Oscars and The Best

I’ve dreamed of winning an Oscar.  There, I said it.  And I think if everyone in the film business were honest (HAH!), they’d all admit they’ve dreamed of winning one too.  The real question is – WHY?

There is no single answer to that.  Some things just are.  Death.  Taxes.  The tastiness of really good French Fries.  Those who say they haven’t craved Oscar or French fries will inevitably flunk a lie detector test.  Those that pass the test are lying and have figured out a way to get around the machine.  Which, in itself, could be Oscar worthy and one way to get one.

But I digress.

It’s not as if I wake up each day meticulously planning how I will bring the win about (uh, oh, perhaps I should).  I actually seldom think about it.  Except around Oscar time and all of those childhood dreams of being noticed, publicly recognized, cheered by a tuxedo’d/gowned audience (not to mention the billions watching on tv), acknowledged as being great by my peers, going down forever in history as being brilliantly talented by a majority of, well, some group, and becoming rich and famous enough to tell everyone else or even everyone else in that group who was ever mean to me to go jump in the lake, begin to surface.

Have I said too much?  Does any of this sound familiar? At ANY point in your life?  Think about it.  Come on.  Then think about it some more.  Go deeper.  And don’t lie to me.  Or yourself.

Because admitting you want something in a fantasy isn’t the same as being obsessed with it or making it your life goal.  I want to be 6’2” and look like a Winklevii for 15 minutes.  But that’s not going to happen.    It’s implausible because I’m 5’7” and human beings can’t be stretched 7 inches.  (And besides, the Winklevii are 6’5).  Where  you we I get into trouble is not thinking it is overwhelming fantasy or in taking it too seriously.  It’s when you don’t see it for what it really is – a “nice to have in the abstract” but not a requirement that means what we think it does.  This is actually the basis of fairy tales.  In Oscar’s case, being recognized and voted the “BEST” that year.  The BEST?  By whose standards and what measure?  Let’s discuss.

Was three time Oscar winner Walter Brennan a better actor than never won an Oscar Cary Grant?  Is “Rocky” a better film than “All the President’s Men” and “Network?”  Well, somebody (more than one) thought so on both counts.  Would you rather watch “Ghandhi” again (or for the first time) or rewatch “E.T.” or “Tootsie?” – the film that won best picture that year or the two nominated?  Finally, do you think it’s an oversight that for the last 25 years every critics poll didn’t vote Oscar winner “How Green Was My Valley” as the BEST film ever made but instead voted for “Citizen Kane,” the film that lost the Oscar that year?

You can objectively state that due to my height and lack of athletic ability I will never look like a Winklevii because it’s a scientific reality. But you can’t prove “How Green Was My Valley” is a better movie than “Citizen Kane.” Oh, and conversely,  you can’t prove “Citizen Kane” is better than “HGWMV” (well…okay).   It’s a matter of taste.  And – it’s subjective.

Years ago when I was one of three movie critics at Daily Variety I was assigned to review “Nine to Five” (1982; starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, – huge boxoffice hit).  I came back from the screening and one of my fellow critics, thinking my tastes in film were quite pedestrian up to that point, said “Well, you couldn’t have liked THAT!”  I, being who I am and easily annoyed by condescension (except for my own), replied “Actually, I thought it was really funny and very entertaining.”  Needless to say, he slammed his reporter’s notebook down and exited in a huff, thus causing the passive aggressive in me to write an even more favorable review than I would have.  And holding to my guns, that it is still one of the most brilliant, historic, perfect comedies to this day if he were to ask me.

I have the vague sense that more than a few Oscar ballots are cast that way.  Who will benefit from the award; who do I dislike who will be pissed off if I voted this way and that person/thing wins; what filmmaker never gets recognized and should; what indie movies are over praised and what commercial studio movies that have made too much money should be ignored.  But – THE BEST?  Sometimes, I suppose.  But as a quantifiable barometer of anything more than a fantasy fulfilled?  I don’t think so.

Some things are measurable.  Steven Spielberg’s films are the highest grossing combined in the history of Hollywood because all you have to do is add the numbers, even with ticket price inflation.  But he can’t rightly be called the BEST director any more than I can be called the best, well, anything.  That’s about personal feeling.

It was most wisely put in “The Wizard of Oz” when at the end of the film the Wizard gives the Tin Man a great big red heart. The Tin Man’s sweet demeanor and consideration of others would cause even all of the members of the Academy to vote him as having the biggest heart of all (or certainly at MGM).  The irony is the Tin Man thinks he doesn’t have one.  But as the Wizard acknowledges the only thing the Tin Man doesn’t have is a testimonial, he hands him an actual replica of the heart, the physical embodiment of all he desires.  It’s nice but it doesn’t cause him to cry when Dorothy leaves. It’s just a physical reminder of what’s inside.  So this Sunday, when you pull up a chair at your friend’s house to view the Oscars, know you’re watching the best fantasy in the world played out on a star-studded night. And remember what I once heard the late Oscar-nominated producer Dan Melnick say, “In Hollywood, when there’s smoke, there’s usually a smoke machine.”

10 thoughts on “Oscars and The Best

  1. I have two words -Shawshank Redemption. I do wish instead of 10 best nominees (wtf?) they would have a comedy best category.

  2. good post. I think the only way to approach the task of judging a film’s quality is really to give it time. I’ve heard before of the idea to make the Oscar’s more objective, academic (it is an “academy” handing these things out, right??) …and relevant to posterity, make the ceremony vote 5 years behind the current slate of films. Of course, that would negate all the dramatic momentum and spectacle that leads up to the flurry of Oscar night, and viewership would evaporate. This proves, at least to me, that the Oscars increasingly are more functional as a self-serving marketing tool than as any kind of reasonable judge of a year’s film fare.

    • Though they’ve always been a marketing tool they have sadly become more of a marketing tool in very recent years, therefore injuring their “brand,” to use current marketing parlance. Because if there are really 10 best films this year, then I’m Halle Steinfeld.

  3. I do love Shawshank, but I think people forget just how amazing Forrest Gump really is. Maybe it’s just because of how much attention it got, and how little Shawshank got?

    Anyways, Steve, just wanted to say love your blog thus far. I too dream of Oscar, and I think it’s just that seeking of recognition. I desperately want my self perceived talent to be recognized. When I think of reality, I’d just rather be able to get a passion film of mine made. And I doubt any of my scripts are Oscar potential, even if I did get them to be good enough. Too dark.

    I do think there is a certain objective craft element to art, though, and then there is a subjective element. The two go hand in hand, and are intermingled. In the extreme, there’s a reason a fart joke video on youtube made on a crappy handheld camera with bad sound is not as good as Citizen Kane. And as films getter better and better, the lines are blurred more and more. But those objective elements are still in play. What matters is, how much do each of us value each of those objective elements as compared to the others. Some people value editing more or cinematography more or comedy or drama more. Some people value flashy big lighting rigs cinematography or down and dirty cinema verite cinematography more. Some people value these verite cinematography elements over these ones. And you could go deeper and deeper, more and more specific.

    There’s still an element of craft though in how each of those elements is achieved. And each film has strengths and weaknesses throughout its elements.

    And that’s why art is subjective, yet not 100% subjective. When we deal in the abstracts, like “What was the best film of the year?” then that doesn’t have much value. But when we talk about the elements of Social Network as compared to the elements of King’s Speech, and how I value these elements but you value these other ones, then that conversation has value.

    The thing about the art experience is that it’s so subconscious. Many people don’t know why they reacted to a film a certain way and this other film a different way. Their subconscious brain knows, but they’re not cognitively aware. Or others know, but just can’t articulate it.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. Just some thoughts I had while reading. Sorry to ramble.

    • I certainly share many of those thoughts. As for the elements of each film – I understand what you’re saying but it’s the dilemma I faced as a film critic. When one says the writing or acting or editing in a film is good it’s impossible to know what the overlap and just who was most responsible since film is such a collaborative medium. Was the performance made in the editing room? Did the director take an okay script and pare it down to make it better. Or did the actor make those awful lines work? Or were the lines and story so good that it caused that average actor to seem better than they really were. It’s a conundrum, unless one is worried about losing their house or being permanently unemployed or denied collective bargaining rights. But now I’m getting off the subject. Thanks for your post!

  4. Very entertaining read Steve! Who do you like for best documentary feature? I’m pulling for Restrepo.

  5. Bravo, but there will be no Oscar for that fabric on the chair, oye!

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