Friday, March 03, 2006


When was the moment that you felt the Oscars betrayed you?

By Edward Copeland
My good friend Matt Zoller Seitz has went on a rant at his blog about how if Crash should pull an upset victory Sunday night for best picture it would be the most indefensible Oscar win since Around the World in 80 Days and he will cease to care about the awards. In a way, I know how he feels. I don't share his sentiments about Crash, but I think any movie buff with even a casual interest in the Academy Awards always gets riled by their picks. We don't like to admit it — but that's part of the enjoyment of the whole enterprise — getting thoroughly pissed off over what the Academy picks when it doesn't matter in the end and we'll come back for more anyway. In a way, it's like some of us are in an abusive relationship with Oscar — we threaten to leave every time he smacks us, but something convinces us that Oscar loves us anyway and we refuse to leave him.

The first truly outraged moment (actually moments) I can remember all involved the 1985 race. First, there were the nominations where The Color Purple got 11 nominations but none for Steven Spielberg as director. At the time, Spielberg was like a demigod to many of us, so our outrage was fierce and palpable, though when time passed and some of us saw The Color Purple again, we had to wonder if it would have gotten the notice it did if Spielberg's name hadn't been attached.

Then the real straw that broke that camel's back came on Oscar night itself — even though we knew victory was a near certainty. Don Ameche got supporting actor for Cocoon — and he wasn't even the best supporting actor in Cocoon. He didn't do his own breakdancing either. Not to mention, the truly worthy winners he defeated, namely William Hickey in Prizzi's Honor and Klaus Maria Brandauer in Out of Africa. Hell, even Robert Loggia in Jagged Edge or Eric Roberts in Runaway Train would have been better choices. My friend Dave and I declared that Oscar was dead to us — that night Sydney Pollack took director over John Huston and Akira Kurosawa as well, so the whole night qualified as cultural crime against humanity.

I got over it. I always come back for more, but their winners don't have the ability to really anger me much anymore. I admit — I did almost physically retch when Russell Crowe, who I like as an actor, won for his nonrole in Gladiator, but that's the closest I've come to the 1985 feeling. I can't remember what critic wrote it but I loved the line about Crowe in Gladiator who asked why a Spaniard fighting for the Romans had an Australian accent.

If you look through the entire history of the Oscar, the times the Academy got it wrong overwhelmingly outnumber the times they got it right. Look at its best picture winners — of that list the only winners I would truly call the greatest of films, in the all-time sense, are It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind (and that wouldn't even have been my pick for 1939), Casablanca, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Amadeus and Schindler's List with several near greats such as All Quiet on the Western Front, Rebecca, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment and The Last Emperor.

Contrast those though with the mediocrities that prevailed. I'll give Wings a pass only because I've never been able to see its competitors and the Academy shuffled the year's masterpieces The Crowd and Sunrise to a separate category called "Artistic Quality of Production" which it promptly abandoned after the first year, as if they knew the Oscar was destined to aim for the middlebrow audience.

They proved it the following year with The Broadway Melody which remains my choice for the worst best picture ever. Try watching it — it's so creaky you'll expect your VCR or DVD player to fall right through the floor.

Then there were more mediocrities: Cimarron, The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola — for the most part the '30s played like that whole section of 19th century presidents when we had Fillmore, Pierce and the like.

The '40s weren't much better. There was the watch-paint-drying exercise that is Mrs. Miniver, the overlong hokum of Going My Way, the noble but awful Gentleman's Agreement.

Then we hit the 50s — with some of the most mind-boggling winners ever. I know there are many fans of An American in Paris, but it's never done anything for me. Of course, this decade also went with The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World with 80 Days and a pair of the most overrated films of all time — Bridge on the River Kwai and Ben-Hur.

Things improved a bit in the 1960s, even if the best films still didn't win. The only winner I truly don't like is Tom Jones.

The 1970s have given us a crop of winners that largely have aged badly. Patton and The French Connection to be sure. Rocky, whose worst crime is being picked over the likes of All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver. Then you get to 1978 and the interminable, xenophobic, borderline racist and character-less Deer Hunter which defeated the equally dated Coming Home and Midnight Express. I haven't seen An Unmarried Woman recently to see how it holds up, but at this point it looks like Heaven Can Wait is likely to emerge as the best of their lot.

In the 1980s, we start out with the kitchen-sink melodrama Ordinary People conquering Raging Bull. In 1981, we get the dull Chariots of Fire whose most exciting moment was being the last time a best picture winner was a surprise. Gandhi is OK, but over Tootsie and E.T.? Out of Africa beating Prizzi's Honor? The now laughable Platoon topping not only Hannah and Her Sisters but A Room With a View as well. Rain Man
don't even get me started.

Then the 1990s started with the outrage of outrages when the masterpiece Goodfellas lost to Dances With Wolves, though the outrage would have been just as great if it had lost to ANY of its competitors: Awakenings, Ghost and The Godfather, Part III.

1995 may have been another lowpoint for Oscar, not only because Braveheart won but because the field was so weak that my favorite film may have been about a pig that herded sheep.

The bore that is The English Patient won the next year over the monumentally overrated Fargo and the Rain Man with a piano tale that was Shine. The best of their weak lot was Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, but he's done better, and Jerry Maguire. The true crime of 1996 was that Lone Star wasn't even in the top five.

The next year brought Titanic, the effects extravaganza with dialogue so putrid the movie would play better if you brought something else to listen to — and it beat the exquisite L.A. Confidential to boot.

The Aughts have not been much kinder. There has yet to be a winner that I think will truly be one for the time capsule. Chicago and Million Dollar Baby are fine, but forgettable. A Beautiful Mind almost defines mediocre. Return of the King was more a testament to them feeling they owed Jackson's bloated epic something. Fellowship was the only one I liked overall. The rest were just good sequences surrounded by lots of boring scenes and dialogue that sounded like George Lucas' worst Star Wars dialogue with delusions of grandeur. I think the whole trilogy would have been helped if instead of Elijah Wood, they'd actually picked a lead who I believed for a moment might be tempted by the ring. It says a lot about the trilogy that the best character was computer generated.

Then there is the absolute bottom of the barrel of the aughts — Gladiator — whose win to this day boggles my mind.

Yes, Oscar will seldom get it right and seldom has — and I haven't even touched and the outrages of acting wins like Helen Hunt and her wandering accent in As Good As It Gets. Oscar always makes us mad — and that's really why we love Oscar. It's the same impulse that sends us to every new ridiculous Entertainment Weekly or AFI list just so we can complain about them.

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You forgot my favorite outrage — CHARIOTS OF FIRE beating REDS.
Fuck that. How about CHARIOTS OF FIRE beating RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? That was an outrage too, though certainly a predictable one.

Hey, EC, you write, " when time passed and some of us saw The Color Purple again, we had to wonder if it would have gotten the notice it did if Spielberg's name hadn't been attached." Maybe I'm just a big Spielnerd, but that movie strikes me as being about as close to perfect as movies get. It's lush and cornball and overdetermined, but is that a bad thing? To me its the MGM studio picture black folks never got to have. Armond White, who I often disagree with even though he's a hero of mine, nailed it in his City Sun review years ago, noting that Spielberg was working in the tradition of John Ford and DW Griffith, but Oscar voters, who have no sense of their own history, couldn't see it.

Of course, your mileage may vary.
Where to start...I guess I'll tackle them in the order you did.

I don't think the Spielberg snub for The Color Purple qualifies as an outrage for anyone who read the seminal Alice Walker novel on which the film was based. The way Spielberg and his collaborators ironed out Walker's gritty slice-of-life prose into a happy, candy-colored funfest populated mainly by broad comic stereotypes didn't earn any points with me; perhaps more damning is the manner in which the Walker storyline was so radically altered to make the film more palatable for a mainstream audience. For starters, Celie and Shug's decades-long sexual relationship was reduced to one rather innocuous kiss - forget about all the other subplots and characters that were dropped (Squeak, played by Rae Dawn Chong, must be in the film version for all of 5 minutes). But the main problem was that Spielberg's approach simply wasn't true to the tone and spirit of the book. Which is a shame, because I think the Disneyfied alternative he arrived at is much less compelling that what Walker achieved, and a bit too simplistic to be credible.

Don Ameche did not deserve the Oscar for Cocoon. But if his win for that performance was nothing more than a career achievement award, there were worse careers to honor. If it's his performance opposite Claudette Colbert in the Billy Wilder scripted Midnight that I cherish him for, his singing performances on the Original Cast Recordings of Silk Stockings, Henry Sweet Henry, and most imperishably, trading deliciously low quips and sneers with the formidable Elaine Stritch in Goldilocks, also hold a special place in my heart. So I can't get too upset about his Oscar win. Certainly, Oscar recognition wasn't as wasted on Ameche, who'd had a long and distinguished career with many high points, as it was on the likes of Harold Russell, jr. or George Chakiris.

I also feel bound to defend An American in Paris. It wasn't the best film of 1951, to be sure, but I think it holds up well as entertainment, and the 15 minute ballet sequence choreographed by Gene Kelly is still glorious to behold and justifiably regarded as one of the high points in the history of film musicals.

There are are few more points on which I disagree with you...If Eastwood hadn't beaten Scorcese last year, you wouldn't have as much of axe to grind against Million Dollar Baby, which was not the best picture of 2004, but a very good film. The appeal of Heaven Can Wait is still lost on me, Tom Jones is slight and silly but still enjoyable on its own shallow terms, and I don't think Fargo is as monumentally overrated as you do.

The ones that stick in my craw? I'm a fan of Marisa Tomei's performance in My Cousin Vinny, but can't help feeling outraged on behalf of the (foreign) actresses she beat - Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, and particularly Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives. That upset me at the time.

Some more lowlights...Everything about Braveheart is offensive to me, and was long before Mel Gibson turned into a grandstanding wacko....Al Pacino's cringeworthy scenery-chewing in the excrutiating Scent of a Woman......Jessica Lange, winning for what really was a terrible performance by any standard in the overwrought Blue Sky...Mira Sorvino, doing her best Minnie Mouse impression in a role that screamed for a Judy Holliday (Woody's favorite actress)or even a young Mia Farrow. He should have cast Lisa Kudrow instead...Benecio Del Toro, a very good actor, for mumbling his way to an Oscar for a performance that I'd liken to George Clooney's in Syriana this year in terms of how little there actually was to it...Nicole Kidman, for fake nose and an even more fake performance style...and last, and certainly least in terms of the esteem I feel for her, Miss Gwyneth Paltrow, who owes her career to the happy accident of being born second generation Hollywood, and her Oscar to the fact that Harvey Weinstein has always nursed a longstanding hard-on for her. Let it never be said that talent was a prerequisite to success in show business.
Well, Matt, you're in an outraged mood tonight, anyway. But yeah, you're right — RAIDERS is better than REDS. At the time, though, it didn't seem to have the same resonance with a more serious-minded film audience, and REDS seemed so much more important than it does now (though I remain fond of it.) RAIDERS has grown over the years with me. I think it, along with JAWS, are truly Spielberg's masterpieces, although SCHINDLER is certainly great. Just not perfect, like RAIDERS. By the way, am I the only person who believes that what went wrong with the RAIDERS series was the loss of Karen Allen? Ford never had a better sparring partner, even Connery.
1955 is the year I single out as the nadir. The Night of the Hunter, Rebel without a Cause, East of Eden, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Bad Day at Black Rock weren't nominated for Best Picture, but Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic, and The Rose Tattoo were. When Mister Roberts is the best nominated film, you have problems.
I didn't mean to imply in any way that I thought MILLION DOLLAR BABY was an outrage. While it is true I would have preferred The Aviator, FInding Neverland or Sideways as the winner, I think that 2004 was such a weak year, that nothing that could have won would have stood the test of time.
I still don't think it's fair to characterize Million Dollar Baby as forgettable. It certainly isn't destined to attain the status of a classic, like Casablanca or All About Eve - but it won't be viewed in the same light as things like All the King's Men or A Man for All Seasons, which hardly provoke outrage, but whose reputations have become fairly obscure beyond circles of film buffs with a knowledge of Oscar history.

In response to That Little Round-Headed Boy's observations about the decline of the Indiana Jones films:

I thought Allen did a fine job in Raiders...she had some of the spark of Debra Winger in that particular role (and sounded a little like her too), and even more impressively, didn't seem daunted by her co-star's gruffness and caginess. To me, Harrison Ford has always seemed a little uncomfortable when called upon to be a romantic leading man, especially when playing opposite soft-focus darlings like Melanie Griffith, Lesley Ann Down and Kelly McGillis - it may take a slightly idiosyncratic actress with a bit of an edge to really create any kind of chemistry with him (so far, Allen and Carrie Fisher may have been the only ones who've managed it).

That said, I don't credit the success of Raiders to Allen's presence in it - the film is simply better than its two sequels in general. I think Allen also benefits greatly from comparison to those who came after her - the alternately shrieking and whining Kate Capshaw, whose character in Temple of Doom is so unpleasant that she seems hardly worth the bother that's gone to on her behalf, and The Last Crusade's beautiful cipher Alison Doody - at least give Capshaw credit for projecting some degree of personality.
My weak year is 2002. The only reason Chicago won was because there hasn't been a musical BEst Picture since Oliver. I mean my personal favorite opf the year, Frailty wasn't even recognized by the academy. Jennifer Anniston's only great performance in the Good Girl didn't get her nominated. Or how about Adam Sandler for Punch-Drunk Love. And only TWO Oscar noms for About Schmidt. Or Chistropher Walken losing in Catch me if you Can? O RJKaufman not winning screenplay. Or Cage BEst Actor? The only good part was Polanski winning for the Pianist. Everything else is just bullshit.
I only agreed with the academy in 25 years on 2003, 1992, and 1984. Everytthing else just isn't as good.
I mean when you think about it this year all nominees deals with controversial isssues.

Death Penalty (Capote)
Free Speech (Good Night and Good Luck)
Prejudice (Crash)
Terrorism (Munich)
and Gay Rights (Brokeback Mountain)
Ah. the Oscars for 1985. I remember the evening well. The wailing, the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments. Truly, I haven't cared since then. I don't feel bitter about the original offense, though I did have to go home dejected to my John Huston shrine, but now I wonder, I made such a fuss over the Oscars?

My first real disappointment was for '81, when RAIDERS didn't win. (I was a child, I was in love!)

I haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees this year. I saw half of one last year. I have to go back to 1990 to find a year that I've seen all 5 nominees. Since then, I'm batting a little less than .400. By now, from what I see of the Oscars, the E! Entertainment, red carpet, best/worst dressed stuff has overtaken my interest in the movies themselves.

Ther's been a lot of clunkers over the years, but I think THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH is the worst to win Best picture, but maybe that's because I've seen it recently. I don't really remember BROADWAY MELODY, but surely it has a couple of good songs in it. And Jeffrey just did CIMARRON on Liverputty.

CASABLANCA is the only time the best movie of the year won. Every other year you can find something better. Even ALL ABOUT EVE had SUNSET BLVD. to best it. Maybe I should research 1935 though, because IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is pure movie magic.

Some quick opinions:
REDS is awful, and actually funny in a ridiculous Hollywood glamour kind of way.
I never liked BRAVEHEART, and I'm still a little surprised so many people did.
GLADIATOR is by no means great, but I feel more charitable towards it than you.
You can have me soundly beaten if you wish, but I still say TITANIC works as a romantic entertainment.
You're right about THE DEER HUNTER, it's no good, but you're wrong about THE FRENCH CONNECTION, which is great, although STRAW DOGS was a better movie that year.
I find A CLOCKWORK ORANGE tedious and unwatchable nowadays.

On a sidenote, thinking about THE DEER HUNTER and PLATOON, I'm starting to wonder if there's ever been a really good vietnam movie. I'm holding out for GO TELL THE SPARTANS with Burt Lancaster, which I heard was good.
There are many great Oscar betrayals as evidenced here and over on Matt's blog. I'm surprised that nobody else has mentioned what I consider to be an obvious one: FORREST GUMP beating PULP FICTION.

PULP FICTION is not a "great" movie, but GUMP is just philisophical mumbo-jumbo. Maybe, like AMERICAN BEAUTY, it was the prefect movie for a lot of people at the time, but the same can be said for PULP.

PF's got a dreadful 30-minute stretch, smack in the middle where NOTHING happens, but I'd argue that GUMP's got a two-hour stretch in its middle where even less happens.
Oscar broke my heart when it gave the Best Actor honors to Roberto Benigni over the likes of McKellen, Nolte, Hanks & Norton.
I still love the story in Inside Oscar 2 when after Benigni won, Nolte, McKellen and Norton supposedly shared a drink at the bar laughing about how Roberto was the "best actor."
Dave writes: "On a sidenote, thinking about THE DEER HUNTER and PLATOON, I'm starting to wonder if there's ever been a really good vietnam movie. I'm holding out for GO TELL THE SPARTANS with Burt Lancaster, which I heard was good." I have a pretty high opinion of THE DEER HUNTER, which I realize probably puts me in the minority on this blog and makes what I'm about to say rather suspect, but: SPARTANS is still probably the leanest, meanest, smartest movie made about what actually happened to the US military in Vietnam, as opposed to being about the war's cultural or emotional fallout or some other related matter. That's why it's a favorite of military people. It's not as elegant or ambitious or surreal as most Vietnam movies, and in fact its style is rather square (it probably has more in common with pre-Vietnam colonialist westerns like THE WILD BUNCH and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN than with most of the other 70s Vietnam films, which reached for Big Statements). But it sturdiness, exemplified by one of Burt Lancaster's career best performances, is a major virtue.
Strike the words "pre-Vietnam" from that sentence above -- I know THE WILD BUNCH was Vietnam era. Bu you get the gist. SPARTANS is more a guys-on-a-mission movie with a mournful existential undertow, and not a histrionic or pyschedelic spectacle, like most Vietnam movies. Definitely rent it.
Regarding GO TELL THE SPARTANS. Thanks Matt, that seals the deal. I'm bumping it up on my must-see list.
I'm there and loaded for bear.
Gump was bad I agree, but Pulp Fiction was not the best picture that year. I loved PF, but The Shawshank Redemption was by far the superior film that year, or any other for that matter.
Obviously we all disagree most of the time on which "Best Pictures" were disgraces... but is there seriously anyone that thinks Dances With Wolves was a good pick?
I think best picture 1990 would have been as big an outrage if Awakenings, Ghost or Godfather 3 had won instead of Dances with Wolves, since GoodFellas was so clearly superior to all of them.
If you've never read it, try to get ahold of Pauline Kael's review of Dances with Wolves -- it's one of my favorites. My favorite line: They should have named him Plays With Camera.
Ack! Well now I have an answer... tonight! Crash! Yikes!
sorry...CHICAGO is absolutely is representative of everything wrong with musicals, which makes it way worse than any other best picture's not even a good representation of what it is trying to be. the songs are terrible, the perforances, camerawok, and blocking are straight off the stage...i'm not partial to musicals anyway. i can get through "singin' in the rain', but thats about it as far as the genre goes...Chi- promised it would be different, being more believable, as it's dance sequences would occur in the mind of the character...thjing is,the 'rewal life'; sequences were stagy and broad too...

i think it was one of those 'let's give the award to ______ because of ______" ie, lets give "best actor" to "russell crowe for gladiator" because he should have gotten it for the insider"

this case was "Lets award a musical, because we haven't had one in a while". and away it went. if i were in charge of the razzies, chicago would have been the first film to get best and worst picture.

i hated it.
And what to say about "How Green Was My Valley" winning over... ME?
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