Last week the Academy Awards were heading to a disappointing conclusion. As much as it seemed possible that Roma could be awarded Best Picture, Hollywood likes to congratulate itself too much to admit that it could be bettered by a film outside of its remit. That’s what Cannes and Venice are for, right? It seemed implausible that Best Picture would to go to any film other than Bohemian Rhapsody.
The Favourite was one of the strongest contenders, but perhaps too off-kilter (and also too un-American). A Star Is Born was the other contender, but you have to wonder what proportion of the Academy is comprised of menopausal women. BlacKkKlansman? Too left-wing. Vice? Too real-life.
The other strong possibility of course was Black Panther, the Marvel film that nobody was looking forward to. Upon its release, everybody slowly realised it wasn’t the snoozefest they were expecting – thanks partly to a great turn by Andy Serkis, as the most threatening villain the MCU has ever seen. But Oscar worthy? Surely not. If you’re going to award Best Picture to a superhero / sci-fi film, at least choose a good one.
It’s probably not even worth discussing Green Book. Surely a film with such broad strokes on racism wouldn’t show up on the Academy’s radar…
No, I hate to say it but it had to be Bohemian Rhapsody (or Bo-Rhap, as annoying Queen fanboys call the song). The film may have taken too many liberties with timelines – “Freddie, you’ve got AIDS, now go and perform at Live Aid. You’re on stage in an hour!” – but it also seemed to remind everybody how good Queen were. Then Rami Malek defied all odds – acting ability, charm, charisma, presence – and won Best Actor. Surely this would lead to the film winning Best Picture.
What? Green Book? Are you mad? Are Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway giving out awards again? How is this possible? Mahershala Ali might have won Best Supporting Actor for it, but I thought that was a sympathy vote. He looked so bored in the film, working with such a paint-by-numbers script, which even more unbelievably also won an Oscar. I thought he was doing that thing when hostage victims come to the door and try to signal to Police with their eyes that somebody’s pointing a gun at them. “No officer, everything…is…fine!”
The film was so on-the-nose, I’m surprised Viggo Mortenson wasn’t asked to record a painfully inane narration over the establishing scenes: “Hey, I’m Tony Lip, and I’m a racist. Gee, I sure wish I could meet one of those negro fellas. He could really help me out. It’d be real swell and maybe I could help him out with his problems too.”
No, The Favourite should have won. It was truly original, it had humour, suspense, three great acting performances and it transcended its usually stuffy, stale genre.
But it’s not the first time a truly great film has been overlooked for Best Picture in favour of a piece of dross, and it won’t be the last. At the 1998 awards, James Cameron’s Titanic tied with Ben-Hur for the most Oscar wins: eleven, including Best Picture.
It was a strong field – As Good As It Gets and Good Will Hunting would have won in any other year, but the academy decided to recognise Cameron for preventing the largest flop in Hollywood’s history. After what seemed like a doomed production, the film was eventually released, costing approximately a million dollars per minute of screen time.
Cameron won Best Director for his efforts, and despite all other wins being awarded for technical categories, Titanic bizarrely also won Best Picture. Yes, a film with no wins in any of the acting or writing categories was considered to be the best overall film of the year.
I don’t know about you, but I really question the ethics of a film that uses a real-life major maritime disaster as the background for a soppy romance. Where’s the line between good and bad taste? What’s next, a rom-com starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson set in Auschwitz? Tagline: ‘This summer, even their love couldn’t keep them together.’ Or maybe one set in the World Trade Centre? Tagline: ‘Aviation fuel could melt steel beams, but could Jack melt Sandy’s heart?’
Maybe I’m just sore. But the film that really should have won Best Picture that year was L.A. Confidential, co-written and directed by the late Curtis Hanson.
I persuaded some friends to go and see it with me, on a tip from Barry Norman (remember those days?). At first, like most audience members, I regretted the decision. A relatively slow start made the film seem like it was going to be a bit of a chore. My friends would blame me for the bad choice. Thoughts immediately turned to how much I could hold Barry Norman accountable.
But then something unexpected happened. A seemingly innocuous housecall by Guy Pearce’s inexperienced detective turns into a tense shotgun chase through the neighbourhood. One of my friends literally moved to the edge of his seat, leaning on the row in front. I was saved. Thank you, Barry.
What follows is a work of art. Two opposing archetypal detectives, played by the then-unknown Guy Pearce (the brain) and Russell Crowe (the brawn), join forces to fight the corruption at the very heart of the city’s police department. Kevin Spacey, fresh from his Swimming With Sharks / The Usual Suspects / Outbreak / Seven breakthrough of ’94 / ‘95, turns in a great understated performance as the charismatic Sgt. Vincennes, leading to one of the most unexpected – but poetic – on-screen deaths of the decade.
Of course, any film noir set in old-timey Los Angeles will always draw comparisons to Chinatown. It almost seems a little forced that Hanson would employ the services of Chinatown’s composer, Jerry Goldsmith, to score his film. As always, the workhorse Goldsmith knocks it out of the park, basing his soundtrack on a motif from Leonard Bernstein’s score for On The Waterfront (perhaps in an attempt to avoid the Chinatown comparisons). The exciting, uptempo sections remind me of the pulsating parts of Morricone’s Untouchables score.
Despite nine Academy Award nominations, the film only went home with two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson). It almost seems like a fool’s errand, but I wonder what might have happened had Titanic not been released in 1997. That hypothetical game could be played every year – what would the Best Picture have been in the absence of the actual winner? Or, perhaps more relevant these days, if the nominated films were pared back to a choice of just five in the category?
Hit: Bloody Christmas
Hidden Gem: Rollo Tomasi