Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film List - When Oscar gets it WRONG

Following on from my formidably accurate predictions at the start of this month of who would win all the Oscars this year (and my expressions of disappointment that nominees I considered worthier would almost all be overlooked), I thought I'd look back over the history of the Best Picture awards. As my pal The British Cowboy griped on my earlier post on Christoph Waltz, the Academy's voters are rather notorious for neglecting real quality in favour of faddish spectacle (it's amazing Avatar didn't win, really!), and we shouldn't give their recommendations any respect at all. (You may accuse me of a British chauvinism, but I honestly believe that the BAFTA awards almost invariably do a much better job of recognising true quality... though their choices are still far from perfect.)

I might return another day to the real travesties - the outstanding films of the year that somehow didn't even get nominated. That might end up being a particularly long and passionate post! When I look back just over the past few decades and think of the stand-out films, the 'instant classics' that didn't get a nomination, well, it fairly makes me want to weep: Bladerunner, Brazil, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Reservoir Dogs, Being John Malkovich, Ghost World, Memento, Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 21 Grams, Sin City. Oh yes, that could be a long post.

For now, I'll focus just on the nominated pictures, and consider where the Academy has committed its most egregious injustices.

I confess I'm not so familiar with most of the films in the first decade of the awards (though I'm inclined to think that they were mostly getting it about right in those early days; although favouring Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You over Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion in 1938 is highly questionable... but I suppose a foreign-language film is never really 'in competition' and it was an extremely rare honour for Renoir even to get a nomination), so I'll start with the so-called annus mirabilis.....

Oscar-nominated 'Best Pictures' that really should have won

Lush Civil War melodrama Gone With The Wind - probably the most hyped film of all time - won, and of course it's a classic, but.... oh my god, the other nominees included Stagecoach, Of Mice And Men, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr Chips, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and the delicious Garbo comedy Ninotchka - any of which might have won in any other year. However, I think the top prize clearly ought to have gone to The Wizard Of Oz. Gone With The Wind is overblown, overlong, politically uncomfortable, and sustained more by star power than good acting; these days we watch it more as an historical curiosity than as great entertainment. The Wizard Of Oz - every bit as ground-breaking in its production design, special effects, pioneering use of colour - has proved to be the more enduring classic, a film that is genuinely 'timeless'.

There was another exceptionally strong field this year, and I find it really hard to understand how ho-hum melodrama Rebecca could have come out on top of the heap. The Grapes Of Wrath, Kitty Foyle, Our Town, and The Philadelphia Story all surely had stronger claims; but I would have given the award to Chaplin's magnificent satire The Great Dictator.

How Green Was My Valley won. Nice film - but it's not Citizen Kane. What is? Were Academy voters intimidated by Hearst, or do they just feel uncomfortable in the presence of genius?

The hugely popular feel-good propaganda film Mrs Miniver won. Many would say Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons should have, although I've never rated it that highly (at least not in the butchered version the studio put out). I'd be tempted to plump for the wonderful Powell & Pressburger adventure 49th Parallel, but I do feel a bit uncomfortable with the stridency of the anti-German propaganda in it (yes, I know, there was a war on), so..... well, I say the Cagney classic Yankee Doodle Dandy should have won.

Well, then there was a short run of the Academy actually making good choices again, until....

It's a little hard to see now how David Lean's masterful adaptation of Great Expectations (a near-perfect Dickens film) could lose out to Elia Kazan's worthy-but-dull study of American anti-semitism in Gentleman's Agreement.

The Academy voters were trying to show that they appreciated 'high art' by giving the award to Olivier's Hamlet, at the expense of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and The Snake Pit. I love Sierra Madre to bits, I think it's probably the best adventure film ever made (well, maybe a close second to Clouzot's Wages Of Fear), but... in this year I would have given the award to Powell & Pressburger's gorgeously realised fable The Red Shoes, my absolute favourite of their many remarkable films.

All About Eve is an excellent melodrama, but it's not quite in the same class as Billy Wilder's wonderfully dark Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevarde - which has embedded itself in the popular consciousness like few other films, giving us, amongst so much else, the dead narrator device and the chilling catchphrase "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille."

Military soap opera From Here To Eternity won. Maybe the voters - like me - just couldn't make up their minds between Roman Holiday and Shane and opted for a 'compromise candidate' instead? OK, if you really force me, I'm going to say Shane. But if you ask me again next week, I may have changed my mind.

Then another run of decent enough choices (though often from a rather limited selection: in 1956, for example, Around The World In Eighty Days was a somewhat baffling winner, but its only competition came from similarly lush but vapid fare like The King And I and The Ten Commandments).

It was still the age of musicals. How else could West Side Story have beaten Robert Rossen's superb pool-sharking drama The Hustler??

I find Tony Richardson's Tom Jones a slightly baffling choice; it has its charms but also its irritations. I rather think the Academy voters were again trying to show off by honouring an offbeat historical film from England (in a year when perhaps the competition wasn't so strong, either). I would have been inclined to favour the touching Sidney Poitier drama Lilies Of The Field.

Ah yes, we're still in the heyday of the big budget musical. Well, I love My Fair Lady, of course, but it's not Dr Strangelove, is it? Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear annihilation is just about my favourite film, period.

Oh my god, the age of musicals!! The insidious charms of Rogers & Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music somehow beat out a strong field: Dr Zhivago (not my favourite David Lean - Omar Sharif isn't able to carry the movie - but it is a magnificent spectacle), A Thousand Clowns, and Ship Of Fools. Me, I would have given it to John Schlesinger's Darling, Julie Christie's best role, showing the darker side of 'Swinging London'.

A Man For All Seasons is a very fine film, but Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is probably even better, and I think the early Michael Caine classic Alfie is better yet

In The Heat Of The Night is an atmospheric little thriller, but is it really better than Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, or The Graduate? No. Is it better than Doctor Dolittle? Probably. My vote would have gone to The Graduate.

Oliver! - yet another bloody musical!! Oh, I like Oliver! (although I could live without the exclamation mark), but I think The Lion In Winter or Romeo and Juliet might have been more deserving winners that year.

A lesser annus mirabilis (although '72 might have been even stronger, with Cabaret and Deliverance understandably losing out to The Godfather; and in '74 The Godfather: Part II beat The Conversation, Chinatown, and Lenny [and The Towering Inferno!]): the winner was William Friedkin's great police thriller The French Connection, but also in contention were the superior musical Fiddler On The Roof, the grand historical spectacle of Nicholas and Alexandra, and the experimental weirdness of A Clockwork Orange. It's difficult to choose from such a diverse selection, but I would have gone for Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show.

The Sting?! Really?? Who now remembers this undistinguished period heist comedy for anything other than its restoring Scott Joplin's ragtime piano music to popularity? You can't help thinking that Academy voters were belatedly seeking to acknowledge the magic of the Newman-Redford partnership from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which had narrowly but deservedly lost out to Midnight Cowboy in the Best Picture category four years before. Again it was a strong and varied field, with mature rom-com A Touch Of Class, scariest-film-ever-made The Exorcist, and Ingmar Bergman's wonderful Cries and Whispers in contention. The early '70s were quite a golden age for the cinema. However, I think I would - narrowly - have given the award this year to George Lucas's charming study of small-town teenagers in the Mid-West at the beginning of the 1960s, American Graffiti.

Another tremendous year, with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest prevailing over Jaws, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, and Barry Lyndon. I find it very, very hard to choose between those last two, but I think Dog Day Afternoon edges it - probably the best hostage-taking film, and probably the best of Pacino's many great performances.

OK, this was the annus mirabilis to end them all: Taxi Driver, Network, All The President's Men and the great Woody Guthrie biopic Bound For Glory. An impossible choice - enter the 'compromise candidate', Rocky. Now, I like Rocky. Seldom has a movie series more glaringly illustrated the law of diminishing returns, but the first Rocky was actually pretty damned good (and the second, come to that). However, it did not deserve to win in that sort of company. I suppose Taxi Driver has to take the prize here.

Yes, that was the end of the anni mirabiles for a while. There's no arguing with Annie Hall's win in 1977, but it didn't have much competition.

I never got what the big deal with The Deer Hunter was. Maybe I should watch it again, to give it another chance. First time round, I found it beautifully photographed but much, much too long, and preposterously plotted. Coming Home was a much better Vietnam drama, also nominated in this year. However, the winner should surely have been Alan Parker's stunning (Oliver Stone scripted) prison drama, Midnight Express. [Nowadays, I fear, a film like that wouldn't even get nominated.]

Kramer vs Kramer won - a touching, well-made family drama with some great performances. However, it is just not in the same class as the rest of the field that year: Norma Rae, All That Jazz, and even Peter Yates's modest little coming-of-age comedy about an American teen's obsession with Italian bicycle racers, Breaking Away, would all have been much worthier winners. But Apocalypse Now also came out this year, so it should have been a 'no contest'. What happened? That's up there with the spurning of Citizen Kane as one of the most humongous, indefensible errors in Oscar history.

To be continued.....


Tony said...

That is a thoughtful analysis and a jolly good read. Thanks very much for mentioning Dog Day Afternoon: it was on TV here this week and I would otherwise not have bothered to record it; I knew nothing about it and the title would have put me off.

Gary said...

Great list. I hadn't realised there were match-ups like Shane vs Roman Holiday and Chinatown vs Godfather 2. Tough, tough choices. I think I'd maybe take Network over Taxi Driver in 76.

Froog said...

Glad you liked it, Tony. And I hope you enjoy Dog Day Afternoon - the subject matter and the violence may not be to your taste, I fear, but it is a powerful story and a very well-made and well-acted film. It's very hard to compare it with Barry Lyndon because they are so completely dissimilar. I think Dog Day Afternoon only prevails - very narrowly - with me because I first saw it in my my early teens and it left a very deep impression on me then; whereas I've only just discovered Barry Lyndon.

Froog said...

Gary, yes, there are some very tough calls to make. '53, '67, '75, and '76 I find it almost impossible to make up my mind about.

joanna said...

I would say that Nashville was the best from the 1978's list. As for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, I couldn't watch more than 30minutes of it, it's definitely not my type of a movie. Maybe I just have contradictory preferences, for example I couldn't stand Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels either, though I'm generally into that kind of humour, not to mention Guy Ritchie's movies.

The British Cowboy said...

I guess this would be the wrong place to say that I find Citizen Kane to be the most overrated movie in cinematic history... Not that it isn't a very good, even classic film, but best of all time? No.

And it is comments like "I couldn't stand Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" that make the Baby Jesus cry. And he has enough to cry about right now.

Tom Barnes said...

Tom Barnes says it's a matter of opinion and taste. I'm hooked on history and lean toward films like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind

Froog said...

Nashville has its moments, but in general I concur with the verdict of the Kevin Spacey character in the excellent Hollywood satire Swimming With Sharks: "Altman couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag." I think he was a terrible director who happened to pick some good scripts.

I am confused as to how you can "like Guy Ritchie films" but not Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Joanna. With the possible exception of the recent Sherlock Holmes (I haven't seen it yet), surely ALL of his films have been variations of Lock, Stock.... Less engaging variations, with more violence and less wit, at that.

And what the f*** was that website you linked to?! Are you just a very sophisticated spambot, Joanna??

Froog said...

Tom, if you're such a connoisseur of the oldies, it would be interesting to hear your views on the Oscar field in 1939. Would you agree that The Wizard Of Oz has more lasting appeal than Gone With The Wind>

(If we were to decide on the basis of sheer toe-curling pleasure, my vote would have gone to Ninotchka!)

Froog said...

Cowboy, if you don't want to look ridiculous in your philistinism about Kane, you are going to have to offer some criticism of it, AND suggest some films which you feel clearly have a better claim to the 'best of all time' mantle.

I can't think of another film which so embedded itself in my brain on first viewing (when I was much too young to understand what it was about), which is so flat-out exhilarating to watch for its sheer panache and technical innovation (in every single scene), which continues to repay repeat viewings again and again and again.

If it's not 'the best' film ever, it's surely 'the most influential': Welles wrote, or rewrote, the book on cinematic narrative technique with this.

The British Cowboy said...

It's a great, great movie, no doubt. But for American movies, I'd look more to the 1970s for sheer greatness (we have had this conversation before).

And no doubt very influential, but so was Battleship Potemkin, for example.

Froog said...