It’s 1927, the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. Movies don’t talk yet. That doesn’t mean that movie people don’t. Douglas Fairbanks, who could no doubt be downright chatty on occasion, was one of those who signed on to this, as one of the purposes of the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – “to further the welfare and protect the honor and good repute of the profession” and “to encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of the profession by the interchange of constructive ideas and by awards of merit for distinguished achievement.”
Oops. (The italics are mine.) No wonder, then, that in 1976, the year of what I lovingly consider the greatest travesty in the entire history of the best picture Oscar, “Network” was one of those defeated by “Rocky” for best picture. It was hard to argue back then that Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for “Network” contributed to the “good repute” of show business as a profession. It didn’t exactly traffic in “constructive” ideas either. It exploded and burned with exhilaratingly destructive satiric ideas that few of us ever forgot. It prophesied with sickening accuracy the media world to come.
So here, on the eve of the newest Oscars (the 86th), is my list of the 10 Greatest Mistakes in the History of the Best Picture Oscar, most of which can be explained by the original purpose of the Motion Picture Academy, which was raw, naked, boosterism with a hefty side order of public relations. It’s no wonder then that so many big, dumb, money-burning movies have won the Oscar for best picture. As long as their sprockets are loaded with obvious “arts” (costuming, makeup, production design) and “sciences” (camera work, special effects, recording fidelity), they can legitimately earn gold, no matter how stupid and crummy they are.
You’ll notice more than a few big musicals here. It’s not that I don’t love some musicals. There’s never been a time in my life, early or late, that I didn’t love, for instance, “Singin’ in the Rain.” The recent “Moulin Rouge” delighted me. I like Hollywood musicals when they’re fast, racy, funny, saucy and joyously stylized, not when they’re big, slow and so ponderously saddled with prestige that you don’t want to enter another moviehouse for weeks after seeing them. (After “Les Misérables” I concluded how interesting a movie it might have been with the same cast and no singing whatsoever.)
My picks for the 10 worst movies ever to win a best picture Oscar, starting – appropriately enough – with the worst:
1. “Rocky” (1976). The other contenders were Alan Pakula’s all-time greatest newspaper procedural “All the President’s Men”; Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s dark, haunted “Taxi Driver”; Hal Ashby’s gorgeous populist epic “Bound for Glory”; and Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” which won the Oscar for best screenplay that year and three of the four acting Oscars.
The winner? “Rocky.” Even in 1976, most of us knew that boxing finale was cornball hysteria of purest hokum. I liked the movie’s first half when it was about a stumblebum and leg breaker in Philadelphia. But that’s not the kind of movie that contributes to the “good repute” of show business.
The irony is that its often ridiculous writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, has become a downright endearing figure in what would be the superstar equivalent of his “stumblebum” years.
2. “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). Critic Pauline Kael’s typically concise description: “A huge, mawkish, trite circus movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille in a neo-biblical style.” Jimmy Stewart plays a doctor who disguises himself as a clown. Yes, Jimmy Stewart.
The movie starred Charlton Heston, an unavoidable figure on this list. He’ll be back.
3. “Ben-Hur” (1959). Right here, in fact. Heston, incredibly, won the Oscar for best actor over Jimmy Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder” and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot.” For years, it remained the Oscar champ for all of its “arts” and “science” awards. Mikos Rosza’s music remains wonderful. The chariot race remains stunning action filmmaking. Everything else is big, pseudo-piety and camp in the worst biblical movie style.
Critic Dwight Macdonald in 1959: “ ‘Ben-Hur,’ as everyone knows, cost $15 million to make, runs for almost four hours, has a cast variously estimated at 50,000 (by Metro Goldwyn Mayer) and at 10,000 (by Time), was directed by William Wyler and has had the biggest advance sale ($500,000) in film history. But what no one knows who hasn’t seen it is that it is lousy.” It still is.
4. “Cavalcade” (1932/33). It won over “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “Little Women,” “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” “She Done Him Wrong” and “Lady for a Day,” all of which are still shown and extolled in film series everywhere. “Cavalcade” wasn’t even released in a standalone DVD until 2013. That’s how little interest it now commands. It was the first Oscar to establish Anglophilia as the Oscar “good repute” ploy of first resort.
Kael’s description: “An orgy of self-congratulation in the restrained, clipped style of Noel Coward … The self-conscious good taste of it all creaks.”
5. “The Sound of Music” (1965). A beloved film musical. It beat out “Darling,” “Ship of Fools,” “A Thousand Clowns” and, are you ready, David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago.” It climbed every mountain, forded every stream and gave mass audiences some of the sweetest sounds it ever heard. It is no doubt, one of the favorite things of millions.
And one of the least favorite things of millions more. How do you solve a problem like “The Sound of Music?” God only knows.
6. “The Artist” (2011). Not a year for obvious choices, that’s for sure. Its competition was “The Descendants,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “The Help,” “Hugo,” “Moneyball,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Tree of Life” and “War Horse.”
If you were bold and threw out all that “good repute” baloney and talked about “art” rather than “arts and sciences,” you might be prepared to give it to Terence Malick’s shamelessly enigmatic “The Tree of Life.” The perfect compromise candidate for nervous nellies was “War Horse,” a big, touching, beautifully filmed sentimental epic wonderful for the “repute” of movies. But no, Hollywood went for the fey, silent French movie that told the world how much other countries love them. It was as if the entire community yelled at the world, “You like us! You like us!”
7. “Chicago” (2002). It won over “The Gangs of New York,” “The Hours,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “The Pianist.”
Say what? It always helps to remember that the largest Oscar voting bloc is composed of actors, most of whom start off early in life singing and hoofing their little hearts out in school musical productions. Asking them not to swoon over things like “Chicago” is like asking them to turn their backs on a good part of the reason they become performers in the first place.
You have to get real. That means in the life of every dedicated Oscar watcher, a little “Chicago” every now and then will eventually fall.
8. “Gladiator” (2000). “Ben-Hur” with the religion and piety removed and blood and gore doubled and redoubled. Oodles of money was spent on hours of sword-and-sandal hoo-ha, full of sadism. It beat out “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic.” That, no doubt, taught director Steven Soderbergh the folly of having two films nominated for best picture in the same year.
9. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). An enjoyable movie, but has anyone seen hide or hair of it since? On the other hand, how often do movie lovers watch – and relish – its competition, especially George Stevens’ “Giant” but also “Friendly Persuasion,” “The King and I,” and, yes, “The Ten Commandments.” (Let’s hear it for Heston.)
10. “The Sting” (1973). Another enjoyable movie, but it was the best picture after “The Godfather” won and suddenly gave people new and entirely unjustified wholesale faith in the Oscars in general. Then came the Oscar for “The Sting” because Hollywood, as a self-protective professional community, was scared to death of publicly anointing its competition: “American Graffiti,” “The Exorcist,” “A Touch of Class” and, no kidding, Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers.”
The moral of the story: If ever there was a community that appreciated “The Long Con,” it was the community that has made American movies and now given them Oscars for almost 90 years.