Oscar History: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I don't wish to put down the Oscars, because they serve an important function: They are one of the few uniquely unifying spectacles (pop culture is the closest we have to secular religion) in an increasingly polarized American society. But I would listen carefully to anyone who offers justifications for Oscar's greatest anomalies:

Puzzle 1

Luise Rainer, Louis B. Mayer's favorite star in the late 1930s, had won two consecutive Oscars, out of two nominations. In 1936, Rainer won Best Actress for “The Great Ziegfeld,” for what's basically a supporting role. The following year, Rainer won for “authentically” embodying a Chinese farmer in “The Good Earth,” beating out Garbo in “Camille!” which is considered to be Garbo's signature role, even by standards of all the greats divas that had essayed the role on stage, including Duse. Upon seeing “Camille,” at the house of his friend, director George Cukor, Coward stood up and proclaimed: “This is the greatest performance ever committed on screen.”

Puzzle 2

The stately Greer Garson, an actress of limited range and talent, epitomized the middlebrow sensibility of MGM, which dominated the Oscars for twenty years. Garson was nominated for seven Oscars, five of which in consecutive years (1941-1945), and won for Mrs. “Miniver” (1942), one of the worst films to win Best Picture. Yet, today, she is all but forgotten now. In contrast, the Divine Garbo, who had never won a legit Oscar, is now held on higher pedestal than ever before by critics and movie goers, who flock in droves to various retrospectives of her work.

Puzzle 3

Sally (“you really, really like me”) Field has won two Oscars out of two nominations (1979, 1984), but the great Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, and Rosalind Russell had never won a competitive Oscar.

Go figure!

The bigger, more pertinent issue is: How good are Oscar-winning movies, artistically Specifically, how many of the Oscar winners were considered to be good films when they were made And, using the criterion of timelessness, how many of the honored pictures have withstood the test of time.

Over the past two months, I have watched all of the 76 Best Picture winners. Sadly, what was meant to be a pleasurable exercise in nostalgia turned out to be a more painful experience than I had expected. See for my choice of the then best and ten worst Oscar winners in this week's spotlight “Survey: How Good are Oscar Movies”

Let me explain:

  • Has anyone watched lately “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), one of the worst films to win Best Picture
  • Are there any artistic merits in “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952)
  • Is there any reason to revisit “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956); last year's terrible remake just proved how futile the whole idea was.
  • Have “Braveheart ” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2000) done anything to revitalize or reinvent the sand-and sandals epic beyond “Quo Vadis” and “Ben-Hur,” fifty years ago
  • These movies are among Oscar's many turkeys, except that they are masquerading as universal artistic achievements, blessed with the Academy's seal of approval.

    Watching the Oscar films over a short period of two months, in the order they were made, revealed one trend: Artistically speaking, most Oscar-winners are truly and incredibly mediocre, boasting a middlebrow sensibility, exemplified in such “sociological” pictures as “Best Years of Our Lives,” “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” “Ordinary People,” and “A Beautiful Mind,” to mention a few. Nonetheless, most of Oscar pictures have little to offer by way of film art. Genre by genre, it's possible to demonstrate that Oscar-winners have celebrated the mediocre rather then the best films.

    Musical

    “Broadway Melody,” “The Great Ziegfeld,” “American in Paris,” “Sound of Music,” and “Chicago” have all won the top Oscar, but “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The Band Wagon” (both by Minnelli) and “Singin' in the Rain,” arguably the greatest musical of them all, were not even nominated.

    Western

    With the honorable exception of Clint Eastwood's “Unforgiven, one of the few Westerns for the ages–and one of the best films to win the OscarJohn Ford's best work in the genre, had failed to win any Oscar. “Stagecoach” (1939) was nominated but didn't win, and Ford's undisputed masterpiece, “The Searchers” (1956), was not even nominated. One of the most influential films ever made, “The Searchers has shaped the careers of Scorsese, John Boorman, Paul Schrader, who all paid tribute to this film in their own work (“Taxi Driver,” “The Emerald Forest,” and “Hardcore,” respectively)

    Comedy

    Again, Capra's “It Happened One Night” notwithstanding, the comedies celebrated by the Oscars are mediocre, to say the least, failing represent the best efforts of the genre's specialists. Capra's “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” is superior to his “You Can't Take It With You,” the winner of the 1938 Oscar. Wilder's serio-comedy “The Apartment” won the 1960 Oscar, but “Some Like It Hot,” for many Wilder's funniest, was not even nominated.

    Melodrama

    The masterpieces of the genre, aka “weepie,” “women's picture,” and “four-hankie,” all denigrating terms, have been vastly underrepresented in the Oscar race. Minnelli was nominated for his musicals, but not for “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Some Came Running,” and “Home from the Hills.” Douglas Sirk, who contributed to the genre more than any other filmmaker, was never nominated, and thus his Universal melodramas, “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind,” and “Imitation of Life,”
    Are not in Oscar's annalsexcept for some acting nods and awards.

    Suspense/Thriller

    The master of suspense, Hitchcock, was nominated five times, but never won a legit one. The reason, as he knew all too well, was that he worked in a “debased” genre, known for its cheap frills and thrills. The Gothic melodrama, “Rebecca,” Hitchcock's first American effort, won the 1940 Picture, but none of his masterworks was even nominated, including “Rear Window” (1954), “Vertigo” (1958), “North By Northwest”(1959), and “Psycho” (1960), the first postmodern horror picture. I could go on and claim that even directors who win the Oscars, don't win the award for their best work. Sydney Pollack will forgive me for saying that “Tootsie,” which was nominated but did not win in 1982, is far superior to his 1985 boring Oscar-winning epic, “Out of Africa.” In Hollywood, as the “king of the world” (you know who) declared in his 1998 Oscar speech, “size matters,” and big is more beautiful and Oscar worthy than small. Even so, to favor “Gandhi” over “Tootise”

    Roughly speaking, the Oscar winners can be divided into three groups: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Of the 76 winners, only a dozen or so are truly good. Coppola's The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather, Part Two” (1974), but not “The Godfather, Part Three,” have held up extremely well. Perceived by critics as two of the best American films ever made, past or present, they do Hollywood–and the Oscars–proud.

    Joe Mankiewicz's “All About Eve,” with a towering performance from Bette Davis, has gained in stature and merit. For those interested in film history, in 1950, “All About Eve” received mixed-to-positive reviews and did decent but not great business at the box-office. It's later generations of viewers, who saw the film on TV and in arthouses that have made it a cult classic. Ditto for “It's a Wonderful Life,” which was dismissed at the time.

    Other artistically meretricious winners include: “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest” (1975), “Annie Hall” (1977), “The Deer Hunter” (1978), “Amadeus” (1984), “Platoon” (1986), and a few others.

    Rather shockingly, the mediocre pictures constitute at least one third of the Oscar-winners: “Grand Hotel” (1931/2), “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935), “All the King's Men” (1949), which is being remade now, “Marty” (1955), the first American film to win the Cannes Festival's Palme dOr, “Patton” (1970), “The English Patient” (1996).

    But how do we rationalize the bad and ugly winners, such as “Cimarron,” “Cavalcade,” “The Sting,” “Rocky,” and “Terms of Endearment” Where do we hide when “Mrs. Miniver,” my choice of one of the three worst films to win Best Picture (along with “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Around the World in 80 Days”), is shown on TV with ads that boast “one of the most nominated films (12) in history The movie's visibility was no doubt enhanced by a patriotic letter that Churchill wrote to Louis B. Mayer, congratulating for making a “realistic” and “courageous” movie about the Blitz.

    I met the late playwright Lillian Hellmann once, in the late 1970s, through Fred Zinnemann, right after directing “Julia” (based on Hellmann's memoirs with Jane Fonda in the lead). I grabbed the opportunity to validate a rumor that has been circulating in Hollywood for decades. Reportedly after seeing “Mrs. Miniver,” Hellmann told director William Wyler (who adapted plays “The Children's Hour” and “The Little Foxes” to the screen), “Willie, this is such a piece of crap.” The still feisty Hellmann confirmed her notorious comment with a grin on her face, “Every word of it is damn true.” I sighed with relief: Even in 1942, when the country was at War, people in the know, like Hellmann, knew better.

    You can vote for Oscar bests and worst on the home page Spotlight: “Survey: How Good are Oscar Movies”

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