It’s not hard to believe what is said: the Academy Awards were created in the 1920s as a public relations exercise, to boost the California movie business and assuage the egos of the pretty, young stars. Award ceremonies are a coming of age for any industry—it means you’ve arrived, you’re making money and people really, really like you.
Steady yourself, because here it comes again: the Oscars. It’s a moment to bathe in the radiant glow of the more-privileged-than-thou as they congratulate one another. To paraphrase John Lennon, all of you in the cheaper seats clap hands, the rest rattle your jewellery.
Being snide about it is easy, but watching the show every year is like good crack: It’s hideously addictive, will make you all giddy and play havoc with your short-term memory. What people remember are the moments of unscripted blubbering, for better or worse. What they don’t recall is who won what award, and when.
Even a cursory survey of the award’s history shows that there have been plenty of pretenders who’ve taken the statuette in the face of far more potent and deserving competition. The key when wrangling the office pool or the errant bookie: never rule out some combination of spectacle and sentiment to take the big prize, Best Picture.
Spectacle almost always triumphs over subtlety. The idea that bigger is so much better has made for enduring entertainment—Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and The Last Emperor are only a few Best Picture winners with casts of thousands that you can bear to sit through.
Then there’s The Greatest Show on Earth, a bloated Cecil B. DeMille epic starring Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston that won it in 1952. Legendary film critic Pauline Kael called it “huge, mawkish and trite,” and to add insult, the DeMille picture beat out one of the great westerns of all time, High Noon. The award was given in the first nationally televised Oscar ceremony, and it was indeed the greatest show that night, with the largest audience in television history.
Another big winner came in 1956 with Around the World in 80 Days, a three-hour cameo-spotter starring David Niven and bit parts by Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich. It beat other, bigger, better pictures including James Dean’s Giant and The Ten Commandments.
Though the ’50s and ’60s was the era of big scale epics that thrashed against what was considered to be the real threat to movie-going supremacy, television, they caught on again in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1990, the Academy in its wisdom gave Kevin Costner’s interminable western Dances with Wolves the award for best film, passing over Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, easily one of his best. It’s been said before, but there’s no justice in Hollywood if a talent like Scorsese has gone this long without a best director award, while Kevin Costner has one. The Aviator could change all of that this year, though if it does win, it would be at least partly to make up for past snubs.
In 1995 the populist favourite Braveheart, a big, thick-headed historical action film, won best film and best director for Mel Gibson, beating out Ang Lee’s exquisite romantic drama Sense and Sensibility. Anyone boasting a full tank of testosterone would probably argue that it is as it should be, but really, does anyone remember anything all that special about Braveheart beyond bare asses, blue faces and buckets of blood?
Then there are the little films that could, movies that prove a small, human drama and a spritz of zeitgeist can capture the crusty hearts of Academy voters. The secret ingredient: a dollop of sentimental whimsy, applied with restraint in the better films, and scattershot through the stinkers. On the positive side of this list is Casablanca, Rocky (even though it won over Scorsese’s Taxi Driver), Shakespeare in Love and this year’s Sideways.
In 1955, Marty was that little movie, and it oozed sap. The story of a butcher in love starring best actor winner Ernest Borgnine (who, surprisingly, beat the recently deceased James Dean for his role in East of Eden), critics said it heralded a new age in Hollywood, that of the intimate, anti-glam picture. It didn’t. It won in a weak year (12 months later, the epics were back with Around the World in 80 Days). But it won with its heart squirting blood out there on its sleeve.
Kramer vs. Kramer is another. An anti-love story about a marriage falling apart, it’s the sort of intimate film that has aged very poorly. Who could imagine Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep together anyway? She’s much too tall for him. Ordinary People from 1980 is no better, and though every film Robert Redford has directed since then has been much improved, his Oscar winner will make your teeth ache. It also beat Scorsese’s Raging Bull for Best Picture, a dubious distinction if ever there was one.
The next year, Chariots of Fire won, a movie that might be about men who like to run in slow-motion on a beach. It hard to know what it really is about—that scene, along with the minimalist Vangelis score, is all that stays with you of a film with the dramatic arc of a toenail. That’s more than can be said for the painfully sentimental Driving Miss Daisy, which probably was more interesting as a stage play than a cinematic work. It also stole best film from Field of Dreams, an equally sentimental but much, much better movie.
Perhaps the most saccharine and least deserving picture ever to win best film at the Academy Awards was Forrest Gump, proving a large part of America likes its heroes pure-hearted and dumb as a bag of hammers. The story is pure hokum, about a Zelig-type character (Tom Hanks, disappearing in the role) who through sheer luck plays a part in various important moments in recent American history. Meanwhile, his bright, free-thinking leftist girlfriend, Jenny (Robin Wright Penn, underappreciated), symbolizing all that is radical and progressive in American life, is crushed by her need to kick at the pricks and dies, forever regretting having left dull, wholesome Forrest in her quest for sexual and political freedom. This insidious right wing fable all about how we should return to 1950s American values will turn your stomach as quickly as that revolting catchphrase “Life is like a box of chocolates…”
Nineteen ninety-four was a bad year at the Oscars. Every other film nominated with Gump was superior: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption and especially Pulp Fiction. Ten years later, this year’s list isn’t quite so stellar, but the spectacle and sentiment is well apportioned, and no matter who wins, no one will be embarrassed.
Ray is a big, even-handed biopic, like Patton, Gandhi and Amadeus, and everyone can agree it is good. Million Dollar Baby might fall into the plucky-smaller-film category if Clint Eastwood wasn’t a cinematic presence as enormous and chiselled as an Easter Island statue come to life. He certainly doesn’t get a whole lot better as an actor or director than in this effort. An undeserving political shit-storm over the picture’s third act and the fact he’s won before, for Unforgiven, could cut into his chances. Finding Neverland, though neither grandiose nor intimate, is a sweet movie, and it sure is slushy. Sideways and The Aviator are both examples of some of the better choices within typical Academy fare, and either of them could take home the Best Picture Oscar.