The ones that got away

One critic argues that too many classic films have lost the big prize to inferior films

When Oscar turned 75 back in 2003, the Academy decided to throw a 75-week long birthday party by sponsoring a screening series of all 75 best picture winners.

It was a grand idea, hampered, some noted, only by the films themselves. For if one sticks squarely to that rubber-stamped list of the Academy’s best, that leaves us with only one Ford, one Hitchcock and one Spielberg and absolutely nothing by those perpetual Oscar bridesmaids: Lubitsch, Hawks, Kubrick and Altman.

Proof positive that if, on Feb. 27 Martin Scorsese (who directed four unrewarded best picture nominees prior to “The Aviator”) goes home empty-handed yet again, he can rest assured that he’s in good company.

Other articles have been written about the brilliant performances shafted by Oscar or the many inspired musical scores that fell upon tone-deaf Academy ears. But it’s the list of best picture also-rans that surprises most.

From acknowledged Hollywood classics (“Citizen Kane,” “High Noon”) to hallmarks of the New American Cinema (“The Graduate,” “Bonnie and Clyde”) to the signature work of some of modern movies’ masters (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Jaws,” “Raging Bull”), the best picture honor roll is void of many of the most groundbreaking and lasting screen achievements of the past century.

Yet, whereas the titles mentioned thus far at least managed a nomination, the roster of pics that failed to get even that far is no less jaw-dropping: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Searchers,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

That’s not to suggest the Academy has systematically shut out deserving films, for “Rebecca,” “Annie Hall,” the first two “Godfather” pictures and “The Silence of the Lambs” all managed to claim Oscar’s most coveted prize.

But so did “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” (in the same year as “Apocalypse Now”), “Ordinary People” (beating out “Raging Bull”) and “Dances With Wolves” (over “GoodFellas”), and one must ask when was the last time anyone popped one of those into the DVD player?

They’re not bad films per se — not uniformly bad, at least — but they haven’t aged well, and therefore help to illustrate the complex mix of strategy and sentiment that goes into deciding on a best picture.

As the only Oscar both nominated and voted on by the entire Academy membership, best picture is about so much more than good or bad, deserving or undeserving. It may be about a picture’s physical scale (“Titanic”) or its perceived social importance (“Gandhi”), the opportunity to recognize some long-overlooked talent (“Unforgiven”) or, ever more so, a clever marketing campaign (“Shakespeare in Love”).

It may be about the Academy’s desire to uphold a certain “tradition of quality” at a moment when renegades seem about to storm the gates. (Hence, the triumph of “In the Heat of the Night” in that tumultuous year of 1967.)

In rare cases, there may even be an embarrassment of riches, as when in 1950 voters had to decide between “Sunset Blvd.,” “Born Yesterday” and “All About Eve.” In other cases still, the wrong films may win for the right reasons — so that even those nonplussed by “Gladiator” and “Chicago” might acknowledge how crucial both films’ wins were to the revival of their respective genres.

On the surface, there seems precious little rhyme and even less reason to such machinations. Yet, even at a moment when Oscar-caliber filmmaking has become almost the exclusive domain of the mini-majors and independents, one can detect a certain consistency among the last two decades of best picture winners.

For all their villainous orc armies and CGI-enhanced Roman landscapes, they remain films indebted to certain classical modes of storytelling and craftsmanship that remind us Hollywood (or at least the idea of Hollywood) is still alive and well.

Which is another way of saying that, for all the attention given to “Sideways,” come Oscar night the gentle road movie about wine and women may well have its wings clipped by “The Aviator” or find itself knocked out cold by “Million Dollar Baby.”

But whatever happens, it’s time (and not Oscar) that proves the ultimate judge of any movie’s worth. And it may be that in the digital era, the true best pictures will be those selected by a new Academy — the one comprising deep-pocketed consumers for their personal DVD libraries.

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