Where Oscar Gets it Right

Since we are currently celebrating 31 Days of Oscar here at TCM, and have a special on tonight detailing the history of the Oscars, I thought I’d take the time, for once, to praise Oscar and not bury him.  Most of the time old Oscar comes up in conversation, I find a way to criticize the many mediocre choices through the years.  The winners of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay and so on, have too many times in Academy history not been anyone’s idea of the best.  Of course, we all have different tastes and opinions but even according to general consensus, Oscar has failed many a time.   For instance, no one’s going to tell you how much  Cimarron deserved Best Picture over say… well… almost anything else committed to celluloid that year.   But there have also been several occasions where I feel Oscar gets it just right, or did at time or another.  Not necessarily with individual choices, but how the award works itself.  I’ll deal with the big three, Best Picture, Best Director, and the acting awards.

Wings

Going back to the very beginning of the award in 1927/28 I think Oscar made a great call in separating out the Best Picture category into two types, one for Outstanding Picture and one for Unique and Artistic Production.    The first was won by Wings, an outstanding picture, indeed, filled with spectacle and sentimentality, and the other was won by Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, one of the most extraordinary movies ever made.   By the next year Oscar decided one category was enough, dropped the Unique and Artistic one and gave one movie the big award at the end of the night (years later, after the term “Best Picture” became the accepted term, they went back and said Wings was the first Best Picture winner, although they could have just as easily said it was Sunrise).   But what they were trying to do in that first year strikes me as perfectly logical.  Take one award and give it to the movie that made the most of its dollars to produce a spectacular, bigger than life production.  Take the other and give it to the film that furthers the idea of the cinematic art form (at least according to the voters).  Had they stuck to that, a couple of things would have happened, I think.  One, many more acclaimed blockbusters would have walked away with a top Oscar.  In the mid-seventies to the early eighties alone, movies like Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark would have had a much easier time winning the Outstanding Award if the Academy knew it could vote for a non-spectacle film for the other.  And with that other award not having to bear the weight of being the only top winner, it could, in fact, be more artistic.  One of the reasons Oscar gives us selections like Chariots of Fire (and I like that movie, don’t get me wrong) in 1981 is that the movie feels both big and prestigious whereas if one movie didn’t have to bear the full load in that year,  Raiders of the Lost Ark could have taken the Outstanding Award and Atlantic City, a better (in my opinion), more artistic film than Chariots of Fire, could have taken home the Unique and Artistic Production Award.   I don’t think the winners for Unique and Artistic Production would differ that greatly from what we already have as the winners of Best Picture but I do think that several big, superbly done blockbusters could have taken home a lot more top awards under the heading of Outstanding Picture.

Another thing I think Oscar has gotten right on a few occasions, but not enough, is separating out Best Director from Best Picture.   Whenever a movie is nominated for Best Picture but not Best Director, there’s immediate sneering (“I guess it directed itself”).  The fact is, a great directorial effort can be put forth in a movie that isn’t as great and a great movie may not have as much to do with the director, at least not all of the time.   Let’s go back to 1983.  In that year, two of the Best Picture nominees did not receive Best Director nominations.  Those two movies were The Right Stuff and The Big Chill.  Two movies not nominated for Best Picture, Fanny and Alexander and Silkwood, did receive nominations for Best Director.  The winner of both Best Picture and Best Director was the movie Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks.   To me, the best movie that year was Fanny and Alexander but I would not say that Best Director nominee Ingmar Bergman made more creative or daring choices than Philip Kaufman, non-nominated director of The Right Stuff.  Still, I thought that overall Fanny and Alexander was better.  But honestly, I believe the best directorial effort of the year was by Paul Brickman for the movie Risky Business.  The movie is visually creative, balances humor and pathos perfectly (the scene where Cruise goes to DeMornay in tears is done with no histrionics yet uses the same motif throughout the movie of no ambient sound in favor of Tangerine Dream music which keeps the moment from feeling stylistically off), and makes inventive use of the “character uses narration to wrap up story” technique in the end to signal a sea change in the character.  And yet, for all of Brickman’s brilliance, I still think Fanny and Alexander and The Right Stuff are better movies.   So, even though the awards didn’t work out like I would have preferred in 1983, I’m glad old Oscar mixed it up with the nominations, even if I felt it was the wrong way around.  I’d like to see Oscar salute more daring directorial efforts, even if they’re not in the service of the best movie of the year.

director

Finally, we arrive at the acting category and here I feel that Oscar has improved the award, once, but needs to do so again, and again.  When the award started, it was just Best Actor and Best Actress.  What that meant was, whoever gave the best performance in any given  movie won.  In other words, if someone in a smaller role gave the best performance, even if it was a minor part, he or she would win Best Actor or Actress.  What immediately happened, though, was that everyone voted for lead roles only, ignoring great smaller performances.  And so, in 1936, Oscar decided to branch out the acting awards to Best Supporting Actor and Actress as well.  This was one of the best decisions that Oscar ever made.

But it needs to be branched out even further.

Only one person directs a movie.  There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes two will direct (West Side Story, Coen Brothers movies),  or in the case of others, like How the West Was Won, multiple directors might take the helm.  But, with actors, the opposite is true.  Sometimes there’s a movie with one or two or three actors, total, but for the most part, any given movie will have dozens of speaking parts.  A couple or more leads, some major supporting, some minor supporting, bit roles and one liners (for example, an actor bumping into the lead and saying, “excuse me”).  And all of these, except maybe the one liners, should get a chance for the award because I’ve seen some damn good acting happen in less than three minutes.   A couple of times (Beatrice Straight in Network and Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love) Oscar did hand out an award for a minor supporting or bit part but usually it doesn’t happen.  It should, by having its own award.

One of the best bit part performances I ever saw occurred in Barry Lyndon and the actor was Frank Middlemass (readers may also know him as Rocky, Lionel’s father in the BBC sitcom As Time Goes By).  He plays Sir Charles Lyndon, the first husband of Lady Lyndon, and has but one moment in the whole film.  It’s when Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) shows up, after having a dalliance with Lady Lyndon, and Sir Charles simply has a fit so intense it kills him of a heart attack.  Despite only a couple of minutes screen time, it’s the best performance in the movie.  It may be the best performance of the year.  It got no awards but it should have and if they’d had just one more category, for Best Bit Player, Middlemass could have won it.

There will never be agreement by everyone on the movies that Oscar chooses to honor.  But with two Best Picture categories, more stand alone Best Director winners, and a couple more acting categories,  there would be more movies and actors receiving the honors they deserved and maybe more satisfaction from everyone with the awards overall  As to adding too many categories to an already over long ceremony, I suggest having the technical and design awards (cinematography, editing, sound, sound recording, visual effects, costume design, makeup, etc.) coming in a ceremony held earlier that very day.  A private ceremony where the winners will be revealed at the start of the main ceremony followed by all the categories I mention above plus the song, score, short subject, documentary and foreign film categories as well.   And then, if there’s time, can we go back and give out Oscars to all those bit performances that missed out over the years?  Or at least make a tribute montage to all of them?  Some of the best performances in the movies have happened in less than five minutes.  It’s time they got the attention they deserved.

 

15 Responses Where Oscar Gets it Right
Posted By Van Cockcroft : February 2, 2014 5:41 pm

Greg, a major point you overlooked, in my opinion (you made many good ones), is the repeated blurring in the Oscar race between the Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress categories, which clearly has resulted from two major influences: (1) a sort of popularity contest which relegates a candidate to one of those categories not on the basis of his/her status in a film; and (2), related to (1), an avoidance of pitting two performers of the same gender and film against each other or of overloading a category with performers from the same film. What happens then is that a clear contender for “Best” is made a contender for “Best Supporting” or vice versa, entirely contrary to logic or general expectations. Do you agree?

Posted By John Mundt, Esq. : February 2, 2014 7:21 pm

Another great post! Maybe “Oscar” could nominate a larger number in each of the acting categories, just as they’ve expanded the number of films that can be nominated. If it is truly an honor just to be nominated (and it is, I think), then recognition would come to a greater number of performances without watering-down the uniqueness of actually winning.

Posted By george : February 2, 2014 10:32 pm

I wish the Oscars had separate categories for drama and musical/comedy, like the Golden Globes do. A decade ago, Sean Penn (for MYSTIC RIVER) and Bill Murray (for LOST IN TRANSLATION)were equally deserving of Best Actor. It could only go to one, so naturally it went to the more dramatic performance, Penn’s. Oscar voters have rarely awarded comedy.

Of course, more categories would add to the length of the broadcast, so it will probably never happen!

Posted By Doug : February 3, 2014 3:45 am

I just found out that the song “Alone, Yet Not Alone” has had it’s Oscar nomination taken away because why? Because the composer used to serve on the Oscar board, and they thought that he might have some unfair advantage?
So…he isn’t allowed to campaign for one of his songs?
To me it has a whiff of gamesmanship-someone else wanted to improve his chances by complaining about the competition. And it worked.
Hope that it wasn’t anti-Christian sentiment, complaining about a song because of it’s content.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWVyVMbSzM4

I mean, it’s not quite “It’s Hard Out there For A Pimp”, but I think the song lovely, and would have had a good chance of winning.

Posted By robbushblog : February 3, 2014 5:07 pm

The nomination was withdrawn because he was on the Oscar board and made entreaties directly to board members for their votes, as opposed to the typical lobbying methods.

Posted By STSIndy : February 3, 2014 6:14 pm

It’s still unfortunate, because Bruce Broughton is a true composer (and a fine one), rather than a play-by-ear songwriter. Mr. Broughton has a shelf full of Emmys, but was only Oscar-nominated once previously, for his beautiful score for ‘Silverado’ in 1985.

Posted By Doug : February 3, 2014 6:43 pm

Rob, I can understand your point, but I find it hard to believe that the composer, William Ross, being a member of the Oscar board, would campaign recklessly. If he knew the rules (as I’m sure that he did), Ross would not campaign in any manner which might lead to his song’s nomination being withdrawn. He would be very careful to ‘color inside the lines’, to protect his work.
I just checked the Oscar rules at the official site. To me it seems more reasonable that even though Ross did not ‘break’ any official rules, he was possibly sandbagged by a competitor who complained merely to take out the competition.
Cut throat business, this Oscar stuff. Makes politics look like a church service.

Posted By kingrat : February 3, 2014 6:47 pm

I also have no problem with the director of the best picture not necessarily winning best director. Ang Lee’s accomplishments in LIFE OF PI were amazing, overshadowing even good work by other directors. Even those who wouldn’t have chosen PI for best picture could recognize Lee as best director.

Posted By Heidi : February 4, 2014 5:23 pm

Great post! I think Sunrise should have won over Wings, but that’s just me! I would like to see more movies given a chance to win something. there are just so many many new movies put out there from year to year, and to say that one is better than all the others is more difficult. I think if they would keep all the winners from talking for 20 minutes on what their political views are, the whole thing would leave room for more awards. Watching the special on the history of the Oscar, as well as back when I actually watched them, I was horrified at the ones that make political statements at that event. This is a time to say thinks for the award, thanks mom and or dad, and get off the stage so some one else gets a chance. This is just my opinion.

Posted By Gayle : February 4, 2014 6:19 pm

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I want to go off-topic though and admit I wish TCM WOULDN’T show 31 Days of Oscar. I often enjoy watching TCM for the serendipity of the moment and catching some obscure film. 31 Days programming brings back lots of titles I’ve seen many times and starts to feel repetitive. What would be acceptable is for TCM to have a vote where viewers can cast choices among Oscar-nominated films and have a discrete showing over a weekend or week.

Posted By gregferrara : February 5, 2014 6:22 pm

Hey, everyone, I had no internet for a painful three days there and I wasn’t about to respond on my phone keypad. Thanks for the great comments, one and all.

To address the last point made, by Gayle, about TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, my take is they don’t mix it up nearly enough. While a certain number of all time classics have received the lion share of award nominations, the fact is, hundreds of lesser known movies have been nominated in a variety of categories that they could give more prominence to, and hopefully will as time goes on.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2014 9:27 pm

I always look forward to 31 Days of Oscar, because it gives me a month to catch up on watching all the stuff I’ve already got stored on my DVR. And last month it really piled up with all the great Joan Crawford titles I had never seen before. There might be two films, three max, that I’ll be recording this month.

Posted By Stephen White : February 7, 2014 10:08 am

I wish the Academy would reassert control over judgment of what constitutes a leading and supporting performance. For a long time now, studios have been permitted to dictate which category the performers in their films should be considered for, despite the size of their roles. The studios don’t want two performers getting nominated in the same category for the same film, thereby forcing them to compete directly with each other and reducing the chance of each to win. This pattern of thinking probably dates back to at least 1969, when conventional wisdom had it that the Midnight Cowboy vote got split between Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, thereby allowing John Wayne to win Best Actor. If that movie had been released today, there is a 100 per cent chance the studio would have pushed for, and succeeded at, getting Hoffman to be considered only in the Best Supporting Actor category, even though his part was of equal size to Voight’s. And so, virtually every year, we have a film like August: Osage County where Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are shoehorned into separate acting categories, even though their parts are of the same size. Thus, the decisions of category placement are largely dictated by maximizing one’s chances of winning and not of artistic consideration. Boo, hiss, Academy! I would like to point out it’s not impossible for a film to win in an acting category under such conditions – Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham were both nominated for Best Actor for Amadaeus, and Abraham won.

Posted By jbryant : February 9, 2014 3:25 am

I’d have no problem with 10 nominees per acting category, but I fear the general public would have a fit. I like the idea of a “bit player” category, too, but it would probably only work if a strict screen-time limit were imposed. The first actor who came to mind when I read this was Adrien Brody’s hilarious turn as Salvador Dali in Midnight in Paris.

Posted By george : February 9, 2014 4:02 am

“The first actor who came to mind when I read this was Adrien Brody’s hilarious turn as Salvador Dali in Midnight in Paris.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Lester Bangs in ALMOST FAMOUS, comes to mind. He’s only in a few scenes, but he leaves a big impression.

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