Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Commentary, Contributors, Essays

Oscar Upsets

Set out to write about Academy Award upsets and right away the ground starts shifting under your feet. Oh, some neck-snappers we all remember—like Jack Nicholson coming out to present the award for best picture of 2005, opening the envelope, and saying, “Whoa.” Moments when the title of the movie everybody figured to win suddenly wasn’t the one being read aloud.

But those are ya-hadda-be-there moments. Looking back over Oscar history, you encounter what we might call upsets-in-reverse—instances when a movie or a performance that has long since become part of the racial unconscious did not, in its day, win proper recognition. Then you find yourself in a sort of “What did they know and when did they know it?” situation. How could they have been so blind? We’ve collected some of that kind of upset as well.

Upsets come in all valences, triumphant and appalling. Truly the ways of Oscar passeth understanding. But that needn’t spoil the party.

It was Hollywood’s golden year. StagecoachMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonNinotchkaThe Wizard of OzOnly Angels Have WingsYoung Mr. LincolnWuthering HeightsOf Mice and MenGunga DinMidnightDrums Along the Mohawk … Love Affair … The Four Feathers (OK, made in England, but still). Yet it was the making of one movie that obsessed fans all year long, and when it ended up with a then-record 13 Oscar nominations, no one doubted that David O. Selznick’s nearly-four-hour Technicolor megaproduction Gone With the Wind would take the brass ring. A lot of brass rings, including best director for Victor Fleming despite the fact that some half-dozen directors (preeminently George Cukor and Sam Wood) had worked on the film. Most of the major players were nominated (including Thomas Mitchell, albeit for Stagecoach, not GWTW); newcomer-to-Hollywood Vivien Leigh won best actress as Scarlett O’Hara, and Hattie McDaniel edged fellow cast member Olivia De Havilland for best supporting actress. Yet what was wrong with this picture? Although novelist Margaret Mitchell had written the book visualizing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gable had to settle for a nomination merely (best actor went to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips; we’d have given it to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart). The King took it like a man, of course. But watch GWTW today and try telling us all that Selznickean flapdoodle would be tolerable without Gable’s movie-star gravitas to center it.

There’s no avoiding this one any time the topic of Oscar upsets is engaged, so let’s get it over with. In 1941 Citizen Kane, subsequently endorsed a zillion times as “the greatest film ever made,” lost the Academy Award to How Green Was My Valley. An outrage! Well, no. And not even, at the time, an upset. Let’s stipulate that Citizen Kane was the finest, most splendiferously imagined and realized, most bleepin’ awesome film of 1941, and yes, we’d have given it the Oscar. The fact is that in 1941 le tout Tinseltown wasn’t that crazy about Kane, or its quarter-century-old wunderkind star/producer/director/co-writer Orson Welles. He was lucky to get nominated—indeed, to get his film released. And do you know which movie Welles claimed to have watched “40 times” as a masterclass in motion picture directing? Stagecoach (1939), directed by John Ford … readily recognizable as the same eye/brain/heart behind How Green Was My Valley. So don’t reflexively badmouth How Green Was My Valley, a heartbreakingly beautiful movie and still one of the best films ever to win the Academy Award. Even if Citizen Kane was better.

20/20 hindsight can be misleading. In 1943 the Academy passed over Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Rick in Casablancaonly one of the most iconic screen characterizations ever—to name Paul Lukas best actor. A heavily accented Hungarian (chiefly remembered for his suave villainy in Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes), Lukas was second-billed to Bette Davis in Watch on the Rhine; rarely watched nowadays, it’s a stagebound adaptation of a Lillian Hellman play honoring the sacrifice of those who fought fascism full-time and seeking to awaken naïve, complacent Americans to its threat. The New York Film Critics bought it as best picture of the year and anticipated Oscar in saluting Lukas as best actor. But for best picture–as well as director and screenplay—Oscar preferred “Casablanca.” The joke was on the culture vultures: in its thoroughly ersatz, exhilaratingly stylized way, Casablanca was not only the all-time movie-movie supreme—it addressed fascism and freedom with both a passion and lucidity way beyond Hellman & Co.’s reach. Except, perhaps, for this: In Watch on the Rhine, as a gentle-spirited man willing to put his beloved family at risk and commit murder when necessary to advance the cause, Paul Lukas gives an extraordinary performance, of a power and incandescence he never again came near in a half-century career. You have to go out of your way to see it, in a movie that doesn’t begin to be worthy of him. But what better use can Oscar have, than to mark and memorialize such singular achievement?

This isn’t so much an upset story—the winner was anticipated, if not quite a lock—as an “In retrospect, how could they do that?” In the heat of summer, the Mirisch Corporation rolled out a clever potboiler tricked up as enlightened sociopolitical commentary, In the Heat of the Night. Director Norman Jewison was something of a rising star, ace overactor Rod Steiger had been robbed of an Oscar for The Pawnbroker two years earlier, and Sidney Poitier, Hollywood’s first black leading man, would end up the year’s No. 1 box office star for his work in this movie (“They call me Mister Tibbs!”), To Sir With Love, and another Oscar contender, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—though Poitier himself somehow went unnominated. On second viewing, In the Heat of the Night lost a lot of pizzazz, not to mention stature and credibility, but it managed to get named best picture over two critical and popular hits that not only looked much better at the time—both transcended their success as films to become permanent landmarks in our cultural landscape: Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Well, at least the Academy didn’t give it to Doctor Dolittle.

The Academy has a habit of not giving its top award to nice little romantic comedies. Make that comedy, period. In breaking with this pattern by honoring Annie Hall, it’s conceivable they were taking a hint from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the National Society of Film Critics—all of which organizations deemed it best of the year. Good for them, because otherwise Woody Allen’s eccentric movie shaped up as the underdog: five nominations, as compared with 11 each for Julia, directed by Academy Award perennial Fred Zinnemann, and The Turning Point, from Herbert Ross, who also had a second film in contention, The Goodbye Girl (with five). Add that the remaining nominee was the newly minted all-time box-office champion, Star Wars (10 nods). How’s the Woodman beat that crowd? Here’s how. Besides deserving to win (often next to irrelevant), Annie Hall was the first-ever Oscar nominee to be available to Academy voters in their own homes during awards season. The culturally heroic operators of Los Angeles’ Zee Channel showcased it, and the largely geriatric membership, which didn’t always get out to see nominees in theaters, did see it, thought it was a nice little picture, and voted for it. The practice of sending out “for your consideration” videos was introduced the next year. (Oh, The Turning Point? Didn’t win a single award.)

Sometimes it’s just a matter of do-the-math. The race for the ’81 Oscar was a dust-choked, lung-bursting contest between Reds, Warren Beatty’s epic, all-star portrait of American communist John Reed and his times, and On Golden Pond, a shameless familial tearjerker featuring Katharine Hepburn and the two most celebrated members of America’s acting royalty, Henry and Jane Fonda. Reds had 12 nominations to Golden‘s 10, plus lotsa validation from awards-giving critics groups. Still, when Loretta Young (where had she been for the past three decades?) took the podium to announce best picture, her introductory remarks clearly anticipated a triumph of golden-oldie wholesomeness exemplified by her old 20th Century-Fox stablemate Hank’s movie. And the envelope please…. Uh—Chariots of Fire? Yep, that British interloper about two athletes (Ben Cross and the superb Ian Charleson) and their quest for honor at the 1924 Olympics. Well, Ms. Young, it is wholesome. And as a come-up-the-middle dark horse, just maybe the right movie after all. (Beatty could take consolation from his best-director trophy, while Kate and Hank were voted top acting prizes.)

For best picture: E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy producers; Gandhi, produced and directed by Richard Attenborough (who said, after a potential Indian backer insisted the Mahatma could be represented onscreen only by a point of pure light, “Madam, I’m not making a movie about bloody Tinker Bell!”); Missing, a harrowing Costa-Gavras picture about the 1973 Chilean coup; Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman in a dress; and The Verdict, offering Paul Newman perhaps his most challenging role, as a washed-up lawyer taking a last shot at redemption. It’s hard to imagine that, if voting today, Academy members would place the formulaic, cinematically flatfooted Gandhi anywhere but dead last. But at the time, it swept up eight Oscars, chiefly because Hollywood appreciated that Attenborough had had to struggle for years to get the backing for his big movie no studio wanted to make. That’s not so bad as far as “best picture” goes, because best picture is really a producer’s award, a “Good for you!” more than a “That was good.” It’s when we get to “Richard Attenborough is a better director than Steven Spielberg, Costa-Gavras, Sydney Pollack, and Sidney Lumet” that the mood sours.

One of those rare Oscar years when the Academy really did cite the best picture: Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. But over in best actor the result was appalling: Al Pacino, winless after six nominations, finally collected for a putrescent slice of green ham, Scent of a Woman … meaning that the more deserving Eastwood, Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), and Denzel Washington (Malcolm X) were shut out. Yet supporting actress is the contest people remember, because against a distinguished field of ladies from various corners of the British Empire—Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), and Miranda Richardson (Damage)—a little-known daughter of Brooklyn named Marisa Tomei was called to the podium for her performance in My Cousin Vinny. The urban legend ever since has been that the, shall we say, eccentric presenter Jack Palance may have “announced” her inadvertently, when he was really just reading the last name on the list of nominees. Not so, insisted the Academy, and we prefer to believe them. Mona Lisa Vito was a delight, and she can tune our carburetors anytime. Those ladies with non-Brooklyn accents simply divided the Masterpiece Theatre vote, and a grand American girl passed them in the homestretch.

If one Oscar year lives in infamy (and it does), that would be 1998, aka the Season of the Weinstein Witch. Never were trade papers filled with so many “for your consideration” ads, or so many private dinners organized for Academy voters to get to know Roberto Benigni up close and personal. You know the results—you still wake up in a cold sweat remembering. Faced with a pair of towering films about World War II, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, the Weinstein brothers’ Miramax Films set up a pincer movement deploying the witty, sexy period comedy Shakespeare in Love and Benigni’s you-name-it, you-can-have-it Holocaust tale Life Is Beautiful. The Spielberg film—state-of-the-art, literally visceral in impact, yet a direct classical descendant of the great WWII films of the past—was expected to win; the poetic, occasionally mystifying Malick picture, not-so-much. But when Harrison Ford stepped up to present the final statuette of the evening to his Indiana Jones mentor, he was instead obliged to call out Shakespeare in Love. Let’s be forgiving: how could that crowd have resisted such a mash note to showbiz? At least they voted Spielberg best director. But Roberto Benigni climbing over—in some cases literally climbing over—Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, Nick Nolte, and Edward Norton to take best actor … that we do not forgive.

There are times when the Academy not only knows it’s going to hate itself in the morning—the voters get an early start pretending the bad thing didn’t happen. No question that in the run-up to the Oscars for 2002, Chicago had the Big Mo for best picture, against Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist). Hollywood loved the idea that, after so long, a musical was once again a contender, and this latest revival of the old warhorse (’20s play and silent movie, Ginger Rogers picture in the ’40s, Bob Fosse show in 1975), had a lot of, uh, energy. Trouble was, it was spurious energy and a definitively bad movie—under first-time feature director Rob Marshall, metronomic rather than musical, and so relentlessly machined that it in effect watched itself, rendering the viewer superfluous. Yet the Mo held, and Chicago became the second-worst best picture in Academy history (after the 1931 Cimarron). In his heart of hearts, Oscar knew better, and tipped his coulda/woulda/shoulda hand by conferring the evening’s awards for actual achievement–best actor, screenplay, and director—on the Holocaust memoir The Pianist … which is to say, on Adrien Brody, Ronald Harwood, and (one of the Academy’s all-time “Oh wow!”s) the long-exiled Roman Polanski.

It was going to be Brokeback Mountain. Had to be. The critics had loved it, Hollywood loved it, and even the flintiest hearts in the wind-whipped oases of the American West were touched by its tale of one cowboy who probably wasn’t gay and one cowboy who found out he was and the love they had for each other. Heath Ledger (who had already won some critics’ awards) and Jake Gyllenhaal were both nominated, as were supporting actress Michelle Williams, the script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Ang Lee’s direction, and sundry other aspects of the film. And the winner for best picture was … “Crass.” Er, Crash. As with the inside-showbiz allure of Shakespeare in Love in 1998, this one may have spoken irresistibly to the company town. Here was everything Angelenos dealt with, or feared they might have to deal with, day in and day out. Racial animus. Vehicular mishigas. The sudden irruption of crime and violence. Institutional backstabbing. Selling out for career advancement. The cast was terrific, to be sure, and they all had their moment. But what a cheeseball contrivance. The backlash set in before director-producer-co-writer Paul Haggis carried his Oscar off stage.

The 2009 Oscars saw a faceoff between artistic achievement and adventurous reach, between The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s white-knuckle film of men in war, and James Cameron’s 12-years-in-the-dreaming 3-D sci-fi fantasy Avatar. Put another way, it was a contest between a modestly budgeted art film in limited release and the state-of-the-art behemoth that had swiftly become the latest top-grossing movie of all time. For cynics, an easy call: Hollywood always genuflects before money and popularity, right? Remember Cameron’s Titanic in 1997? But also remember 1975 and 1977, when the newly anointed all-time top grossers of their day, Jaws and Star Wars, didn’t prevail. So really, anything could happen in best picture. And what of Bigelow’s possibly becoming the first woman to be named best director? Or the first to lose the award to her former husband! That connubial quirk lent extra urgency to the strident suggestion that Bigelow should win because of her gender and its historic neglect by the Academy. A pernicious suggestion on two counts: What previous woman had merited a directorial Oscar? And why should anyone taint this moment for Kathryn Bigelow, who deserved to win because she’d done the best damn job of directing a movie that year? She and her film did win, as they’d already done in virtually every meaningful awards contest. And having won, Bigelow took the classy step of thanking film critics for the crucial role they’d played in championing The Hurt Locker from its first festival showings in autumn 2008.

The triple crown victory of The King’s Speech in the producers’, directors’, and actors’ guild awards showed where Hollywood’s heart lay and confirmed that film as having a lock on the Academy Award. By showtime Oscar night, most partisans of the previous, critically beloved frontrunner The Social Network had conceded best picture and pinned their hopes on a split year, with best director going to David (“99 takes!”) Fincher over The King’s man Tom Hooper. Hope persisted well into the third hour; for however fervently Academy voters had clasped The King’s Speech to their collective bosom, they weren’t showering the old-fashioned, juicily acted, handsomely mounted, victory-over-adversity historical film with technical and supporting awards. (The King’s Speech ended up collecting on four of its 12 nominations.) The Social Network took the adapted-screenplay award, whereupon Aaron Sorkin gave the evening’s classiest speech: “I wrote this movie but David Fincher made this movie, and he did it with an ungodly artfulness.” That movie also took best editing for its streamlined, multi-tiered narrative — and didn’t conventional wisdom hold that best editing foreshadows best picture? Then dull destiny took over, and at best director time there was Tom Hooper telling a quite charming story of how his mother had attended a reading of a not-very-promising play called The King’s Speech, then rung him up to say, “Tom, I think I’ve found your next film.” OK, Tom Hooper has a mother. Seems to be a nice fellow. But he shouldn’t have an Oscar.

Copyright © 2015 Richard T. Jameson