Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Oscars' Record Is Both Better and Worse Than It Looks

I've never had many good things to say about the Oscars, but one thing that occurred to me is that some of the winners look worse, in retrospect, because people compare them to movies that either weren't nominated or didn't have a chance to win.

An obvious case in point is Oliver!. It's often considered one of the worst Best Picture winners because it beat out 2001, or Rosemary's Baby, or The Producers. But none of those films were nominated for Best Picture. Of the five movies that actually were nominated that year -- Oliver!, Funny Girl, Paul Newman's well-meaning, well-made directorial debut Rachel Rachel (sort of his Ordinary People), Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, and The Lion In Winter -- I have no hesitation in saying that Oliver! was the best choice. If it hadn't won, the winner would probably have been Lion In Winter, a perfectly entertaining, well-acted stage adaptation that over-inflates the tongue-in-cheek play it's based on. Oliver! was one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations of the era, and I think the voters made the right decision among the five nominees; the problem was with the nominating process, which was skewed towards worthy, middle-of-the-road projects.

And sometimes a winner can look bad by comparison with other movies that were nominated, but is a better choice than the movie it was really competing with. Take Going My Way. I am a big Leo McCarey fan, and it looks better if you're inclined to like his style, but I don't consider it one of his better films; the sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's, is a better movie. People notice that Double Indemnity was one of the best picture nominees that year, and bash the selection of Going My Way. But a seedy melodrama like Double Indemnity had, realistically, no chance of winning; it was kind of a miracle (a sign of the industry's respect for Billy Wilder) that it got nominated at all. The race was really between two mega-productions with powerful producers: Daryl Zanuck's Wilson (because everybody wants to see a two and a half hour Woodrow Wilson biopic) and David Selznick's Since You Went Away. It was a bit of a surprise that Going My Way beat out both those movies, but it was a much better choice than either of them. Double Indemnity would have been a better choice still, but again, I can't see that it ever could have won.

It's not saying much, but the Best Picture winners often look better compared to the movies that stood a chance of winning, rather than compared to the very best movies of the year.


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up, though I would love to hear your take on Annie Hall beating Star Wars in 1977, probably the "Jethro Tull v. Metallica" of Oscar upsets.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Reading the coverage at the time, I get the impression it would have been an upset if Star Wars had won. Annie Hall was winning the awards before that, and while the New York Times predicted Star Wars would win, I think there were too many factors working against it (the young whippersnapper director, the genre; and it was only two hours rather than the epic length that confers Oscar respectability on blockbusters).

One odd thing about the 1977 nominees is that the group of five included two romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Goodbye Girl) and one light entertainment (Star Wars). That's an unusually lighthearted crop of nominees. Not that I'm complaining. But I doubt if movies like Star Wars and Annie Hall would even have been nominated if there had been a bigger crop of "worthy" movies that year. (The only "worthy" movie among the nominees was Fred Zinnemann's Julia, which was too boring even for the Academy.)

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Taxi Driver or Network should have won in 1976. Rocky was just sentimental fluff about boxing films of yester-year; so overrated.