Monday, February 12, 2007


Straight from the Academy

By Edward Copeland
Recently, I wrote a post here because of anger at some incorrect Oscar facts that were being repeated in news stories in various sources. The issue prompted me to think about other statistical and historical questions about different Academy Award statistics through the years, so I decided to write the Academy itself to get official rulings on some of the most common questions I could think of at the time. Wonder whether Orson Welles and Warren Beatty both are the only people to earn producing, directing, acting and writing nominations for the same film? Want to know if Sunrise's prize in 1927-28 is equivalent to best picture? Those official answers from the Academy's standpoint are here. My eternal thanks to the staff of the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library who took time out of what is, after all, their busiest time of the year to answer some unknown blogger's questions.

Question No 1.: When I was first learning Oscar facts, Wings always was considered the first best picture winner and no one mentioned the first year’s artistic quality of production award to Sunrise until more recently. Does the Academy consider the two prizes roughly equivalent, i.e. both best pictures?

Answer: The Outstanding Picture category is the one that continues on as Best Picture to this day, so yes, the Academy considers Wings to be the first Best Picture winner. Unique and Artistic Picture is a category that was used once that first year and not continued. They are not considered both "Best Pictures."

Question No 2.: Are Wings, Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy the only three films to win best picture without their directors being nominated? Are there any caveats that are considered as to why all three films aren't in the same boat re winning picture without a directing nomination?

Answer: Yes. The only statistical difference to note is this: In 1989 (Driving Miss Daisy), there were 5 Best Picture and 5 Directing slots. In 1927/28 (Wings) there were 3 Best Picture slots and 5 Directing slots (across the two categories). And in 1931/32 (Grand Hotel) there were 8 Best Picture slots and only 3 Directing slots.

Question No. 3.: Recent stories say that Clarence Brown, King Vidor, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese (not counting the new nomination) are all tied at having five directing nominations without any wins, but Brown’s nomination for 1929-30 lists both Anna Christie and Romance, sometimes listed as a single nomination, other times listed as two separate nominations. The same year, George Arliss is credited for winning best actor for Disraeli while losing for a separate nomination for The Green Goddess. Should Brown be considered as having five total nominations or six?

Answer: Five; in the early years a single nomination may have referenced more than one film and that is the case with Brown's 1929/30 nomination for Anna Christie and Romance. The Disraeli/Green Goddess nomination for George Arliss is also only counted as one nomination. Because the Arliss win only counted for the one film title when the nomination referenced two, we had to make two records in the Academy database, and then provide explanatory notes.

Question No. 4.: For years I heard the statistic that Orson Welles was the first person to be nominated as producer, director, actor and writer for a single film for Citizen Kane until Warren Beatty repeated the feat twice for Heaven Can Wait and Reds. Later, the Welles stat seemed to be revised under the argument that in 1941, the studio head would have won the Oscar if Citizen Kane had taken best picture. Should Welles be considered as having had four nominations for Kane or not?

Answer: From a strictly statistical standpoint, no. The rules were not the same then as now, so technically, as that statistic is stated, you can only apply it to films from the 1951 (24th) Awards on, when the nominees for Best Picture become the individually named producers rather than the production companies. The nominee for Outstanding Motion Picture for Citizen Kane was Orson Welles' company Mercury. So if you want to consider that being in the "spirit" of the statistic, feel free. In which case, you might also want to give consideration to Charlie Chaplin and his Honorary Award for The Circus, given how the citation is worded. But again, from a strict statistical standpoint, neither of these two meet the Warren Beatty statistic of 4 competitive nominations for the same film in the stated categories.

Question No. 5.: Why were 1927-28 best picture nominations that used to be credited for The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh later removed?

Answer: Research into Academy history conducted in more recent years warranted the corrections.

Question No. 6.: Should Charlie Chaplin be credited for his nominations for 1927-28’s The Circus or were those nominations actually removed once the decision was made to give him a special prize for the film?

Answer: He was removed from the competitive classes; he has no nominations for that year.

Question No. 7.: In the Academy database for many of the early years, some nominations bear the notation that they are not official nominations. Should these be counted as nominations for the individuals involved or not?

Answer: No.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The only year in the Academy database where all nominations are deemed unofficial is 1928-29. In other references to unofficial nominations, they were because of write-in votes, which actually resulted in one victory for A Midsummer's Night Dream for cinematography in 1935.

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With all due respect to the Academy staff member who graciously answered your questions, I will continue to regard Orson Welles as the one who pulled off the impressive feat of earning those four nominations in one year. I regard any claim to the contrary as "revisionist history." There's too much of that going around these days, especially in politics, but also in entertainment. Does anyone, except the most ardent Garth Brooks fan really believe he's sold more records than Elvis and the Beatles? That's the claim being made by the Recording Industry Association of America these days, due to new "rules" on how to tabulate record sales. I don't buy it. And I don't buy the Academy's claim that Warren Beatty has trumped Orson Welles.
As the Academy representative answered, you could still count it that way since Welles' Mercury company was the entity credited for best picture, but the fact remains that individual producers did not get the Oscar for best picture until 1951. They aren't arguing that Beatty's achievement is greater than Welles, just that Beatty made his achievement after the picture rules were changed and that if Chaplin's nominations for The Circus hadn't been rescinded that year when they decided to give him a special award, he would have done it first anyway. In other words, I think it's less revisionist history in this case as people like you and me learning incorrect facts in the first place. If Citizen Kane had won best picture (as it should have), Orson would not have received the best picture statuette. If Reds or Heaven Can Wait had, Beatty would have.
I can see the Academy's argument in that case in particular, but Edward, do you feel that just because something is the Academy's current official position that anything else is just "incorrect" misinformation?

For me, the sticky issue is Sunrise. It was no revalation for me to learn that the Academy officially considers Wings and only Wings to be the Best Picture winner from that year. But I don't think there's much that will change my opinion that Sunrise can and should be considered just as equally a Best Picture winner.
I really think you have to defer to the Academy since its their award. As for Sunrise, I think that if you say that award, which only existed for one year, should be considered equivalent to best picture then you have to start saying that every foreign language film winner and every animated feature and documentary feature winner is also equivalent. Sunrise is a great movie, but from the beginning I think they aimed for picture to be more pedestrian.
The other thing that makes me not think of Sunrise as an equivalent is that when I was a young lad, first memorizing Oscar stuff for lack of anything else to do, no Oscar books I read even mentioned that there had been such a category as Artistic Quality of Production. It's something that they seemed to have unearthed later, much like the early ones that gave Chaplin all his nominations for The Circus before more thorough investigation discovered that they rescinded his nominations when they gave him the special award.
Edward, I don't see why foreign, documentary and animated Oscar winners would need to be treated as equivalently. The criteria for nominating films in those categories is clearly different from that for nominating Best Pictures. Some films are eligible for both, but the overall pools are different. As far as I know, that wasn't the case with the categories in question in 1928. The judges could have easily swapped nominees from one category to the other if they'd wanted to. (I probably do so with Seventh Heaven and Chang, actually, in the alternate reality in which I take a time machine to 1928 to be an Academy judge.)

However, I just read your original post on factual errors and I think I see where you're coming from here. If I were writing a factual article on the Oscars, or (though I find it a rather specious activity) trying to use statistics from Oscar history to attempt to back up predictions of future awards, I would indeed want to go by the official Academy line.

But as a private citizen and even as a blogger with a particular perspective on film history that I don't expect to be precisely shared by anyone else, I don't believe I "have to defer" to anyone else for my own personal interpretation of history based on the facts as I currently understand them.

I have never encountered any evidence that in 1928 the Best Production award won by Wings was considered any more prestigious or important than the Unique and Artistic Production award Sunrise won. There's even a paragraph (unfortunately unsourced) in wikipedia that suggests the opposite.

I do think it smacks of "revisionist history" for the Academy to diminish Sunrise's award. I will concede that, since it's their award, they have the perfect right to do so in their official record books, and to suggest (even insist) that responsible journalists follow their lead when discussing the situation in a factual manner. But I believe I have the right to personally disagree with the interpretation of history they put forth, at least until I see better evidence that I shouldn't.
The question I keep coming back to is revisionist history always in and of itself a negative? Sometimes, historical records are wrong and need to be corrected or clarified. I don't believe there is some sinister plot to try to make it sound like Beatty is better than Welles -- if Beatty had made Reds or Heaven Can Wait prior to 1951, he'd have been in the same boat. Really, I feel slightly stupid for not catching this discrepancy years ago since when I was first delving into Oscar history I knew that Walt Disney holds the record for winning the most Oscars but that was because he always took the prize if it was from his studio, even if someone else really did the bulk of the work. As for Sunrise, of course it (and The Crowd) are both better than Wings, but again it was a different category. Since for years, most Oscar history books didn't even notice that there was such a category as Artistic Quality of Production, it's hard to say that they could have swapped films between the two categories. We don't know and I think the Academy with their access to records most of us will never see probably should be the criteria (oh, but if I could ever delve into their vaults). The thing that always gets me is that the category, like comedy direction and title writing, were one shots that were dumped in the second year. If they had persisted, perhaps I'd feel differently, but I think even the wording of the category makes it clear that they were trying to single out special films from ordinary ones. It's funny, but in a way many of the category distinctions have always seemed arbitrary. I remember that it never occurred to me until Jaye Davidson got nominated for The Crying Game that nomination in the various acting categories really come down to genitalia in the end. What will they ever do if a transsexual performer is in the running or -- even more mind-boggling -- someone halfway through a change from one gender to another?
I forgot the other point I was going to make about revisionist history. An example of how it's not always a negative was when the proper writers were later awarded their Oscars after fronts or pseudonyms had to be used at the time because they were victims of the blacklist. I think those revisions were good things.
No, historical revisionism is not always a negative (though the connotations of the term "revisionist history", as opposed to the flipped term, are usually negative). Your example from the blacklist is one very good example.

But just because a decision was made between the first and second Oscar ceremonies that the Unique and Artistic Production award was more expendable than the Best Production award, isn't enough to convince me that this was the consensus view in Hollywood on or before May 16, 1929.

You write: "even the wording of the category makes it clear that they were trying to single out special films from ordinary ones."

This sentence reads like a perfect description of what a Best Picture award should be about. I suspect current Academy members would argue they're doing just that when choosing nominees and winners in that category today.

As I interpret the history, it's not that Wings was the best of the "ordinary" films and Sunrise the best of the "special" ones, it's that Wings was the one that impressed people as the most challenging to pull off from a production standpoint, while Sunrise was considered qualitatively the "best" picture made that year.
Neither of us will ever convince the other but your last comment did give me a thought that I'd never considered before. Since Wings won "best production" which you'd argued was the feat of making it and Sunrise won "artistic quality of production" meaning its style and technique, perhaps neither prize should be considered equivalent to best picture and the real first "best picture" winner was the god-awful Broadway Melody the next year.
Yes, I think it's time to "agree to disagree" after a spirited and enjoyable discussion. Though I'm thinking I just might take up the topic again next month while discussing Sunrise as part of the 1927 Blog-A-Thon, if you don't mind.

I do think there's something to the idea that neither film should be considered Best Picture. Actually that only became the name of the category the fourth year of the awards. Does that make the awfully godawful Cimarron the "real" first Best Picture winner?
As bad as Cimarron is, I'd rank it slightly better than Broadway Melody. Too bad we couldn't have started with All Quiet on the Western Front. At least that still holds up.
That's really neat that you did that research.

Hey, vote on my 6th film poll at
Actually, I didn't do the research. I just sent the questions to the Academy's library and their staff researched the answers.
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