I am writing on Dec. 16, 2004. I stress that because I want to say that I know Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is going to win Best Picture at the Oscars early next year.
My knowing this comes to me without having seen the film: It became my plan once I heard that there was something “sensational” about the picture to see it with a large, unjaded audience. After all, that raw power is rare in movies these days, so we might as well make the most of it. I want to rock and roll with as many people as possible. I want to feel the crowd’s awe and emotion.
How do I know it’s going to win Best Picture? Well, out of respect for a few people who had been deeply surprised by it, and because of their unshakeable decision to say nothing about the surprise. They felt I deserved the full shock.
There is respect, too, for Clint, 74 yet quietly improving at nearly everything he does. And in his way Clint treasures old-fashioned movies as much as Martin Scorsese: He had pictures knife inside him when he was a kid.
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I can go further — and this is really the point of my essay. A few weeks ago, surveying the field (but not knowing what to expect from “Million Dollar Baby”), I looked at the contenders and realized that there was not a Best Picture in the lot of them.
Like many people, I love “Sideways,” but it’s too modest, too natural, too novelistic to win Best Picture, no matter how many critics rank it as their best picture. The day the Academy brings out the big BP for a “Sideways,” that’s when “Hollywood” is really over.
I admire “Closer,” but I’m English by birth, and I respond to that Pinteresque way in which people tear strips off each other. I couldn’t see “Closer’s” inward, cold air reaching out for Best Picture. “The Aviator” was clearly made with that reach in mind, but it’s as if everyone forgot that Howard Hughes is the great American downer, a black hole, the negation of achievement — you can’t give a Best Picture to that anymore than they could to “Citizen Kane” in 1941.
I could see only one real contender in the year: a picture that made a fortune at the box office; a movie by a previous winner; and a work that took on a lofty, prestigious and altogether classy subject. I’m thinking of “The Passion of the Christ.”
But that only raises another vital ingredient in Best Pictures:
They must make the members of the Academy (a small club, after all) feel good about themselves and what they do. And “The Passion of the Christ” doesn’t quite hit that spot, does it? But if it isn’t even nominated, don’t be surprised if the cry springs up from the hinterland that Hollywood is these days a very small, prejudiced club.
What I’m getting at here is simply the reasons for the Academy in the first place.
This is not a group of unimpeachable judges who award marks for style, content and technical excellence that lead to the ultimate and unassailable totals — the scientific calculation of the Best Picture. No, the Academy came into being when the picture business was reeling from scandals and the widespread American suspicion that the faraway Californian kingdom was over-paid, oversexed and over the top. The people like Louis B. Mayer who formed the Academy also hoped that it might be a forum strong and wise enough to prevent the further unionization of their business. The Oscars were a clever trick — far more effective than anyone guessed — to make the public believe that Quality was what the business was about.
I am not knocking the Academy, which is led and run by good people and which provides a research library that is a staple for any writer on film. But the Academy Library is so serious and responsible that it does not think to hold ballots on best archive acquired this year; best still in the house, naughtiest letter by a movie star, and so on. The library values everything, and above all it values the arts of preservation, cataloguing and making available. It knows the worst films have their place in its history.
The Academy’s game was very intuitive: It knew that most people in 1939, say, might argue, “Well, I thought ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ was better than ‘Gunga Din.’ ” We all have our favorites. For what it’s worth — and the value is that of provocation — the best things I saw last year (and I saw them both on bad dupe videotapes) were Michael Winterbottom’s “9 Songs” and Adam Curtis’ three-part television series “The Power of Nightmares.” What’s provocative about saying that is that there’s a good chance neither will be shown in America. But that’s another story.
For there is a disconnect between all our best pictures (the sum of opinion) and every year’s Best Picture — even if sometimes the same film might top out in both categories. The Academy’s Best Picture, you see, is more a genre than an achievement, it’s a type of movie as much as excellence in a particular movie. And it’s a work that makes the business happy and reassured. To study the list of Best Pictures is more useful as a way of gauging how America has felt about itself than of measuring the real worth of films.
How else do you account for the eminence of some remarkable duds (by which I mean pictures that not too many people choose to see today)? I’m thinking of “Cavalcade” (1932-3), “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), “Going My Way” (1944), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Marty” (1955), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). I’ll stop the list there, for I really don’t want to offend too many surviving members of the Academy. But I would argue that those films were more or less sentimental tributes to gravity of subject, great men, passing trends or the fact that 1944 was a frightening year for a people seeking comfort.
I could add that those “winners” overcame “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942 — some esteem it more than “Kane”), “Double Indemnity” (1944 — maybe a perfect film), “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952), “East of Eden” (1955) or “Lust for Life” (1956), not one of those last three were even nominated.
Of course, remembering the films not even nominated is another game, just like picking Best Picture — and the history of that game is part of the idiocy that saw the failure of giving a directing Oscar to Hitchcock, Hawks,Sturges, Lubitsch, Scorsese and Altman.
In the Sight and Sound critics poll of 2002 on the best movies ever made, there were six American pictures in the top 10 (a surprising testament still to how fond the world is of American movies): Only one got Best Picture, “The Godfather.” One other was nominated: “Citizen Kane.” Three others missed the cut: “Vertigo,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Then there’s “Sunrise,” a shared winner, in the very first year, 1927-8. As it began, even the Academy was muddled over Best and best: “Wings” got (then called) “Best Production” — it was the big picture of the year, beyond a doubt. Yet “Sunrise,” which garnered the artistic quality of production award) seemed to some people rare, creative, brilliant and a prediction of the medium’s future. But Best and best was tough to handle. From then on the Academy settled for Best Picture. It is only history, and us, who keep a grip on the best movies.
(David Thomson is the author of “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood” as well as “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”)