Oscar 2010: Safe, Noble Entertainment

There was no suprise, when the well-made, easy to watch “The King’s Speech” won over the brilliant, provocative and ambiguous “The Social Network” (the best picture of the year, acccording to the vast majority of critics).

As an Observer of trends of the Oscar Awards fron three decades (first for my book, “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Acadeemy awards,” published, I had predicted the King’s Speech’s win months before the Oscar voters actually filled in their ballots.

I was not the only one; most Oscar gurus acroos the country did well in their prediction of Best Picture.  This year’s choice just followed well-established trends of yeteryear.

The first safe, massive film to win the Best Picture was Grand Hotel, in 1931-32, which led the Los Angeles Times to observe: “Grand Hotel filled the requirements of bigness,” with the reviewer all together avoiding the issue of quality.

The Academy has denied that the Oscar Award has become a commercial tool, and the Oscar ceremonies a monetary spectacle. Academy leaders still insist that the Oscar is first and foremost “a merit award,” designed to honor excellence, not to promote or enhance visibility at the box-office. However, some members have conceded that in some years a disproportionate number of awards and nominations have been given to movies that are commercial successes,” though they also pointed out that awards have also been given to commercial failures.

This is where the defense of modest art films and small independent films come in. One the one hand, there is clear correlation between the caliber of the Oscar nominees and the ratings of the Oscar show. On the other, the Academy takes pride in nominating such small but impressive artistic endeavors as Lenny, Bound for Glory, Taxi Driver, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Atlantic City, Missing, The Dresser, Tender Mercies, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hope and Glory, The Remains of the Day, and The Insider, most of which have underperformed at the box-office, and some of which were downright commercial failures. The Academy would like the public to believe that, give and take a specific year, the Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated films have represented worthy attainments regardless of perceived or real commercial grosses.

The Academy has always promoted its image as a standard-setter, an organization that “reminds the public of worthy achievements,” and “calls the attention of millions of viewers to the significance of motion pictures as a fine art as well as popular entertainment.” The members still wish to believe that the Academy functions as “a constant incentive for better work and as a stimulus “for hundreds of millions of people to think and to talk about the best in motion pictures.”

But once the Academy became aware of the Oscar’s influence, the tendency to shower mediocre films with multiple nominations and awards in order to boost their commercial standing became more prevalent. This was particularly evident in the late 1960s and 1970s, when such artistically unworthy films as Anne of the Thousand Days, Hello, Dolly!, Airport, Love Story, and Nicholas and Alexandra, were inexplicably nominated for the Best Picture and other major awards.

Genre and subject matter aside, one might ask, what are the most crucial attributes of the Oscarwinning The answer may be simpler than the question. Most Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated films have flaunted glossy production values expressed in grand visual style and pseudo-epic vision, manifest in epic production budget and epic running time.

Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, American Beauty, and A Beautiful Mind were among the few “modest” films to win the Best Picture. Most Oscar winners have been bigbudgeted, large’scaled, and superproduced, 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.

Size Over Quality

1928-29 The Broadway Melody over The Patriot

1930-31 Cimarron over The Front Page

1931-32 Grand Hotel over One Hour With You

1932-33 Cavalcade over Lady for a Day

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty over The Informer

1936 The Great Ziegfeld over Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

1959 Ben-Hur over Anatomy of a Murder

1965 The Sound of Music over Darling

1973 The Sting over American Graffiti

1984 Amadeus over The Killing Fields

1985 Out of Africa over Prizzi’s Honor

1995 Braveheart over Babe and Sense and Sensibility

1996 The English Patient over Secrets & Lies

1997 Titanic over L.A. Confidential

2000 Gladiator over Traffic

Running Time

Lengthy 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’s running time is 136 minutes, 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. The briefest film to have ever been nominated for the Best picture is the 1933 Mae West vehicle, She Done Him Wrong, with a running time of 66 minutes. Yet what West said in an hour or was priceless, outshining in wit, humor, and originality most Oscar comedies.