On Feb. 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will break some film lovers’ hearts for the 77th time. As impossible as it is for an awards ceremony to please everyone, the Oscar statuettes have eluded some of the most accomplished films and filmmakers of all time. With DVDs as references and guides, it’s possible to evaluate the good, the reasonable and the travesties of Oscar history.
The majority of academy voters may be old-fashioned—or just plain old—but they do vote based on what they truly believe is the best film. Hype and undistinguished taste simply overwhelm them, helped by the small detail that they probably haven’t seen all the nominees. Best Picture winners are rarely (but certainly occasionally) plain bad. Even in the cases when remarkable films are snubbed, you can’t necessarily hate the victors. In the most famous snub, Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane lost to a film by one of Welles’ heroes, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, a moving and well-crafted family drama.
The Best Picture winners can be seen as prime examples of what was popular in cinema at the time, but not—as the Kane example suggests—what would come to be seen as groundbreaking. That is, as long as you don’t want to know what type of comedies or action films were popular, since the Academy rarely recognizes them. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with its pop culture references, snappy style and unmistakable dialogue, was passed up in favor of Forrest Gump. The same thing happened in 1967, when two films that captured their time—Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate—lost to Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, a well-acted issue-oriented drama that hasn’t aged well.
While overlooked films are always a topic for Oscar bashers, serial complainers are particularly fond of discussing great directors who never received a statuette. This year, Martin Scorsese may break the curse of being beaten by actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford in 1981; Kevin Costner in 1991)—or he may lose to Clint Eastwood. If he wins, the academy might be trying to avoid what happened to Alfred Hitchcock, who never won until an honorary statuette came his way. The members didn’t even give him a nomination for his two best films, 1958’s Vertigo and 1946’s Notorious. Both were better directed than the winners, Vincent Minelli’s slight Gigi and William Wyler’s heartfelt The Best Years of Our Lives, respectively.
The winners and the snubbed from recent years aren’t historically useful yet but can help one understand the politics of the technical categories, which often overlook accomplishments in individual films because voters pick their favorite film overall. The Academy refuses, for example, to give the art direction award to anything set in the present—or the future. See Alex McDowell’s amazing, un-nominated creation of a future Washington, D.C. in 2002’s Minority Report, and compare it with the category’s winner, Chicago. The new Best Animated Feature category got off to a bad start in 2001 when the academy nominated Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius over Richard Linklater’s history-making Waking Life, which used a digital rotoscoping process developed by Bob Sabiston to bring quality animation to independent film.
As frustrating as it can be, the injustice of Oscar won’t stop, so people shouldn’t let it upset them too much. It’s better to study and attempt to decrypt the logic of the crazy voters who decide what films everyone will talk about for a few weeks after the ceremony. After all, if the Academy were perfect, cinephiles everywhere would be deprived of the joy of complaining about how horribly, horribly wrong it was this year.