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If I ran the Oscars–all of them

Tuesday | February 20, 2007   open printable version open printable version

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Kristin here—

This is Oscar-speculation time in the blogosphere and indeed everywhere in the popular media. David and I haven’t posted any who-should’ve-been-nominated gripes or who-will-win speculations, partly because that would mean that to do so honestly we’d have to see all the plausible contenders.

Certainly we take note of Oscar news in the trade journals, because Oscars do make a difference historically. They impact films’ box-office performance. They can bring a little-known film or performer to prominence or anoint one who really doesn’t deserve it.

These days most of the “minor” categories (anything beyond Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress) can be used to honor films that for one reason or another didn’t get nominated for Best Picture. Turner Classic Movies becomes far less interesting that one month out of the year that it devotes to nothing but films that have been nominated.

One sub-genre of Oscar-related posting has developed: “If I Ran the Oscars.” Such presentations of personal preferences tend to come before the ceremony in any given year, and they deal only with the films of the year just ended. Some of these are based on personal taste—Jackass Number Two instead of Babel, that sort of thing. (Cosgrove does propose this change in his/her list of alternate nominees.)

It’s often hard to judge whether the Best Picture of 2005 or 2006 really deserves its win. In my view, we’re too close to these films. They haven’t stood the test of time. But since all this is fantasizing anyway, why not revamp the entire list back to the first Oscars, back in 1928? I think it would tell us more about the Academy Awards than focusing just on contemporary films does.

Looking back over the span of the Oscars’ history, it becomes quite apparent that the chances that the best picture will really be voted the Best Picture are slim. It’s common to note that greats like Hitchcock and Cary Grant never won Oscars. But how many of the films now widely considered the gems of Hollywood cinema won Best Picture or even got nominated? Not very many.

The main reasons for that are pretty obvious. Academy members equate best with most important, which usually means dramas rather than comedies. Recently, since the political side of Hollywood has become more known to outsiders, “important” also implies social comment (Crash, Babel). Historical epics, biopics, and literary adaptations are also favored. The range of films that could plausibly win Best Picture is very limited.

In Film Art, we talk about how saying that we like a film doesn’t necessarily equate to its being a good film (pp. 63-65 in the 8th edition). There we suggest criteria that a viewer can apply in judging whether a film is good: coherence, unity, intensity of effect, complexity, and originality. On the whole, the Academy has opted for films that are pretty conventional. They’ve got coherence and unity for sure, but those other qualities tend to arise from filmmakers who take conventions, often in very familiar genres, and push them to achieve intensity, complexity, and originality. Think Only Angels Have Wings, with its string of plane crashes taking place as a bizarre love triangle plays itself out . It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen.

In some contexts a film that has been highly influential might be thought of as major, but in picking plausible best-picture candidates, I’m assuming that a film’s impact isn’t significant. Hence a number of obviously important films aren’t on my list.

I’ll go through the entire run of Best-Picture winners up to 2000, giving my own choice (or choices) as to what should have won. Some of these are pretty outrageous, I’ll admit, but I still think the should-have-wons that I list will be watched long after the films that beat them for the golden statuette.

A disclaimer: I haven’t seen all the Best-Picture winners. After thirty years in the business of studying the cinema, I usually can judge ahead of time whether I’ll enjoy seeing a film. Sometimes I err. I definitely should have seen Beetlejuice and Groundhog Day when they first were in theaters, but they just sounded so silly. (Silly and great aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Isn’t the situation in Twelfth Night pretty silly?) I have, however, seen all of the alternative, more deserving films—some many times. They are the classics.

I’ve used Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar as my source for a much of the information on which films were eligible for nomination in any given year. (The authors conveniently list eligible but non-nominated films in their run-down of nominees and awards.) These include foreign films, which would have been eligible in the year they were released in the U.S. There were undoubtedly other imports eligible, but I’ve included imports only when Wiley and Bona specify that a foreign film was an option.

To start with, I do think that occasionally the Best Picture award has gone to a film deserving of that honor:

1934 It Happened One Night I’m not entirely convinced that this was the best English-language feature of the year. I would rather watch Twentieth Century any day. Some would opt for Scarlet Empress, though I think Von Sternberg pushed his baroque style too far with this one. It Happened One Night is Capra’s penultimate movie before he started making his trademark social comedies, so I’ll let him have this one.

1941 How Green Was My Valley Yes, yes, Citizen Kane came out that year, and it’s a great film and deserved its nomination. I happen to think that HGWMV is one of Ford’s best and one of the greatest American sound films. Honorable mentions: The Little Foxes also deserved its nomination. The Lady Eve deserved to be nominated.

1970 Patton I have to admit that I haven’t seen this since it first came out, and I didn’t know much about film in those days. In my memory, it seems like the David Lean type of epic that so impresses Academy voters. 1970 didn’t give us a lot of good movies, though, and I can’t think of anything else.

1972 The Godfather In the dismal period of Hollywood that was the late 1960s and early 1970s, here were the first stirrings of a revitalization of American cinema through genre cinema.

1974 The Godfather Part II

1984 Amadeus This choice may seem to fit into the prestige biopic category that I’m always deriding. In Storytelling in the New Hollywood I devote a chapter to explaining why I think the narrative structure is excellent. Beyond that, though, I think here the filmmakers managed to create an unusually delicate balance between obnoxious and sympathetic traits in both protagonists. They also cared more about making an entertaining film than about telling the actual story of these two composers.

1991 The Silence of the Lambs Like the Godfather films, an indication that if a genre film is bone-obviously great, the Academy can depart from its conventional stance. Who would have thought that what is basically a high-toned slasher film (one released in February at that) would make it to the top?

That’s 7 out of 73 that I agree with, sometimes less than wholeheartedly.

There are a few other winners that I think are credible choices, even though one or more other films outshone each:

1927-28 Wings / I like Wings, but Sunrise came out that year and wasn’t even nominated. It did get some sort of consolation prize called “Artistic Quality of Production,” a category later dropped. I actually prefer Seventh Heaven (which was nominated).

1929-30 All Quiet on the Western Front / I’d choose either Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (nominated) or Vidor’s Hallelujah! (not nominated).

1938 You Can’t Take It with You / It’s a fun film, but Grand Illusion was actually nominated that year and lost! Even if the Academy members missed noticing Renoir’s genius, let’s not forget that another comedy, Bringing up Baby came out that year, too—and wasn’t nominated.

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives / In most other years this film would have deserved Best Picture, but look at the competition! For me, more or less a tie: Notorious, The Big Sleep, and My Darling Clementine (none nominated). Some would say Open City, Brief Encounter, or Children of Paradise (none nominated).

1950 All about Eve / I love this film, one of the few great ones you can point to by a second-rank auteur; with that script and those performers, who could go wrong? Still, two films deserved it more: Rules of the Game or runner-up, Winchester 73, neither of which was nominated.

1960 The Apartment / I haven’t seen this since I was a kid, but I’ve got to believe that the non-nominated Psycho was the best Hollywood film of the year.

1977 Annie Hall / I don’t feel strongly about this, but there are two from this year that for me hold up very well on multiple viewings: The Late Show and Providence, neither nominated.

So that’s another seven I could live with. That’s fourteen total. Then there are the ones where I think there were other, better films, period:

1928-29 Broadway Melody / The great period of Keaton’s career didn’t last far into the Oscar era, but he deserved it for Steamboat Bill, Jr. which wasn’t nominated). Lubitsch’s The Patriot might have been a great film, and it was nominated, but it doesn’t seem to survive.

1930-31 Cimarron / My choice, Morocco (not nominated).

1931-32 Grand Hotel / My choice, Shanghai Express (not nominated). I’m not a huge Von Sternberg fan, but he was in his prime in the early thirties.

1932-33 Cavalcade / Trouble in Paradise was not even nominated! Given that Cavalcade is looked back upon as one of the worst best-picture winners ever, this was perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in Academy history.

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty / My choices: The Thirty-Nine Steps or Golddiggers of 1935 (neither nominated) or Top Hat (nominated).

1936 The Great Ziegfeld / My choices: Fury or Swing Time (neither nominated).

1937 The Life of Emile Zola / The obvious choice is You Only Live Once, which was not nominated.

1939 Gone with the Wind / Yes, THE year. Apart from William Cameron Menzies’ art direction, the winner is a bore; Vivien Lee chews the scenery, the burning of Atlanta is not all it’s cracked up to be, but yes, the crane shot over the rows of wounded soldiers is a killer—if you want to sit through a four-hour film for it. Better films? Where to start? There’s Stagecoach (nominated), Young Mr. Lincoln (not nominated), Only Angels Have Wings (obviously not nominated or even considered), The Lady Vanishes (not nominated), Alexander Nevsky (not nominated; not Eisenstein’s best film, but better than GwtW), Ninotchka (not Lubitsch’s best, but better than GwtW) The Wizard of Oz (nominated; not as great as it is fun, but still better than GwtW) The choice is a tough one, but I’d go with Stagecoach.

1940 Rebecca / How does one choose between the sublime Shop around the Corner and the sublime His Girl Friday? Neither was nominated.

1942 Mrs. Miniver / The Magnificent Ambersons (nominated)

1943 Casablanca / I like Casablanca. It’s a fun film. It’s very well scripted, the performances are excellent, etc. To claim it’s one of the greatest films ever made or even the greatest American film of its year strikes me as going overboard. I can think of only one possible choice for this year: Shadow of a Doubt, not nominated.

1944 Going My Way / Another great year, with one obvious choice and a bunch of really good films. The obvious one, Meet Me in St. Louis, wasn’t nominated. Other films I consider deserving: Double Indemnity (nominated, surprisingly), Laura (not nominated), Hail the Conquering Hero (not nominated), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (not nominated).

1945 The Lost Weekend / They Were Expendable, a non-nominated masterpiece.

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement / For me, Ivan the Terrible, Part I (not nominated) is one of the all-time great films. Black Narcissus would have been another good option, but it wasn’t nominated, either.

1948 Hamlet (Olivier version) / I don’t have any great passion for any of these, but they all have their fans and are probably preferable to the winner: The Red Shoes, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both nominated), Red River, Letter from an Unknown Woman (neither nominated)

1949 All the King’s Men / Not a great year, but probably White Heat (not nominated).

1951 An American in Paris / My choice: Strangers on a Train (not nominated)

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth / I cannot choose between the sublime The Quiet Man (nominated) and the sublime Singin’ in the Rain (not nominated).

1953 From here to Eternity / I prefer: The Band Wagon (not nominated), with honorable mentions to Pickup on South Street and The Big Heat (neither nominated)

1954 On the Waterfront / Rear Window, runner-up A Star Is Born (neither nominated)

1955 Marty / My choice: Ugetsu (not nominated), with runner-up, Rebel without a Cause (not nominated).

1956 Around the World in 80 Days / My choices: Seven Samurai (aka The Magnificent Seven), closely followed by The Searchers (neither nominated).

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai / My choice: Forty Guns (nominated? Are you kidding?).

1958 Gigi / Another film I like, but two films that didn’t get nominated more-or-less tie for my vote: Touch of Evil, closely followed by Vertigo.

1959 Ben-Hur / My choice is Rio Bravo, with honorable mentions to The 400 Blows and North by Northwest. Hard to believe that none of them was nominated.

1961 West Side Story / Better choices: Breathless and runner-up L’Avventura (neither nominated).

1962 Lawrence of Arabia / Top choice: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with runners-up Advise and Consent and Jules and Jim (none nominated).

1963 Tom Jones / Obviously there has got to be an alternative, but this was a rough year, with most of the great directors in decline. One of them came through: Shock Corridor, which was not nominated.

1964 My Fair Lady / This year presents the same problem, but another musical comes to mind: A Hard Day’s Night (not nominated).

1965 The Sound of Music / Another woman seeking her place in life gets my vote: Gertrud (not nominated).

1966 A Man for All Seasons / My choice: For a Few Dollars More (not nominated).

1967 In the Heat of the Night / I know what you’re thinking, but no, my choice is Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight), which was not nominated.

1968 Oliver! / I’m no fan of Kubrick, but it has to be said to his credit that this film is better than Oliver!: 2001: A Space Odyssey (not nominated).

1969 Midnight Cowboy / My choice: Once Upon a Time in the West (not nominated).

1971 The French Connection / My choice: Klute (not nominated).

1973 The Sting / Things were definitely picking up by this point. My first choice is American Graffiti, which was nominated; honorable mentions, The Long Goodbye and Badlands (neither nominated).

1975 One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest / My choice: Jaws, which was nominated. (I have not forgotten that Nashville came out this year.)

1976 Rocky / I prefer: All the President’s Men, which was nominated.

1978 The Deer Hunter / Probably Malick’s least interesting film, but … Days of Heaven (not nominated)

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer / Alien or The Marriage of Maria Braun (neither nominated)

1980 Ordinary People / The Elephant Man (nominated), with Raging Bull a close second (nominated)

1981 Chariots of Fire / Raiders of the Lost Ark (nominated) or the sadly overlooked Pennies from Heaven (not nominated)

1982 Gandhi / The Road Warrior (not nominated). Makes for a nice juxtaposition, doesn’t it?

1983 Terms of Endearment / Local Hero; close seconds, The Year of Living Dangerously and The King of Comedy (none nominated)

1985 Out of Africa / Back to the Future (not nominated), honorable mention, Witness (nominated)

1986 Platoon / Take your pick: Blue Velvet (not nominated) or Hannah and Her Sisters (nominated)

1987 The Last Emperor / Raising Arizona a tough choice over The Untouchables (neither nominated)

1988 Rain Man / Beetlejuice (not nominated)

1989 Driving Miss Daisy / Do The Right Thing (not nominated)

1990 Dances with Wolves / Edward Scissorhands or Miller’s Crossing (neither nominated)

1992 Unforgiven / The Last of the Mohicans (not nominated)

1993 Schindler’s List / Groundhog Day, honorable mention Jurassic Park (neither nominated)

1994 Forrest Gump / Pulp Fiction (nominated)

1995 Braveheart / Heat (not nominated)

1996 The English Patient / Fargo (nominated) David keeps telling me to list Jerry Maquire, but that’s his list.

1997 Titanic / L.A. Confidential (nominated)

1998 Shakespeare in Love / The Thin Red Line (nominated)

1999 American Beauty / Magnolia (nominated)

2000 Gladiator / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (nominated), honorable mentions, Topsy-turvy and Chicken Run (neither nominated)

I’ll stop there, since we don’t really have enough perspective yet on the most recent years. Besides, having written a book called The Frodo Franchise, I have something of a conflict of interests when it comes to the 2001 to 2003 contests.

The lessons here are pretty obvious. Chief among them is the fact that the Academy tends to ignore popular genre pictures, even though in retrospect we can see that such films have been the great strength of Hollywood. They’re often the ones we still watch today.

Another lesson is that, though there are many ways to approach film history other than studying auteurs, going by directors is still a good guide to what films, old or new, we are likely to enjoy—and to admire.

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David Bordwell
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