Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture? Sometimes the Academy gets it very very very wrong...
Historically speaking the Oscars have been behind the curve on every major cultural shift since their inception. In fact, far from heralding the arrival of new talents, it is often more likely that the awarding of an Oscar will precipitate a slide into mediocrity as the unlucky recipient is dragged helplessly into the perfumed bosom of the pompous academy establishment, forever blunting their creative edge beneath a mountain of disingenuous simpering and backslapping lunches in overpriced restaurants.
If you look closely at the history of the winners, it is no exaggeration to say that the number of the stinkers and clunky film-farts awarded over the years may actually outweigh the number of genuinely decent movies. Added to this is the fact that the list of overlooked films and directors is a truly mind-boggling array of cinematic titans and works of brilliance. There is also the uncomfortable fact that the academy were latecomers to the whole civil-rights-and-anti-racism thing, late to embrace homosexuality in spite of the glittering array of gay talent that has populated it over the years. They were criminally weak during the communist witch hunts, hanging a great many innocent writers, actors and directors out to dry on the say so of evil senator Joseph McCarthy and as a voting body they have consistently avoided taking controversial decisions regardless of artistic merit. All the same, they are never shy about trumping themselves up or congratulating themselves, so in honour of their all-round badness and their long history of being wrong about things, here are my 10 favourite worst Oscars:
#1 Best Picture 1941: How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
Should have won: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
This is a classic, a real veteran of worst Oscar lists and rightly so. Welles was a mercurial talent in front of and behind the camera and a controversial figure from pretty much the get go. The rumour is that the famous utterance of the cryptic codeword ‘rosebud’, which is central to Citizen Kane, was actually the pet name of an intimate anatomical feature of the girlfriend of powerful industrialist and media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino made a film about Rupert Murdoch’s penis, something like that. Needless to say this didn’t go down well with big Willy, who held a lot of sway in Hollywood, and so a film that has frequently topped ‘Greatest of All Time’ lists went unacknowledged at the 12th The Academy Awards in favour of a saccharine and forgettable entry in the otherwise stellar Ford oeuvre. Welles was effectively blacklisted after this, and was overlooked again in 1958 when his masterful A Touch of Evil failed to muster a single nomination. Cineastes the world over have never forgiven the academy for failing to recognise one of cinemas great characters and most spectacular talents. Welles. Never forget.
#2 Best Picture 1994: Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis)
Should have won: Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino) or Ed Wood (Tim Burton) or The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont).
Jesus wept! Zemickis, Hanks and Gump outdid one all the all-time great Oscar fields to take home Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay in a miscarriage of justice the like of which we haven’t seen since the Guildford Four. Tom Hanks had won an Oscar for Philadelphia the previous year so he already had one gold statue when he pilfered this award from John Travolta’s, Morgan Freeman and the fantastic Nigel Hawthorne in The Madness of King George. God only knows how The Shawshank Redemption, the number one rated film on IMDB since before you were even born, failed to take home a single award. This is the year voting rights should have been taken away from the academy and given to people on the internet, or Morgan Freeman or something.
#3 Best Picture 1998: Shakespeare in Love (John Madden).
Should have won: The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick) or Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)
This one has to be chalked up to the incredible persuasive talents of Harvey Weinstein who mounted an audacious campaign to get the unfancied piece of soft-core Elizabethan history-porn into the top spot ahead of the Malick or Spielberg war epics, a bit like Simon Cowell managing to get Emile Heskey to win World Player of the Year over Messi or Ronaldo. No-one quite knows how Weinstein does it, perhaps he buys a hell of a lot of fruit baskets? Perhaps he has nude pictures of all the academy members (average age 55)? Perhaps he has mob connections? All I can say is, if I were a gambling man, I’d look for Harvey’s name in the credits somewhere before I placed my stake.
#4 Best Director 1977: John G. Avildson for Rocky.
Should have worn: Alan J. Pakula for All The Presidents Men or Martin Scorcese for Taxi Driver or Sidney Lumet for Network.
Seriously, just read that last one again, take it in. Best Director, the guy who made who Rocky. Over THAT trio of films, three bona fida classics and three future hall of fame directors. Now I hate Rocky, I hated it when I was young and stupid enough not to see how crude it was, and I still hate it now, but I take films far too seriously and am at least willing to admit that it has something of an iconic status. Choosing Rocky over any one of those films though, let alone all three, is a clear demonstration the mortal fear of controversy that drives the academy away from prescient and powerful new works like a herd of wildebeest fleeing a lion. There is a theory that there was a link between Taxi Driver and John Hinkley, the would-be assassin of Ronald Reagan, and that this was what cost Scorcese his award. Regardless, the vintage performances, classic dialogue and subversive themes of the three losers still resonate today while Rocky is remembered largely for it’s hilarious montages and Sly Stallone mumbling like he’s just had a root canal.
#5 Best Supporting Actor 2010: Christopher Plummer in The Last Station.
This is a good one for highlighting the sheer ridiculousness of academy logic. Christopher Plummer is onscreen for virtually the entire film, like 101 minutes out of it’s 112 minute running time. It’s a barnstorming turn as Leo Tolstoy in the movie about Tolstoy’s last days. He is unquestionably the lead actor yet he found himself in the ‘supporting actor’ category in favour of a George Clooney on autopilot in Up in the Air, a terrible Mandela impression from Morgan Freeman in Invictus and a pleasant enough country and western jig from Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. My theory is that Morgan Freeman was shunted up to ‘best actor’ when they realised it was an all-white field and poor old Plummer, being less famous than the other nominees, was rudely shunted down.
#6 Best Picture 1990: Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner).
Should Have Won: Goodfellas (Martin Scorcese).
Clearly Goodfellas deserved to win, it’s a peerless work of brilliance, a flawless movie. The direction is incredible, the soundtrack is fabulous, so Goodfellas was going to win right? The dialogue is razor sharp, the script is watertight. There are once in a lifetime performances from Pesci, Liotta, Bracco and Di Niro. It has stacks of memorable scenes. Seriously. Name one scene from Dances with Wolves, I dare you. You can’t because the whole film is one scene! One three hour scene of Kevin Costner frowning. There’s no way it could lose. No I said Goodfellas, it’s fucking Goodf…oh.
#7 Best Actress 1960: Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8
The awards came shortly after Taylor had overcome a bout of near-fatal pneumonia, and sympathy for her was sky high. But she hated the film herself, and openly and publicly dismissed the quality of the film, calling it ‘a piece of obscenity’ which she only made under duress to fulfil her contractual obligations to MGM. Even after the nominations she said ‘it stinks, I have never seen it and I have no desire to see it.’ She managed to keep a lid on her feelings for the ceremony itself, and presumably had to use the full range of her acting abilities to make this very short acceptance speech come off as genuine.
#8 Best Picture 2005: Crash (Paul Haggis).
Should have won: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
This one still makes me shudder. It’s inconceivable that Ang Lee’s sensitive and powerful adaptation of the sublime E. Annie Proulx story should lose out Paul Haggis unwieldy and hackneyed anti-racist drama. It’s not simply thatBrokeback Mountain is a great movie (although I wholeheartedly believe it is), it’s also that Crash is such a godawful mess. Not to mention that the multi-stranded narrative trick of Crash was old news by 2006 so even if it wasn’t to be Brokeback Mountain then basically any of the other films was better and more original than Crash. The suggestion, and it seems plausible given the way that the Christian right behaves in the US, is that the academy shied away from a film about two homosexual men for fear of controversy, not wanting to be seen as pro-gay, in 2006.
#9 Best Picture 1997: Titanic (James Cameron)
Should have won: LA Confidential (Curtis Hansen)
Don’t get me started…
#10 Best Actor 1992: Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman
Pacino did incredible work in The Godfather films, Serpico and Panic in Needle Park, and he was explosive in films like Dog Day Afternoon and Glengarry Glen Ross. But it wasn’t until he started chewing the scenery and shouting literally all of his lines that he finally got that Oscar® recognition. This is also a great one to illustrate my theory that winning an award is the beginning of the end, Pacino has never been anywhere close to as good as he was since he won this. Instead, having got the recognition for shouty hoo-haa’s and furniture munching, he proceeded to repeat the same trick in every single film until he was a walking, talking parody of himself. So if your watching the awards on Sunday, and you’re a fan of Ben Affleck or Bradley Cooper or a Jessica Chastain, bear in mind that this may be the last time they are actually any good, unless they can pick up some tips from Daniel Day-Lewis…