Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Second-Guessing Oscar

Variety's Anne Thompson has an article on Entertainment Weekly's revisionist votes on the Oscars* EW recently sent out ballots to current Academy members asking them to revisit some of the past major categories, and vote on them just to see if any of those results would change. Call it Oscars 2.0, or "Son of Oscar," or better yet, "Oscar's Remorse." It's an interesting idea. As interesting as that computed match-up "Superfight" between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali a few decades ago.

The first question one asks is: "Why?"

The second: "Why now?" Why this year to do this, when there have been so many egregious examples over Oscar's history? Probably the "Crash"-lash from so many disappointed "Brokeback Mountain" fans (I think "Crash" is a better film than the zeitgeist would argue--as it does somewhat hysterically--and "Brokeback Mountain," while carrying many joys, adds up to a Joan Crawford "wronged woman" tear-jerker).

Okay. But the one Hollywood is nattering about is "Shakespeare in Love's" win over "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999. That's fine. Everybody wants to see the grudge-match between Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg go into overtime. I think it's a wash, myself. I see "Ryan" as a flawed, but necessary work, and liked the frothy qualities of "Shakespeare."

But, let's go back, back...back in time.

How about some of these contests for "Best Picture?"

In the middle of the McCarthy witch-hunt '50's, Best Picture nominee "High Noon" was trumped by Cecil B. DeMille's elephantine "The Greatest Show on Earth." Which one is the classic? Easy to answer. Harder to explain the decision, unless you look at the politics involved. "Noon" was made by a bunch of liberal upstarts (though starring Hollywood favorite Gary Cooper--who won Best Actor), while Conservative-with-a-capital-"C" Cecil B. DeMille was the man behind the Circus movie. The faint-hearted members of the Academy went the least controversial and least rewarding route, and picked DeMille's clunky roadshow movie.

In 1968, "In the Heat of the Night" beat out "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde." The former was a creaky vehicle for the old guard that preached tolerance, while the latter two were films that appealed to the young, dealt with edgy subject matter, and are considered classics to this day. "The Graduate" has abundant flaws, but "Bonnie and Clyde" is a classic. "In the Heat of the Night," not so much, though it is revered for winning "Best Picture," sealing a "Best Actor" award for Rod Steiger, and "They call me 'Mr. Tibbs'!"

The most interesting race would be, for me, 1941's "Best Picture" race: "Citizen Kane" was nominated,** but nobody liked Orson Welles, so the award went to Darryl F. Zanuck's nearly perfect production of "How Green Was My Valley," directed by the man Welles studied for directing tips ("I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford").

I think "Kane" is the better film, and deserves the award. But so does "How Green Was My Valley." Giving the award to "Kane" rights a wrong, but also takes a little of the "legend" of "Kane" away.

It will be a curiosity to see the results, much like looking at those "Ten Best" critics lists that change every ten years, as some films go in and out of favor. But nobody's giving back any statues. Ultimately, then, it's a pointless exercise, especially if anybody's going to take the Oscars as a serious gauge of quality, instead of the industry self-congratulation-fest that it is.

* The Comments are, as usual, the most entertaining part of the article. One writer says that Jodie Foster's win ("The Accused") over Glenn Close ("Dangerous Liaisons") in 1989 "still tastes like vomit in my mouth." And that guy obviously knows his drama!

** As were seven others--nine in all--including "The Malteste Falcon," "Sergeant York," and "Suspicion."

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