Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Oscar Years that live in Infamy

I cover them faithfully every year, but I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars. Every movie buff does. The voters have made some truly boneheaded decisions over the years, but that in turn makes it more thrilling when a movie you like gets some Academy love. In the days after this year's victory by The King's Speech, there is already much talk about how the Academy has once again picked a "square" choice over a more hip, contemporary film like The Social Network.

It's much too early to say definitively whether or not this year's outcome will still inspire grumbling for years for come...but it does present an opportunity to revisit some infamous Oscar results over the ceremony's long history. The examples I choose will be (with one exception) focused on Best Picture. If we start getting into the acting categories, we'll be here forever.

Winner: How Green Was My Valley
Defeated: Citizen Kane

Our first one is a biggie. Citizen Kane eventually developed a reputation as the single greatest film ever made, while How Green Was My Valley was an old-school weepie about poverty and emotional turmoil in Wales that is basically unknown outside Movie Buff land. Kane made the voters think and was WAY ahead of its time, but this one made them cry. History has shown that tears usually get the edge. There were some other external factors in this case - it was not a well-hidden secret that the driven, flawed protagonist of Citizen Kane was inspired by the publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. Hearst used his considerable resources to wage war against Orson Welles and his movie and that certainly had an effect on the Academy's him the Harvey Weinstein of his day. Still, Kane has been holding on to the "best movie ever" label for decades, so things worked out pretty well in the end.

Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth
Defeated: High Noon

High Noon is usually considered the greatest Western of all time. It is a damn good one, but my choice would be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Academy opted to award The Greatest Show on Earth instead. Were they intimidated by the title? DeMille's movie had a massive budget for the time, and he was able to showcase a lot of real-life circus hijinks. As a movie, however, it's brutally long and riddled with cliches. I recently took an online quiz that challenged me to name all the Best Picture winners off the top of my head. This was one of the only ones I couldn't remember and was unable to complete the challenge. That's not exactly timeless. Unlike science-fiction, horror or animation, Westerns usually get a lot of love at the Oscars, making this outcome all the more surprising.

Winner: Oliver!
Defeated: The Lion in Winter

When the title of a movie has an exclamation point as part of its official title, things will go downhill fast. Just trust me on that. Okay, so this one is not all that "infamous," but it's one of the few Best Picture screw-ups that really bug me. The Lion is Winter is just awesome. Based on a play, it has all the elements of great theater - superb acting, brilliant dialogue, endless twists and turns. It's sometimes surprisingly hilarious, but can turn on a dime and get really intense as well. So what won that year? A goofy musical version of the Charles Dickens story. Come on now. It's not an awful movie, (with the exception of The English Patient, very few Best Picture winners are really bad. The weaker ones are usually just underwhelming) but I suspect anyone who watches both will see that the difference between them is apparent.

One more note on The English Patient - my least favorite winner will not be showing up here, mostly because 1996 was a weak year in general and there wasn't much else that deserved a shot at the top prize. But I still can't stand it...I sympathize greatly with Elaine from "Seinfeld."

Martin Scorsese's entire career, but especially 1980.

I can't think of any other director who has inspired as much Oscar frustration as good old Marty. It started in 1976 with Taxi Driver, but that loss can be easily forgiven. He was still the new kid, and the movie had some truly amazing competition for Best Picture that year - All the President's Men, Network and eventual-winner Rocky.

The Oscars of 1980 still have the reputation as the single most infuriating in history. Scorsese's superb Raging Bull was defeated in both the Picture and Director races by a somewhat formulaic "dark heart of suburbia" drama called Ordinary People. That movie was fine, but Raging Bull was visionary. The Academy will never live that one down.

Ten years later, there was another debacle that I actually think is even more obnoxious than 1980. Scorsese's Goodfellas, another film that is now regarded as an all-time classic, lost the 1990 Best Picture and Director Oscars to Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves. Ugh. Dances with Wolves has its moments, but it's way too long and frequently insufferable with its hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-frying-pan approach to its subject matter. I tend to like movies with strong messages, but this movie is just over the top. When the evil white men intrude on the Native American utopia at the end, even going as far as to shoot the dog for no fucking reason other than to be assholes, we know things have gone off the rails. I'm all for movies that highlight how badly the Native Americans got screwed over, but stuff like this is one step forward, two steps back. Should have been Goodfellas.

Around the turn of the century, people realized that Marty wasn't getting any younger and still had no Oscar. He began to show up a lot more at the annual ceremony. Gangs of New York from 2002 was not his strongest effort, but for a while it looked like he would finally seal the deal this time. That year, Best Director went to Roman Polanski for The Pianist, who couldn't accept in person since he had fled America in the late 70s after date-raping a teenager in Jack Nicholson's hot tub. Polanski did make some great movies before that incident and maybe people felt he was overdue as well, but it has to suck to lose to a pedo. In 2004, we had The Aviator, but that ultimately fell victim to the "tears > thought" trope and lost to Clint Eastwood's tragic Million Dollar Baby.

Scorsese did finally claim his Oscar in 2006 for The Departed. The movie was not the groundbreaking achievement that some of his earlier films were, but it was a strong gangster film that deserved the honor. Still, at that point all people could talk about was how he should have won earlier. Something tells me Christopher Nolan is heading down the same path, but more on that later.

Winner: Driving Miss Daisy
Not Even Nominated: Do The Right Thing

Probably the best example of the Academy's unfortunate retrograde tendencies. Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was a scathing and innovative look at race relations that featured complex characters and no easy answers. It didn't even make the final five nominees that year. When presented with such a bold new vision of racial dialogue in America, the Oscar voters went with a movie about a black guy who chauffeured a rich old white lady. Dear God, here come the angry essays. Was this 1989 or 1889? Morgan Freeman is always great, but come on. In the end, it was a well-meaning movie...but way out of touch. As for Lee, his later movies lost some focus and he was cursed by an "angry black man" reptuation. A lot of that anger probably stems from this. The fact that it also beat Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July is more than a little frustrating too.

Winner: Forrest Gump
Defeated: Pulp Fiction

It's become a pop-culture touchstone and a testament to the benefits of "not going full retard," but should Forrest Gump have won Best Picture? Probably not. I feel kind of guilty about's the kind of harmless, charming movie that makes you feel like a jerk for criticizing it. Still, 1994 was a damn good year for movies and the fact that the Academy chose this is a bit puzzling when you consider that it was up against The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction. Shawshank's fate was no surprise - that movie had a long road to travel before it became as beloved as it is today. Pulp Fiction, however, was an instant classic that went on to inspire a whole generation of movie fans. This was the ultimate example of the "head vs. heart" battle that so frequently defines the Academy Awards.

Winner: Titanic
Defeated: L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting

The year that the Academy membership was swayed by massive box office success and the screams of teenage girls. Saw a few clips of Titanic on TV has not aged well. It was a generation's Gone With The Wind, but that movie is still impressive and this is just...a little embarrassing. James Cameron's uber-cheesy dialogue is just out of control. Still, it sailed past some excellent movies to pick up an astounding 11 Oscars. One of the only ones it didn't win was Best Actress for Kate Winslet (she could be a topic here as took her a long time to get one and she was great even in this). Honestly, what impresses me most is how well Leonardo DiCaprio redefined himself after this movie. In 1997, just about every teenage boy on the planet had to listen to our female peers go on about his good looks for an eternity. Some of those girls claimed to have sat through this 12 times..and it's three and a half hours! That's 42 hours! DiCaprio must have realized that an entire generation of young men hated him, so he wisely vanished for a while before returning with a slew of amazing performances in movies like Blood Diamond, The Aviator and Inception. Robert Pattinson, take notes.

Winner: Shakespeare in Love
Defeated: Saving Private Ryan

Yeah, two years in a row. I have to confess that this one did not particularly make me angry, but it was truly shocking. Shakespeare in Love was a charming, smart little movie...but the idea that it could upset a massive war epic like Saving Private Ryan sounded laughable until it happened. Nothing in the ceremony indicated this outcome, either. Spielberg even won Best Director in one of the few instances where the two top categories did not line up. I remember I was watching the show and had just taken a sip of my drink as Harrison Ford opened the envelope. "Here comes Private Ryan," I thought. Didn't happen. I literally spat out my drink. How often do you get to really do that? Still one of the craziest upsets in Oscar history.

Winner: A Beautiful Mind
Defeated: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

This one is personal because it made me really mad. This movie was fine and Russell Crowe is an awesome actor, but I felt it was very unremarkable. But them darn kids today don't realize what a complete and utter joke the fantasy genre was in Hollywood until Peter Jackson came along with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Before that, we had what? Tom Cruise riding a unicorn in Legend? Arnold Schwarzenegger punching camels in Conan the Barbarian? Jackson and his crew of Kiwi genuises saved an entire genre, which is not something you see every year. Meanwhile, A Beautiful Mind was the same "oh noes i haz a handicap" tale that had won many times before (and after). My first time seeing Fellowship in theaters is one of my greatest movie memories, and I didn't take the loss very well. The Academy overcompensated in a big way two years later by giving Return of the King just about every award they had...but I felt the first one was the greatest of the trilogy.

Winner: Crash
Defeated: Brokeback Mountain

You want to piss off a crowded room of people? Bring up Crash. It's the kind of polarizing movie that probably couldn't win these days, now that the Academy's new preferential ballots favor movies with near-universal acclaim. Some people loved the heightened drama and caustic dialogue, while others felt they were being talked down to by its unsubtle racial commentary. It's victory over the gay romance Brokeback Mountain was seen as the stuffy Academy being more willing to talk about race than homophobia.

Brokeback has deservedly become a milestone in the gay rights movement, but I remember feeling conflicted about it at the time. It had some great acting (especially by the late Heath Ledger), a devastating ending and beautiful music...but it was also too long, full of stilted dialgoue and so drop-dead serious that it sometimes gave way to untintentional humor. I admired what it stood for more than I actually liked the movie. But don't worry, I'm still liberal. Crash's upset victory seemed shocking, but maybe it shouldn't have been.

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Not Even Nominated: The Dark Knight

An Oscar scandal so devastating it changed the format of the entire awards. Let's be fair - I thought Slumdog Millionaire was an awesome movie. The problem here was the lack of a Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight. Beloved by both critics and audiences, everyone seemed sure that the movie would score a win for superhero fans everywhere by competing for the top honor. If it had been nominated and lost to Slumdog, I could have accepted that. But it didn't even get that far. What did get nominated? The Reader, a particularly annoying example of what my college friend Grant once called "HMJ" (Holocaust Movie Jockage). The Reader was a confused, oppressively downbeat movie with questionable subtext that inspired all sorts of Holocaust-wank on the internet. How the hell did this get to the final five and not The Dark Knight? Moviegoers everywhere called bullshit and next thing you know...there's ten nominees for Best Picture.

Two years later, it seems evident that having ten nominees doesn't do much to help movies like The Dark Knight or District 9 or Inception actually WIN Best Picture. Still, it's nice to see them get a little more recognition.

Goodbye for now, Oscars. See you next year.

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