By John H. Foote
So often through the history of the cinema, and the connection to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, wildly over appreciated films are nominated for and often win the Best Picture award in addition to many other prizes. If you study closely the nominees and winners of each year right back to the beginning, you will find many films that caught the imagination of the public and/or critics for a short time but it was often enough to get them to the winners circle where that coveted little man awaits them. Within a year, they are forgotten or the Academy is red faced with shame about voting the film the winner.
One year after Gandhi (1982) roared to eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, many menbers announced they had made a grave error not awarding the Oscar to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) and Steven Spielberg. How right they were, but they were not, are not alone.
Below are the ten most asinine Best Picture winners, films that simply did not deserve the prize in light of the films it was nominated against, or because the film simply lacked that feeling of being for the ages, which is what a Best Picture winner should be.
Now in fairness, the Academy often gets it right, there are many deserving winners through it history. This is about those ten that were not deserving. AT all.
THE TEN WORST CHOICES FOR BEST PICTURE
- THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)…Cecil B. Demille’s huge soap opera set under and within the lives of circus performers is easily the most undeserving Best Picture winner of all time. Such an ordinary film, and considering it was up against High Noon (1952), The Quiet Man (1952) and the not nominated Singin’ in the Rain (1952) simply makes it all the more ridiculous. Yes we get a great look behind the scenes of the massive circus, and the huge job of moving from town to town for shows, but the stories within are downright silly. Love affairs, jealousy, egos, the balancing of said egos, a killer hiding from the police, a huge train wreck, Demille just piled it on until it all became downright stupid. In honouring the film, they were trying to honour Demille, one of the true pioneers of cinema. Perhaps they should have waited for years to honour him with a more worthy film, The Ten Commandments (1956) on which his efforts to direct were quite astounding.
- THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)…The first press screening, I sat through this film in utter agony, as though I was being tortured slowly, which turns out I was. During the climatic scene in the cave I wanted to scream, “Just die for Gods sakes!! Die so we can end this nightmare!” I concede it is beautifully filmed, the cinematography is stunning in its beauty, but my God the story is as slow as a camel wandering through the desert without a rider. Agony. And a love story must have a couple with sparks, they must have heat between them. The chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas would freeze water, it is non existent in every way. How it won nine Academy Awards remains one of the greatest horror shows in Academy history. It is today as forgotten as the desert sands blowing past on a windy day.
- GANDHI (1982)…Gandhi’s greatest hits shamed the Academy into giving it eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor and Director. I have nothing but admiration for what the Mahatma accomplished with his non-violence campaign, but it felt like at any moment he might walk on water as a demonstration of his being sent from the heavens. He speaks in platitudes, as though a tribe of writers follows him around scribbling down answers that are for the ages. And so much is left out about him, his treatment of his wife, the abuse, the sleeping with two teenaged girls to test his celibacy, there was much to not like about the man. Show us that!! Humanize him! Kingsley was great but he was not playing a person, he was playing an it, a thing, a being. Did he really like this? As though every word out of his mouth was a profound quote?
- ROCKY (1976)…Consider the films Rocky bested for Best Picture. All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver, each among the very best of the decade, each a film for the ages. There are arguments for all three to win, but for Rocky? The million to one shot of the story within the film spilled out into real life and when the night was over, Rocky had gone the distance to win the top prize. It would bring an era of feel good movies, illuminating the dark cinema that had preceded it, and for a hyear Sylvester Stallone was declared the next Brando…until his next film when his limitations as an actor became woefully apparent. There is much to like in Rocky, very much a love story, cliched without being cliched and he does not win the fight, but he gets the girl and finds happiness. Buty a better film than any of the three aforementioned? Not a chance.
- CRASH (2005)…The stunned look on presenter Jack Nicholsons’ face said it all when he opened the envelope to reveal that Crash had bested Brokeback Mountain as the years best film. Horror? Shock? Bewildered? What? I remember screaming out loud at the injustice, outraged that the homophobia that grips Hollywood had taken the prize away from a brilliant, deserving work of art. Crash was an interesting, often moving series of stories set in Los Angeles over a couple of days, the characters often interconnected by the stories. The acting was very good, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terence Howard, Sandra Bullock and especially Michael Pena, do terrific work. But the film feels forever like a TV movie, a network TV film. Paul Haggis beats us over the head with the messages within, racism is wrong, all racism. The weakest of the five nominated films, and King Kong (2005) should have had its spot.
- THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)…I know, I know, this will make me unpopular but I stand by it. Sugary sweet, so sweet it is cavity inducing, this adaptation of the smash Broadway musical was directed by Robert Wise and starred the lovely Julie Andrews in perhaps her most famous role. Though I struggle with the film as Best Picture and Best Director, I have no issue with Andrews as Best Actress, though she lost. Beautifully filmed, it is a family film, one that takes itself far too seriously, one that suggest not all Nazis were horror shows as human beings. The kids are annoying, selected to be cute and no more…even star Christopher Plummer hates the film. How in the world did this defeat the great love story Dr. Zhivago (1965)? Shame on the Academy.
- HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)…A very fine film, but really a stronger choice than Citizen Kane? Not in a million years was this the best film of the year because Kane ruled, period. Sweet and sentimental, set in a Welsh mining town, it is well acted, beautifully shot, but next to the genius of Kane, ordinary. Citizen Kane changed only everything about cinema and filmmaking, its twenty four year old director a wunderkind who took the business by storm. But the massive ego of Orson Welles would be his undoing and he never achieved such heights again. Bold, brash, he makes his film with utter confidence and acts the part of Kane with staggering realism, aging from twenty to eighty and never stepping wrong. While How Green Was My Valley was gradually forgotten, Kane towers still.
- AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)…Less a movie than a road show series of location post cards based very loosely on the book. To be clear, this is not the Jackie Chan version, which frankly I prefer. Directed by Michael Anderson, produced by showman Michael Todd just months before his death, the film was one of those all star cast fiascos where you spend most of the time spotting the stars. David Niven starred and gave a typical Niven performance, the proper English gentleman who knows it all. How did this defeat The Ten Commandments, or Giant, or the not nominated best film of the year The Searchers? If Hollywood wanted to honour Demille this was the year to do it with his massive retelling of the story of Moses. It only feels like eighty days while watching the film, and trust me it does end. Mercifully.
- CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)…Like the Olympic runners they depict in the film, this little film came out of nowhere to win Best Picture, snatching the glory from Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark or On Golden Pond. Directed by Brit Hugh Hudson it dealt with the 1924 Olympic runner who would refuse to run for his country because the race was to happen on the sabbath. His religious beliefs demanded he not run, so he refused to run the biggest race of his life. Warren Beatty’s brilliant film Reds was the movie everyone had pegged to win Best Picture, and sure enough Beatty won Best Director, richly deserved. There was support for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it looked liked Reds year. Then in a stunning, however undeserving move, this film sprinted to victory. Beatty and Reds were robbed.
- AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)…Over A Streetcar Named Desire? No chance, no way. The film that altered and revolutionized the art of acting was by far the years best film, and remains one of the greatest films to emerge from the fifties should have won the lions share of Oscars that year. Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Black and White CInematography, Black and White Cinematography and Film Editing. No contest. But Hollywood loves them a musical. Odd that perhaps the greatest of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) was not even nominated the following year. One thing I do admire about An American in Paris (1951) is that dance becomes a language within the film. But better than A Streetcar Named Desire?? Never.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.