Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Oscar, Shmoskar

Two weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations for their annual “Oscar” awards. The Academy yet again provided a small, perfect example of what is wrong with the Oscars, indeed, what has been wrong with the Oscars since their inception (the film that should have won Best Picture last year).

Brad Pitt appeared in two films in 2011; in one, he gave a strange, nuanced performance that even people who hate the film have commented on favorably. In the other, he phoned in a grinning, “aw shucks” big star performance. Guess which one got the nomination?

Yes, Brad Pitt in Moneyball got the nod because that character is likeable, that character is an underdog, and that character looks just like Brad Pitt. Pitt’s performance in The Tree of Life, on the other hand, was something we had never seen in a movie before—it was all subtlety and ambiguity; it was disturbing in a way that was hard to pin down.

The Academy does not like disturbing.

Many years ago, the fine television program Entertainment Tonight somehow sweet-talked its way into Dennis Hopper’s den the morning the nominations were announced. Hopper had appeared in two powerhouse films that year, and Entertainment Tonight thought that he was a lock to be nominated for something. They wanted to capture his reaction the minute the nominations were announced. (Perhaps if Hopper had been shut out, Entertainment Tonight would NOT have aired that footage, but who knows?). I can remember so distinctly Hopper’s reaction that morning. He was thrilled, to be sure, but also puzzled. I believe his first words were “For that?” Hopper got the Supporting Actor nomination for Hoosiers, playing a down-on-his-luck, recovering alcoholic. He was NOT nominated for his portrayal of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, one of the most memorable movie villains of the twentieth century.

The Academy does not like disturbing.

The Academy seems to prefer big, bloated pictures with a strong liberal bent. The voting members of the Academy all seem to be rich, white Democrats in their waning, sunset years. They like to clap themselves on the back for nominating “quality.” They define “quality” in an exceptionally narrow way.

Maybe this is an obvious point. Maybe the Academy does not need one more Internet pontificator piling on. It just amazes me that in the 84-year history of the awards, the Academy has barely EVER gotten it right. Eminem was awarded a competitive Oscar; Charlie Chaplin, Peter O’Toole, Robert Altman, and Alfred Hitchcock were NOT.

Now, I realize that I am looking back on the Awards with the benefit of hindsight, but it seems to me that professionals in the film industry should be able to evaluate their own art with a view towards the timeless and not just vote for “Miss Congeniality” or the flavor of the month.

One must conclude that the Academy shits on the classics in a big way when so few films we now acknowledge as classics have won Oscars. Where is Psycho? Where is The Searchers?  Where is Jaws? Where is E.T.?

E.T. is back on his home planet, on Skype with Elliott.

For the sake of brevity, I will ignore acting winners (a much bigger can of worms) and concentrate on Best Picture winners. By my count, the Academy’s batting average on this big prize is woefully low.

In 1979, for example, the Academy gives the statue to Kramer vs. Kramer. Also nominated that year?  Apocalypse Freaking Now.

The 1980s were a decade bookended by Martin Scorsese’s bitter disappointment. I felt bad for Scorsese about this and still do. Plus, he is short.

1980: Winner: Ordinary People   Denied? Raging Bull

The Academy loves films about the problems of rich white people—poor white people, not so much.

1981: Winner: Chariots of Fire   Denied? Atlantic City, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds.

1982: Winner: Gandhi   Denied? Blade Runner, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Tootsie

Ironically, Gandhi is a big, bloated film, unlike its titular protagonist. The three films that were denied are masterpieces. Blade Runner was not even nominated.

1983: Winner? Terms of Endearment  Denied? The Right Stuff and Local Hero

1984: Winner? Amadeus   Denied? The Killing Fields 

1985: Winner? Out of Africa  Denied?  Brazil (not even nominated)

1986: Winner? Platoon   Denied? Hannah and Her Sisters

1987: Winner? The Last Emperor   Denied? Broadcast News and House of Games

1988: Winner? Rain Man   (The Academy should NOT have awarded a Best Picture Oscar at all in 1988. Seriously.)

1989: Winner? Driving Miss Daisy   Denied? Do the Right Thing

(See comment above about rich white people and poor [black] people.)

1990: Winner? Dances With Wolves  Denied? Goodfellas

Maybe this is just a case of “sore loser” syndrome, but the above only covers a SINGLE decade. By my count, the Academy has “gotten it right” ONLY TEN TIMES in 84 years: arguably All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), It Happened One Night (1934), Casablanca (1943), From Here to Eternity (1953), On The Waterfront (1954), The Apartment (1960), The Godfather (1971), Annie Hall (1977), Schindler’s List (1993), and No Country For Old Men (2007) all deserved to win.

Have you ever HEARD of the movie Cavalcade? It won Best Picture in 1932, beating 42nd Street and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. King Kong was not even nominated.

For every Some Like It Hot, there is a Ben Hur to which the Academy is more than willing to give a statue. For every Hoop Dreams, there is an underserving Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, standing in the wings, waiting…

BETTER YET: Because it is impossible to take the Oscars seriously, they must only exist to give movie lovers an opportunity to throw a BIG AMERICAN PARTY. The F This Movie! crew will GO LIVE on the Twitter, Sunday night, February 26th—Join us!


  1. Good column JB. Just curious, what's your reservations on Platoon and the entire year of 1988? BTW...I re-listened to your favorite movies podcast and thought it was really great. You always bring an interesting (and unpredictable) perspective and your viewpoints are well-articulated and thought out. Reminds me of sitting in Hollywood I and II back in my college days.

    1. I think Platoon dates badly. I still like it. Clearly, my Platoon argument is my weakest. 1988 was just a sewer, all the nominated films were flawed in some fundamental way: Rain Man, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and The Accidental Tourist, a veritable parade of pretension, hubris, and twee. A Fish Called Wanda? Not even nominated!

    2. Agreed on Platoon. I actually like The Accidental Tourist and Working Girl, but maybe they're not Best Picture material. Whatever the hell "Best Picture material" means. Because this is all nonsense. NO AVATAR, NO JUSTICE! Know Avatar. Know justice.

  2. Platoon deserved its best picture Oscar.

    1. Oliver Stone! Isn't it time you 'fessed up that you read my column every week? C'mon!

    2. Just WAIT until your takedown of U-TURN!

  3. That was a great column and I agree with most of what you said, but I disagree that they got it right in 2008. As much as I love No Country for Old Men I think The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have won that year. I still don’t understand how Casey Affleck carries that amazing film for near on three hours and only gets a supporting actor nomination either.

    1. I'm with you in that I like AoJJbtCRF much more than No Country, but (just like JB said) it never stood a chance at Academy recognition. 2007 was such a good year for movies that the Oscars could have gone a few different ways and I still would have been ok with it (I have no problem with No Country winning, even though there were several movies I liked more).

    2. And of course I did not get into this, but the whole Best Actor vs. Best Supporting Actor thing has always been capricious. Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People? Supporting. Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit? Supporting. Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society? Best Actor in a Lead Role! I think it is actually based on the actor's height.

      I too love The Assassination... though; I thought no Hollywood film with that glacial a pace had any chance of winning.

    3. Not to quibble with the winner of the Best Actress award from 1996, because she deserves it, but Frances McDormand gets nominated for Best Actress for Fargo, but William H. Macy gets nominated for Best SUPPORTING Actor (when he probably has twice as many scenes as she does)? And then to lose to Cuba F-ing Gooding Jr? Ugh.

  4. Brad Pitt didn't "phone in" his Moneyball performance, but I agree with everything else. Well-sh!#ted.

    1. I've voiced a theory before (I don't think it's only my theory) that Brad Pitt is a much better character actor than a leading man, but I did think Moneyball was one of his best "movie star" performances. It's the kind of stuff that gets nominated for Oscars all the time, so I don't really have a problem with it. Plus, I just like Brad Pitt, so I'm happy to see him recognized. He probably should have been nominated for Tree of Life, too, but that category is already overcrowded (and Albert Brooks and Patton Oswalt and Ben Kingsley weren't even nominated).

    2. I just do not think it is anywhere near as interesting or unique as what he accomplished in Tree of Life.

    3. Fair enough. I haven't seen Tree of Life yet. Is it about baseball?

    4. But it's at least as unique and accomplished as everything else nominated in that category, right? This is why the Oscars are silly. SILLY.

    5. I only like those Brad Pitt performances in which he points or eats food a lot.

    6. I believe there's a word for that...

  5. Like everyone else, I agree with 99% but have a quibble. (Yeah, I know.) I actually applaud Eminem winning an AA for Lose Yourself, an excellent song that perfectly fits it's movie. (And honestly, considering the weak slate it was up against in 2002 it's even more of a deserving winner.)

  6. Yes, I made a joke at Eminem's expense. But that is because Eminem killed my father.

    1. I've never trusted Eminem. And I never will. I can never forgive him for the death of my boy.

    2. No Patrick, I don't think there's anything THAT old.

      Heheh - JB's line just reminded me of Kirk's thing about the Klingons which I thought at least you might appreciate!

  7. Personally I think the Academy's most embarrassing (and perhaps racially pandering?) award EVER given in ANY category was for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" as Best Original Song. In case you don't remember, the chorus is as follows:

    You know it's hard out here for a pimp,
    When he's trying to get this money for the rent,
    For the Cadillacs and gas money spent,
    Will have a whole lot of bitches jumpin ship.

    With heart-stirring lyrics like:

    Well I got a snow bunny and a black girl too,
    You pay the right price and they'll both do you,
    That's the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin'
    Gotta keep my hustle tight, makin' change off these women.

    That is some F'ing poetry there, eh?!

    Great article JB - I've pretty much known the Academy Awards were full of crap since I've started paying any attention - interesting to see it goes back so far. For some reason I always thought it USED to be a respectable institution!

  8. As an avid movie lover and sports watcher, I sort of wish for the advanced metrics that exist in baseball, football, and basketball to be in movies. I think what I'm really saying is that I sort of wish for a consistency in how "best" is measured in these things. I say we call these awards the JBs. And crown Avatar your king!

    1. Consistency might be impossible. What I am talking about is more thoughtful adjudication.

    2. Totally with you. By the way, are there any sort of consequences for the voters when they pick something crappy? Any accountability at all? Or is it pretty much a weatherman situation?

  9. IMHO the worst Oscar snub of all time was when Rocky won against Taxi Driver, Network, and All The President's Men in 1977. And sorry for missing out on F This Movie fest, I was busy finishing watching Walter Hill's films for my own podcast ;-)

  10. 1983: Winner? Terms of Endearment Denied? The Right Stuff and Local Hero

    1987: Winner? The Last Emperor Denied? Broadcast News and House of Games

    Doesn't the fact James L. Brooks won for the 'lesser' of his good movies in '83 compensate for the fact his career-best work in "Broadcast News" was ignored in '87? This is why, as bad as they can be when they ignore 'the right movie/actor/director/script,' I like it when the Academy awards an Oscar to someone who deserves it for a 'lesser' movie when they're nominated and have paid their dues/proven themselves. The best example being Scorsese winning a Best Director Oscar for "The Departed." It was decades late and for the wrong movie, but the Academy with this award course-corrected somewhat the mistake of not giving Marty the award in 1980 and 1990. If the Academy can't get it better the first time (and they never will, they're human!) then it's better late than never right, right?

    And even though I just called it 'lesser' I have a soft spot for "Terms of Endearment" in my movie-loving heart. Like "The Graduate" was to JB in his younger years "Terms of Endearment" is one of two movies I saw in 1983 (the Spanish-subbed TV premiere of "All The President's Men" was the other... turned me into the Watergate-obsessed political junkie I still am) that, at age 10, I was too young to understand or appreciate but I did. "Terms of Endearment" expanded my view of cinema beyond cartoons and good-guys-always-win action flicks. It's an example of Hollywood melodrama (with injections of pitch-perfect timed humor as relief valves) at its finest. It's not Douglas Sirk-caliber good, but for 1980's Hollywood it at least has a heart, good acting (particularly Nicholson & Winger) and an unforgettable music score by Michael Gore.

    I guess what I'm trying to say JB is that "Terms of Endearment" deserved its Best Picture Oscar in '83. I called it the 'lesser' of Brooks' better movies because, well, "Broadcast News" is on a league of its own but stood no chance of winning in '87 (especially with that 'life goes on' ending, which weren't in vogue that decade but they certainly were when "No Country For Old Men" won in 2007).

  11. Right up there with Rocky winning is Titanic winning in 1997 over L.A. Confidential, As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting, and (yes, even) The Full Monty. I mean...Titanic?? F' me.

    I'm also going to say that Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven were both good choices, simply because I can't think of a better film for either of those years off the top of my head...but I bet JB can! :D

  12. Every year I seem to care less and less about the Academy Awards. When I was in my teens and early twenties, it seemed like a big deal to me. Now as a man in my 30s, I find it very hard to care about what that group of people says are the best movies, because frequently many of the movies that I enjoyed the most throughout the year don't get nominated. And now I don't think I care if they get nominated or not, because as this SotC column points out, these awards are often meaningless. Two years ago I really started to be on the outs with the Oscars, and I found myself coming and going for chunks of it. I think I went to bed before it was over. Last year I didn't even watch it live, I DVRd it and fast forwarded through the speeches and the lame comedy bits. This year I am thinking I might not even watch it. I'm curious to see what Billy Crystal brings to the table, but I don't know if I'm curious enough to actually give my time to it. Maybe I'll DVR it again and only watch it if anything significant happens, such as a fist fight between John Goodman and Glen Close. I just don't think I care anymore.

    Also, because of the feedback left in this thread and in honor of Brad Pitt's role as Jesse James, tomorrow I am going to the DMV and having a personalized license plate made that reads "AoJJbtCRF."

  13. 1988? I'll go ahead and stick with Die Hard.

  14. I tried to put this with the replies to my previous comment but when I clicked on reply it just did nothing.

    I know TAoJJbtCRF never really stood a chance of winning an AA. My point was just to say that while I agree with many of JB’s points, I disagree they got it right then. JB himself brings up Brazil and Blade Runner in his column, two films I like immensely, but that realistically would never win Best Picture at the Oscars.

  15. I haven't trusted the Oscars since they gave Shakespeare in Love the Best Picture award. It's a good movie, but the D-Day Invasion alone could win best picture (Back me up here Doug). The bottom line is that I don't personally take any stock in the Academy Awards. Are Cavalcade, The Life of Emile Zola, The Sting, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, or Dances with Wolves the best films ever made? How many people have even seen those movies? Have you seen King Kong, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Goodfellas? Odds are you have and they were all nominated against said movies. At least the good folks at the AFI were kind enough to snub the Best Picture winners and give the losers coveted positions in the AFI Top 100 list.

    Side note: JB mentions Jaws being snubbed by the Academy, however I beg to differ. Jaws won best editing (the immortal Verna Fields), best sound design, and best original score. Now look at what Jaws was competing against in 1975.

    The Best Picture and Best Director nominees for 1975:

    Best Picture
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
    Barry Lyndon
    Dog Day Afternoon

    Best Director
    Miloš Forman – One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Robert Altman – Nashville
    Federico Fellini – Amarcord
    Stanley Kubrick – Barry Lyndon
    Sidney Lumet – Dog Day Afternoon

    Clearly 1975 was the second greatest year in American movies. (1982 is of course number one) I challenge anyone to decide which film is the best picture or best directed movie of 1975. My feeble brain cannot process the idea that all these great films were nominated and even made in a single year.

    Added Side note: All of the 1975 Best Picture Nominees (and Amarcord) are included in Roger Ebert's Great Movie series. Every film also received at least one nomination by either a filmmaker or critic in Sights and Sounds poll of the top ten greatest movies ever made.