In 70 years, things have not changed.
In its best-picture selections, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has loved the spectacle of 1927’s “Wings” and the grand scope of 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia”; the quirky characters of 1934’s “It Happened One Night” and 1960’s “The Apartment”; and the humanity of 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.”
It also recognized mavericks, like Samuel Goldwyn — an oversize independent producer whose 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives” used amputee Harold Russell in a key role, with Russell earning a supporting-actor Oscar as well as a special trophy for the film.
In short, the Academy Award-winners of the past resemble the Oscar nominees of 1998.
Parallels pop up easily with today’s nominees: “Arabia’s” review duly notes its $15 million budget and troubled three-year gestation, a la “Titanic”; “All About Eve” was tagged “a literate, adult film” (think “L.A. Confidential”); “It Happened One Night” is sparked by screwball acting, dialog, situations and direction (“As Good as It Gets,” “The Full Monty”); and “How Green Was My Valley’s” perfs were “fine yet forceful, punchy yet almost underplayed in their deeper meanings” (“Good Will Hunting”).
Daily Variety reviewed them all, and sometimes we were right on the money: “Gone With the Wind” “comes to the screen as one of the truly great films” and “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race “represents some 40 minutes of the most hair-raising excitement that film audiences have ever witnessed.”
But our reviewers — while recognizing artistic merit — were not that enthralled with such eventual winners as “Out of Africa” or “The Godfather,” and for Frank Capra’s 1938 “You Can’t Take It With You,” the first five inches of the review discussed its budget, long length and effect on the play, which was running simultaneously on Broadway.
The critical thinking applied to film reviewing may have evolved over the years, but the basics remain the same: Does it entertain? Does it appeal to both men and women? Is the budget onscreen? Will it be a money-spinner?
On the following pages are some of the best of the best from the pages of Variety and Daily Variety: reviews of groundbreak-ing or box office-breaking — sometimes both — best picture Oscar-winners. Some editorial styles have changed over the years, and slanguage like “sock” (i.e., boffo) have been resurrected.