What Should The Academy Award Mean?

With another year in which the best film of the years did not win the Academy Award as Best Picture, I spent some time wondering, endlessly what the Academy Award for Best Picture should stand for, what should it mean? It is after all the most important film award in existence, and is given by ones peers in the industry, rasing the obvious question, why does the best film often not win?

How is it films like An American in Paris (1951), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), The French Connection (1971), The Sting (1973), Rocky (1976), Kramer vs Kramer (1979), Ordinary People (1980), Chariots of Fire (1981), Gandhi (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), Forrest Gump (1`994), Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Gladiator (2002), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Chicago (2002), Crash (2005), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011) and of course Argo (2012) are Academy Award winning Best Pictures, when they were clearly not the best films of their respective year? Granted some films catch fire with audiences and ride that crest all the way to the winners circle despite what the critics say, while others might just touch a nerve at the time of its release and become such an important part of pop culture, the Academy must honor them. Possibly, as in the case of Gandhi (1982) the Academy chose to honor the accomplishments of the man in the film rather than the film itself, which within a year of the awards looked like what it nhad always been, an old fashioned, stodgy Hollywood bio pic, sort of a “greatest hits” of Gandhi. In other cases there is a sense in the industry band town or awarding someone because it is their time, which is what happened this year with Ben Affleck, a most gifted director, though not so fgifted to be nominated for Best Director by the Academy.

I have been watching and studying the Oscars for more than thirty-five years. More than once I have gone to bed in disgust over their choices, wondering what they were thinking, wondering how film people, all of them are, could make such wrong headed decisions. Sometimes I found an answer, such as Chariots of Fire (1981) defeating Reds (1981) for Best Film. There were many people who believed Warren Beatty’s direction was superb, and gave him an Oscar for it, but more people disliked Beatty enough to vote against his film for Best Picture.

Academy Award

This year struck me as particularly bizarre because there were three films I believe to be better than Argo. Those three, Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, and Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi, each would have been a worthy winner of Best Picture, though I confess Lincoln would be my personal choice. Argo seemed to be out of the picture for Oscars until the nominations were announced and people were stunned that Affleck was not among the nominees for Best Director. That seemed to light a fire under Argo, which blazed all the way to the Oscars last Sunday. A good film to be sure, but not a great film.

And that is the rub isn’t it? An Academy Award for best Picture should be given to a film that is timeless, that will be discussed in forty to fifty years, not forgotten within five. An Oscar win for Best Picture means the director has created a work of art, something extraordinary that will be remembered for as long as film is discussed and written about. Should it not?

The Academy is often full of contradictions. For example how does the best directed, best shot, best edited, and best sound film lose the Oscar for Best Picture?? The Academy had honored Saving Private Ryan (1998) with five Academy Awards before getting to the big priuze for Best Picture, and having won for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mix and Best Sound Editing there was no doubt it was going to win the top prize. But then it didn’t!! Instead of the three words everyone was expecting, the three words aloud were Shakespeare in Love (1998), again a lovely film, but hardly a great, iconic work. What happened within the Academy to allow such an injustice?

Consider 1976 when Rocky (1976) soared past the much better competition all the way to a Best Picture win. How? How does that little film, with its many production flaws (and it wins Best Editing?) win Best Picture over All the President’s Men, Network or Taxi Driver, masterpieces that are all discussed to this day and revered by critics? Did those cheering audiences in the theaters really translate to an Oscar win? Did the story of Stallone really impact them that much to vote for his film? Did the Cinderella film win over the Academy to that extent?

Consider 2011. A silent film wins Best Picture. A film based entirely around a gimmick wins the top prize, and not just from the Academy, but many critics groups as well. could they not see it was buil;t around said gimmick or did they not care? Admittedly, The Artist was beautifully crafted and produced, but seriously a better film than The Descendants (2011)?? You will never convince me of that.

Of the films mentioned in the first paragraph, which are discussed today and still revered by audiences and critics? Forrest Gump perhaps, but more for Tom Hanks superb performance than the film itself, Titanic for the sheer scope of the work, but what others?? Not one of them.

What makes this more upsetting and frustrating is that sometimes the Academy is bang on, they get it right! The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was a most worthy winner, as was On the Waterfront (1954). Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was by far the years best film and awarded as that, while both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) deserved to, and did win Oscars. And of course there are more, many more instances when the Academy has been right, which makes it so very tragic when they blow it so badly.

My children will be discussing Lincoln long after I die, and Zero Dark Thirty, not Argo. When will the Academy recognize the enormous responsibility they have to honor the right film??

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John Foote

John Foote