Feb 24, 2007

Oscar's greatest crimes

The Academy vote doesn't always get it right. John Patterson lists the 10 it should be most ashamed of

(Reported from The Guardian )

No, no, no... Halle Berry with her Oscar. Photograph: AMPAS/Getty Images

1. In 1994, Forrest Gump was the perfect movie tie-in for the Gingrich takeover of Congress the same year. Like the New Right, Gump was culturally retrograde, politically reactionary and self-servingly revisionist about matters ranging from the Ku Klux Klan and Vietnam to the Black Power movement and Aids as God's vengeance for promiscuous, citified women. Writer-director Robert Zemeckis's message was - crudely summarised, as he'd like it - stay stupid, stay home, don't ask questions and hate those who do. It was the biggest-grossing movie of the year, ensuring easy victory over the insurgent indie Pulp Fiction which, for all its shortcomings, was easily the most vigorous and inventive mainstream American movie of the year. Pulp Fiction had a Gump of its own, except he was called the Gimp, and they wisely kept him locked and chained in the basement.

2. Orson Welles surfed into the 1941 Oscars on a tidal wave of nine nominations for his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, including four for himself as actor, co-screenwriter, director and co-producer. But Hollywood, always threatened by genius, had grown tired of the Boy Wonder and all his smart new ideas, no matter that he was revolutionising studio film-making with every creative decision he made. Best picture went to one of the worst movies in the monolithic canon of John Ford: How Green Was My Valley. Ford always won more awards during his more liberal Popular Front period of the late 30s, and hardly ever for his breathtaking westerns, so it's an injustice for him too. They stuck it to Welles again the following year, when his real masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, was mugged and left for dead by, of all people, Mrs Miniver.

3. The greatest film magician of his home country - indeed, a man who helped to build but then outgrew his own national film industry - Alfred Hitchcock spent the next 20 years in happy Californian exile building a body of work so singular and technically striking that it still throbs and hums with lessons for young film-makers today. And he never won an Oscar. Not for Notorious, not for Rear Window, nor Vertigo nor Psycho nor The Birds. In 1967, when his creative high tide had long since ebbed, they dragged him out, pink and beaming, his usual sinisterly avuncular old self, and slapped the special Irving Thalberg Memorial award in his hot little hand. It's the kind of prize conferred on those already on the fast track to the emergency room or a plot at Forest Lawn. It's like ambulance-chasing, a guilty acknowledgment of past sins by the voters.

4. The victory of Carol Reed's unremarkable musical Oliver! over Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969 is another sad reminder of exactly how clueless and out of touch the Academy was in the cauldron years of the late 1960s. Vietnam, the most important, convulsive issue of the times, was basically off the table as a movie subject, but surely Kubrick's 2001, which echoed the soon-to-climax Nasa space programme and offered a boon to acid dealers nationwide, had more contemporary resonance than a big-budget musical set a century earlier. But Hollywood was demented by its anachronistic attachment to the Broadway musical throughout the rock'n'roll 1960s, and thus Kubrick was doomed to lose.

5. Pssst! Halle Berry has an Oscar. So does Marisa Tomei. Hilary Swank has two. It hardly matters whom they beat out for these dubious victories: what's disturbing is that they were rewarded for deeply unimpressive work. Angela Bassett, who could act these three to a standstill while doing her ironing, was right when she mocked Berry's victory for the forgettable (and indeed, now thoroughly forgotten) Monster's Ball. Tomei is a fine actress, but her shrill Joisey-goil supporting role in My Cousin Vinny was a recurring-guest sitcom part writ large. Incredibly, among those she beat were Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson. Swank, with her two expressions and her many, many teeth, first won best actress for playing a woman pretending to be a man; her second, for Million Dollar Baby, playing a female boxer who looks scarily like Matt Damon. It's the reverse version of the Tootsie tranny template for Oscar-snagging.

6. Ah, the glory years of the Hollywood renaissance! What bounty besmeared our screens in that halcyon season of brave cinematic trailblazers building their cathedrals of son et lumière ... Oh, wait, 1976 was the year Earthquake came out, wasn't it? Ah, but it was also a year with a stunning line-up for the best picture nod. It seemed for once as if geriatric Hollywood (ie, the fools who vote) had recognised the new breed and finally understood. Look at those nominees: Alan J Pakula's one masterpiece, All the President's Men, which changed America's political language forever; Network, which predicted, almost to the letter, the very media-industrial complex now strangling America's national discourse; Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory, a proper leftie movie from a major studio; and Taxi Driver, the most shocking and kinetic movie of the decade, by its greatest new film-maker. And what actually won? Rocky, of course. Colour me punch-drunk and push me down the stairs.

7. A formidable reputation, the long-term acquisition of power and influence in Tinseltown, and a steady adherence to the gutless conformity of the McCarthy era were more than enough to compensate for a boring talent and an even more boring film. Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, a toe-curlingly tedious and empty circus melodrama, may rank as the worst movie ever to win best picture (I'd put Gump up there, mind). And yet it was able to see off competition as stiff as High Noon, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man. If the 1950s offered an equally depressing example of Oscars for emptiness, it was surely the best picture victory of 1956 for Around the World in Eighty Days, which is quite unwatchable today. What were they thinking in the 1950s? It's not like they were on drugs yet in Hollywood.

8. Like most great directors, Scorsese has endured numerous insults at the hands of the Academy. For a man who has done so much to change American movie acting, it's ironic that two of Scorsese's most remarkable films were both seen off at the last fence by mediocre movies from superstar actors turned dreary directors. In 1980, Raging Bull, a labour of love that summarised all the great advances of the new Hollywood of the 1970s, was beaten by Robert Redford's very ordinary Ordinary People. And in 1990, just when you thought Scorsese might have earned himself a little Oscar justice, Goodfellas was crapped on by Kevin Costner's bland and unremarkable Dances With Wolves. Even a lesser Scorsese movie, The Aviator in 2004, lost to the slick and meretricious Million Dollar Baby. An even lesser movie, The Departed, will probably net Marty his guilt-Oscar this year, 31, 27 and 17 years too late.

9. The enormous condescension of posterity is all that Kramer Vs Kramer deserved, and a quarter-century on that's all it has left. A TV movie gussied up with cutesy star turns, an adorable kid and a vaguely misogynist undertone, it beat out Bob Fosse's magnificently dyspeptic All That Jazz and Martin Ritt's rah-rah Norma Rae. But the 800-pound gorilla in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night was Francis Ford Coppola's last gasp as a great director, Apocalypse Now. It arrived trailing a big, badass reputation that did it no favours come voting time. Incredible to think, now time has sifted away the chaff of 1979, that this movie, whose catchphrases have sunk into the American lexicon, whose best sequences are seared into the world's collective retina, could have been eighty-sixed by a trifle like Kramer Vs Kramer.

10. Everybody loves an underdog, but this is ridiculous. Little Miss Sunshine had such a struggle getting made that one was inclined to forgive its messy script and its poorly integrated cast. That mood lasted until I got to the parking lot, by which time I'd forgotten everything about it. Until the Oscar nominations were announced. This mouse that roared should have been stomped on a long time ago. The notion that it's fit to compete for an Oscar in any category - it doesn't even come close - is further evidence of the Academy's mile-wide streak of sentimentality and gullibility in the face of a canny Oscar campaign. If this beats The Departed, I expect Martin Scorsese to pull out a machine-gun and fire randomly into the voting members as they run screaming for the exits. And he'd be within his rights, too.

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