Oscars

The 86th Academy Awards, or, Tasteful to a Fault

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Seth MacFarlane will go down as one of the most inappropriate Oscar hosts of all time.  His tone-deaf schtick turned the ceremony into a three-and-a-half-hour episode of Family Guy, and I say this as someone who was a fan of his before he became associated with “We Saw Your Boobs,” the most notorious Oscar opening number since Rob Lowe danced with Snow White.

But admit that during last night’s ceremony, as Ellen trudged up the aisles to order pizza for the nominees, you wanted Seth MacFarlane to come back.  At last, you’d have something to actually bitch about on Twitter instead of the thousandth gay joke about John Travolta after he mangled Idina Menzel’s name.  180 degrees from sick is still sick, and that was the problem with the 86th Academy Awards last night: in an effort to purge themselves of last year’s debacle, they played it safe, tried and true.  As a result, I spent the show pretty bored by the majority of it.  The Academy may be honoring films made in the 21st century, but their attitude towards producing an awards show feels out of sync with the best ones today: the Emmys, Tonys, and Golden Globes.  Those three, for whatever their faults, have managed to be very entertaining these past few years, but the Academy cannot capture their tone.

I’m not going to blame Ellen for the tired, lackluster feel of last night’s show.  Blaming the host for the show’s problems is like killing the messenger.  The real problem that always hung over this year’s Oscars from the start was that Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were the producers.  I always associate the mess of last year’s ceremony with them, because their inability to recognize problems when they saw them (“We Saw Your Boobs”) and egocentric need to turn the show into a tribute to themselves (they produced Chicago, which was endlessly lionized by presenters)[1] sank the evening.  I don’t envy anyone who has to make a show about the big screen excited for sixty-inch TV sets; it’s much easier to produce the Emmys in that regard.  But Z/M tried so hard not to offend anybody that we got stuck with the usual, “noble” ideas that come off badly in execution, like “the year of the hero,” represented by – wait for it – clip packages!  Christ, I am so done with these things invading the Oscar ceremonies.  Even when you show clips that I don’t associate with clip packages (thank you for not showing Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contendah” speech for the zillionth time) they’re still the devil’s work.

As for the musical numbers, well, the Academy has a really spotty history with these (ROB LOWE!  SNOW WHITE!  “PROUD MARY!”  UNFORGIVABLE!) but there are ways to make them entertaining.  I thought Pharrell Williams brought exactly the right tone that the show needed, and lacked at the very beginning due to there not being an actual opening number.  He was young, the dancers were great, and he got the audience involved.  The best award show numbers do this: think of how great Jimmy Fallon was covering “Born to Run” on the Emmys four years ago, or Neil Patrick Harris’s Tony opening number a few years ago.  But Zadan/Meron don’t even appear to watch award shows, because their dated approach to the show’s songs only furthered the impression that the Academy is stuck in the past.  What is my generation supposed to get out of watching Bette Midler perform “Wind Beneath My Wings?”  We’ve never even seen Beaches, much less heard of it, and when it comes to in memoriam packages, I just want to see the names of the people and move on with it.  The last couple years in a row they’ve blown it by having pop stars come out and sing through it – so at least having Bette sing after the reel was the one positive thing I can say about that moment.

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As for the winners themselves, there’s a lot to be happy about, unless you’re David O. Russell.  I felt badly for the whole American Hustle team, who deserved better than they got, but in a strong year like this one, somebody was going to go home feeling that way.  I got 19/24 on my ballot, and had I predicted two more correctly, I would’ve had my best year ever, but I was more than happy to mismark it when Steve McQueen jumped up and down with the cast and producers of 12 Years a Slave, my favorite movie of 2013.  I had thought the Academy would finally overcome their aversion to sci-fi and all things digital by giving Best Picture to Gravity, but they still seem averse to the technology.  The tally between the two big winners of the night was the most lopsided since 1972, when Cabaret won 8 Oscars, including Best Director, and lost Best Picture to The Godfather, and like those two movies, I believe that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are both going to be revered for years to come.

What’s more, the four acting winners redeemed many of the show’s faults with their gracious, and in one case, characteristically crazy, acceptance speeches.  Jared Leto got some flack at the Golden Globes for being tasteless, but last night, I felt he was eloquent and real: his shoutout to his mother was heartfelt in all the best ways.  Matthew McConaughey was…Matthew McConaughey. I mean, seriously, what did you expect?  For me, as goofy as the speech was, it reminded me that I watch the Oscar ceremony for those bizarre moments of spontaneity (and also the beautiful ones, like 20 Feet From Stardom’s Darlene Love taking the microphone.)  Cate Blanchett’s call to arms for the industry to make more films about women was extraordinary, and Lupita Nyong’o, the most openly emotional winner last night, didn’t let her tears give way to her ego, and gave the most moving speech of the night.  I saw her in a Q&A a couple of months ago, and was impressed by her poise and candor on that stage: the audience asked her questions as inane as, “why do you refer it to the soap scene and not the lashing scene?” (referring to the scene in the film where she is whipped by Michael Fassbender) and she said, simply, “I call it the soap scene because if I called it the lashing scene, I would cry.”

Final thoughts: in a close year like this one, I’m going to take up William Goldman’s frequent complaint about the Academy and ask that, at some point, maybe a year from now, maybe ten years, we need to know the votes.  I know, you like to operate with the guise that these things should remain confidential, but they really shouldn’t.  I think you owe it to us to know how members voted, so we can at least begin breaking down the demographics of how people vote, and bring about real institutional change within a group that is largely old, white men.

Enough.  The Oscars are done.  At last, we can get back to talking about movies.

PS Once the Oscars channel posts clips on YouTube, then I’ll include them here.


[1] Interesting tidbit about that: though Zadan/Meron are widely acknowledged to have been the on-set producers of Chicago, Martin Richards, who owned the property, was the only credited “producer” and the sole acceptee of the movie’s Best Picture Oscar.  For his decades-long effort to bring the project he nurtured in its Broadway run to the silver screen, he was not included in that year’s in memoriam package.  Coincidence?

Why The Oscars Do Not Matter, or: A Look Back at 1975

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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

Night Moves

Shampoo

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:

Barry Lyndon

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

Nashville

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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! 

Best Picture Winners: The Best of the Best

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I have spent much of my life in a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards, as I think anyone who loves film has.  For me, growing up in Los Angeles, and with parents who are members of SAG and the WGA, winter doesn’t mean snow and tinsel, it means advance movie screenings, Q&As and DVDs (Last year, when my Mom was on the SAG nominating committee, we got literally everything).  What’s more, my interest in film was piqued largely through the Oscars—starting when I was in sixth grade, the Academy, for their 75th anniversary, did a retrospective of every Best Picture winner.  It took a year and a half to screen all seventy-five movies, but I was there almost every week.  I literally watched the medium evolve from The Broadway Melody (the first screening, as they were busy restoring the first winner, Wings), to the most recent winner at the time, Chicago.[1] 

Now that the 86th Oscars are upon us, I think it’s only appropriate to go through what I think the best winners are—and a couple of my least favorites.  Mind you, I’ve seen every winner except for two that I haven’t finished, Cimarron and The Greatest Show on Earth, so I’m not going to analyze those.  And I’m not going to waste space in this column bashing movies just because they beat movies we like more, with one exception.  Yes, I know you’re still mad that Dances With Wolves beat Goodfellas.  It was twenty years ago.  Get over yourselves.

Without further ado, my ten favorite winners:

10. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Some people think this movie has dated, but it’s been one of my favorite films since I saw it in middle school.  A lot of reasons I love this film are personal: this was the movie that opened the floodgates for me to see whatever else I wanted, since my parents figured that after seeing the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture, nothing could be off-limits.  Another was that Jon Voight came to introduce the screening, and as he left, I ran out of the theatre and got to meet him and have a really sweet conversation with him.  He signed my program “Jeremy, what a pleasure to hear you speak of our work, may you achieve all your dreams.”  Another is that I have gone as Ratso Rizzo, Dustin Hoffman’s character, for Halloween, with my friend JJ as Jon Voight’s Joe Buck.  But apart from the personal reasons, I love the imagery of New York in the 60s, before Disney came in and prettified the city.  I love the handheld camera and the improvisatory feel of the film, especially Dustin Hoffman’s classic “I’m walkin’ here!” moment, which never fails to get applause from the audience.  And what’s more, it has so many simple moments which never fail to touch me.  My favorite is when Joe meets the woman at the diner who says, “Welcome to Miami.”  It’s a simple act of kindness and in the context of everything Joe’s been through, it’s one of the few times someone’s just been nice to him.  I wish it wasn’t the only gay cowboy love story to win Best Picture, but we’ll get to that later.

09. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

My parent’s favorite movie, this three-hour film about veterans returning home from WWII is almost unthinkable today.  If it was made, it would be on television, since no one would think a story like this could hold an audience’s attention for so long.  But this intimate epic captures America at its most vulnerable, when we were getting out of troubled times and had to readjust to normalcy.  Like Midnight Cowboy, its emotions are never thrown in your face: director William Wyler’s subtle touch makes every moment real, from Dana Andrews revealing to his wife that he’s unemployed, to my favorite, when Fredric March comes home for the first time and keeps the kids quiet so that his wife won’t know he’s there.  The sequence, done in one shot, is a master class in how to evoke emotion from simplicity.

08. Annie Hall (1977)

This is the movie that most people think of when they hear the name Woody Allen, and there’s good reason for it.  It’s brief (ninety minutes), filled with one great line after another, and probably did more for women’s fashion than any movie since Bonnie and Clyde.  What’s more, Allen gets relationships dead on in this film.  Breaking up is one of the hardest things in life, especially when it’s with someone who we know is great, but we’ve reached a dead end with.  Believe me when I say I have broken up with a girlfriend using the words “what we have on our hands is a dead shark”—and the fact that she didn’t get the reference probably made my decision to break up easier.[2]

07. Unforgiven (1992)

It’s not perfect—there are a couple of performances that just don’t cut it (the problems that come with shooting in Canada), but Clint Eastwood’s summation of the west is more than just a great western, it’s one of the best American films of the last twenty years.  It seems at first like just another, “Oh, the former outlaw has to go back in the game” kind of films, but it goes deeper than that, into being a meditation on good and evil.  The performances from Eastwood, Gene Hackman (who won an Oscar for his role as the corrupt sheriff Bill Daggett) and Morgan Freeman are superb, as is the now-famous finale where Eastwood rides into town to confront Hackman.  It must be seen in a movie theatre to be believed, since its cinematography is so beautiful.

06. No Country For Old Men (2007)

A companion to Unforgiven in many ways, since it’s also a statement on good and evil, and what it means to be a man in modern-America.  The Coens’ neo-western is also a statement on why the west itself is dead: Josh Brolin’s loser husband-turned-outlaw fancies himself John Wayne.  Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem’s unforgettable killer, is the black hat who makes Liberty Valance look as intimidating as Dumbo.  And in the end, it turns out that neither of them win—sheer dumb luck gets in the way.  Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff stands for us, as he can’t make sense of the level of violence the characters commit, nor the complex machinations of the plot.  Apart from all that, it’s also a hysterically funny movie at times: the Coens know how to do black comedy better than anybody.  The first time I saw this film I was perplexed by it, and upset by its lack of a conclusive ending.  Upon seeing it again, I realized what a masterpiece it was.  More than any other film on this list, this is the one that needs to be seen twice to really understand.

05. The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy, which no doubt had an influence on Mad Men fifty years later, plays beautifully today: I can watch it over and over and never tire of it.  Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are perfectly matched together, and their chemistry is always entertaining to watch.  Fred McMurray is also great as the piece’s villain: along with Double Indemnity, it is his finest work as an actor.  There isn’t much I can write about this movie that hasn’t been said elsewhere, since it’s such a favorite film of many who work in the industry today.  I’ll just give the last word to Wilder, who said, “We had the right actors.  It worked.”

04. Amadeus (1984)

I’m going to keep this brief, because I’m writing about this film in a column that’ll go up later this week.  Needless to say, this is my favorite adaptation of a great play for the screen, since it truly re-invents its source material for the screen rather than just trying to film the play.

03. The Godfather I and II (1972/74)

These two movies have to be paired together, since they’re so of a piece that I can’t split them apart.  It’s one of the greatest cinematic tragedies, on a level with the best of the Greeks and Shakespeare.  I guess the big question is, which one do I love more?  It depends which one I’ve seen most recently.  When I’ve seen Part I, it’s my favorite, when I’ve seen Part II, that becomes my favorite.  I love them both for different reasons: Part I for its action sequences, Brando’s work, and the tragic arc of Michael’s character.  Part II stands out for me because of its flashbacks, and not just De Niro’s scenes.  Maybe my favorite scene in either movie is the climax of Part II, when we see the family get together to surprise Vito Corleone on his birthday.  The moment when they run offscreen and yell “Surprise!” to an unseen father, leaving Michael alone, is the essence of the two films: the son whose father is always going to haunt him, and through his own machinations, will always be alone.

02. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’ve seen this movie six times and have never been bored by it.  Even as a kid, when I didn’t know what was going on towards the end, I was captivated.  You can only see this movie on a big screen—not even the best blu-ray player can capture it in its full splendor.  Peter O’Toole’s performance—legendary.  Some might say it’s the greatest ever put on film, and I’m not going to argue with them.  The more I watch it, the more I learn from it.  There’s no other movie like it, and it could never be made today, so I am grateful that it was ever made at all.  Once is better than never.

The best: Casablanca (1943)

This is a pretty easy pick, all in all, as I consider Casablanca the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, even above Citizen Kane.  The reason is simple: Hollywood used to make a movie a week, fifty-two movies a year.  The people who made this film took it as an assignment, but approached it with professionalism.  None of them thought their story was going to resonate after seventy years, much less be the movie that summed up an entire era of movies.  When the old studio system worked, it gave us movies like this, which were not only supremely entertaining, but also had deep things to say about life and death.  It’s fair to say that Casablanca is probably the most beloved American movie of all time.  Hyperbole?  Not at this point in time.

And just a few of the least distinguished movies to take the top prize:

Cavalcade (1932/33)

It’s hard to believe Noel Coward wrote this wooden drama about an English family’s life from 1900 to 1933.  It’s so hackneyed as to include scenes where the young lovers go, “Nothing will stop us now!” and then the camera reveals they’re on the deck of the Titanic!  However, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you should watch it so you can see the way it has influenced decades of British drama.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I don’t get pissed when I think about Rocky beating Network, Ordinary People beating Raging Bull, or How Green Was My Valley beating Citizen Kane.  But The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour biopic of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, beat one of my favorite movies, William Wyler’s subtle masterpiece, Dodsworth.  And for that, I can’t forgive it.  Also, IT’S THREE HOURS!

Going My Way (1944)

I’ve written about my issues with this movie elsewhere, but it’s just a film that really fails to speak to a modern audience.  I think it also bugs me because I associate its director, Leo McCarey, with the most unsparing and unsentimental of classic films, Make Way For Tomorrow, which inspired Ozu’s Tokyo Story, so any time I see him direct something sentimental, it doesn’t feel right to me.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

This bloated travelogue is symptomatic of what was wrong with Hollywood during the 50s: they relied too much on spectacle to keep audiences in the theatres and away from their TV sets.  It also doesn’t help matters that it’s based on an equally boring book, which I seem to be the only idiot to ever have read.  However, it’s not a total loss: Victor Young’s score is beautiful, and Saul Bass created an ingenious end titles sequence which recaps the entire movie.  Watch that instead and call it a day.

Crash (2005)

I know, I know, it’s too easy to pick on this film.  And the acting is very good in it, I’ll admit.  But its simple, sentimental answers to complex problems is irksome and its repetition of the same note over and over tiresome.  However, I think the reason Crash is the worst movie to win isn’t because it’s actually “the worst”—again, the acting keeps it from being a total burnout—but because it won out of anti-gay prejudice, and that’s forever going to taint it.  It’s also not just because it beat Brokeback, the most obviously gay-themed of the five nominees, but the fact that the three other nominees had them too.  After all, Capote was about a gay writer, Munich was by a gay writer, Tony Kushner, and as for Good Night and Good Luck, we all know what George Clooney’s hiding…


[1] While I may not have voted for it, the symmetry of this series starting with a musical and ending with a musical has made me ever grateful for Chicago winning the Oscar that year.

[2] Also, continuing in my tradition of dressing for Halloween as characters from film, my high school girlfriend and I went my senior year as Annie and Alvy.  It was definitely better than my Ratso Rizzo costume, which nobody got.

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.