Oscar looks for a worthy winner but should it be a popular winner?
- Credit: PA
So, it’s the Oscars this weekend and the excitement surrounding this year’s celebration of fabulous film-making has been slightly dimmed by the fact that it is almost assured that contemporary musical La La Land is seemingly guaranteed to dance away with not only the Best Picture Oscar but several of the other high profile prizes.
Without that sense of uncertainty, the Oscars have lost a little bit of their golden sheen. Maybe we need an upset to make the world’s filmgoers to jolt the world’s filmgoers out of their torpor. Although BAFTA shared the love between several major contenders – Manchester-by-the-Sea, Fences and Lion – the big prize still went to La La Land.
Such is the certainty that La La Land is going to have that glittering Hollywood happy ending that if it doesn’t win and win big then we may well be experiencing our real life version of The Day The Earth Stood Still.
But, is winning the Oscar really that important? Certainly it’s important in the short term because an Oscar-win really does translate into extra ticket sales but in the long-term it’s surprising how many Oscar winners are forgotten while the unlucky runners up are revered as some of the greatest films of all time.
For example who remembers Going My Way the Best Picture winner for 1944? But, you will know the unlucky losers who failed to get their hands on the trophy: Double Indemnity and Gaslight.
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John Ford had a glorious career but his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley was not his finest hour and yet this sentimental portrait of a mining community in Wales stole the Best Picture Oscar from under the noses of such film giants as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.
As the years have gone by you would have thought that the Oscar voters, professionals who work in the film industry, would have got better at recognising a timeless classic but it appears to be not the case. In 1980 Robert Redford’s debut film as a director Ordinary People won Best Picture. It was a workman-like film but it was not the best film of the year or even the best film of the list of nominees. Somehow it topped The Elephant Man and Raging Bull – both film enjoy a tremendous reputation as all-time classics while Ordinary People is just a footnote in Oscar history. Redford has certainly made better films as a director since.
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A couple of years later this bizarre situation repeated itself when the mawkish Terms of Endearment beat The Right Stuff and The Big Chill to the big movie prize of the year.
I realise that hindsight is a wonderful thing but these overlooked films were not obscure limited releases or box office failures. It comes down to what can only be described as Oscar season snobbery. It is frequently a case of the worthy film snatching more votes away from the popular movie. Worthy films tend to be heavy, weighty dramas that wear their seriousness (or in the case of Terms of Endearment their emotions) on their sleeves. Even in the way they are edited they are subliminally shouting: “We are a significant piece of art”. Oscar voters love this. Somehow ‘serious movies about serious issues’ are more deserving than an engaging movie that entertains as it makes similar points. As in a maths exam, you have to show the working and you can do that in a serious film. You can revel in the tortured performance or shed some tears at the tragedy of it all. A well-constructed thriller or comedy is not only much harder to produce, it must by its very nature hide the mechanics of its creation. This apparently fools everyone into thinking that popular entertainments are somehow not as worthy of awards but satisfyingly history has a habit of rectifying such oversights.
Occasionally Oscar does defy expectation and get things right. In 1998 Shakespeare in Love defied the pundits by beating Steven Spielberg’s worthy World War II drama Saving Private Ryan to the Best Picture title. The same was true of 2010’s The King’s Speech which topped the dreary The Fighter and the pretentious Black Swan.
Some years the best film is also genuinely a crowd-pleaser. Lawrence of Arabia was a worthy winner in 1962 as was My Fair Lady in 1964, The Godfather in 1972 or Dances With Wolves in 1990.
This does give you hope that occasionally the well-made popular film will receive its just desserts but we have to be careful what we wish for because sometimes the popular film will win and it will be a load of old nonsense. Do we need to be reminded of Titanic or Kramer Vs Kramer?
La La Land may well be declared Best Picture on Sunday night but which of the nominees will be remembered in 50 years time?