How We Watch Movies Over Time

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Now that the Golden Globes have come and gone, and with the Oscar nominations upon us, I think it’s fair to ask the question: which movies hold up over time and which ones don’t?  Why are some movies award-worthy in the short run, and falter in the long run?  Why do we still watch Singin’ in the Rain but not With a Song in My Heart, which beat the former for the Golden Globe as Best Comedy/Musical?

I’m in a good place to talk about this, because I spent much of last year watching as many of the 400 nominees for the AFI top 100 list as possible.  I don’t consider this list superior to others (all lists are pretty much equal in their usefulness and uselessness), but it’s a good barometer of the way our tastes change over time.  Many of the movies listed there don’t hold up the way they used to: Beau Geste, once a landmark adventure film starring Gary Cooper, is as dull as dishwater; Blackboard Jungle’s menacing hoods, once the cause of so much controversy, are now as tame as the kids on Saved By the Bell; and Pillow Talk, the most famous Doris Day-Rock Hudson pairing, is as vanilla as it gets.  On the other hand, Stormy Weather is a highly entertaining record of African-American performers at that time; Winchester ’73 one of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart’s finest westerns; and, forty years later, John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence has few peers when it comes to screen tragedy—it has the same power, for me, as Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  

But what movies have outlived their shelf life that also won the Best Picture Oscar?  This has always fascinated me, since the Oscars were one reason I got into movies, and because, with two exceptions[1], I’ve seen almost every Best Picture winner.  I think it’s unfair to pick on certain films merely for winning over better ones, like Ordinary People, which beat Raging Bull in 1980.  Both movies are good, and both should be required viewing for people who want to work in this industry.  But some winners fail to speak to modern audiences.  For example, 1944’s Best Picture, Going My Way: a hokey, sentimental film about Irish Catholic priests that spawned a sequel (The Bells of St. Mary’s, a Best Picture nominee the year after), and a hit song, “Swingin’ on a Star.”  It is only interesting today as a document of the way Catholics liked to think of themselves at that time.  However, the movie it beat for the title, Double Indemnity, is still a masterpiece of film noir, containing possibly the best performances Barbara Stanwyck, Fred McMurray and Edward G. Robinson ever gave, and has spawned countless imitations. 

Am I saying that the Academy was wrong not to give it to Double Indemnity?  No—Double Indemnity didn’t need an Oscar to cement it as a great film.  The differences between the two, while stark, ultimately come down to this: Going My Way doesn’t tell the truth about human nature, and Double Indemnity does.  The message may be darker, but sometimes human nature is dark, and people have a tendency to react against movies that dwell in this.  Ace in the Hole and A Face in the Crowd were pilloried upon their release in the image-conscious 1950s, but now are seen as classics that predicted the future of journalism and the rise of reality TV. 

Neither film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  They can join the ranks of other great 50s movies as Sweet Smell of Success, Paths of Glory, Vertigo, Rear Window, Touch of Evil, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and most egregiously un-nominated of all, Singin’ in the Rain.  Given these snubs, you’d think that even better movies beat them to the top, but such is not the case: Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Robe, Ivanhoe, Sayonara and Decision Before Dawn all got Best Picture nominations, and how many people want to watch them again? 

If you want your movie not to date, you only have to do one thing: tell the truth.  Telling it in such a way that it will remain true over decades is tougher, but it helps, I think, to reveal something that isn’t easy to listen to.  Obviously, I have no idea what movies from 2013 will hold up in thirty years.  However, it could easily be the movie that nobody thinks will have a shot—which is why I’m going to put my money on Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor.  Mind you, I’m not a fan of the film: I’ve written about its grating misogyny elsewhere.  But its thesis statement, that the seemingly innocent actions we take have consequences beyond our control, is a strong one, and maybe—just maybe—we have to catch up to what Scott and McCarthy are saying.

I could be wrong about that.  But how many people thought when Ace in the Hole was released that it would eventually become required viewing over Best Picture nominee Decision Before Dawn?  After all, cultural prophecy is, to quote Harold Bloom, a “mug’s game.” 


[1] Those two exceptions are 1931’s Cimarron and 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, both of which I have tried (and failed) to get through. 

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