Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)
Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.
Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.
The Searchers (1956)
What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.
And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”
And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”
More than one film buff with excellent taste has proposed Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the most entertaining movie ever made. It’s the archetypal Hitchcock—Hitch in his lighter vein, anyway—the epic summation of all the wonderful comedy-suspense chases the director had led us on, from The 39 Steps to The Lady Vanishes to Foreign Correspondent to the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cary Grant, the epitome of glamour under pressure, is perfectly cast as an authentic ’50s Mad Man, who raises his hand in a posh Manhattan watering-hole at an ill-timed moment and thereby becomes the Wrong Man, the clueless quarry in a transcontinental spy pursuit. In 1959, everyone enjoyed North by Northwest as classy entertainment, and that was that. Then, several years later, the late Robin Wood lucidly laid out how the film operated as a well-nigh metaphysical meditation on Hitchcock’s deepest concerns as a modern artist. Wood was right—which means, among other things, that there’s even more to be engrossed with in this sublime movie. Would a seminar with Wood have nudged Hollywood to nominate NbyNW for more than Art Direction, Editing, and Writing (Ernest Lehman, brilliant)—none of which it won? Don’t bet on it. But do sit down and watch the movie again; no moment is ill-timed for that.
And the 1959 Oscar went to … “Ben-Hur”
What went wrong in 2008? There could be little doubt that Hollywood loved Clint Eastwood. He’d won four Oscars—Picture and Director for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby—been twice nominated as Best Actor (same films) and been in contention for Picture and Director honors on Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima. His Gran Torino—an unassuming picture shot during post-production on another film—arguably topped them all. Critics applauded director Eastwood’s savvy take on America in a dark hour and gave the 78-year-old star the best reviews of his acting career. Both film and performance were consummately sly—deceptive simplicity evolving into something complex, powerful, and tender. Unforgiven had been a tragic reflection on Eastwood’s legacy in Westerns; Gran Torino capped and critiqued the urban heritage of Dirty Harry and his violent brethren. Instead of Dirty Harry, we got grumpy Walt—widower, Korean War veteran, retired auto worker, and the last white resident of a Detroit neighborhood that’s now home to Hmong families. Walt’s a racist; it’s never occurred to him not to be. Then circumstances contrive to involve Walt with the new community, and anoint him as its hero after he turns his big guns on some ruffians. Where the film goes next takes us by surprise, several times over. Wonderful movie … which proceeded to get zero Academy nominations.
And the 2008 Oscar went to … “Slumdog Millionaire”
Many have accused the Academy of too often failing to honor achievements in comedy. There’s no more glaring example than His Girl Friday, Howard Hawks’ inspired, gender-switch version of the classic newspaper play “The Front Page.” Dark and ferocious—stylistic and spiritual kin, really, to Hawks’s (unnominated) 1932 gangland masterpiece Scarface—this bullet train of a comedy set a land speed record for rapid dialogue delivery … a record Hawks topped in the same breath by encouraging his cast to overlap their lines (three decades before Robert Altman did that). And what aces in that cast! Cary Grant a whirlwind of “Kabuki-like exaggeration” (critic Manny Farber’s phrase) as Machiavellian newspaper editor Walter Burns; Rosalind Russell as his top reporter and ex-wife, unforgivably aiming to desert him and the newspaper business for insurance man Ralph Bellamy and Albany; and the immortal press-room gang with their permanent poker game in the criminal courts building—maybe the greatest character actor ensemble in movie history. Charles Lederer adapted, and improved on, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s great original, while Hawks brazenly appropriated a key scene and Ralph Bellamy from Leo McCarey’s Grant-starred 1937 comedy of divorce The Awful Truth. The Awful Truth was a rare comedy that got some respect from Oscar (McCarey was named Best Director). Hawks’ landmark black comedy got bupkes. Not a single nomination.
And the 1940 Oscar went to … “Rebecca”
Singin’ in the Rain is a musical beloved even by people who don’t like musicals. Now, the musical component is exuberant and exhilarating—grand songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, choreography by co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. But that’s only part of the magic. The movie also boasts a truly great screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, and an exceptionally deft and charming cast to bring it home—Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen. In particular, the physical grace of Kelly and O’Connor is breathtaking. The cherry on top is that Singin’ in the Rain is also one of the best Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies, a witty, lyrical, laugh-filled comedy about the late-’20s moment when sound took the silent cinema by the throat. Indeed, the songs by Freed (who produced the movie) and Brown were featured in 1929’s The Broadway Melody, the first sound movie to be named Best Picture. Yet bounteously marvelous as Singin’ in the Rain is, it must have landed on almost-deaf ears among Academy members. There was a Supporting Actress nomination for Jean Hagen’s hilarious portrait of a scrannel-voiced actress who’d thrived in silents, and a nod to Lennie Hayton’s music scoring—but nothing more. The Kelly-starred An American in Paris had won the big prize for 1951. Perhaps voters thought that base had been covered?
And the 1952 Oscar went to … “The Greatest Show on Earth”
Paramount had two movies up for Best Picture of 1944. Leo McCarey’s Going My Way paired crooner Bing Crosby with Barry Fitzgerald in a leisurely comedy about priests; it’s barely remembered nowadays, though some of it is lovely (some of it’s insipid, too). Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s third Hollywood effort as a director, became an instant classic of what would later be called film noir; it’s always playing somewhere. In the phrase of co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity took murder out of the back alley and relocated it “where it belonged,” in the American home. For his lethal conspirators, Wilder cast Fred MacMurray against breezy screwball-comedy image and gave the great Barbara Stanwyck, blond for the occasion, the opportunity to create a peerless femme fatale. As icing on the cake, Edward G. Robinson delivered his maybe finest performance ever as the insurance claims investigator—MacMurray’s co-worker and best friend—who smells a rat. No previous movie had ever done such a pungent job of tapping Los Angeles ambiance. Perhaps that, along with rave reviews and terrific box office, helped Academy voters notice the movie and tender it six nominations—a rarity for a film noir. Still, come Oscar night, it was Going My Way that won big. Gotta love Wilder: as Leo McCarey came down the aisle to claim his award, Billy stuck a leg out and tripped him.
And the 1944 Oscar went to … “Going My Way”
The Right Stuff was the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of 1983, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book about the Mercury astronauts faced an awesome challenge: how to take sixteen year’s worth of aviation history, teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. Writer-director Philip Kaufman stunningly succeeded, unintimidated by shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism. He even pulled off the postmodern coup of honoring history—what really happened—while also satirizing “history,” the way political spinmeisters and media seek to impose their own version of reality on it. So a rare thing, a true and exultant modern epic, also triumphed as a work of self-examination and irony. That’s heady stuff—but very right stuff—to get nominated for the Academy Award. Amazingly, The Right Stuff did. And so should Kaufman have been nominated, and supporting players Dennis Quaid and Pamela Reed, though they weren’t. (Sam Shepard, as Chuck Yeager, did get a Supporting Actor nod.) The Right Stuff didn’t lose to a bad movie, but which do you feel like watching tonight?
And the 1983 Oscar went to … “Terms of Endearment”
How could they make a movie about the Bay Area’s Zodiac Killer when Zodiac was never identified, let alone apprehended? Well, partly because Zodiac isn’t about Zodiac but about the case, and what it did to the lives of some police detectives and San Francisco journalists who took their mission obsessively. It’s also about fear, and the way it can spread like a miasma through an entire community, even as, necessarily, life goes on, as close to normal as possible. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mark Ruffalo all do superb work in a cast so beautifully selected and so rich in personal history that throughout the nearly-three-hour movie one keeps doing second takes on one peripheral figure or other and tries not to say out loud (at least in the theater) “Omigod, is that her!” David Fincher directed, with an obsessive eye of his own to recapturing the particular aura of the ’70s, and frequently disturbing the bejeezus out of us for reasons we can’t name. It took the Academy a long time to get around to noticing Fincher—2008’s The Strange Case of Benjamin Button (and that was the wrong film to choose!). Even the monumental Se7en (1995) went unnominated for anything. And so did Zodiac, an ineffably haunting epic that grows more potent each time you revisit it.
And the 2007 Oscar went to … “No Country for Old Men”
During MSN.com’s movie wrap-up for 2011, I noted: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t everyone’s choice as best movie of the year, but none has been better made.” So well made that there’s no excuse for the Academy’s omitting it from major competition apart from Best Actor—Gary Oldman as George Smiley—and the screenplay painstakingly distilled by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan from the big John le Carré novel about Cold War spy work. The Academy’s acting branch could credibly have filled the Supporting Actor slate from that cast alone—Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong—and had Toby Jones and David Dencik in reserve. Above all, there was Tomas Alfredson, criminally overlooked for Best Director: no more sensitive eye or more acute sense of rhythm was operative in 2011 cinema. So even if we set aside great storytelling, suffusing atmosphere, riveting suspense, we’re still left with a damning question: How does a work of such impeccable craftsmanship get neglected by Hollywood’s crafts guilds? Do they know what their jobs are? The tormented souls in le Carré’s MI6 know what their jobs are—caught up in a compulsive, two-pronged struggle, to collect shards of “treasure” hinting at the intentions of the Soviets, and to protect their own poor damp personal secrets from suspicion. A gripping movie, lucid, quicksilver fluid, and unexpectedly heartbreaking.
And the 2011 Oscar went to … “The Artist”
A few months ago the Sight & Sound poll of international film critics and film professionals, which has been taken every decade for the past half-century, conferred bragging rights on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as the greatest film of all time. This was news; Citizen Kane had been champion since 1962. It would also have been unthinkable to Academy voters in 1959: Vertigo had been nominated only in the categories of Art Direction and Sound. (Hitchcock was among the nominees for the Directors Guild Award but not the Oscar for Best Direction.) Truth to tell, Vertigo loomed large in almost no one’s reckoning at the time; box office was soft and critics deemed the film a bit of an off effort for the Master of Suspense. Ever the cagy showman, Hitchcock himself “ran for cover” by making his next project the surefire crowd-pleaser North by Northwest (see earlier page). Yet this perverse, morbid, lushly poetic, and deeply confessional psychological mystery began to acquire champions—Andrew Sarris for one, the dean of American “auteurist” critics who prize personal artistry above conventional show business acclaim. Despite being hard to find (there were years when Hitchcock withheld it from rerelease), the film’s reputation grew. Hitchcock’s work, the performances of James Stewart and Kim Novak, the Technicolor cinematography by Robert Burks, and Bernard Herrmann’s music score are all arguably career bests. The Academy Award—who needs it?
And the 1958 Oscar went to … “Gigi”