Well, they’re finally here: the Best Picture nominations for 2011. It’s a year of sentimentality, apparently, with seven of the nine films celebrating or at least looking melodramatically back at our past. 'The Artist' Takes Home the Producer's Guild Award is still expected to win Best Picture, and while it may not be the best film of the year (it didn’t even make our Top Ten) it’s actually a pretty good choice by the Academy’s standards. The Oscars, we have discovered, look less at sheer quality than posterity when selecting their big winners. The Best Pictures are by and large the films that Hollywood wants to be remembered for, even if they’re flawed as hell.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look back at the Best Picture winners to date and figure out where the Academy went wrong. Not when they picked the wrong film, per se, but when they failed to pick the nominated film that was actually worth remembering. We’re going to avoid a few of the obvious ones – everyone knows about the Citizen Kane and Goodfellas debacles – to shed light on some of the Best Picture nominees that were less famously screwed over in this week’s Five Great Movies: Best Picture Snubs!
As always, these aren’t the five best movies, necessarily, just five great ones. Did we leave out your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
High Noon (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1952)
The year was 1953, and The Greatest Show on Earth had somehow won the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. The film, despite direction from iconic director Cecil B. DeMille, is generally considered one of the worst films ever to win the Oscar, and its competition – which included John Ford’s classic romance The Quiet Man, as well as the mostly forgotten films Moulin Rouge (not to be confused with the 2001 musical) and Ivanhoe – was High Noon, now considered one of the finest westerns ever produced. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, whose film From Here to Eternity would go on to win Best Picture (deservedly) in 1954, the film stars Gary Cooper as a small town lawman with a problem. A criminal he brought to justice is coming back for revenge, at high noon. He wants to take a stand, but despite his best efforts none of the townsfolk are willing to stand by him.
The frustration and dignity at play in High Noon make the film an impossibly suspenseful experience. Cooper, who won Best Actor for his performance, tries to stand by his principles despite the cowardly mob mentality of everyone he once considered a friend, and of course it all culminates in one hell of a shoot out. How did it lose Best Picture? It might have something to do with the political climate at the time, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was forcing many Hollywood types to either give in to threats of blacklisting or name friends and co-workers as potential Communists. Cooper’s struggle to do the right thing despite pressure from all sides to give in to cowardice, practical though that seemed, resonated with many viewers, but thoroughly pissed off the rest.
John Wayne (who ironically accepted Gary Cooper’s Best Actor Oscar because the star could not be present that evening) considered the film’s message outright un-American. The Soviet Union disagreed, decrying the film as strongly anti-Communist. But nowadays, everyone seems to agree that High Noon is a quintessentially American classic, and that HUAC was full of a**holes. The Greatest Show on Earth won the award, but High Noon won a real place in history.
Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956)
These days, the sweeping melodrama Giant is probably best remembered as the last film James Dean made before he died. It should be remembered for being an excellent film, although we’re not claiming it’s one of the best ever made. One thing’s for sure though: it’s a damned sight better than the film that won Best Picture in 1956, Around the World in Eighty Days. Come to think of it, most of that film’s competition is more beloved than Michael Anderson’s admittedly entertaining adaptation of the classic Jules Verne story. The King and I remains a cherished musical and The Ten Commandments is considered one of the most impressive Hollywood epics. (Only William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, about a Quaker family struggling to maintain their peaceful beliefs in the face of the Civil War, has been more or less forgotten.) But for all its flaws, Giant remains a powerful piece of western drama with excellent performances across the board.
Directed by George Stevens, who also helmed such classics as Gunga Din and Shane, the film tells the story of how the oil industry became America’s ruling class. Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor play Jordan and Leslie Benedict, rich cattle ranchers whose marriage and land is threatened in their former farm hand, Jett Rink, falls in love with Leslie and inherits a small part of their land. Rink, played by James Dean, strikes oil and spends his life trying to prove his superiority to Jordan, and somehow possess Leslie by seducing her daughter years later. It’s an interesting companion piece to Orson Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was a more acidic look at the transition from early 20th century class boundaries shattered by industrialization, but Stevens captures the emotional crux of his story – thanks largely to a justifiably celebrated performance by Dean – in a manner more comparable to Gone with the Wind than anything else. The film was an enormous success for Warner Bros., and would be their most successful film until Superman was released over 20 years later. Giant deserves a second look by modern film fans, and it sure as hell deserved to be named Best Picture more than Around the World in Eighty Days.
Fargo (dir. Joel Coen, 1995)
The Academy, as we mentioned earlier, often votes for posterity, and grand romantic epics sure seem like something to be remembered for. But in the case of The English Patient, a film that seems to have as many fans as detractors, it was probably the wrong year for sentimentality. 1995 was considered the year of the independent, with only one of the nominated films, Jerry Maguire, stemming from a major studio. Despite its “independent” label, however, The English Patient is such a broad epic romance that it feels shocking conventional right up to the end, when the romance between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas takes an unusually macabre turn for the worse. It probably deserved most of its technical awards, but nowadays it’s clear that The English Patient doesn’t have the cultural staying power it seemed likely to enjoy. Not when it was nominated alongside Fargo.
The Coen Bros. were already known for their signature quirk, thanks to indie classics like Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, but Fargo – a not-really-based-on-a-true-story of a kidnapping gone horribly wrong – was a film of such overt greatness that their greatness suddenly became undeniable. William H. Macy stars as a used car salesman who hires two thugs, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, to kidnap his wife so he can use the ransom money to hide his financial indiscretions at work. Frances McDormand, who deserved her Best Actress win that year, appears rather late in the film for a leading performance, as a pregnant local police chief whose good nature places her at odds with the film’s casual violence and hilariously dark sense of humor. It’s those elements that probably sank Fargo’s Oscar chances, as the film lacks the uplifting sentimentality that seems present in most Best Picture winners, but the film is so expertly crafted that its deft tone feels almost effortless.
Does Fargo amount to anything? No, not really, and of course that’s the point, as McDormand points out late in the film. She thinks upon the senseless murder and mayhem that came before the film’s conclusion and asks the surviving criminal, “And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.” A perfect, hilarious film about the pointlessness of the violence Hollywood celebrates, and a hell of a lot more significant than The English Patient, even if you are one of that film’s fans.
Moulin Rouge! (dir. Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Fine performances and that cute little twist aside, A Beautiful Mind is one of the most conventional Best Picture winners in recent memory. What’s worse, it was up against both The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Moulin Rouge! that very year, not to mention Robert Altman’s acclaimed period drama Gosford Park, written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. The Academy would eventually honor The Lord of the Rings two years later, when The Return of the King swept the awards, so we’ll cut them some slack on that. It doesn’t explain the horrific snub of Baz Luhrmann’s instant classic, however.
On paper, Moulin Rouge! might seem like an utterly conventional Hollywood romance. A naïve young writer (Ewan McGregor) travels to a foreign land, turn of the century Paris, to pursue a life filled with truth, beauty, freedom and above all things, love. He thinks he’s found all of those things when chance sends him into the arms of a beautiful courtesan named Satine (Nicole Kidman), but she’s promised herself to an evil Duke who wants to produce the hero’s new play as a starring vehicle for Satine. But while everything goes more or less as you’d expect, with guilt, betrayal and passion playing out against a lush historical backdrop, Luhrmann imbued his film with a fantastically MTV aesthetic.
In order to convince the audience that McGregor’s character was a genius, they decided that the songs he writes would be 20th century pop classics, anachronisms be damned. From that conceit the world of Moulin Rouge! became a cornucopia of modern special effects, dreamlike fantasy sequences and whirling dervish editing that perfectly married classical sentimentality with cinematic techniques more closely associated with contemporary cynicism. Nobody’s made anything quite like Moulin Rouge! since, but it we couldn’t have hoped for a more spectacular, spectacular way of ringing in a new century of cinema.
Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, 2005)
It seemed like it was neck-and-neck that year between Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s quiet and thoughtful western romance, and Crash, Paul Haggis’s ensemble piece about the prevalence of contemporary racist stereotypes. And yet Brokeback Mountain probably never had a chance, because its two romantic leads were both dudes. The Academy, which did its small part in the war against inequality by honoring Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress in 1940, might not have been ready to jump on the modern Civil Rights bandwagon, choosing as it did to award a film about racism instead of one treating homosexuality as an apolitical lifestyle. Or maybe they just liked Crash better. Either way, barely five years later, Crash feels like the easy way out. If the Oscars were going for posterity, then Brokeback Mountain was definitely the way to go.
Based on a 1997 short story by writer Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two cattle ranchers in the 1960s who fall in love over the course of a working summer. Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger starred as men forced to live a conventional, heterosexual life even though their hearts belonged only to each other, and deal with those struggles with quiet dignity. Big speeches about inequality and social hypocrisy need not apply. In fact, Brokeback Mountain is so subtle about its treatment of homosexuality that the film could have easily been played as a heterosexual romance with only a few tweaks to the screenplay, making it all the more daring for treating Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s romance completely, no pun intended, straight. Brokeback Mountain isn’t about acceptance, it’s simply accepting. And while it may not have been the absolute best movie of 2005 it’s certainly the kind of progressive drama that the Academy’s been fond of honoring for decades, and seemed at the time – and certainly now in retrospect – to be more deserving of the Hollywood’s biggest honor than Paul Haggis’s comparatively preachy and hammy Crash.
That’s it for this week. Come back next Wednesday for more Five Great Movies, and until then let us know… What films are you angry at the Oscars for snubbing?