Marlow: Well, we’re a couple days away from the 92nd Academy Awards and you could hear a pin drop, that’s how soft the buzz is. We’ve tackled this bizarrely compressed (and boring) Oscar season as well as its attendant controversies, from the looming specter of Harvey Weinstein over Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood to the top film-awards publicist being blacklisted over Jeffrey Epstein to, once again, the Oscars’ astounding lack of diversity. Now, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to tackle the times that the Oscars really shit the bed and failed to award the far-superior picture. I still haven’t gotten over last year’s debacle, which saw the Lifetime-quality “race-relations drama” Green Book win it all over the stunning Roma or rousing A Star Is Born. The Academy still hasn’t come very far from giving Best Picture to Driving Miss Daisy while failing to so much as nominate Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
Kevin: I think the thing that the Academy is constantly battling is this question of “do the Oscars really matter?” that has floated with varying degrees of intensity not just over the last few years, but decades.
Marlow: I think they still do! But more on that later.
Kevin: It’s tempting to question their importance—and, with it, their competence—when there are examples like you mentioned of Green Book or Driving Miss Daisy winning, with almost 30 years in between spent not learning their lesson. Or when you look at the movies that were never even nominated for Best Picture but have had a lasting footprint on pop culture, when so many films that have won the award disappear into the cultural abyss almost instantly. We’re talking Some Like It Hot, Psycho, Hoop Dreams, North By Northwest, Pan’s Labyrinth, Singin’ in the Rain, The Dark Knight, Wall-E, and Rear Window.
Marlow: Also Vertigo and Notorious (in my opinion Hitch’s best) while we’re on the Academy’s strange vendetta against Hitchcock! A lot of people point to Welles’ Citizen Kane losing to Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, indeed a strange choice. Other movies that didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Malick’s Days of Heaven, Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Ford’s The Searchers, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (no Oscar nods for Leone, ever!), Cool Hand Luke, The Third Man…
Kevin: Or the movies that were not nominated for a single Oscar, like Duck Soup, Harold and Maude, Heat, His Girl Friday, Reservoir Dogs, or The Shining. By that measure, The Farewell, Hustlers, Booksmart, and Uncut Gems—four movies that would have been on my Best Picture list but which were passed over completely this year by the Academy—can take comfort that they are in great overlooked company.
Marlow: No way Hustlers deserved a Best Pic nod, though agree about Uncut Gems and The Farewell.
Kevin: But what’s always been interesting about the Oscars is that the choices or snubs that tend to look outrageous and egregious in hindsight, at the time of that year’s ceremony may not have been surprising at all. Each Oscar race is a case study of that year in cultural history, which is why passions run so high each new season when some films and ideas are embraced over others. It’s also why it’s so fascinating to look back at what was happening—or, to some, what went wrong—in the Academy, but also the world, that led to things like Driving Miss Daisy or Green Book winning over arguably more deserving nominees.
Marlow: Even The Shape of Water winning Best Picture over Get Out (which will surely go down as the most memorable film from that year), Call Me by Your Name, Dunkirk, Phantom Thread and Lady Bird feels outrageous, and it was only two years ago! This damn preferential ballot, always awarding the least-disliked film. Thankfully, the Academy—and Hollywood—is rid of Harvey Weinstein, the king of bullying his movies to the Oscar stage (and hotel rape). Over the last 30 or so years, some of the most undeserving Best Picture winners came from Weinstein. I’m still smarting over the terribly saccharine The King’s Speech winning Best Picture over The Social Network, Black Swan, Toy Story 3, Winter’s Bone and Inception. Or Shakespeare in Love over The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Or The English Patient over the Coens’ Fargo.
Kevin: Yep, except that I would say again that what’s interesting in those cases is that while those choices look lame from our perch now some years later, I would argue that, aside from the notorious Shakespeare in Love shock, none of those other wins, based on the tide and the conversation of those respective seasons, came off as a huge surprise. It’s what makes looking back on all this so interesting!
Marlow: And infuriating! Or how about, in what will surely go down as one of the most notorious Oscar years in history, the 2003 Academy Awards, which saw Harvey Weinstein have a hand in four of the five Best Picture nominees (Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and eventual winner Chicago) and Roman Polanski the other (The Pianist)? The standing ovation that Hollywood gave Polanski, a convicted rapist and hebephile, for receiving Best Director is still an all-time Oscar low point. But alas, I digress.
Kevin: You and I will never see eye to eye on Chicago, but, yes, the Polanski standing O was gross. Should I abruptly change the subject to something more lighthearted? As in literally, to comedy—or rather the Academy’s seeming hatred for it?
Marlow: Yes, please!
Kevin: I think it’s fair to say that the Academy’s resistance to reward movies that are down-and-out comedies has been one of the more exasperating/lingering/antiquated ideas among voters as to what is considered “Oscar-worthy.” Sure, there are exceptions to this. Woody Allen films (hoo-boy…) have always fared well. Meryl Streep has always fared well. There are Weinstein-backed performances (like Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook) that hit with voters, and other sporadic cases, like Tom Hanks in Big, Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, and the cast of Tootsie. But they are isolated examples when you look back at how some of the greatest movies there have ever been were dismissed, especially in Best Picture, because they were comedies. I already mentioned it, but it will never not completely floor me that Singin’ in the Rain didn’t get a Best Picture nod. But neither did Groundhog Day, or Some Like It Hot, or This Is Spinal Tap, or Airplane!, or Borat.
Marlow: And Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, like you mentioned, one of the great screwball comedies ever. I’d also add The Big Lebowski, Bringing Up Baby, The King of Comedy, Knocked Up, and Rosemary’s Baby (a very dark comedy), to that list.
Kevin: Some thought momentum could carry Bridesmaids across the finish line. Even just last year, I thought Eighth Grade was the best movie of the year and it couldn’t even manage an Original Screenplay nomination—a category which it then won at the Writers Guild Awards, just to show how ridiculous a snub it was.
Marlow: Indeed, a ridiculous snub. Justice for Kayla. #Gucci. Maybe—just maybe—we’ll see a dark comedy this year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, win Best Picture? A boy can dream…