For me, the lists of Academy Award winners had always been the go-to ensemble of movies to see before I die. I used to assume that each year’s winners were incontestable, that what the Academy said was the Best Picture or the Best Actor was inarguably the best film or actor of the year. Even if I happened to like a different nominee for a certain year more than that year’s winner, I would concede that the recipient of the award must be the technically better film or performance.
Looking back over the lists of Academy Awards winners and nominees, I find that I disagree with the Academy’s choices more with each film I see. In my opinion, 1994 had one of strongest set of nominees for Best Picture the Academy has ever seen. That year, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Forrest Gump, and Four Weddings and a Funeral were all nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture and Forrest Gump walked away the victor. Usually in the years that I would contest to the Best Picture winner, the film I would choose is the second or third in line for the award, but for 1994, I would choose almost any of these films to be honored over Forrest Gump.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Forrest Gump. It’s just I find the other contestants for that year to be either technically superior or more compelling and engrossing than Forrest Gump is. Pulp Fiction introduced a wacky and hysterical ensemble of characters in a narrative format unseen in its day. Quiz Show tackled the corrupt television game shows of 1950s and featured Ralph Fiennes and an unforgettable soundtrack. The Shawshank Redemption saw the pitiful Andy Dufresne wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover. The only film I think Forrest Gump is probably better than is Four Weddings and a Funeral, but even then, compared with the others, how could Forrest Gump possibly win?
Forrest Gump is fun. It’s lovable and Tom Hanks provided probably the most intriguing and heartrending performance of that year. But that accolade belongs to him, not to the film.
Looking at another example of misplaced awards, Peter O’Toole, the lead of Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind. O’Toole was nominated for eight academy awards for Best Actor and he never won one, making him the most nominated actor never to win an Academy Award. In The Ruling Class, O’Toole played a schizophrenic Englishman who thinks he’s God, inherits his father’s title of Earl of Gurney, and is forcibly brought back from insanity by his petty, ruthless, and noble family, who would rather lock him up in a psych ward than have him be seen in public. That same year, Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for putting cotton balls in his cheeks for The Godfather.
In 1962, O’Toole lost the award to Gregory Peck for his performance in To Kill A Mockingbird. Peck’s voice and bravado were well placed for the part, but what did he really bring to the part of Atticus Finch that was extraordinary? Sure, Finch’s closing argument at the end of the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird is more compelling than any single speech O’Toole gives in Lawrence of Arabia, but one speech does not a whole character make. O’Toole brought his essence, his mannerisms to Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. He made the character real, he made him funny, and most of all, he made the film. Without Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia loses all of its appeal. He drives the film—the narrative doesn’t. That’s the difference between the two performances and many other snubbed actors and actresses.
Perhaps it isn’t fair of me to assert that just because I enjoy Pulp Fiction more than Forrest Gump or Peter O’Toole’s performance over Marlon Brando’s that these films and actors deserve the Academy Award more than their competitors. Members of the Academy choose these awards on a majority basis each year. It’s not just a couple of people deciding who should get the little golden men each year. It’s a whole slew of actors, actresses, directors, writers, producers, and behind-the-scenes workers that make up the Academy. But even then, this conglomeration seems to highlight some of the less memorable moments of cinematic history. Why is it that some of the most enduring films and memorable performances of the last 50 years are either not the winners of their year or were left off the list of nominees entirely?
I’m sure more people today have heard of Jaws than have heard of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that many more have seen Star Wars than have seen Annie Hall, and that Raiders of the Lost Ark is infinitely more popular than Chariots of Fire ever will be. Maybe the community of average moviegoers should be less concerned with the opinions and decisions of the film-making elite. Maybe we should focus more on our own opinions and the opinions of our friends and fellow movie-buffs as to what films are memorable and what films really stand the course of history.
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