Casablanca. Lawrence of Arabia. The Godfather. Schindler’s List. All of these won filmdom’s highest honor, the Academy Award, thus suggesting that the Oscars are a useful barometer of the good, the true, and the beautiful in our culture.
Citizen Kane. Double Indemnity. Vertigo. Saving Private Ryan. None of these won the Academy Award for Best Picture, forcing us to conclude that sometimes Oscar reaches truly spectacular levels of wrongness.There have always been awards given out for not-so-award-worthy reasons.
Many of us have our own lists of Oscar travesties, the memory of which causes us to grind our teeth anew when another Academy Award season brings it all back to mind. Below are a few of my favorite—or least favorite—examples, along with my reason for believing the Academy made an error. (Note: In each case, the year given is the year the film was released, not the year the awards were handed out. I always think it’s tidier that way.)
1939, Best Actor: Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips over James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Donat is quietly, deeply moving as a stiff young teacher who develops into a beloved elder statesman at the boys’ school where he spends his career. But Stewart is incandescent as a naïve senator almost destroyed by a political machine, before mustering the courage to fight back. The general consensus seems to be that Donat won in large part for his ability to portray the same man over a period of more than 60 years. While not denigrating this achievement, I still think that Stewart’s performance, which builds slowly from wide-eyed idealism to crushing disillusionment to passionate defiance (with an occasional note of wry self-deprecation), is superior. His final filibuster sequence is still remembered and praised, not just as an acting showcase, but as one of the most inspirational moments in film history.
1942, Best Supporting Actor: Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier over Claude Rains in Casablanca
Many movie buffs have a soft spot for Coburn’s performance as lovable old busybody Benjamin Dingle, playing matchmaker for Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in wartime Washington, D.C., complete with catchphrase “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” But if you don’t fall hard for Claude Rains’s jauntily cynical Captain Louis Renault, you just might not be human. Rains has some of the greatest lines in movie history: “I like to think you killed a man; it’s the romantic in me.” “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” “Round up the usual suspects.” . . . and many, many more. And he delivers them with matchless panache, the twinkle in his eye daring you to dislike his morally ambiguous Vichy official and hinting at his ultimate redemption. It’s a performance for the ages, one that still feels fresh as ever 75 years later.
1950, Best Actress: Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday over Bette Davis in All about Eve
Holliday was a gifted comedienne with a reported IQ of 172. That made it especially impressive that she could convincingly play “dumb blonde” roles like Billie Dawn, a tycoon’s mistress and a sort of Legally Blonde prototype. But to me, frankly, that performance feels a bit one-note compared to Davis’s tour de force as Broadway legend Margo Channing. Davis’s Margo is so darkly witty and fierce that you can’t tear your eyes, or ears, from her, whomever she’s with onscreen. (And she’s with some very good co-stars—the movie got a total of five acting nominations.) But she’s not just over the top; she can also be down to earth. When confessing her fear that age will take everything from her, including the man she loves and the career she’s worked so hard for, Margo isn’t just the Great Star—she’s Everywoman. It was Davis’s rare gift to blend both personas into one unstoppable force of nature.
1952, Best Picture: The Greatest Show on Earth over Singin’ in the Rain
This is truly one of Oscar’s great “Huh?” moments. You can hardly find a soul today who’s seen Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic, and among those who have, you can’t find many who like it very much. Whereas the brilliant, infectiously joyful Singin’ in the Rain—which today is often named not just one of the greatest film musicals but one of the all-time greatest films, period—didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination. One can only speculate that either the Academy was really into spectacle in those days—Best Picture wins for Around the World in 80 Days and Ben-Hur over the next several years would seem to bear that out—or that, having awarded a Gene Kelly film (An American in Paris) six Oscars the year before, plus an honorary one for Kelly himself, the Academy decided to spread the wealth around. Or maybe both. Either way, they blew it.
Of course, there’s an element of subjectivity to all this. Many people agree with me on the flubs listed above, but with other awards, you can get quite a heated debate going. Take my firm belief that Audrey Hepburn should at least have been nominated for Best Actress for My Fair Lady (1964). In this case, “office politics” was openly at work. Warner Bros. refused to give Julie Andrews the role she had made famous on Broadway, giving it instead to Hepburn; so the industry punished Hepburn by not giving her an Oscar nomination for the role and giving Andrews the win for Mary Poppins! Hollywood giveth and Hollywood taketh away.
All this drama, unfortunately, obscured the fact that Hepburn gave a splendid performance as the bedraggled flower girl who becomes a lady. That is, I say she did. You can always find someone to quibble over the fact that Marni Nixon did her singing, or to contend that she was more believable as the lady than as the flower girl. But here’s what it boils down to for me: Since the first time I saw it, at age 11, Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle, who fights to better herself and stand up for herself no matter what, has stayed in my mind as the picture of what a strong woman looks like. For 30 years that character, as played by that actress, has guided and inspired me.
Since the Academy Awards began, in short, there have always been awards given out for not-so-award-worthy reasons. As Dave Barry once quipped, “Each year, the Academy gives the awards to people who really should have won LAST year. The reason they didn’t win last year was that the Academy was giving the awards to people who should have won the year before THAT. This has been going on all the way back to the first Academy Awards, which apparently were handed out by total morons.”
And yet many of us still anticipate, and watch, and quibble over or celebrate the results. (If La La Land wins Best Picture this year, for instance, the award show audience in California will probably hear me squealing all the way from Virginia.) There’s just something satisfying, even thrilling, about watching a deserving film or performance get rewarded.
But in the final analysis, perhaps no award can truly measure greatness and its impact. When it comes to gauging what’s good, true, and beautiful in filmdom, maybe we’re better off looking to the artists whose work stays with us all our lives, helping to shape our feelings and ideas. No Oscar can dictate whether or not that happens—and looking back over all the mistakes Oscar has made, maybe it’s just as well.
At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself if I end up a frustrated and disappointed fan on Oscar night.
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