It’s way, way too easy to pick the big, howling mistakes of Academy Awards history. (Speaking of which, it really bugs me that they have dumped the venerable term “Academy Awards” this year. Too old-fashioned! Too many syllables! Vaguely sounds like it has to do with school!) I’m sure you have your favorites, from recent history or the deep past: “Dances With Wolves” beating out “Goodfellas”; Paul Lukas in “Watch on the Rhine” beating out Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”; the non-nomination of any number of the greatest movies ever made, from “Modern Times” to “Vertigo” to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But what about turning the question around, and giving the Oscars some credit for the years – fewer in number, perhaps – when they got it right, or pretty damn close?
I started thinking about this after being asked an Oscar question that was a total stumper. No, it wasn’t about who won best supporting actor in 1977 or anything. (That would be Jason Robards for “All the President’s Men.” Good choice!) A few days ago I was part of the annual Oscars panel discussion at the Strand Bookstore in New York, a delightful group that also included Michael Musto of the Village Voice, Dana Stevens of Slate and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. We were all opining about why people care about the Academy Awards despite their evident silliness, talking about how they simultaneously elevate and humiliate famous people, and searching for their roots in the dramatic pageants of ancient Greece or forgotten fireside ceremonies of the Ice Age. Musto called the Oscars the “gay Olympics,” which is a gag he’s used before that always gets a laugh. (The more I think about it, though, the more I think that’s a profound insight into cultural and sexual politics.)
Then our moderator, Deborah Reinisch, a producer, director and teacher with many years of experience in and around the film industry, interrupted us. “What about the idea of honoring artistic excellence?” she said. “Isn’t that a good thing?” We all just sat there for a moment in silence and let that sink in. Because the fact is, most movie critics and entertainment journalists don’t view the Oscars in those terms. It’s a trade show and a political campaign; it’s a mass-culture moment in a micro-cultural age. It’s an empty pseudo-spectacle, alive with sizzle but signifying nothing, or, alternately, it’s a touchstone that can be drilled into in search of deeper meaning.
Reinisch was making an apparently simple point that, like Musto’s gay-Olympics joke, contains multitudes. It’s tempting to view the academy and its 5,800 or so voting members (I believe Reinisch is one of them) through an entirely cynical prism, but it also isn’t fair. We know the membership still skews heavily toward affluent white men in their 60s and 70s, even after years of affirmative action and outreach. As I suggested around this time last year, that widening gulf between the Oscar electorate and the moviegoing public may help to explain the academy’s recent predilection for middlebrow, mid-budget, “Oscar-y” films that are neither big hits nor memorable artistic breakthroughs.
But with all that said, there’s no reason to suspect Oscar voters of insincerity. A bunch of Beverly Hills coffee-klatch grumpuses with sky-blue pants they may be! But they’re honestly trying to pick what they think are the year’s best movies and best performances. Sure, strategic considerations about the American film industry’s public image and boosting ratings for the Oscar telecast are part of the academy’s raison d’être, and may play a role in the voting at some level. But if those issues were really driving the train, you wouldn’t see the academy give its biggest prize to a $15 million war movie over one of the most profitable and visually spectacular pictures ever made, or reward a love story shot in digital video on the streets of Mumbai while ignoring a billion-dollar superhero hit that was arguably every bit as ambitious. The Oscars really do try to honor artistic excellence; it’s just that this self-selected group of industry insiders has a very mixed record of actually doing so.
So what are the very best years in Oscar history? Of course this is heavily subjective, and I look forward to your howls of outrage. But I tried to look at several factors: years in which a genuinely great movie, perhaps a future classic, won best picture; when the field of nominated pictures and actors was impressive; and when no utterly indefensible omission or oversight occurred. That last criterion, in particular, was surprisingly difficult to meet – and, as you’ll see, I’ve decided to define "utterly indefensible" as flexibly as I need to.
In any case, here we are. The envelope, please: Here are the 10 greatest years in Oscar history. (I’m using the academy’s date conventions, by the way – these are the years being honored, not the year in which the ceremony actually took place.)
1934 – In Oscar’s seventh year, long before the television era, the whole thing was a dinner in the Biltmore Hotel that lasted less than two hours. We can only dream of such bliss! Frank Capra’s immortal screwball comedy “It Happened One Night” became the first movie to sweep the top five awards: best picture, best director, both lead-actor categories (for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) and best screenplay. That’s only happened twice more in the intervening 78 years, and we’ll get to one of those instances shortly. (The other would be 1975, which was one of my also-rans. Please discuss!)
Not only is “It Happened One Night” a great movie, in a genre that’s now viewed as inherently second-rate and just for chicks, but the only reasonable complaint you can make about the ’34 Oscars is that Bette Davis didn’t win anything for her star turn in the soapy “Of Human Bondage.” The other nominated films are just OK – “Imitation of Life,” “The Thin Man” and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical “The Gay Divorcee” are the good ones – but nothing important got left out.
1940 – A great example of how spreading the Oscar wealth amid several different films can turn out well (as opposed to the mishmash we’re likely to see this year). This was the first year sealed envelopes were handed to presenters, and also the first year Price Waterhouse was hired to count and protect the votes. Alfred Hitchcock’s first American-made film, “Rebecca,” was named best picture (amazingly and alarmingly, the only time he would win that honor) amid a remarkable field of nominees that included “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Great Dictator,” “Our Town,” “The Philadelphia Story” and another Hitchcock movie, “Foreign Correspondent.” Is “Rebecca” actually the best movie in that group? Debatable, at best – but not a noxious choice in any way.
John Ford won best director for “Grapes of Wrath,” James Stewart was named best actor for “Philadelphia Story” and – oops! – Ginger Rogers won best actress for something called “Kitty Foyle” in a category that included Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Katharine Hepburn. You can’t have everything. Also, neither Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” nor Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” was nominated for anything – early signs of Oscar’s long-standing preference for drama over comedy.
1950 – I once got to meet Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the legendary Hollywood figure who won an unprecedented treble – best picture, best director and best screenplay – for “All About Eve” in 1950. He said he still felt bad that the movie’s six Oscars hadn’t included a best-actress award for Bette Davis. Her problematic reputation in Hollywood, he added, stemmed from the fact that “she thought she was smarter than everyone she worked with – and she was right!” Davis may have been undercut by the fact that her co-star Anne Baxter was also nominated (thereby mimicking the movie’s theme of feminine warfare) and both were beaten out by Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday,” which is a memorable performance too.
I’m totally OK, by the way, with the argument that in 1950’s big Oscar showdown between “All About Eve” and Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” the wrong movie won. But in the bigger picture they’re both terrific, and this probably ranks among the top two or three Oscar races of all time. Carol Reed’s great thriller “The Third Man” was not nominated for best picture, although it won a cinematography prize. And the less said about this year’s best-actor prize (José Ferrer, for a really hokey version of “Cyrano de Bergerac”), the better.
1954 – This was the year when Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s breakthrough drama “On the Waterfront” – largely shot on location in Hoboken, N.J., then a daring and unusual choice -- racked up 12 nominations and eight awards, at the time tied for the most ever. It was also the year when Marlon Brando finally won his first Oscar, after three previous best-actor nominations. Moreover, Brando’s win was a surprise, since most observers expected Bing Crosby to take the honors for “The Country Girl” – a choice that would surely have made the list of greatest Oscar screw-ups. In another breakthrough, Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones” became the first African-American nominated for best actress.
No argument so far, but once you get past Dandridge and “On the Waterfront,” the ’54 Oscars were admittedly a total mess. Neither Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” nor George Cukor’s “A Star Is Born” -- bona fide Hollywood classics both -- was even nominated for best picture. While everyone expected Judy Garland to win best actress to make up for the latter omission, she ended up losing to Grace Kelly (for the thoroughly forgettable “Country Girl”). “On the Waterfront” co-stars Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger were all nominated for best supporting actor (the only time three people from the same film have ever been nominated in the same category), and all lost to Edmond O’Brien in “The Barefoot Contessa.”
1969 – After an extended period of honoring tedious spectacle films and old-school musicals while ignoring the most innovative pictures, Oscar suddenly woke up to the immense social changes of the late 1960s. I suppose John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” might look like a period piece now – I haven’t watched it for years – but it was and remains the only X-rated (and/or NC-17) film to win best picture, and its combo of explicit sexuality and social realism signaled an abrupt shift. The other best-picture nominees also capture a Hollywood balanced between its past and its future: “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Hello, Dolly!” and Costa-Gavras’ “Z.”
The acting awards for 1969 are equally awesome and pregnant with cultural significance: John Wayne for “True Grit” (over Richard Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Peter O’Toole and Jon Voight!); Maggie Smith in the greatest evil-lesbian role of all time, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (over Geneviève Bujold, Jane Fonda, Jean Simmons and Liza Minnelli!). Yes, it’s outrageous that “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Medium Cool” won a grand total of zero Oscars between them – but that too tells us a lot about the historical and cultural moment.
1971 – Here we reach the most celebrated stretch of years in Oscar history, so I needn’t belabor the point. Did the academy make the right choice between William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” and Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”? Hell, I don’t know – but what a pair of nominees, with Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” along for the ride! Jane Fonda won her first Oscar for “Klute,” which wasn’t even nominated for best picture. Neither were “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Harold and Maude” and “Dirty Harry,” all better choices than the pretty but tedious “Nicholas and Alexandra.”
1972 – Most famous of them all, without any serious doubt. “The Godfather” wins best picture, and Brando sends Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to officially decline his best-actor Oscar. Francis Ford Coppola does not win best director, but Bob Fosse does, for “Cabaret,” and I have no problem whatever with that. Liza Minnelli wins for best actress in a field that includes Diana Ross, Maggie Smith, Cicely Tyson and Liv Ullmann. Best foreign-language film is Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” and the nominated documentaries include films about Malcolm X and the Manson family. I have never heard of the person who won for supporting actress (Eileen Heckart in “Butterflies Are Free”). There will never, ever, be another Oscar year like that. Except …
1974 – Then comes the triumph of “The Godfather, Part II” two years later, which wins best picture over another Coppola film, “The Conversation,” and Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” So that's three of the greatest American films of the 1970s, all in the same category the same year. (The other nominees were “Lenny,” which is pretty good, and “The Towering Inferno,” which is ridonk-ulous.) On the other hand, yeesh: Art Carney wins best actor for “Harry and Tonto” (beating Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino) and Ellen Burstyn wins best actress for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (beating Faye Dunaway and Gena Rowlands). And “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” wasn’t nominated for anything, so forget it.
1991 – Well, I have to pick something out of Oscar’s long slide into uplifting middlebrow sludge, which begins in earnest in the late ‘70s and continues, with occasional interruptions, to this day. The field of nominated films in ’91 was pretty terrible – “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bugsy,” “JFK” and “The Prince of Tides” – while “Thelma & Louise” and “Barton Fink,” surely among the year’s most memorable moviegoing experiences, were snubbed. But still, it was astonishing that Oscar went so big for not just a genre movie and a crime movie but a serial-killer movie, even if it did have two well-respected and “serious” actors in it. “Silence of the Lambs” continues to be imitated by lesser directors year after year, in large part because it became only the third film in Oscar history to capture the top five awards: Jonathan Demme won best director, Anthony Hopkins best actor and Jodie Foster best actress, with writer Ted Tally bringing home the adapted screenplay prize.
2007 – I have a few other contenders to offer in relatively recent history, like the still-debated “American Beauty” vs. "The Insider" year of 1999, or the 2009 coronation of Kathryn Bigelow and her money-losing war movie over her vastly more successful ex-husband and his lovable blue aliens. (That was before Hollywood decided to hate her again.) But I think the big showdown between the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” marks the high point of what you might call Oscar’s “indie period.” The other three nominated pictures make a strong if peculiar field – “Atonement,” “Juno” and “Michael Clayton” -- and the acting winners were all cool choices: Daniel Day-Lewis (whom we’ll see again on Sunday night), Marion Cotillard, Javier Bardem and Tilda Swinton. I don’t even see any glaring omissions: Yes, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was left off the best-picture list (this was before they’d expanded the category), but it was in French, and bathrobe-clad Julian Schnabel got his directing nod anyway.