The Oscars are a flawed system. It’s not entirely the Academy’s fault. For many different reasons the best movies do not always win best picture (or even get nominated). In their defense, it’s also very easy to say in hindsight that the Academy overlooked movies that are now considered classics. History is littered with examples of great art that’s value isn’t fully recognized until years later.
The other side of the coin is the Academy has to deal with context. Whether or not they are trying to be objective, they can’t avoid being influenced by subjective factors such as the personalities and actions of the nominees(for example, many thought Eddie Murphy was a shoe-in for the best supporting actor Oscar for his work in Dreamgirls. Then along came Norbit.)
(Surgeon General Warning: Obesity is the leading cause of heart disease, preventable death, certain types of cancer and LOL’s!)
There’s also the more dubious influence of the movie studios, who spend thousands of dollars lobbying for award consideration. Which means most low budget indie movies have very little chance of winning. Another problem is the members of the Academy themselves. Who would you want judging the best movies of the years- Movie critics with extensive educations and years of experience? Or Russell Brand?
September 12 2001- Russell Brand Went to his job at MTV UK Dressed as Osama Bin Laden
June 17 2011- Brand is given the Authority to bestow one of the highest honors in motion pictures
The academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is comprised of actors, directors and screenwriters and other industry professionals. And these people then vote for their actor, director, screenwriter and industry professional friends come award time. So instead of well respected, learned critics, the greatest movie of the year is chosen by this man:
In this instance, “your worst nightmare” translates to “I am the appraiser of the artistic and cultural value of our nation’s films” and “butt-horn” translates to “butt-horn”.
The current system of Hollywood insiders voting for their coworkers and acquaintances can sometimes lead to movies judged on the popularity of their stars, rather than it’s artistic merit. Most Academy members are just too connected to act objectively. Which in turn leads to plenty of “deserved Oscars”, meaning that nominees that have been overlooked in the past are given awards to make up for it. Even when their winning performances are less than stellar. For instance, Al Pacino won his first Oscar for doing this stuff:
Whether it be through the benefit of hindsight or a mistake right out of the gate due to circumstance, here’s five Best Pictures that never deserved to win:
1941: Best Picture Winner: How Green Was My Valley
Never heard of How Green Was My Valley? Me neither. Directed by John Ford(Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), the movie spans half a century in the life of a Welsh mining family. By all accounts it’s a pretty good movie(Rotten Tomatoes has got it at 88%). There’s only one problem…
1941’s Most Egregious Loser: Citizen Freakin’ Kane
Yes, AFI’s # 1 movie of all time(both in 1998 and 2007), and a top ten pick on many respected critic’s lists of greatest movies ever. Even watching it now, Kane still feels fresh and new (shockingly so even) despite being 70 years old.
So What Happened? William Randolph Hearst.
The newspaper publisher and titan of industry was a major influence on the self-destructive character Kane, and Hearst didn’t take too kindly to the not so subtle similarities. The business magnate used every resource at his disposal(whether it be money or influence in Hollywood) to prevent the film’s release.
Hearst went as far as “threatening to expose fifteen years of suppressed scandals and the fact that most of the studio bosses were Jewish”.
Some of the heads of the major studios(friends and associates of Hearst) even offered Kane’s studio RKO the full cost of the movie in exchange for the film and all existing negatives, “fully intending to burn them”.
Although unsuccessful, Hearst’s efforts limited the film’s eventual release, and severely damaged Orson Welle’s career. Welle’s struggled to find work in Hollywood, and was forced to self-finance most of his future projects.
2005 Best Picture Winner: Crash
If only I was talking about 1996’s Crash, starring James Spader as a man who finds himself aroused by brutal car crashes (Now that’s what I call “auto erotic”……… I’ll see myself out).
Instead, 2005’s Crash stars Brendan Frazer and Ludacris dealing with race and gender issues in Los Angeles.
First sign this is not a good movie: The Tagline- “Moving at the speed of life, we are bound to collide with each other.”
The speed of Life? Fuck you, 2005’s Crash.
The movie’s heavy handed lecturing, and broad racial caricatures makes Crash feel less like an Oscar winner and more like a Lifetime movie (we’ll get more into how Hollywood deals with race later on).
But despite my opinion, Crash still has a healthy 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Most Egregious Loser: Literally any other Best Picture Nominee.
All four of the other nominees from 2005 had a better Rotten Tomato rating ( Brokeback Mountain- 87%, Capote 90%, Munich 78%, Good Night, And Good Luck 94%). I realize that the Tomatometer isn’t the be all, end all when it comes to movie rankings, but you can’t ignore that Crash has a significantly lower rating than three of the other nominees.
So What Happened? It’s hard to say why Crash won. You couldn’t necessarily accuse the Academy of awarding a “deserved” Oscar to writer-director Paul Haggis (this was only his first effort as a director after being nominated as the screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby the previous year). Most predicted that, Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and jake Gyllenhall as two cattle ranchers who fall in love, would win the big prize. Perhaps it’s a case of Hollywood, despite priding itself on it’s liberal attitude, being unable to embrace a gay love story as its best picture of the year.
1989 Best Picture Winner: Driving Miss Daisy
Starring a crochety old white woman (Jessica Tandey) and her genial black chauffer (Morgan Freeman), the comedy-drama(I won’t say “dramadey”) spans 25 years, under the big corny banner of “Can’t we All Just Get Along”?
Most Egregious Loser: Do the Right Thing
Whereas Driving Miss Daisy’s approach to race relations in America paints a glib and simplistic portrait, Do the Right Thing goes for the jugular, offering no easy answers right down to its ambiguous finale. Also it has the most badass opening credit sequence ever:
So what Happened?
With polar opposite perspectives on the same issue, the Academy ultimately chose the easy answer, not even nominating Do the Right Thing for best picture. Spike Lee is rightfully still pissed about the snub, but the film did receive some positive recognition in its time (both Siskel and Ebert ranked it as the best movie of 1989) and nearly two decades later AFI ranked it as the 96# best American movie of all time.
2006 Best Picture Winner: The Departed
The Departed for the most part is a pretty good movie. Despite my personal misgivings about the final scene (“Matt Damon is a metaphorical rat, and then they show a literal rat! Doyagetit, doyagetit, doyagetit, doyagetit, doyagetit, doyagetit????” [puts gun in mouth, pulls trigger]).
Even still, the Departed felt like a “deserved Oscar” if there ever was one. After Martin Scorcese’s films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas were all nominated for best picture( and all three lost to inferior movies) the Academy realized that Scorcese was owed one. And although the Departed was the greatest of the best picture nominees for 2006 (The others being The Queen, Babel, Letter to Iwo jima and Little Miss Sunshine), the Departed was not the best film of 2006.
Most Egregious Loser: Borat
Yes I am absolutely serious. Okay, has everyone stopped reading?
Stay with me here. Often times, great films are great because they perfectly articulate the mood and character of the era in which they are made; perhaps not aesthetically outstanding, but culturally and historically significant. Examples include Look Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, which focused on inter-racial dating (Best Picture nominee), or 1982’s Tootsie which explored gender roles in the workplace(#69 on AFI’s top 100 list). These two movies are perfect encapsulations of the time and place in which they were made. As far as Borat, 100 years from now if someone wants to know what it meant to be a republican or democratic ( or in 2006 parlance, red stater or blue stater) in the mid-aughts, you can’t find a more raw and honest portrait of America anywhere else. The movie makes you realize that’s who we were, and in most ways still are.
So what Happened?
The Academy has always had a prejudice against comedies (also there’s the unspoken rule that no best picture nominee may contain both face sitting AND fist fucking. A rule Borat flagrantly broke).
Excluding comedy-dramas (still won’t say “dramedies”) like Annie Hall or Forrest Gump which feature some comedic moments, in the past 50 years, only one pure comedy has won best picture (Tom Jones in 1963). I’m not suggesting Caddyshack deserves an Academy Award, I’m just suggesting that there is a certain mold that best pictures most fit for the Academy to champion them.
1980 Best Picture Winner: Ordinary People
Ordinary people is a family drama starring Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland. The move has got everything that Oscar loves: A well-crafted, easily digestible dramatic plot, big name stars, a huge studio backing it(and lobbying for its success) and a longtime, well respected(and Oscar-less) movie star making his debut behind the camera. Something tells me Redford “deserves” an Oscar. Don’t get me wrong, Ordinary People is a good movie. But here’s the thing….
Most Egregious Loser: Raging Bull.
Yup. Raging “best move of the 80’s, AFI’s 8th greatest movie of all time” Bull.
So what Happened?
After betting big on the 1980 flop, Heaven’s Gate, Raging Bull’s studio United Artists was facing serious financial trouble, leaving almost no money to promote the movie for Oscar consideration.
More than just money, Raging Bull is a bit too arty for the mostly populous Academy. And at the time, Scorcese and Deniro, though well respected, weren’t industry insiders. They were auteurs from New York. And when it comes to the Academy’s biggest award, Hollywood tends to stick with its own kind.