Best Picture Honors in Hindsight
Sometimes the Best Picture winners seem obvious…and sometimes we look back at them with a bit of confusion. Today, we are blessed with the gift of hindsight. We know the film which have lasted in our popular culture memories longer than a single year, the films which proved to make the big cultural impact we want in a Best Picture. But with all that in mind, here are the 5 best picture winners which raise eyebrows, and the films which should have won if we knew what we know now.
Won: Driving Ms. Daisy
Should Have Won: Do the Right Thing
Hollywood loves to see itself as socially progressive, but That opinion sometimes seems more self congratulatory than honest. Driving Ms. Daisy is a film made in 1989, dealing with social change and race relations during the height of the civil rights movement, with dignified, often humorous way, and feature great performances by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. But the movie also seems to be about 15 years late, and is just so nice and pretty in it’s attempts to address these hot button issues. The film never manages to really address the big problems which can make a period film like Driving Ms. Daisy socially relevant, and retain a powerful comment. Driving Ms. Daisy seems more a celebration in how far we’ve come, than how far we still have to go. Compare this approach to the powerful, hard to watch commentary Spike Lee has in Do the Right Thing. Yes it captures a time when race relations seemed to be at a tipping point, made just three years before the LA Riots would be seen on every TV in America. But the movie also has a style which would mark the arrival of one of the most influential directors of the 1990s. Not to mention some daring, performances by memorable (or soon to be) New York character actors including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vicent, Bill Nunn, and Frankie Faison. From the minute the film starts, with Rosie Perez’s angry dance to Fight the Power, you know a new era of film has arrived.
Won: My Fair Lady
Should Have Won: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
When torn between Old and New Hollywood, classic Hollywood always seems to win. But it is almost baffling to considering a musical like My Fair Lady would win best picture in 1964, when the cultural revolution was on the very tipping point. The movie is well made, but when re-watching it also comes across as a long and dull excuse for set pieces and costumes, emphasizing the pathetic way some in Hollywood were unwilling to make room for the youthful filmmakers coming up. Despite the rise of the auteur and small budget films making an impact, My Fair Lady could have been made in the 30 or 40s by the film’s director George Cukor, who made the same comments on gender in far better films during the Golden Age of Hollywood with actresses such as Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holiday. More astonishing is the sheer number of honors My Fair Lady won. Not only did it win Best Picture at the Oscars, but 8 other honors (of the 12 it had been nominated for). Shut out was the movie which should have won, as it ushered in New Hollywood and set the gold standard for political satire during the Cold War, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. That film lost all four Oscars it was nominated for: best picture, writing, director (for Stanley Kubrick) and the tour de force performance by Peter Sellers who lost to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady.
Should Have Won: Vertigo
In 1958, we had two films about the creation of the ideal women to be turned into creatures to be fetishized for the pleasure of controlling men. One, Gigi, is about a teenage girl being groomed to be a mistress, the other, Vertigo, a working girl being systematically turned into the idealized dream of a man obsessed. Despite claims that the movie is sexy or romantic, Vertigo is more about obsession than affection, but it is still the best film to address the theme of obsession, and examines the way women are turned into the ideal object by men, just the way actresses like Kim Novak became stars to satisfy the desires of the male gaze. Few films have created as much conversation than Hitchcock’s masterpiece, which just recently was declared the greatest film of all time by the BFI. Gigi on the other hand, is a pretty movie which never digs into the unsettling subject matter, leaving Maurice Chevalier’s performance of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” a bit disturbing. And like My Fair Lady, the film’s over indulgence in set pieces, period costumes, and long musical numbers simply doesn’t hold a viewers attention the way Hitchcock’s psychological thriller does. Gigi won nine Oscars, every single honor it was nominated for. Vertigo by comparison lost in the two categories it was nominated; Art Direction and Sound Design
Won: The Greatest Show on Earth
Should Have Won: Singin’ In the Rain
Of all the Best Picture winning movies which leaving you questioning the Academy’s logic, this might be the most baffling movie to win best picture in Oscar History. If you don’t know the movie The Greatest Show on Earth, there is a good reason…it isn’t just unworthy of it’s best picture status, it’s actually pretty bad. The film has an ugly look because of special effects which were still in the testing stages (and weren’t even necessary). The performances, by both circus performers and Hollywood actors (including Betty Hutton, James Stewart, and newcomer Charlton Heston) are all bland, and the narrative is muddled. For a movie about the circus which lacks dramatic structure, the movie somehow even fails to be fun in anyway (even accidentally). The Greatest Show on Earth is a drag of a watch and is rightly considered to be the least deserving Best Picture winner by man writers and authorities on film history. Even if the reason for this film’s win was because the Academy didn’t want to honor the controversial High Noon (during the height of McCarthyism), there were films released in 1952 which were less political but at least proved to be entertaining. And after ragging on the Oscar’s tendency to honor classic musicals long after their heyday, how did they completely shut out Singin’ in the Rain. As entertaining as any musical has ever been, the movie is literally a celebration of Hollywood history (another aspect the Oscars usually love to honor). Was the Broadway Melody scene really that bad that it couldn’t knock The Greatest Show on Earth out as a nominee? Did Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan’s knock their own film out by dominating the Awards a year before with the more prestigious An American in Paris?
Won: How Green Was My Valley
Should Have Won: Citizen Kane
Of all the Best Picture winners, I’m probably most torn over including this film. In any other year, How Green Was My Valley would have easily deserved its win for Best Picture. In fact, How Green is My Valley is one of my favorite movies of all time. But even with that understanding, its hard to think of Citizen Kane, regularly named the best picture of all time, losing Best Picture. The sheer number of experimental elements Welles and his team used which would become standard tools for cinematic storytelling makes it deserving. And the narrative and characters are still completely engaging, despite featuring one of Hollywood’s first true anti-heroes. How Green Was My Valley has anything but anti-heroes. All the characters are warm and sympathetic. Which is why How Green Was My Valley somehow beat out the greatest film, despite John Ford winning top honors a year earlier for The Grapes of Wrath. In a time when America was just entering World War II, a story about a family ripped torn apart by circumstances beyond their control was far more moving than a story about the most egotistical man in history. I’d still always rather watch How Green Was My Valley (and cry every time) than invest the time needed to watch Citizen Kane, but even I know the better movie was Orson Welles’s masterpiece.