When the Best Picture Isn’t the “Best Picture”

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Over the last six weeks or so MovieFanFare ran a trio of Academy Award-related polls–on non award-winning foreign films, films that failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, and Best Picture losers that may have deserved the award over the eventual winners–that elicited a number of comments from movie buffs who were, shall we say, less than happy with some…okay, a lot of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ selections over the years. With last week’s upset (to some) win of Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed but little-seen The Hurt Locker over James Cameron’s latest box-office champion, Avatar, for Hollywood’s highest honor still fresh in people’s minds, it seems like a good time to talk about what it takes to get a Best Picture nomination, why certain films and genres seem to get no respect, and to review some of the most contentious contests in Oscar history.

It’s pretty much a given at this point that the Academy voters tend to favor drama over comedy, emotional character studies over slam-bang actioners (unless the studio that made it needs a box-office boost), and serious, adult-themed (but not adult: only one X-rated movie has ever taken home the Best Picture award) over children’s or family-oriented fare (again, there’s been only one G-rated winner). Some movies are seen as too controversial to be considered, whole categories such as science fiction and horror tend to be overlooked altogether, and it takes a very special–or popular–foreign-language film to garner a nomination…after all, Oscar Night is known as “the night Hollywood salutes itself” (as opposed to the other 364?). With these limitations working against them, it’s not all that surprising that such cinema notables as A Night at the Opera, Bringing Up Baby, Seven Samurai, Some Like It Hot, King of Hearts, Last Tango in Paris, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Das Boot, The Killer, Trainspotting, The Matrix, and The Hangover, to name just 12, were bypassed.

Second-guessing like this is, of course, easy now that we have decades of history to look back over. Still, let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting campaigns :

1930-31 (Yes, that’s how the first six years were listed):  The early sagebrush rouser Cimarron, RKO’s salute to the settling of the Oklahoma Territory, won out in a field of five that included a film version of the cliched stage tearjerker East Lynne and an adaptation of the then-popular comic strip Skippy. On the outside looking in were Universal’s seminal monster flicks Dracula and Frankenstein; Warner’s groundbreaking gangster tales Little Caesar and The Public Enemy; and the film some consider Charlie Chaplin’s masterwork, City Lights.

1932-33: This is the year that has stumped more than a few “pub quiz” takers trying to name all the Best Picture winners. The golden man went to the barely-remembered Cavalcade, based on a Noel Coward stiff-upper-lip stage play, over fellow nominees 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and The Private Life of Henry VIII. Not even nominated? How about the MGM all-star comedy/drama Dinner at Eight; the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup; and the original King Kong!

Citizen-Kane11941: Another year cineastes wince at, 1941 saw John Ford’s well-made but hokey mining melodrama How Green Was My Valley finish ahead of perhaps the greatest motion picture ever, Citizen Kane. With the studios still fearful of offending Kane’s barely disguised subject, media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles and company were probably lucky to take home the Best Original Screenplay award, their one win out of nine nominations. But even with Kane out of the running, does How Green Was My Valley hold up compared to losers The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York or Suspicion, or the not-nominated Meet John Doe? Not really.

1944: With World War II still going on, dark and moody tales weren’t as good for homefront morale as heartwarming sentimentality. Thus, Going My Way with crooning priest Bing Crosby took home an award that could have just as easily have gone to the proto-film noir dramas Double Indemnity or Gaslight…not to mention the snubbed Laura or one of the finest horror/fantasy works ever, The Curse of the Cat People.

1946: Postwar moviegoers still wanted a return to “normalcy,” which explains the feel-good selection of The Best Years of Our Lives (see, Hollywood cares about returning veterans!) over such darker fare as The Big Sleep, Gilda, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, all overlooked. As for the quintessential “feel-good film,”  Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,  it was nominated but lost (Sorry, Frank. but you won twice in the ’30s).

1951: A Streetcar Named Desire took three out of the four acting awards, with relative newcomer Marlon Brando losing out to veteran Humphrey Bogart, who perhaps won for a body of work more than his admittedly good performance in The African Queen. Neither film took home the night’s top prize, though (Queen wasn’t even nominated). That honor went to the so-so musical An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly. Which is funny, because…

1952: …the musical that would become synonymous with Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain, didn’t make the final five the following year.  What’s more, the landmark frontier drama High Noon (whose anti-Red Scare undercurrent may have hit a wrong note with nervous voters) lost out to Cecil B. DeMille’s cotton candy circus opus The Greatest Show on Earth.

1955:  Starting a still-extant trend of ignoring films aimed at the then-nascent youth market, two James Dean films–East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause–are skipped over for Marty, a low-budget adaptation of a written-for-TV drama (and still one of my all-time favorite movies, regardless).

GIGI1958: Did Hollywood ever take the suspense genre seriously?  Apparently not, because Touch of Evil and Vertigo didn’t even compete for the Oscar that went to Gigi, a cheery and upbeat musical about a young French girl whose family raises her to be a high-priced mistress (no kidding).

1960/1963: Speaking of Hitchcock, those nominations he might have gotten for his shock classics Psycho and The Birds went, respectively, to the big-budget disappointments The Alamo and Cleopatra, in hopes of boosting their take at the ticket booth.

1967-1969: Similarly, how did the beastly musical Doctor Dolittle get the nomination that The Dirty Dozen and In Cold Blood didn’t, did the next year’s winner Oliver! deserve it over an out-of-the-running 2001: A Space Odyssey, and did no one at the Academy even see Easy Rider, whose rightful nomination went to…Hello, Dolly!?

1973: The Sting was a fun and charming caper comedy…but was it the equal of American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, or The Exorcist (all nominated)? How about The Last Detail, Last Tango in Paris, or Mean Streets (the first true Martin Scorsese oversight)? The betting money says not.

1976: Scorsese’s second snub came three years later,  as Taxi Driver joined All the President’s Men and Network in losing to literal and figurative underdog Rocky.

Star-Wars11977: Okay, maybe Star Wars isn’t a perfect movie (George is, after all, still tinkering with it), but to ignore it for Annie Hall? Again, Woody Allen’s best film was still two years in the future…

1979: …when Manhattan wouldn’t even get nominated, and when Apocalypse Now would lose to the two-hanky divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.

1980-1989: Ordinary People won over Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gandhi over E.T., Terms of Endearment over both The Big Chill and The Right Stuff, and Driving Miss Daisy over Do the Right Thing.  Quite a decade, huh?

1990: Scorsese again, with his mobster magnum opus Goodfellas coming up short against Kevin Costner’s revisionist Western, Dances with Wolves.

1994: Pulp Fiction was bold, innovative, raw and violent. Forrest Gump was safe, predictably heartwarming, and had a mentally challenged lead role;  Which do you think the Academy went with?

1995: Academy voters seem to always be impressed when actors turn director (see Oridnary People and Dances with Wolves above), which some say is the main reason Mel Gibson’s Braveheart beat out Apollo 13 and Babe, not to mention the overlooked Se7en, Toy Story and The Usual Suspects.

Fargo-Poster1996/1998: The “sweeping period romance” vote cannot be underestimated. How else could one explain The English Patient winning over nominee Fargo (by Joel and Ethan Coen) and reject Trainspotting, or Shakespeare in Love’s triumph against rival WWII sagas Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line and the overlooked future cult classic The Big Lewbowski (also from the Coen Brothers)?

1999: It’s still kind of premature to say that the year’s top film, American Beauty, won’t have much staying power with movie fans’ affections, but it doesn’t seem to have made as big an impression as two equally adventurous ’99 titles–Being John Malkovich and The Matrix–that couldn’t even make it into the final five nominees.

And if the verdict is still out on American’s Beauty’s future, it’s probably too early to say much about the first decade of the 21st century…except that no one seems to be able to figure out how Crash managed its 2005 win over Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Walk the Line, or even Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. One thing is clear, though. There are certain types of movies that have the Oscar odds stacked against them before their premiere, and while the Academy Awards have managed to do a relatively good job of rewarding the best in cinema over their history, there will always be room for disagreement…even with 10 Best Picture nominees a year.