Live from The Chicago Municipal Opera House, bequeathed to the city by Charles Foster (Citizen) Kane, it's Oscar Night! Tonight is a special ceremony, wherein we honor the Best Pictures to NOT win Best Picture. At what other venue could we possibly hold this auspicious event? Citizen Kane is more than just a great film that got snubbed by the Academy. It is widely regarded as one of, if not THE, greatest motion pictures ever made. In fact, so laden with accolades is Orson Welles' groundbreaking triumph, it seems unnecessary to award it with something as trivial as an Oscar at this point. Better perhaps to allow the film that bested it, How Green Was My Valley, that one link to immortality. Leaving "Kane" aside, let us now focus our attention on some of the other masterpieces of film that were robbed of their Art Deco paperweights.
Goodfellas (1990); When The Departed won Best Picture in 2007 (it was released in 2006), most movie fans considered it to be little more than a face saving way to present a Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Martin Scorsese. It may have been his goriest crime drama, but it was hardly his greatest picture. This is the man who gave us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, after all. Both of those films merited an Oscar, but it is Goodfellas that must be looked upon as the master director's greatest epic. The best gangster movie ever made? With its release in 1990, it certainly muscled its way into that conversation alongside Oscar winners The Godfather Parts I and II. Goodfellas is a cinematic tour-de-force, dazzling us with one unforgettable scene, camera angle, and performance after another. Surely every movie fan has riffed on Tommy's (played by Joe Pesci) "Funny How?" monologue at least once. So, what movie did the Academy decide to laud as the year's best in its place? Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. While not a bad movie, Costner's politically correct Western amply demonstrates that the freshman director knew less about making grandiose, sweeping epics than Scorsese had forgotten (which would be confirmed by later Costner "epics" The Postman and Waterworld). Early in Goodfellas, when the narrator, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), introduces us to his mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert Deniro), one of the first things he tells us is that "Jimmy loved to steal!" One cannot but wonder how Jimmy feels when the shoe is on the other foot, because he, along with his wiseguy cohorts, wuz robbed!
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Here we have a movie so unusual, so utterly unique, so creative, so visionary, so unlike any other movie ever made that it basically changed our perception of the medium. To be sure, there were "art films" before (and no doubt inspiring) 2001. But it was 2001 that first dazzled us with the technology of filmmaking, the "special effects" that opened up doors undreamed of to directors and studios. If Jaws (1975) was the movie that ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster, it was 2001 which revealed the potential of what such films could look like, and the impact that makes on an audience. You don't watch 2001, you experience it, which was exactly what director Stanley Kubrick was intending. Plot? Secondary. Performances? Who needs 'em? The best lines, every single one of them, went to the disembodied, hollow voice of a malfunctioning supercomputer. What supplanted all of that was a VISION; Kubrick was out to entertain our subconscious minds, not the part of us that decides to get up and buy some popcorn. So, what beat out this cinematic work of the finest art? Well, it wasn't even nominated (though Kubrick was nominated for, and lost, Best Director), so you could say that all the nominees did. The award went to Oliver!, but Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter were also picked as better films. HAL 9000 wasn't the only thing malfunctioning in movie-land that year, it seems.
May I have the envelope, please? We now come to my personal pick for Best Picture Not to Win Best Picture, Sunset Boulevard (1950): Director Billy Wilder was firing off on all cylinders with this masterpiece, directed from the height of his powers. Combining black comedy and noir mystery with a subject he knew all too well about (Hollywood, with its egos and fantasy worlds), this, among all his works, seems his most personal statement. Did Wilder see himself as the writer played by William Holden, losing his soul to the gaudy seductress Norma Desmond (played to perfection by Gloria Swanson) who represented, better than any other role in history, Tinseltown itself? When Norma haughtily proclaims, "I'm still big! It's the pictures that got smaller!", is it her ego Wilder is poking fun at, or his own? Perhaps he himself didn't know for sure, but with this claustrophobic, surreal tragi-comic nightmare, he gave Hollywood its most searing and unflinching look at itself. Nevertheless, it's hard to fault the Academy this time. "Sunset" was bested by another great movie, featuring another stellar performance by the female lead. All About Eve is perhaps Bette Davis' finest film (and performance), and unquestionably deserved its Oscar. The only problem is that Sunset Boulevard deserved it too, even more.
Clearly, the Academy has made some dumb, historically indefensible decisions. Worst Picture to Win Best Picture? Hard to be objective in such matters. Some people see art where others are left shaking their heads. Did Titanic deserve its Oscar? This movie, perhaps seen by more people in the world than any other motion picture ever made, certainly delivered the goods in terms of spectacle and scale. But with its two dimensional lovers, and one dimensional villain, it is doubtful that it will be talked about in years to come as a masterpiece. Preachy Crash is a movie whose Oscar provokes many a temper tantrum by serious movie lovers. But for me personally, the "honor" can only go to Chicago!, which won in 2003 (released in 2002). Chicago! is a soulless, unabashedly amoral piece of doo doo. In Roxie Hart (played with neither charm nor sex appeal by Renee Zellweger) Hollywood gave us perhaps its most annoying anti-heroine ever. Featuring unwatchable dance numbers (literally, because they are shot so dark or cut so rapidly), pathetic lyrics, lousy performances, and an utterly bleak and sneeringly cynical viewpoint, in its defense I can only say that some of the costumes are nice. Kind of. But Best Picture? Fugeddaboudit!
Maybe Norma Desmond was right. The movies really did get smaller. Consider that in 1972, Cabaret, a movie musical far superior to Chicago! in every conceivable way, lost Best Picture to an even greater film, The Godfather (consider also the competition between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve). 2001 would never conceivably be released by a major studio in this day and age. Hollywood is in a pretty bleak state right now, content to crank out superhero movies one after the other, or gory splatter-fests, or Will Smith special effects extravaganzas - noisy movies lacking the intelligence or wit of the films mentioned above. Great movies are still being made, just not with the regularity with which they once were. They are like oases in the desert, rare respites, refreshing reminders of the possibilities of filmmaking for we, as Norma puts it, "wonderful people, out there in the dark....."