While audiences and film fans are open to other possibilities, the generally held opinion is that the Academy voters are big softies in the final analysis. They’re spoken about like the old relatives you’ll be inviting to Thanksgiving — condescended to, and essentially written off as having any sort of validity when it comes to choosing the best.
The subject was brought up recently on Twitter as to whether or not the Academy “could handle” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or whether the film would be “too much” for their delicate sensibilities. When did this idea come up, that the Academy had to have things soft and mushy and family-friendly? It’s hard to know, but last year’s end game didn’t help matters. There will always be the mind vs. heart argument and there will always be the “it’s too much for them” lament. Would you take your grandmother to see that movie? Would you take your grandmother, your teenager, your maid and your boss to see that movie? Your Oscar winner almost always fits – even when it was The Hurt Locker, even when it was something as seemingly abstract as No Country for Old Men (my pick for their best choice for Best Picture in the last twenty years).
This year more than any other the popular films aren’t necessarily “Oscar movies.” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a crowdpleasing thriller with, gasp, actual sex scenes. Real sex scenes and a graphic rape scene (two, actually). Believe it or not there are still some hard core thinkers in the Academy – there have to be, right? Let’s take a look back at films that might have seemed at first glance like they weren’t “Oscar movies” and yet, they were good enough that voters decided to break out of their stereotype.
Starting from last year and working backwards – and automatically disqualified from exception would be anything by the Coens since they are beloved they always get a pass, no matter what.
Before we get started, let’s first define what an “Oscar movie” is. It’s a film that gets good reviews, but isn’t a critics’ darling. It’s a film that features likable, heroic characters, usually straight, with a love story at the core. It’s usually a drama with a male lead and generally speaking, a white person’s story. If it is a black person’s story it’s usually a whitey-guilt black person’s story. Period pieces, nostalgia pieces, war films, movies about disabled characters, epics are all the genres of choice. There is usually catharsis and redemption at the end. It is usually actor-driven, though on rare occasions, the film is celebrated because of the director. However, the director is still the most important player, even if the piece is actor-driven. The King’s Speech is your ideal “Oscar movie” to utter perfection. Movies like The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Driving Miss Daisy, My Left Foot — these are all “Oscar movies.”
The Fighter – crack den, crack whores, swearing, fucking, punching, catfight.
Black Swan – lesbian sex, bulimia, swearing, fondling, stabbing, bleeding out.
Inception – confusing storyline, obtuse mainstream Hollywood film, way out of their comfort zone.
The Social Network – non-likable heroes, some swearing, very little touchy feely emotion.
Precious – sexual and physical abuse, teen pregnancy, lots of swearing, major drug use.
Inglourious Basterds – bloody violence and swearing Tarantino style. Outside their comfort zone except for Weinstein factor.
District 9 – sci fi.
Avatar – sci fi and 3-D motion capture
Obviously as we move out of the ten Best Picture nominees we move back into the dark ages, er, I mean when there was a lot less diversity. And even still:
Milk – swearing, some violence, gay sex.
There Will Be Blood – some blood, over the top performances, way outside the Academy’s comfort zone.
No Country for Old Men – ambiguous ending, Javier Bardem shooting people in the head with a cattle gun — WON. But it’s the Coens.
The Departed. “Do you like little miss thing sucking on your cock?” Lots of swearing, “do you think we’re cunts?” Lots of violence, weird dildo scene, weird hooker scenes, actual sex scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and Vera Farmiga but it might be the last Best Picture that ever won that had a sex scene in it. The Departed stood out that year for being the only true crowdpleaser and blockbuster in the bunch – runner-up was Little Miss Sunshine but it was too sweet in the end to win, plus its directors weren’t nominated.
Munich – hard core, graphic sex scene, some graphic violence and the last great film Spielberg attempted to make. Right in the Academy wheelhouse, though, if you imagine they are actual grown people with diverse tastes.
Brokeback Mountain – fairly traditional love story but the twist was the gay sex, one sex scene in particular. It almost won Best Picture. Alas, they couldn’t go there.
A very long long gap until
Pulp Fiction – Tarantino, pushed along by Harvey Weinstein, kicked the door down for “controversial” films — and it’s kind of staggering to think about it, really. Anal rape, lots of swearing, lots and lots of blood and violence.
Unforgiven – sure, much about it is traditional but it’s a non-weepy, non-sappy, fairly violent film [complete with knife-sliced prostitute] with a satisfying but not happy ending.
The Silence of the Lambs – rewrote the rules about what Best Picture could be. This thriller was brilliantly acted, written an directed. It couldn’t lose.
Goodfellas – Scorsese mostly carved out, like the Coens have, his own “spot” in the Oscar race. Whenever he makes a movie it’s automatically an Oscar contender because he is just that good, and that well liked. He’s the professor. Many filmmakers in the Academy decided to make movies because of Marty. Goodfellas had it all, sex, violence, lots of swearing. Funny, original storytelling. What a great, great movie.
Fatal Attraction – a genre thriller elevated by a great performance at the heart of it. It was also the talk of the town that year, a huge hit and couldn’t be ignored, Dan. Lots of violence and beaucoup de sex scenes, even one in an elevator and one in the kitchen sink.
Then you have to go back to the Greatest Decade of the 1970s to find something even remotely resembling the kind of stuff we’ve seen in the Oscar race over the last ten years. There is no question that the Academy is becoming far more daring in its choices, even considering last year’s win.
Raging Bull – lots of swearing, “I SUCKED YOUR BROTHER’S COCK!!!!!!!” Lots of violence, a mostly unlikable antihero, someone who fails at life in every way. A great lament. A brilliant, brilliant film. One of the all-time greats. It was up against Ordinary People, The Elephant Man, A Coal Miner’s Daughter and Tess. So yeah, Marty for the win. The Elephant Man a close second. Ordinary People is a brilliant movie too, especially from an actor/writer perspective.
All That Jazz – lots of sex and drugs, not a lot of redemption, vividly directed but non-traditional narrative.
Apocalypse Now – daring for the Academy for sure – rewrote the war film for all time. Lots of drugs, sex, violence, not a lot of redemption to be had, not very likable characters although it had a hero at its core.
The Deer Hunter -another non-traditional look at the war, lots and lots of graphic violence.
An Unmarried Woman-a very feminist film about a woman and her journey to freedom, lots of sex along the way, no man needed to make her life complete by the end. Who can forget that last shot of her, bra-less, with her nipples poking arrogantly through her shirt as she attempts to carry that giant painting through the streets of Manhattan. Oh, the daring of ending a movie like that.
Midnight Express - known for its darkness, particularly sexually but its subject matter was no walk in the park.
Star Wars - notable because it was science fiction, which, except for 2001, had gone mostly unrecognized by the Academy. It also was the beginning of “the blockbuster.”
Taxi Driver - Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader/Robert De Niro’s masterpiece on alienation, desperation, and post traumatic stress disorder, although not called as such at the time. Sex with an underage girl and violence so bloody many could not sit through the end.
Network – this is probably more of a traditional Oscar movie except that it featured some odd characters and seemed to dismantle our culture in ways other films hadn’t yet done. I still think it’s a daring pick for any year.
Jaws – mostly unheard of for a movie like this to be in the Best Picture race. Spielberg broke through a barrier, like George Lucas did. Although the Academy continues to have genre prejudice.
Nashville - Robert Altman was revered enough that his films were noticed. But they were all very abstract, non traditional narratives.
The Godfather II – it’s debatable whether Godfather I and II are “Oscar movies.” In some ways, they’re the Oscar movies to which all other Oscar movies are compared. But in another way, they aren’t. The characters aren’t redeemed or admirable, as it turns out. It’s a dark, dark story – not a tearjerker, and by the time you get to this film you are watching a movie about a cold son of a bitch. Likable characters and redemption are what Oscar movies are made on and yet you could probably put Godfather I and II atop a list of the best best pictures of all time and no one would argue.
The Towering Inferno – blockbuster disaster movie with a little taste.
Chinatown – a dark film where the hero fails to protect the one woman he’s supposed to be protecting, attempts to solve a murder but just mucks it all up. That’s the stuff of noir, usually, just not the stuff of Best Picture.
The Exorcist – no one should ever have to explain why this film stands apart as one of the roughest films ever made and certainly one of the most hard core films that ever got through Oscar’s doors. Dragon Tattoo looks like child’s play by comparison. Sure, the characters are all redeemed and the universe righted gain by the end, but there is no denying the horror of the devil inside the little girl.
Deliverance – a movie where men get captured and raped by hillbillies? Best Picture? Pundits today would say that the movie was “too much” for Oscar. What a great movie, and what a great moment in Oscar history.
The Godfather (see above)
A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick carved out a place by being a genius. Very few of those. He never won a directing Oscar. This was the weirdest of his movies that were ever nominated. Lots of sex and violence.
The Last Picture Show - great film about flawed characters, no happy ending or easy answers. Pure masterpiece.
The French Connection – anti-heroes rule the day and the box office that year.
Five Easy Pieces - kind of your typical ambiguous 1970s movie, but Oscar paid attention.
Midnight Cowboy – here is yet another film people might say was “too much” for Oscar, but the performances were so good it couldn’t be denied. Like The French Connection, Silence of the Lambs, The Godfathers and the Deer Hunter – sometimes the roughest in the bunch ends up winning because it really stands out.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf - the acting and writing drove this but truly, these characters are so strangely distorted it’s a wonder it was nominated. Again, hats off to all who voted for this film. Redemption? Nowhere to be seen.
Dr. Strangelove – Oh Kubrick. Here is a comedy that made the cut. It has serious undertones because it is about the end of the world but never takes itself too seriously.
In conclusion, there really isn’t such thing as a movie that’s “too much” for the Academy. It is simply a matter of their opening their eyes to see what’s there. Since the critics have had an epic fail of a year, to be expected after last year’s divorce from the Academy, hopefully films that aren’t traditional Oscar movies might get attention – like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, like Harry Potter.