As the shimmering buzz of awards season seemingly gets earlier and earlier each year, I dig deep into the memory bank to deposit some Oscar-related thoughts from my first 10 years being glued to the event.
The first year I took the Academy Awards seriously, extremely seriously, was the year Dances with Wolves took 7 Oscars (and hard to argue with most of them). It does not matter right then that you or I believed Goodfellas was robbed, that Scorsese was denied what would have been a deserved win by an actor yet again. It does not matter for the reason that this was the Oscars, a new phenomenon to me that would soon be like Christmas, only far more exciting. Personal resonance too meant at that time I was in love with Dances with Wolves. I’m not, nor was I then, saying Goodfellas was not the best film of the year. But even a novice to the Oscars game knows that the best might not always win, and neither do films containing a lot of violence – right?
So by the time The Silence of the Lambs won the big prize I had delved deep into Oscar history (as best as I could in a time before the endless internet) and was pleasantly surprised by the win – a violent, face-eating thriller. The type of film that does not win Best Picture apparently. Not over a lavish biopic with Warren Beatty in frightening form, not over a well-made account of a very significant part of American history (both by beloved directors with Oscars already). I’m picking up on the Picture-Director correlation too, that they in fact don’t like to match them five for five – this time around one of them not nominated was Barbra Streisand, a woman. Hmm. Is that why they invited her back the following year to announce Best Director?
That very next year the Academy producers paid tribute to women in film. Hmm. That terrific montage of the big screen actresses was very moving though. When Unforgiven won it marked the first year I would start religiously video-taping the ceremony like a total nerd so I could later watch it again many, many times – like a total nerd. Both British films in contention, The Crying Game and Howards End, took the screenplay awards – a big deal I felt at the time. The dynamic of the Golden Globes matching the Oscars also became a further riddle to me as Scent of a Woman won Motion Picture – Drama. Like Bugsy the year before, was that ever going to win the Oscar?
In 1993 it was one of those years were only one film is winning Best Picture, no hype, no campaigns, nothing was stopping this. Schindler’s List also marked an about-time victory for Steven Spielberg (his Jurassic Park was the box office king the same year), who I was back then learning the Academy liked Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple – just not enough it seemed. I found the Best Picture nomination for The Fugitive very odd too. That’s not an Oscar film is it? It’s a thriller, with Harrison Ford. Hmm. What about The Age of Innocence – do they like Scorsese or not? And The Piano, with a woman director nominated, that was an almost non-existent occurrence. I was still new to this Oscar game, but in recent years I am discovering this is not all about the excitement and great movies, no, there was politics to contend with. Fuck, I am not good with politics.
I had been in college over a year, was writing movie shorts, and trying to actually shoot them, when Forrest Gump somehow won Best Picture. I know why it won, sure, it pressed all the right buttons and looked liked a crowd-pleaser. Pulp Fiction, however, was so brilliant, so cinematically fresh and exciting, and won in Cannes (I was becoming an addict of the festival around now), that surely Quentin Tarantino’s movie was too big to deny. Though audiences were hardy ready for it, how were the Academy meant to adapt so soon? And what about The Shawshank Redemption – that ticked all the right boxes too. No nomination for Frank Darabont? And Three Colors: Red, you name Krzysztof Kieślowski in the Best Director short-list, but why Academy are you not nominating foreign language films for Best Picture? That year, as much as I think Forrest Gump is fine, still haunts me to this very day.
I also liked Braveheart, but when Mel Gibson, another actor, won the Oscar I started wondering again if they are even taking this seriously. I thought Sense and Sensibility or Apollo 13 were winning. Oh no, wait, Ang Lee and Ron Howard were not nominated. What the fuck? So many rules, it is hard to keep up. Where did Babe and Il Postino come from too? The Oscars were just plain confusing me now. I still followed the race, and almost died of excitement as the big night got closer. But it was starting to feel like my favorite soup had a dead bug floating in it. Hmm. The Academy are relishing the strong messages through violence of late, but were they now back on track heading towards more beautiful, sweeping epics winning Best Picture again?
Yes, The English Patient. Many like myself at one time or another would argue that less popular brands Fargo or Jerry Maguire or Secrets & Lies were more worthy choices. But The English Patient won 9 Oscars (not including Adapted Screenplay oddly enough), it was my earliest memory of watching the show and getting mad that one film was winning nearly everything. Apart from Juliette Binoche, she was amazed, but I wasn’t. Disappointed by the night as a whole, I would hope the Academy would not lavish one film with so many awards next year. It kind of spoils it for me.
Having seen Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, The Sweet Hereafter – wonderful, very different films – and with Titanic looking to sink under finance issues prior to its release, this could be one such year of diverse winners. So exciting. Nope! Although L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting win 2 Oscars each, it was Titanic that just steam-rolled over everything to win 11 from 14 – equally the records for nominations and wins. Hmm. I still shake my head now remembering how flat I felt that evening. I understand how the grand movie appealed in all the right places, but James Cameron screaming he was the king of the world and Celine Dion wearing the heart of the ocean really rubbed salt into the wound.
Now actually studying the form and the movies and the journey of the Oscar race, I told a film geek buddy of mine that Shakespeare in Love was going to be the highest nominated film. Not a ground-breaking prediction looking back, but I was now educated in awards season campaigning, and with Miramax on board, I then went on to predict Shakespeare in Love would thus win Best Picture too – with Steven Spielberg undoubtedly taking Director for Saving Private Ryan. That’s right, I predicted a split year, something else I was realizing was a very rare thing indeed. Did I think I was becoming an expert in predicting the Oscars? Maybe. Did the years that follow consistently back this up? Er, no. The real head-scratcher for me was the absence of Jim Carrey, the Best Actor win for Roberto Benigni, and John Toll not winning Cinematography for The Thin Red Line.
American Beauty was rather easy to predict the next year, but I was following the chase by The Cider House Rules, also Miramax, which although I never had access to the final vote tally I am betting it ran American Beauty pretty close. Hilary Swank’s win foiled my bold prediction that the Sam Mendes film would equal the record of winning Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. As I remember too, the ceremony was rather flat and uninspiring, not really helped by the lack of love for exceptional movies like Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, and Magnolia. Even as I look back now, reliving those kind of disappointing feelings, that are oh so familiar now, I can feel the transition that the whole Oscars and awards season euphoria is being tainted by some more negative aspects of the whole affair. Was I taking it too personally? Would certain choices of the Academy bug me further? Has my passion for the ceremony wilted somewhat? And, honestly, in spite of it all, is that buzz that grew so rapidly still there somewhere? The answer to all is a big fat yes.