Sunday, February 11, 2007

Oscar talk: Is the ‘Best’ Picture really the best?

On Sunday, Feb. 25, the elite of Hollywood will gather before the eyes of billions around the world and distribute those gold statuettes known as Oscars, including the top prize for Best Picture. The 79th Academy Awards will anoint another movie as claiming to be the “best” of last calendar year’s crop (the choices being “The Queen,” “The Departed,” “Babel” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”).
But, ask yourself, are these really the BEST movies from 2006? If had “Dreamgirls” at the top of your personal list, you’re out of luck; and so forth. But don’t feel bad; it has happened many, MANY times throughout the history of the Academy and Hollywood. The names of those legendary movies – the ones you will never forget – that did NOT receive the Best Picture award are high on the most prestigious lists of all-time great films.
A review of the American Film Institute’s list “100 Years…100 Movies” is revealing as to the omissions. Please note that the list stops with films made in 1996 because that was the 100-year watermark. There have been grievous errors after that.
First, a little history lesson is in order. The first Academy Award was given in 1927-28 to Paramount’s “Wings,” starring a young Gary Cooper and produced by Howard Hughes. It was one of three movies nominated. The next year, only the winner was announced, but not the nominees.
By year three, the category had changed to “Outstanding Production,” and increased to nine in 1931-32 and then 10 movies for the sixth annual ceremony, followed by 12 nominees for two years. That number then stabilized at 10, until the 1944 crop when the modern quintet of nominees was established.
The year 1939 is universally considered to be the greatest single year of movie-making in Hollywood and the Best Picture nominees reflects that. Up for the top prize, but NOT winning were “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Stagecoach,” “Ninotchka,” “Wuthering Heights” and the AFI’s sixth greatest movie made – “The Wizard of Oz.”
What won? AFI’s number four movie of all time – “Gone With the Wind.”
On that AFI listing, four of the top five movies (“Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “GWTW” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were Best Picture honorees). But not the movie chosen as the best film made in the first 100 years – 1941’s “Citizen Kane” by Orson Welles. It didn’t win, along with the likes of “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sergeant York,” “Suspicion,” “The Little Foxes” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” The winner was director John Ford’s “How Green was My Valley,” beating another one of his movies (“Stagecoach”).
The 10th movie on the AFI’s all-time greatest list was not even nominated – 1952’s “Singing in the Rain.” The field that year had “High Noon,” “Ivanhoe,” “Moulin Rouge” and Ford’s “The Quiet Man” (with John Wayne in his finest role but not his Oscar-winner) beaten out by “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Of that group, only “High Noon” makes the AFI list at number 33.
In the top 25 all-time movies, four others were never nominated for Best Picture – “Some Like It Hot” in 1959, “The African Queen” in 1951, “Psycho” in 1960 and “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. In fact, the top 100 is littered with non-nominees, including such favorites as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (of course, only Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” stands as the lone animated feature to be nominated as Best Picture), the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup,” and most of Alfred Hitchcock’s best efforts (“Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” although he did win in 1940 for “Rebecca”).
Today’s most popular director would probably be Steven Spielberg and he has seen his share of snubs, losing for “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial” (can you name the winner in 1982? It wasn’t nominees “Tootsie” or “The Verdict” either. Answer below).
Spielberg’s most recent acknowledged masterpiece was 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which was not only brilliant beyond mere words, but help start the national tribute to “The Greatest Generation” for its contribution to victory in World War II. While he was voted Best Director, the film lost to, of all nominees, the light and fluffy “Shakespeare in Love,” probably the biggest upset in Oscar history. That is one movie which rarely sees the light of days on cable television, or anywhere else for that matter.
This year, the Hollywood community seems to be rooting for non-winner Martin Scorsese, who has been snubbed for several classic efforts – “Taxi Driver,” “Goodfellas” “Raging Bull” – all of whom were nominated but never got to the winner’s circle. Perhaps “The Departed,” a remake of the Hong Kong classic “Infernal Affairs,” will be the ticket.
But being the best movie doesn’t guarantee anything; especially immortality. Sunset Boulevard is littered with the empty reels of winners who have disappeared from the public’s memory.
The answer to the 1982 question is … “Ghandi,” a big picture by Sir Richard Attenborough which was excellent. But, really, which film is imprinted upon society’s mind and heart?
It wasn’t “Ghandi” for sure. He never phoned home, did he?

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