By John H. Foote
They won not because of a great campaign but because they so deserved to win. They were the towering top of their category and the Academy recognized this, which to be fair sometimes they do not. These are the most deserving winners I could narrow down.
Purely indulgent, these are winners that made me smile and believe that fickle Academy could be just. For all their screw ups, they often get it right on the money.
Here are my top 10 times I jumped up cheered both the win and the Academy’s sometimes courage and good sense.
10. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
The first fantasy film to be so honoured, the Academy made clear it was honouring the entire trilogy when it gave this finale a record tying 11 Academy Awards. Steven Spielberg announced its Best Picture win with the words, “it’s a clean sweep” in reference to the film winning every award it was nominated for. A massive epic yet filled with intimate moments of humanity and beauty, the trilogy pulled you in. As the credits rolled on this one I sighed sadly, it was over and there would never be another trilogy like this. Masterful.
9. MONIQUE IN PRECIOUS (2009)
As a welfare case, refusing to even look for work, obsessed with her money, caustic comic Monique gave a smoldering performance as a troubled mother steeped in hatred. Much of that rage is directed at her obese daughter, Precious, who she blames for the men in her life abandoning her when in fact they abused and raped her daughter. The actress is a force of nature, projecting genuine menace with a glare, a movement or comment. You never know when she might turn violent, even to the extent of tossing a newborn baby casually onto a couch with no regard for safety. She did no campaigning for her seething performance, she let the Academy voters decide for themselves, and they did. A fearsome, terrifying performance of an abuser who herself, like so many others was abused.
8. WARREN BEATTY FOR REDS (1981)
In giving Warren Beatty the Academy Award for Best Director, the Academy was not only honouring his work and fine achievement of that excellent film, they were awarding Beatty for his upstart ways in starting the New American Film movement in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which he produced. Reds was a stunning historical film about journalism in America, freedom of speech, communism, capitalism, art, friendship and love, both a deeply intimate love story and yet a story set against an epic scale of revolution. His dream project, I am betting the Academy wishes they had honoured Reds with Best Picture too, but Beatty deserved his Oscar, in every way.
7. DIANNE WIEST FOR BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
You can sense a great performance when you first see it, it makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up, it brings tears to your eyes with its purity, and there are aspects of it you simply cannot erase from your mind. “Don’t speak” the vain, self absorbed over the hill (and knows it) Broadway legend tells the naive young writer as she seduces him to beef up her role knowing he is falling in love with her. Wiest is magnificent, portraying a grand dame of the theatre which means she is always on, she is always performing. Superb on every level, she walked away with the entire film, and a second Oscar.
6. VIVIEN LEIGH IN GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
By recognizing Leigh’s brilliant performance as the unscrupulous Scarlett O’Hara, the Academy was doing several things. First they honoured truly a fine performance, Leigh deserved her award. Second, they were conceding a woman could carry a film and not just any film, but a huge three hours plus epic all of America was waiting for. Three, Scarlett was a nasty piece of work, a survivor at all costs, willing to do anything for her precious Tara. In many ways she was a monster and in giving her Best Actress, the Academy was admitting women too could embody such vile characters and make the audience care for them. Still among the greatest five performances ever given by a woman.
5. STEVEN SPIELBERG FOR SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
How could they not, finally, award him the Oscar he had so long coveted? Nominated before, snubbed before, Spielberg directed the astonishing Holocaust drama free of his bag of tricks, using hand held cameras to give the film an immediacy, an urgency, to allow the cameras to be up close and personal with the terrible story he was telling. Shot in black and white, the film plunged us back in time, reminding us of the horrors of Nazism yet also that humanity can exist where there is thought to be none. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party, an industrialist in business to make money off the war, and he cared enough to risk his life in saving the eleven hundred Jewish workers who manned his factories. Spielberg, long a gifted director, an artist, found his own humanity with the film and became a great artist. Harrowing but directed with gentle genius, it is the masterpiece for the ages of the nineties.
4. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)
Hollywood was locked in a vicious war with television and films were bigger, more colourful than ever, many adaptations from the Broadway stage making it to film. Elia Kazan, always a truth seeker, shot this stunning drama on location in New Jersey and New York, giving it a gritty feeling of realism. This was a film about people, about something that felt important, and that was a film for the ages. Five performances were nominated for Oscars, two of them winning. Kazan built his powerful film around Brando, a towering charismatic force who, like a massive hurricane, ripped through the film, a dawning altering him forevermore. Some say Kazan made the film to justify his actions when he named names for McCarthy. Maybe so, but in doing so, in drawing from his own life, he created great art, a film so real you could smell the characters. And the Academy, to their glory, recognized that the year’s best film was a tough, uncompromising black and white film about corruption on the docks and a man who named names to expose it. Further, in awarding Brando their Best Actor award, they were all but crowning him the greatest actor of his generation. One of their greatest decisions was to award this masterpiece Best Picture.
3. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
Two years previous, The Godfather (1972) rocked the American film landscape, earning reviews that declared it the finest achievement in American film, it quickly became the highest money making film of all time, and guided by a young Francis Ford Coppola explored the perversity of the American Dream. When approached for a sequel Coppola initially blanched but given complete power, he and author Mario Puzo mined the book for story elements and when released the sequel was hailed as a greater work, if possible, than the first. What it did not do was burn up the box office. The sequel was darker, deeper and complicated but worth the journey. In flashback we see how young Vito (Robert De Niro) came to be the godfather of the first film, while the story of Michael continues in Las Vegas as he consolidates his great power but with terrible cost. Coppola explores that absolute power corrupts with absolution and Michael, in losing his morality, is rotting within. Al Pacino, De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, John Cazale, and Lee Strasberg are each extraordinary in this Academy Award winning Best Picture, the first sequel to do so. It remains Coppola’s masterpiece.
2. JACK NICHOLSON IN ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
With three nominations for Best Actor under his belt, another for Supporting Actor, by 1975 Nicholson was at the top of his game and the top of the film industry. Cast as the rebellious McMurphy in the film based on Ken Kesey’s galvanizing novel about a group of men metaphorically castrated by a vicious Nurse, he found the role of his career. Challenging the stifling authority of Nurse Ratched, he becomes a hero to the men, a symbol of hope, not realizing she has the power to extend his time with her. They become locked in a dark embrace, neither one giving in until McMurphy breaks after watching her destroy one of the men he likes best. Nicholson was simply breathtaking in the film, a man somehow separated from the others by his sheer belief he was free. The final moments in the film will break your heart as McMurphy’s best friend, the Chief, does indeed set him free. Nicholson won one of five Academy Awards the film won, but his was the most deserved, and popular. He has been great since, but never better.
1. MERYL STREEP IN SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1982)
Winning her second Academy Award in three years, her first for Best Actress, announced Streep as this generation’s finest actress. Her performance as doomed death camp survivor Sophie is still the greatest female performance on film. In the 37 years since the film was released only Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993) has come close to accomplishing what Streep did. Her performance in the film is shattering, especially the infamous, harrowing choice sequence in which she falls apart before our eyes. Streep mastered both German and Polish for the film and then learned to speak English with broken accents from each language. But her work went far deeper in the film, attaching itself to ones soul. In flashbacks we see her horror at what is happening in Germany, though in the scenes after the war she lies repeatedly to cover her tracks. When she finally tells her story, it unleashes such a portrait of horror, pain and grief on the screen, it is challenging to watch. And once that terrible choice is made, she screams from the depths of her soul a scream as Munch painted, silent, but universally heard. One of the most astounding performances I have ever experienced and once seen, utterly unforgettable.
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.