At its first ceremony in 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences handed out two distinct top awards. One — discontinued after that year — was designated artistic quality of production, and went to F.W. Murnau’s expressionistic morality tale “Sunrise.” The other was for best production, given to William A. Wellman’s “Wings,” which was quite a production: Thrilling audiences with aerial dogfights and realistic combat scenes, the World War I drama cost a then-massive $2 million, contained sequences filmed in (primitive) color and was partially shot in a widescreen process.
Over the years, it’s “Wings,” the best production, not “Sunrise,” the artistic choice, that is officially cited as the first best picture winner, which is telling. Looking at 75 years of Oscar honorees, and nominees, it’s clear Academy voters are frequently drawn to grandiosity like moths to a very bright flame.
Although the Oscar success of imposing movies has fluctuated due to various external influences, the Academy’s long-standing willingness to equate quantity (in terms of budget) with quality can only bring a sense of optimism to supporters of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Seabiscuit,” “Cold Mountain,” “Master and Commander: The Other Side of the World” and even the critically disparaged but picturesque “The Last Samurai.”
Matter of semantics
The Academy quickly became cognizant of the siren call of large-scale spectacles, so for its fourth ceremony, honoring films of 1929-30, the organization officially changed the category from best production to best picture, attempting to counter any subliminal effect the original name may have had. The semantic change didn’t affect voting patterns — extravaganzas had a leg up on the competition, from Lewis Milestone’s anti-war tract “All Quiet on the Western Front” to the empire-building “Cimarron” to the star-powered “Grand Hotel.”
If Frank Capra’s screwball romance “It Happened One Night” was considered a modest sleeper next to the heavyweight competition in 1934 — Cecil B. DeMille’s splendiferous “Cleopatra” and the sprawling “House of Rothschild” — its down-to-earth playfulness would earmark Capra as a populist favorite over the years. A second Capra comedy, “You Can’t Take It With You,” would win in 1938, but in the meantime it had been business as usual. John Ford’s “The Informer,” considered the apogee of cinematic art in 1935, was defeated by the no-expense-spared “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a result that led to a disgruntled editorial from the New York Times.
David O. Selznick’s “Gone With the Wind” predictably scored big in 1939, but after that a new sensibility took hold. Throughout the ’40s, the Academy honored smaller, character-driven films, as if the harsh realities of the war and its aftermath led voters to focus on individual concerns and personal interaction.
Austerity vs. opulence
In fact, hardly any movies that could be deemed epic received nominations during the decade, and the high-budget pics that were finalists, such as Selznick’s homefront saga “Since You Went Away” (1944) and “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) concentrated on human relationships.
Even contending war films, such as the Powell-Pressburger “The Invaders” in 1941 and William Wellman’s “Battleground” (made in 1949, four years after hostilities ended), emphasized characterizations rather than rousing heroics. Among the picture nominees of the ’40s, only Darryl F. Zanuck’s “Wilson” (1944) was overwhelmingly huge, and it lost to Leo McCarey’s gentle “Going My Way.”
In the early 1950s, old-style epics re-emerged as nominees, but “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) and the Roman antiquity “Quo Vadis” (1951) lost to, respectively, “All About Eve” and the musical “An American in Paris”; the latter had its elaborate moments, but its budget was more in line with dramatic nominees “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Place in the Sun.”
Finally, in 1952, an unabashed piece of razzmatazz landed in the winner’s circle, although it must be said that, with its circus background, “The Greatest Show on Earth” was not nearly as extravagant as most of DeMille’s divertissements.
By and large, humanism and social issues continued to prevail, and three black-and-white dramas followed “Greatest Show” to take Oscar gold: “From Here to Eternity,” “On the Waterfront” and “Marty.” (While the tale of a lonely Bronx butcher was a bare-bones affair, its Oscar campaign was not — more money was shelled out shilling “Marty” to Academy voters than had been spent making the movie itself.)
Nevertheless, during the mid-1950s the ballots were dappled with intermittent elephantine efforts, including “The Robe”; as hokey as it may have been, the first CinemaScope feature was considered the quintessence of Hollywood showmanship in 1953 and it occupied the front lines in the battle against television.
Matter of survival
As audiences increasingly stayed home, the Oscars more and more embraced the kind of fare you couldn’t find on TV. Reminiscent of the Academy’s first decade, a new vogue for prodigiousness kicked off when Mike Todd’s cameo-laden travelogue “Around the World in 80 Days” won for picture in 1956, followed by David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai,” Vincente Minnelli’s musical “Gigi” (much more opulent than his “An American in Paris”) and the gargantuan “Ben-Hur.”
By the early 1960s, the downward spiral in movie attendance reached crisis level; fewer pictures were being made while runaway production created a depressing atmosphere (economically and psychologically) for industry craftspeople; and only the last vestiges of the studio system remained.
Because most members of the Academy had long affiliations with the studios, considerations other than quality increasingly came into play, and more big-budget films showed up as picture nominees. It was all very logical: Large-scale productions used a greater number of studio technicians, so if Oscar attention helped to boost their box office numbers, more such films would be produced and more craftspeople would be employed.
Conversely, if enough of these mastodons tanked, they could take individual studios down with them.
The preservation instinct was a preeminent motivator throughout the ’60s. When three costly studio films — Fox’s “The Longest Day,” Warners’ “The Music Man” and MGM’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” — received picture nominations in 1962 despite coming up empty in the acting, writing and directing categories, the New York Times’ Hollywood correspondent Murray Schumach cried foul, writing, “Vote-swapping of outrageous proportion is indicated by this year’s Oscar nominations for best picture. Undercover politics of Oscar campaigning combined with lavish advertising and publicity may make it almost impossible for any movie to be nominated for best film in the future unless it is distributed by the major companies.”
A major reason Academy members anointed “The Longest Day” was in appreciation of it delivering much-needed cash to 20th Century Fox, which was hemorrhaging coin from the seemingly endless production of “Cleopatra.” A year later, voters rallied around the incredibly expensive — $44 million in early ’60s dollars — spectacle.
Schumach of the Times was again on the warpath when he saw the noms for “Cleopatra” and another pricey roadshow attraction, MGM’s “How the West Was Won”: “If either Metro or Fox spends a great deal of money on a movie, the members of the Academy may feel an obligation to reward those studios.” The eventual winner, “Lawrence of Arabia,” might be considered the perfect confluence of quality and scale in equal measures.
The New Hollywood
In the late ’60s, the Oscars reflected the division in the industry between the old guard and what was referred to as New Hollywood. The latter made its presence felt in the 1967 Oscars with picture nominations for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.”
The establishment still had a voice, though. How else could the charmless, bloated musical “Doctor Dolittle” have emerged as a pictur
e finalist? The profligate Christmas release was yet another production causing 20th Century Fox to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, and the veterans in the Academy once more did their part, giving “Dolittle” nine nominations (two more than “The Graduate”).
Truman Capote, peeved because Richard Brooks’ adaptation of his “In Cold Blood” was a surprise non-nominee, became particularly vociferous, steaming that recognition for “Dolittle” proved “the Academy Awards is all politics and sentiment and nothing to do with merit. Anything allowing a ‘Dolittle’ to happen is so rooked up it doesn’t mean anything.” Ultimately, a respectable middle-ground choice prevailed for picture: “In the Heat of the Night.”
Two years later, Fox got downright reactionary and jingoistic. In the year of “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider” and “The Wild Bunch,” Hollywood was littered with the enormous carcasses of disastrous roadshow musicals including “Paint Your Wagon” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” “Hello, Dolly!” was the most successful of the bunch — it only lost $3 million — and its geezer appeal landed the film in the final five.
Competing against the hipper and ultimately victorious “Midnight Cowboy,” Fox placed ads for “Hello, Dolly!” notifying Academy members it was “the only film nominated for a best picture Oscar with a G rating for entire family entertainment and the only best picture nominee made in Hollywood by Hollywood craftsmen.”
As the Young Turks of the ’60s morphed into the entrenched Hollywood elite over the past three decades, Oscar winners have been pretty evenly split between the diminutive (“Annie Hall” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Driving Miss Daisy”) and the deluxe (“The Godfather,” “Out of Africa,” “The Last Emperor,” “Titanic”).
Colossal movies live on. Although “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is perceived to be at the top of this year’s list of contenders, the sweep and majesty (not to mention the approbation from reviewers and astounding box office returns) of its two predecessors weren’t enough for them to prevail. Nevertheless, it might serve as an example of a movie with a cast of thousands serving to honor one individual’s vision, the way that Mike Todd was celebrated through “Around the World in 80 Days’ ” victory and Selznick through “Gone With the Wind’s.”
While “Seabiscuit” is obviously a big movie, its primary emphasis is on its characters, meaning it has antecedents in previous picture winners as far apart in time as “Cavalcade” (1933) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).
“Cold Mountain” is similarly in this tradition of intimate epics, and Anthony Minghella can hope that it receives the same Oscar respect accorded another in this bloodline, his own “The English Patient.”
If the box office response to “Master and Commander” has been somewhat disappointing, that situation didn’t prevent “Braveheart” from triumphing, and critics were much more favorably disposed toward Peter Weir’s film than Mel Gibson’s.
As for the last of this season’s epics, if it’s an upward battle to persuade voters that Tom Cruise making like Toshiro Mifune in a movie that feels like “Dances With Wolves” represents serious filmmaking, surely it’s no more formidable a task than was persuading them that Russell Crowe doing Steve Reeves was art.
Besides, “Last Samurai” is one of this year’s releases with one big factor in its favor: History shows that a Brobdingnagian budget gives a movie a leg up in the Oscar race.
Damien Bona co-wrote “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards” and is the sole author of followup “Inside Oscar 2.”