actress, Lead Actor/Actress, Director and Picture) to reconsider the best and worst individual decisions in Academy Award history. Each category will have five all-time nominees, except for Best Picture, which will have between 5-10 nominees, just like the real Oscars. In order to give proper consideration to the totality of Oscar history, each year will be represented by one past winner and no more (for example, as noted above, the 1951 Oscars had some questionable winners, but only one category from that year will be used). I have tried to eliminate personal bias as much as possible and think more broadly about the general cultural consensus that exists about who deserved which award and for what reason.
The final point of this article? To wax poetics over the great (and not so great) movies that have graced Oscar history and get excited for this Sunday’s ceremony!
NOTE: Best Supporting Actor and Actress were not awarded until 1936. The Screenplay Awards were not formally divided between Original and Adapted (at least, the way we recognize them today) only after 1940. The lists here try their best to reflect those changes, but in some cases, the makeup of the categories is imperfect.
The All-Time Worst Winners
1940: The Great McGinty over Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator
1956: The Red Balloon over La Strada, The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Ladykillers
1985: Witness over Back to the Future
1989: Dead Poets Society over Crimes and Misdemeanors, Do the Right Thing, and When Harry Met Sally…
AND THE WINNER IS:
1959: Pillow Talk over The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, and Wild Strawberries
Preston Sturges’ lone Oscar win didn’t come for a particularly memorable film, and a 34-minute French film with no dialogue somehow beat out two of the great European screenplays of the 1950s. Back to the Future lost out to an unexceptional Harrison Ford police procedural, while a clichéd, sappy ripoff of Goodbye Mr. Chips beat three of the most iconic screenplays of the 1980s.
But the most unforgivable injustice here is Pillow Talk – a breezy but trivial and unmemorable Doris Day vehicle – somehow beating three of the most memorable and influential movies of all-time. Put it this way: When the narrative structure of Wild Strawberries was refitted for contemporary audiences, it came in the forms of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry. When Pillow Talk was remade, it was Down With Love. Case closed.
1930: The Big House over All Quiet on the Western Front
1936: The Story of Louis Pasteur over My Man Godfrey and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
1937: The Life of Emile Zola over The Awful Truth
1955: Love Me or Leave Me over Rebel Without a Cause
AND THE WINNER IS:
1944: Going My Way over Double Indemnity
The Big House was a slimy pre-code prison film with Wallace Beery, while All Quiet on the Western Front was the sound era’s first epic. Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola were interesting French historical figures who each apparently looked like Paul Muni, but I doubt contemporary audiences would watch either of those biopics ahead of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or The Awful Truth. The screenplay division of Academy voters apparently loved Doris Day movies, but this one is even less-remembered than Pillow Talk, while every college dorm has a poster of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause located in someone’s room.
But Going My Way over Double Indemnity? Don’t get me wrong, everyone loves Bing Crosby’s dopey singing voice and a happy, upbeat portrayal of the Catholic clergy, but Double Indemnity vaulted the noir film to immortality. In addition, it happens to be probably the best American screenplay of the 1940s, somehow besting even the legendary James M. Cain novel from which it was based. Of course, Going My Way also somehow beat Double Indemnity for Best Picture in 1944, which adds insult to injury but also gives us a better perspective of the distorted mentality of 1944 voters.
1949: Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men over Ethel Waters, Pinky
1976: Beatrice Straight, Network over Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver
1992: Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny over Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives
2004: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator over Virginia Madsen, Sideways
AND THE WINNER IS:
2003: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain over the field (Shohreh Aghdashloo, Patricia Clarkson, Marcia Gay Harden, Holly Hunter)
McCambridge was one of the most notoriously bad actresses of her era, while Ethel Waters was one of the most cruelly underrated due to her race. Straight was onscreen for five minutes, while Foster exploded onto the scene in an unglamorous role few well-known child actors would have ever pursued. Most people agree that Jack Palance was either drunk or had lofty expectations when he read Tomei’s name at the 1992 ceremony, while Blanchett’s glorified interpretation of Oscar’s all-time favorite performer doesn’t hold up to Madsen’s vulnerability and complexity.
But Zellweger winning is truly indefensible. 2003 wasn’t a great year for the Supporting Actress, but Zellweger’s performance as the outrageously colorful, zippy farmhand came off as either an odd imitation of Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind or Oscar-baiting at its most shameless. It’s generally agreed that the Academy felt bad for her snubs for Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago, but that’s no reason to honor a hack job.
1987: Sean Connery, The Untouchables over Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom
1993: Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive over Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and John Malkovich, In the Line of Fire
1994: Martin Landau, Ed Wood over Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction
1996: Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire over William H. Macy, Fargo and Edward Norton, Primal Fear
AND THE WINNER IS:
1999: Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules over Tom Cruise, Magnolia, Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile and Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense
Connery’s Irish-American brogue was voted the worst accent in the history of movies (beating out Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins – a feat almost more impressive than the Oscar win), while Jones basically played the same role he’s been playing since time immemorial, and in the process beat out one of the most memorable villains (Malkovich) and retards (DiCaprio) ever conceived on film. Landou was amusing in Ed Wood until he dies midway through the film, while Cuba Gooding gave an acceptance speech that took more acting chops than the role he played. Meanwhile, Jackson, Macy and Norton – three of the best actors of this generation – remain frustratingly trophy-less.
But Caine’s win in 1999 is particularly annoying. I even remember the ceremony it happened, and thinking at the time that it was a grave mistake. Caine already had an Oscar win (for a much better performance), had played the perfunctory “sage-but-loving mentor figure” Oscar loves handing Supporting Actor awards to, and the win occurred right in the middle of Miramax’s most egregious Oscar campaigning. Adding to the frustration is the fact that not only have none of the other three actors approached the levels of their nominated performances of 1999, but will probably never be nominated ever again (given Duncan’s untimely death in 2012, Osment’s stints in rehab, and Cruise’s real-life craziness).
Actress in a Leading Role
1931: Marie Dressler, Min and Bill over Marlene Dietrich, Morocco
1942: Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver over Bette Davis, Now, Voyager
1965: Julie Christie, Darling over Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music
2011: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady over the field (Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, and Michelle Williams)
AND THE WINNER IS:
1950: Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday over Bette Davis, All About Eve and Gloria Swanson, Sunset Boulevard
Dressler was a popular older character actress in the early sound era, but there’s no question between her and Dietrich who is better remembered and more important. Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture, and there were those great stories about Garson giving a 45-minute acceptance speech (it was actually only six minutes, although it still holds the record for all-time length), but when you think of star power in the woman’s film during the classical era, you think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager. 1965 voters went for “vogue” rather than “logical” in their selection of the sexy Julie over the singing Julie, while Meryl Streep’s imitation of Margaret Thatcher was in a mediocre movie no one saw.
But Judy Holliday’s win came over not just one of the all-time great leading actress performances in movie history, but two of them. How did this ever happen? Legend has it that Davis’ co-star in Eve, Ann Baxter, petitioned for a Best Actress nomination alongside Davis, which split the votes, leaving Holliday emerging as the victorious dark horse. But this still fails to explain how Swanson lost – arguably, her performance is more memorable and iconic than even Davis. And at the end of the day, All About Eve still won Best Picture, while Sunset Boulevard ranked #12 on the AFI’s top films of the 20th Century. Born Yesterday was remade in 1993 starring Melanie Griffith and John Goodman. If anyone ever tried to remake All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard – and any current actress was cast as Margo Channing or Norma Desmond – they would be shot.
Actor in a Leading Role
1946: Frederic March, The Best Years of Our Lives over James Stewart, It’s a Wonderful Life
1967: Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night over Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate and Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke
1974: Art Carney, Harry and Tonto over Jack Nicholson, Chinatown and Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II
2001: Denzel Washington in Training Day over Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
AND THE WINNER IS:
1943: Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
March’s and Steiger’s wins make sense in retrospect, since the Academy swooned over their films and needed to give out some acting awards (although in the case of Steiger, he is overshadowed in his own film by Sidney Poitier). No one in 1946 could have possibly imagined how deeply ingrained in the culture George Bailey would become, while 1967 voters probably knew how important Hoffman and Newman’s roles would be, but were probably hesitant to award films so quirky and progressive. Carney is great in Harry and Tonto, but when you mention his name, you think “Ed Norton” before you think of the old guy with the cat that somehow beat out Jake Gittes and Michael Corleone. And Denzel is powerful in Training Day, but instead of thanking the Academy, he should have thanked Russell Crowe’s unpopular outbursts and their effects on gossip-loving voters.
Rick Blaine is the most iconic leading character in the history of motion pictures – maybe the most recognizable fictional figure in the history of American popular culture. As for Lukas, I had to look up on Wikipedia who actually won Best Actor that year.
1932: Frank Borzage for Bad Girl over Joseph von Sternberg, Shanghai Express
1964: George Cukor, My Fair Lady over Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
2010: Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech over David Fincher, The Social Network
2012: Ang Lee, Life of Pi over Ben Affleck, Argo*
AND THE WINNER IS:
1968: Sir Carol Reed, Oliver! over Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey
According to Wikipedia, Bad Girl is a 1932 film about "the day-to-day lives and loves of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives." Leave it to the Oscars to reward the dullest movie of the pre-code era instead of giving Best Director to one of the most visionary and unique scenarists of the classical era. Everyone was shocked when That One British Dude Who Directed The King's Speech somehow beat out David Fincher, and even more shocked when Ben Affleck didn't receive an Oscar nomination for the film which ultimately went home with 2012's top award. Instead, Ang Lee went home with the trophy. If we could magically transport back to December 2012, what would have been the odds of that happening? 1000 to 1?
But the real loser here of course is Kurbick, who lost out to two laughably dated musicals, as well as a third loss in 1971 (when he was nominated for A Clockwork Orange). None of those losses really make any sense, but especially not when Sir Carol beat him in 1968. 2001 was Kubrick's most widely seen and economically successful film (it was the top-grossing movie of 1968, earning nearly twice as much money as Oliver!). No other director could have successfully married special effects and philosophical abstraction the way Kubrick did in 2001, and the film has subsequently set the basis for virtually all modern cinematic deep-space science fiction. The only thing memorable about Oliver! was that it announced the death of the musical as a viable Best Picture, becoming the last of its kind to take Oscar's top prize for the next 34 years.
1933: Cavalcade over The Private Life of Henry VIII
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty over Top Hat
1938: You Can’t Take It With You over Grand Illusion
1951: An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon
1990: Dances With Wolves over GoodFellas
1998: Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan
2005: Crash over Brokeback Mountain
AND THE WINNER IS:
1941: How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane
1933 voters inexplicably decided the Brit they wanted to award was Noel Coward rather than Alexander Korda (although Charles Laughton won Best Actor in one of the more memorable performances from the early 1930s). Top Hat is the penultimate Astaire-Rogers musical, while Grand Illusion a top-three pick on the Sight and Sound all-time list. 1951 and 1952 were atrocities, but were they worse than Dances With Wolves beating GoodFellas? We can now chalk the events of 1998 up to a little studio called Miramax, but how does that account for Brokeback Mountain losing to a film that came and went during the month of May? And even though I think Crash is the better film, the amount of fervor the 2005 race still causes on discussion boards and at Oscar parties is enough to seriously question whether, in this case, awarding the right film was even worth it in the first place.
But nothing comes close to 1941, which became immortalized by two events: The attack on Pearl Harbor and the release of Citizen Kane. How Green Was My Valley is now remembered less as a motion picture and more as the answer to the all-time most-asked Oscar trivia question. Here’s the real question: How much of Kane’s near shutout (it only won for screenplay) was a result of antipathy by Oscar voters toward Orson Welles and fear toward William Randolph Hurst’s publishing empire? According to Emanuel Levy in his excellent book And the Winner Is…: The History and Politics of the Oscar Awards, Oscar voters opted for the safe ideology of John Ford over the downbeat, possibly libelous product of a 26-year-old enfant terrible who was popularly thought to win an award someday. But this account still doesn’t explain how Oscar voters nonetheless awarded Citizen Kane’s screenplay, the root of its controversy. Now it’s just funny to look at How Green Was My Valley beating out Kane not only in Best Picture, but also in Art Direction and Editing. In addition, 1941 voters also completely looked past The Maltese Falcon, which went 0-for-3. Yikes.
The All-Time Best Winners
1960: Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, The Apartment
1986: Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters
2000: Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous
2002: Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her
AND THE WINNER IS:
1934: Robert Riskin, It Happened One Night
Major props given to the Oscars for awarding two deeply dark and cynical comedies (The Apartment and Hannah and Her Sisters) that have stood the test of time. Almost Famous was far and away a better screenplay than Billy Elliot, Erin Brockovich, and Gladiator (!) but everyone knows how notoriously rare it is for the crowd favorite to actually win. Talk to Her was the winner of an interesting year which also featured a Spanish-language nominee (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as well as a film masquerading as a truthful examination of Greek culture.
But Riskin’s screenplay for It Happened One Night is influential because it occurred at a crucial point in film history. Sound had become standard practice in Hollywood films only five years earlier, and it had fundamentally shifted the mode of film production away from grand aesthetic spectacles and more dialogue-driven narratives. It Happened One Night was the first comedy to win Best Picture because it showed the alluring power of high-quality dialogue. It established standard tropes for what became known as “romantic comedies” and is still witty and entertaining today – due in large part to the talents of Frank Capra, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert, of course, but especially to its screenplay.
1953: Daniel Taradash, From Here to Eternity
1958: Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith, The Defiant Ones
1979: Robert Benton, Kramer vs. Kramer
1981: Ernest Thompson, On Golden Pond
AND THE WINNER IS:
1983: James L. Brooks, Terms of Endearment
Taradash’s screenplay for From Here to Eternity may not feel state-of-the-art upon viewing, but if you consider that (A) it was adapted from a 900-page stream-of-consciousness novel, (B) major portions of the story had to be cut due to the Production Code Administration’s demands, and (C) it managed to delegate enough equal screen time among its all-star cast to lead to five acting nominations, then Tardash’s screenplay comes off as a considerable accomplishment. The Defiant Ones was one of the few 1950s features to deal with race relations with grit and realism instead of sensationalism, while Kramer vs. Kramer treated divorce with subtlety over sentimentality. On Golden Pond remains one of the best examples of a successful transition from stage to screen.
But my vote here goes to Terms of Endearment. Why? Because with each passing year, the Academy’s praise of Terms of Endearment looks better and better. Not too long ago, it was popularly remembered as a pedestrian and manipulative tearjerker-of-the-week, with overacting by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger and some goofy antics by Jack Nicholson. But for whatever reason, audiences now tend to look back on the film with greater favorability (a sentiment I’ve always had about the film). Maybe this is the result of James L. Brooks’ tremendous success after the film, or maybe it’s because more people are realizing this kind of film is tough to make. The truth is, the screenplay brilliantly manages to oscillate between high comedy and heartbreaking drama, and there really is not a moment of it that rings false in any fashion. While other Oscar winners from three decades ago look stale, Terms of Endearment is still fresh and engaging, which is a reflection of the high quality of its witty screenplay.
1939: Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind
1957: Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara
1962: Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker
1971: Cloris Leachman in The Last Picture Show
AND THE WINNER IS:
1973: Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon
McDaniel’s win is one of the legendary moments of Oscar history – a significant African-American performer receiving overdue recognition for what was a truly great performance in a truly great film. A similar sentiment can be applied to Umeki, who won in an era when Asian characters and actors were extremely rare, and when they did appear, they were often in the form of gross stereotypes. Duke’s Oscar came when she was only 16 years old, making her (at the time) the youngest winner ever in a competitive category, while Leachman won for an unglamorous, desperate role that was novel for the 1970s.
But O’Neal’s win stands out here for a few reasons. One is that she was 10 years old. Another is that she was clearly the best part of Paper Moon, a movie which holds up pretty well today, and even though her role was technically the lead, the Academy recognized that without her charisma and spark, the film wouldn’t have gone anywhere (and speaking of lead actress, which performance has stood the test of time better: O’ Neal’s, or Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class, the lead actress winner in 1973?) Of course, similar praise can be bestowed on Patty Duke and Anna Paquin in 1993, but because O’Neal carried so much of the movie on her own, her Oscar was particularly well-deserved.
1947: Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street
1978: Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter
1988: Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda
2007: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
AND THE WINNER IS:
2008: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
No other actor can sufficiently play Santa Claus without someone invariably comparing their performance to Gwenn (who really convincingly looked like Santa Claus) while recognizing a virtually unknown Christopher Walken in 1978 looks pretty prescient in retrospect. Kline’s performance stands out as one of the funniest in movie history (which made it all the more unlikely that the Academy would actually award it), and Bardem was widely considered to be the most sinister villain modern audiences had ever seen . . .
Until one year later, in 2008. Heath Ledger’s death gave a startling mysticism to his performance as the Joker, a role which could have been treated as a throwaway comic villain. But Ledger treated the role as a tortured, sinister, psychopathic deviant. Beyond simply applying unrecognizable makeup and using a startling voice, Ledger’s role now stands as the lone villain (with the possible exception of Hannibal Lector) by which all other villains – whether in superhero movies or not – are judged. And let’s be honest – does anyone really remember The Dark Knight for anything other than Ledger? And this was the film that was responsible for expanding Best Picture nominees beyond five. With anyone other than Ledger, The Dark Knight is nothing more than a standard summer movie sequel (which is what The Dark Knight Rises ended up being, perhaps inevitably). Ledger elevates the role and the movie to immortality.
1929: Mary Pickford in Coquette
1945: Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
1966: Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
1975: Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
AND THE WINNER IS:
1982: Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice
Coquette wasn’t exactly Pickford’s most memorable role, but she was one of the few silent stars that the Academy had the foresight to give a competitive Oscar to. Crawford and Taylor are exhibits A and B in illustrating the practice of glamorous actresses risking their popular images by taking on seedy, unpleasant roles – and winning well-deserved Oscars in the process. Fletcher’s iconic performance stands out as possibly the greatest female villain in movie history, more than holding her own in what is typically remembered as “a Jack Nicholson movie.”
But Streep gave the performance of a lifetime in 1982 in one of the few Oscar categories that can’t really be seriously debated anywhere. She’s been nominated about 14 million times, but there’s no real question about what her all-time greatest performance is. It’s also one of the few mainstream performances that’s mentally draining to watch. The drama in Sophie’s Choice is incredibly unpleasant, and even Streep has said she can’t bear to watch parts of it.
1963: Sidney Poitier, Lilies of the Field
1970: George C. Scott, Patton
1991: Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs
1995: Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas
AND THE WINNER IS:
1980: Robert De Niro, Raging Bull
Poitier’s win came at a critical point of civil rights history that, as a result of giving him a well-deserved Best Actor award, the Academy ultimately ended up on the right side of. Scott’s win was slightly different; everyone knew it was a great performance, but alienated himself from the Academy by criticizing them. But the Academy ate up its pride and did the right thing, providing one of the more memorable moments in the category’s history. Hopkins probably logged less actual screen time than any other Best Actor recipient, but anytime an actor plays the most memorable villain in movie history (as voted on by the AFI), he probably deserves some sort of Academy recognition. And it isn’t just Todd who thinks Cage’s performance is one for the ages (and coming in a particularly stacked year too, with Richard Dreyfuss, Sean Penn and Hopkins giving excellent roles).
But like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, there’s no one out there who can contest whether or not De Niro deserved the Oscar in 1980. It’s simply not debatable. The performance demanded enormous fluctuations in physical appearance (both health-wise and age-wise) as well as psychological depth. As it stands today, Raging Bull is remembered as a technical marvel in terms of its cinematography and editing, but even those elements are overshadowed by De Niro’s once-in-a-lifetime performance.
1948: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
1954: Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
2006: Martin Scorsese, The Departed
2009: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
AND THE WINNER IS:
1961: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, West Side Story
Huston made The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and after World War II broke out, worked for the Army Signal Corps, making movies about the wartime experiences of soldiers. When he returned to Hollywood, he had no problems picking up where he left off in genre pictures, elevating The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to one of the best Warner films of the 1940s (he also directed his father to an Oscar win – no easy task). Kazan also directed a film which holds up very well for modern audiences, but like George C. Scott in 1970, awarding him the Oscar in spite of his controversial political actions was ultimately the right thing for the Academy to do. Scorsese’s win in 2006 was a great moment, and it was nice that it wasn’t just an “apology” Oscar (like Paul Newman in 1986), but an award given for one of his truly best films. And Bigelow’s win wasn’t just a great moment for women, but for independent directors in general.
But Robbins and Wise stand out here because they are the only directors to share an Oscar (besides the Coen Brothers). This reflects the fact that movies are about collaboration more than the single authorial and artistic faculties of an individual. And could there be a better example of this than West Side Story – a film whose success is the perfected mixture of a brilliant story, fantastic dance sequences, and memorable music? According to Roger Ebert, Robbins’ elaborate choreography took three months just to rehearse, and was frequently changed when the cast and crew went on location to shoot. But you can see all the effort when watching the film, which is rife with not only spectacular entertainment, but unique and innovative interpretations of how dance is able to reflect mood and emotion. Is it the best example of directing ever to win the Oscar? Maybe not, but I still love what it stands for.
1969: Midnight Cowboy
1972: The Godfather over Cabaret
1977: Annie Hall over Star Wars
AND THE WINNER IS:
1928: Wings wins “Outstanding Picture” and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans winning “Unique and Artistic Production”
In 1969, Midnight Cowboy defied the conventions of “safe, wholesome” entertainment by becoming the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture. In 1972, The Godfather defied the convention of the elaborate musical winning Best Picture, and this decision looks pretty wise four decades later. In 1977, Annie Hall beat Star Wars for Best Picture – a major victory for all cinephiles who value intelligent writing over superficial glitz. In 1984, Amadeus showed that Best Pictures could be as sophisticated works of high culture, but with blistering irony and satire. In 1997, Titanic embodied everything that movies offer us – riveting, spectacular entertainment, star-making performances, and even the most iconic movie song of the last several decades – and over the years, its backlash has become gradually minimized.
But I can’t help but go back to the first ever Oscars – yes, that 15-minute ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel where tickets were five dollars and no one thought much of it at the time. It remains the only Oscar ceremony to award two movies with top honors: The war epic Wings and the poetic love story Sunrise. Both are films that hold up well (all the more impressive when considering that both are silent); Wings recently had a theatrical reissue as well as a Blu-Ray release while many scholars consider Sunrise the most important and innovative silent film of the 1920s. But what is most commendable about the 1928 Oscars was that voters had the foresight to acknowledge that film constitutes as much a business as it does an art. Some films are made to reflect the interests of mass audiences (such as Wings’ box office success at the heels of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight) while others are made to appeal to specific tastes of intelligent viewers (evidenced by Sunrise’s daring use of superimposition, deep focus and expressionistic sets and shadows).
This is what modern Oscars fail to grasp. Comparing 12 Years a Slave to Gravity isn’t exactly like comparing apples to oranges, but it comes close. Both are important, potentially historically significant motion pictures. Depending on which film voters pick on Sunday, the 86th Academy Awards will take on significantly different meanings – either the Oscars still favor classical storytelling over special effects, or voters are becoming more progressive in their acceptance of CGI as a valid platform for cinema. Both statements are reductive, and it’s a fallacy to extract a universal logic from voter’s choices (which this article is admittedly guilty of). But both statements also have degrees of validity to them. Does this mean we should become more pluralistic and separate Best Picture into different categories? Absolutely not. If we did that, we might never have polemic columns like this 86 years from now. The Oscars do make a particular statement when they announce their selection for Best Picture, but that is only the first of two steps. It is our job as audiences to seek out their selections to critically assess whether they were right or not. We are the part of history that holds the Academy Awards accountable.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Let me know below!
Thoughts? Disagreements? Let me know below!