March 22, 2001
BY ADAM KEMPENAAR
George Santayana wrote, in Life of Reason, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Just last month, Steely Dan's Two Against Nature won the Grammy for Album of the Year, edging out more... well, edgier acts, such as Eminem, Beck and Radiohead. I happen to think Steely Dan is a fantastic band, but let's face it, the group is about as relevant as the "Where's the beef?" lady singing a Stevie Nicks tune while driving a Yugo. It just doesn't make sense.
So what do the Grammys have to do with this year's Oscars? If anything, Steely Dan's unlikely victory proved that whether it's the Recording Industry Association of America or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the people deciding what is and what isn't great art are just as clueless as the rest of us.
Consider the cases of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, four of the most acclaimed auteurs in the history of cinema. Neither Welles nor Kubrick was ever awarded an Oscar for Best Picture; Hitchcock won just one, for Rebecca in 1940. Scorsese is still waiting.
What about Welles' masterpiece, Citizen Kane, which the American Film Institute and most movie buffs recognize as the best American film ever made? Despite earning nine nominations, Kane lost the Best Picture prize in 1941 to How Green Was My Valley. Welles and co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz managed just one award for Best Original Screenplay.
With Hollywood's glorious night almost upon us, the Best Picture favorite is Gladiator. Director Ridley Scott's tale of honor and revenge led all films with 12 nominations, including a Best Actor nod for its brooding star Russell Crowe.
Was Gladiator one of the brighter spots in an otherwise dismal year for movies? Absolutely. Should it win Best Picture? Not a chance, especially when you consider the quality of the competition -- Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Erin Brockovich are more deserving of the honor. For that matter, so are You Can Count On Me, Wonder Boys and Almost Famous, each of which were snubbed by the Academy.
But before we condemn the academy for mistakes it has yet to make, let's examine a few of the more notable Best Picture blunders over the last 25 years.
1976 -- Rocky. More often than not, the academy will pick the sentimental, feel-good movie over its more cynical contenders. Rocky is a classic -- the American dream in the form of a boxer from the mean streets of Philadelphia. But in 1976 there were two better choices for Best Picture -- Network, directed by Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese's gritty, violent Taxi Driver. Lumet's media satire won four awards, including Best Actor (Peter Finch) and Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). Shamefully, Taxi Driver went home empty-handed.
1979 -- Kramer vs. Kramer. Academy voters also love to reward socially conscious films. Divorce was becoming a hot topic in 1979, which gave the Dustin Hoffman-Meryl Streep drama a distinct advantage over its main competitor, Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam fantasy Apocalypse Now. It probably didn't help Coppola much that another Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter, deservedly won Best Picture the previous year. But as producer Christine Vachon remarked in a recent issue of Premiere, "Kramer vs. Kramer a better movie than Apocalypse Now?! Was the academy on crack?!"
1980 -- Ordinary People. Two words: Raging Bull. Arguably Martin Scorsese's most innovative and compelling film, the story of boxer Jake LaMotta was knocked out by Robert Redford's directorial debut. Like Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People was propelled by its topical subject matter -- family dysfunction, suicide. Perhaps more significantly, the academy displayed its affection for movies directed by big-time stars. Just ask Mel Gibson, who won for Braveheart in 1995, and Kevin Costner, who won for Dances With Wolves in 1991, beating out Scorsese's mob classic GoodFellas. (Is there no end to the academy's disgraceful snubbing of Scorsese?)
1989 -- Driving Miss Daisy. It's difficult to say which is more offensive, that this saccharine tale of a genteel old Southern woman and her black chauffeur beat the other nominees -- Field of Dreams, Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, and My Left Foot -- or that the best film of 1989 didn't get nominated at all. That film, of course, was Spike Lee's incendiary, in-your-face Do The Right Thing. Oscar voters had the right issue in mind, but they once again chose the safe, uplifting story over the more controversial and provocative.
1997 -- Titanic. Director James Cameron proved that a movie can succeed despite bad acting and a laughable script. You have to give him credit, though -- if you're going to make the most expensive movie ever, it better also be the highest-grossing movie ever. With a record take of over $600 million at the box office, you can hardly blame the academy for riding that wave, so to speak. Nevertheless, both L.A. Confidential and Good Will Hunting were better films, not to mention other movies that year that weren't nominated for Best Picture, such as Boogie Nights, The Sweet Hereafter and The Ice Storm.
Of course, it's easy to criticize the academy with the benefit of hindsight. If the voters knew that the success of Rocky would have spawned at least three awful sequels, would they still have rewarded it instead of Taxi Driver? If they knew Pulp Fiction would become one of the most influential and oft-imitated films of the decade, would they have picked it instead of Forrest Gump in 1994. We'll never know, of course, but we can only hope that the academy's esteemed voters have learned some lessons from their past mistakes.