Oscar: Best Picture–Longer, Bigger, Uncut–Size Matters

Avatar Marty The Bridge on the River Kwai

With the exception of “Avatar,” James Cameron’s technologically inventive but dramatically mediocre epic, which nonetheless would win the Best Picture, this year’s other nominees (all better films that “Avatar”), are modestly-budget and scaled works, even those that boast star power.

This certainly is the case of the black-themed melodrama, “Precious,” which came out of Sundance Film Fest, exactly one year ago, with a largely unknown cast—and unproven director.
Kathryn Bigelow’s superlative Ira War film, “The Hurt Locker,” the best picture of the year artistically, was made on a small budget, and floats the talent a major actor, Jeremy Renner, a largely unknown quantity until now.
Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” (for me, the second best film of the year), is very much in the tradition of the 1970s Oscar-nominees and winners pictures, a character-driven serio comedy, with three superlative performances, one by a major star, George Clooney, doing his best work ever.
Tarantino’s WWII fable, “Inglourious Basterds,” has an epic running time (two and half hours), but in ambition, scale, and execution is a moderate undertaking, with the exception of the excessively graphic violence and action sequences.
Then there’s the small, intimate British coming-of-age tale, “An Education,” and the commercial hit “The Blind Side,” also mid-range, albeit with a bankable star at the center, Sandra Bullock, who, with some luck and the Academy voters’ support, should win Best Actress.
Oscar Size in Perspective
The first big, upscale, star-driven film to win the Best Picture was Grand Hotel, in 1931-32, starring Garbo, Crawford, the two Barrymore siblings, and others. It led the Los Angeles Times to observe: “Grand Hotel filled the requirements of bigness,” with the reviewer all-together avoiding the issue of quality.
“Ordinary People,” “Terms of Endearment,” “American Beauty,” and “A Beautiful Mind” have been among the few “modest,” and “mid-range” films to win the Best Picture. 
However, most Oscar winners have been big?budgeted, large?scaled, and super?produced, from the very first Best Picture, Wings, through Gone With the Wind, Ben?Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones, The Godfather movies. The 1980s were defined by such colossal Oscar-winners as Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, and The Last Emperor. 
In the 1990s, too, most Oscar winners were epics safely set in the past: Dances With Wolves, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic, Gladiator. If the 1940s are conspicuously underrepresented in this list, it’s due to the impact of the austere war economy on Hollywood’s film production and the dominance of war pictures.
Epic running time continues to impress the Academy voters. The running time of over half of the Oscar winners has been in excess of the 100-120 minute norm. 
Wings, the very first Oscar winner (1927-28) has a running time is 136 minutes, the 1936 musical The Great Ziegfeld 179, Gone With the Wind 220, The Best Years of Our Lives 182, Around the World in 80 Days 178, Out of Africa 150, The Last Emperor 166.
This is especially true of the Oscar-winning pictures in the 1990s: Dances With Wolves 181 minutes, Schindler’s List 195, Forrest Gump 142, Braveheart 177, The English Patient 162, Titanic 194, Gladiator 154.
Delbert Mann’s Marty and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall are still the notable exceptions: the former claims a running-time of 91 minutes, the latter of 93. Together, they are the shortest features of all Oscar-winning.