Voting has closed. Price-Waterhouse is counting the ballots. On Sunday night, we will find out who won the 86th annual Academy Awards. On Monday, most people will forget who won, except for the people who make it their business to never forget (Harvey Weinstein, I’m looking at you.) And given the hurt feelings, rivalries, and “How-the-fuck-could-they-ignore-XYZ-but-award-ABC” reactions that will become inevitable over time, I need to remind you guys of something really important:
THE OSCARS DO NOT MATTER.
That’s right. You heard me. I, the person who in fifth grade memorized every winner in just about all the major categories, am here to remind you all that these awards do not matter. Sure, they matter in that it’s fun, and that getting them means you’ll be king/queen for a day, and you have a beautifully designed trophy to put on your mantle. But seriously, whether or not the person you love, or the movie you love, wins or doesn’t win an Oscar, is vastly unimportant in the grand scheme of things. In order to demonstrate why, I have to borrow from William Goldman’s essays in Adventures in the Screen Trade, so forgive me if this essay sounds like his voice and not mine.
All right, flash back. The year is 1976. You have a ballot in front of you for the 1975 Oscars. There are only five nominees for Best Picture at this time in history. If you had to choose between these five for the best of the year, which would you choose?
The Man Who Would Be King
The Sunshine Boys
Three Days of the Condor
If you haven’t seen these five films, you should: they are all terrific. The Man Who Would Be King paired Sean Connery and Michael Caine with director John Huston in one of the most entertaining adventure films ever made; Night Moves is a thriller filled with existential dread; Shampoo, a modern rewrite of the restoration comedy The Country Wife is an underrated gem; The Sunshine Boys is without a doubt the most quoted movie in my family, except for maybe Tootsie; and Three Days of the Condor is one of the best 70s conspiracy films.
So which one of these films won the Academy Award? The answer: none of them. That’s right, none of these movies won, because none of them were nominated. See how much tougher the competition was when you could only have five nominees? Also, since these movies were left out, it can only mean one thing: 1975 was a really great year. This can’t be denied when you look at the movies that were nominated:
Dog Day Afternoon
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Chances are, your memory doesn’t need refreshing on any of these films: on any shortlist of the best movies of the 70s, at least two of them would make the cut, maybe three. How do you decide?
In 1975, the majority of voters went for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, making it the second film to sweep the “Big Five” awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.) At this point in time, we were midway through the American new wave, and it was starting to wind down. The next year, Rocky would win over Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver, a controversial victory to be sure, but not an unexpected one. If you look at the five films from 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most hopeful. Sure, the film ends with a suicide and a mercy killing, but it’s hard not to feel uplifted by the finale, which is undeniably moving. The previous year, the Best Picture Oscar had gone to The Godfather Part II, no doubt a tragic film, but three of the other nominees were infected with the same pessimism: Chinatown, The Conversation and Lenny (the fifth, Irwin Allen’s disaster epic The Towering Inferno, is pessimistic about ignoring fire codes, but not much else.)
Why did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest win? It had been two years since Nixon’s resignation, and the country was beginning to feel better about itself. Jimmy Carter would be elected President that year, and he began his campaign as the darkest of dark horses. When the chips were down, people voted for the optimistic film, and that wave of hope swept into 1976, when Rocky beat the decidedly more cynical Network and Taxi Driver. So it makes sense that Cuckoo’s Nest would have taken the top slot.
Now let’s flash forward to the 1980s. There’s a recession, Reagan’s leaving the White House, things are decidedly not better for the country. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting left behind. Of the five nominees, I think Barry Lyndon would have had the best shot at winning. My favorite of Kubrick’s films, it’s an epic study of one man who rises to the very top only to be brought down by his own hubris. The story is traditional, and Redmond Barry, the film’s protagonist, has little to no redeeming qualities, but Kubrick holds you spellbound by the skill of his art and the wryness of its comedy (See it with an audience, as I did recently, and you’ll hear tons of laughs that you may not get from watching it on even the nicest TV.) So Barry Lyndon might take it all.
Does that mean it would have won in the nineties? Probably not. With the rise of media circuses surrounding the Menendez brothers, the OJ chase and trial, and the dominance of the 24-hour-news cycle, Dog Day Afternoon probably would win, and it would deserve to, because not only would the context of the time support its victory, it is a powerhouse of great writing and acting, containing probably my favorite Al Pacino performance.
A victory for Dog Day probably wouldn’t be supported by the climate of the 2000s, with the rise of the internet, Napster, and YouTube. Given the way the music industry changed so dramatically in those years, I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Altman’s Nashville took it all, and again, it’s a great movie and would deserve everything it won (I highly recommend getting your hands on the new Criterion DVD of it.)
And today, with the changing landscape of big-budget entertainment, and the fact that almost all the nominated movies this year seem to be about survival, in one form or another, I think Jaws would win. And do I really need to remind you how awesome Jaws is? In fact, Gravity winning this year would totally make up for Jaws losing nearly forty years ago.
The point I’m trying to make is simple: while the context of the time would affect which of the five 1975 nominees would win Best Picture, merely losing an Oscar to another film does not diminish that movie’s stature. Sometimes, it increases it: Citizen Kane will forever be the movie that lost to How Green Was My Valley in 1941, probably the most-cited case of an Oscar upset. But I want to discourage you from this kind of thinking, which diminishes the movies that win to increase the status of those that don’t. How Green Was My Valley shouldn’t be thought of as just “the movie that beat Citizen Kane,” instead it should be remembered as a great and moving film, and one that, if the two films were voted on today, would still probably win again.
Yes, we all have our problems when it seems to us that something was more deserving than another film. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong. But this is all just mindless fun, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously by any of us, lest we should start being condescending towards other people for not sharing our taste. Robert Altman said it best, when he was nominated for Best Director one year: “I’m not even in the same business as these guys.” He didn’t say it out of malice, rather, he meant that when you’re up against five guys who do completely different work from you, how can you judge who’s best? The answer is simple: you can’t. So when you turn on your TVs Sunday night to see who won, I urge all of you to take a step back from the whole thing, and just relax.
P.S. I know, I know, “How could you vote for How Green Was My Valley?” I didn’t say I would. I said the Academy would.
P.P.S. What movie would I have voted for of the five 1975 nominees? Honestly, I’d leave my ballot blank. Seriously, how am I supposed to pick? I love all five!