In the nearly 80 years of its existence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has sought out films that, even if they aren’t that good, could at least be considered good for you: adaptations of classic novels and plays, biopics about pivotal figures and large-scale epics of historical sweep.
The template for “best picture” is by no means set in stone, however, and, from time to time, Oscar has allowed a few atypical candidates to slip into the race — and occasionally emerge victorious.
For example, despite the Academy’s disinclination to honor imports in the top categories, the picture category victory by Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” — a U.K. production picked up for distribution by Universal in 1948 — marked the culmination of a door-opening trend that began with an best pic bid for Olivier’s “Henry V” four years earlier, although Prince Hal lost.
By the 1950s, Oscar’s third decade, Hollywood sweep and glamour were the standards by which most best picture contenders were measured. And yet the modest and deglamorized “Marty,” adapted from a teleplay about a lonely Bronx butcher, took the top Oscar in 1955 (as well as a best actor trophy for Ernest Borgnine, no one’s definition of a matinee idol).
In the ’60s, a decade that saw nominations for the restless, taboo-busting works of young filmmakers like Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, perhaps the most atypical best picture contender might have been Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy of Cold War lunacy, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The film, co-written by satirist Terry Southern, was unsurprisingly shut out on Oscar night, but its mere inclusion indicated the relatively daring choices the Academy would favor in the coming years.
By the turn of the decade, Oscar was as bold as ever in delving into the arthouse to fill out his best picture slate. From the sole X-rated pic to win the top Academy Award, 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” through Costa-Gavras’ French-language political thriller “Z” to Robert Altman’s improvisational antiwar comedy “MASH” to Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian view of the future, “A Clockwork Orange,” Oscar couldn’t be called out for playing it safe.
But perhaps nothing more exemplified Oscar’s unpredictability than the best picture nominations for two films from Sweden in the early ’70s: Jan Troell’s “The Emigrants” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers.”
Shortly thereafter, William Friedkin’s supernatural horror “The Exorcist” rode its acclaim into the best pic derby despite its unsavory imagery.
Of course, not even the Academy could ignore the numbers put up by 1975 proto-blockbuster “Jaws,” though its fish vs. man plotline hardly screamed Oscar.
The next year, “Rocky,” written by and starring a virtual unknown, Sylvester Stallone, outslugged “Network,” “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men” and “Bound for Glory” for top honors.
As the age of the blockbuster blossomed, the staggeringly popular space Western “Star Wars” simply couldn’t be denied a slot. But beyond the numbers, the Academy Awards were never known as being particularly welcoming to science fiction and fantasy films — ignoring such well regarded sci-fi works as “Forbidden Planet” and “The War of the Worlds” and even denying a best-pic bid to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
At the 1982 awards, Steven Spielberg’s family-friendly “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” carried the dubious distinction of being the only best pic nominee with an alien in the title role.
Another freakish best picture nomination came in the form of 1987’s “Fatal Attraction,” in which a psychotic played by Glenn Close teaches cheating husband Michael Douglas a lesson he’ll never forget.
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 horror film “The Silence of the Lambs,” in which cannibalism was a leading theme, swept the top five categories despite its serial-killer theme, while Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” marked the first (and only) animated best pic nominee in Academy history.
In 1992, Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” — a brooding drama with a jaw-droppingly racy plot twist that took on a life of its own in the pop-culture firmament — was a hard-charging dark horse in the derby. One would have to dig deep to find another best pic nominee with a transvestite in one of the leads.
In 2000, Taiwan-born filmmaker Ang Lee introduced Oscar to the martial arts with the Chinese-language pic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The first Asian picture to receive a best pic bid, “Crouching Tiger” broke out of the arthouse circuit thanks to distrib Sony Pictures Classics’ savvy marketing, despite the Acad’s notorious bias against foreign-language fare in the best pic race.
However, in terms of best picture-category precedent busting, nothing in recent years compares with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which married one of the Acad’s preferred styles — the sweeping epic — to fantasy, a genre it had rarely acknowledged outside of musicals.
Despite the perceived bias and the fact that the films’ distributor — New Line Cinema — had never managed to score a best pic nomination, in an unprecedented move, the Academy nominated all three features in the “Rings” trilogy, with the final installment, “The Return of the King,” taking home 11 trophies, including the top prize.