Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The 1998 Best Picture Deathmatch Revisited

Oh boy. Here we go again.

"The King's Speech" cleaned up at the Director's Guild and Screen Actor's Guild Awards over the weekend, and picked up a Best Picture win from the Producer's Guild before that. Since these are the people who will actually be voting for the Academy Awards, "The King's Speech" is now the frontrunner at the Oscars. Up to this point, the favorite had been "The Social Network," which dominated the major categories at nearly every critics' award, including Best Picture, Director, and Writing at the Golden Globe's. "Social Network" boosters, with the help of many still-smarting Christopher Nolan fans, are putting out conspiracy theories left and right. The Academy Award voters are older and more conservative, so they're more receptive to a WWII British costume drama than a movie about social networking. Richard Corliss over at TIME magazine suggests that sentiment tends to win out over daring.. And there's been one common refrain in many of these arguments - if "The King's Speech" does win Best Picture, it'll be just like what happened with "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan."

Because "Saving Private Ryan" was cheated, you see. According to a very vocal and insistent group of cinephiles, Steven Spielberg's WWII epic was the clear and obvious choice to take home a Best Picture Oscar over the period romantic comedy, "Shakespeare in Love." The 1998 race was a memorable one, where "Private Ryan" was the early favorite that won many key awards, including the Best Picture Golden Globe in the Drama category. It was the highest grossing film of 1998 in the U.S., and the second highest worldwide. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Tom Hanks, both multiple-Oscar winners at the height of their popularity. It was built up by the critics and the press and the advertising gurus as the major event film of the year. So how on earth did "Shakespeare in Love" run away with the big prize? Fingers are often pointed at Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax at the time. He poured money into advertisements for "Shakespeare in Love," aggressively campaigning for Oscar gold on an unprecedented level. Was it hype and Hollywood politics that helped "Shakespeare" to the win?

Possibly. The campaigning certainly raised awareness, and that awareness might have been what pushed "Shakespeare" over the top. However, that doesn't mean the movie wasn't a deserving winner. I've had to be a defender of "Shakespeare in Love" many times. I adore the film. I think it deserved to win Best Picture. It's one of the few non-animated features I actually own a copy of. This is not to say that I dislike "Saving Private Ryan." It's technically immaculate, beautifully directed, and an epic in every sense of the word. But that said, you only have to look at which film won which awards on Oscar night to see where its weaknesses are. "Saving Private Ryan" picked up five statuettes, for Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, and two technical awards for Sound and Sound Editing. "Shakespeare in Love" took home seven, including Best Actress and Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction, and Costumes. What "Shakespeare" lacked in visceral technical craft, it more than made up for with a brilliant Tom Stoppard script, top caliber performances, and spectacular design work.

And yet "Private Ryan" continues to be canonized as one of the Academy's most shocking mistakes, right up there with "Citizen Kane" losing to "How Green Was My Valley" and "Brokeback Mountain" losing to "Crash." Frankly, I'm not sure "Saving Private Ryan" was even the best WWII film nominated for 1998. Terrence Malick's meditative "The Thin Red Line" was also up for Best Picture that year, but couldn't dream of summoning up the kind of clout or goodwill behind "Saving Private Ryan" to keep in in contention. If "Shakespeare in Love" won Best Picture due to hype and pandering, it's only fair to point out that "Saving Private Ryan" didn't have any deficit of them either. I mean, really. A WWII epic about bringing a last surviving son home to his mother, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks? With buckets of weepy sentiment, mostly of the male-bonding variety, that no doubt went straight for the jugular of those older, more conservative Academy voters? This had Oscar bait written all over it from the start, and it's no wonder so many people thought it was a sure thing.

Picking "Shakespeare in Love" was actually a pretty bold break from tradition, as a romantic comedy hadn't won Best Picture in over twenty years. And its status as an upbeat crowd-pleaser didn't necessarily factor in its favor. "Shakespeare's" win followed a string of Best Picture winners with tragic endings like "Titanic," "The English Patient," and "Braveheart." I can sympathize with the fans of "Saving Private Ryan" who believe that a lesser film with limited prospects only won because an overzealous promoter drummed up massive, but only brief support of the film. Current Amazon DVD sales rankings say differently, though. There's every indication that people still love both films.

In the end, I almost never hear either "Saving Private Ryan" or "Shakespeare in Love" brought up in any nerdy film discussion these days except to reference that bygone Oscar battle. This tells me that the campaigning for the films ended up overshadowing the films themselves. And which of the Best Picture nominees has been gaining the most in reputation, prestige, and visibility in the intervening years? "The Thin Red Line." And Terrence Malick's gone and made himself the next Stanley Kubrick while we weren't looking.

I think "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" are about equally deserving of Best Picture. Who will win may have nothing to do with their actual quality, of course, but that doesn't mean that the old v. young, sentimental v. intellectual, and populist v. critical narratives people are trying to shoehorn the race into are good reflections of what's actually going on. Who wins may say everything or nothing about the direction or biases or relevance of the Academy. As always, it's a mystery.

It's possible that the Academy voters will vote for the film that they like best. Or the film they think had the most artistic merit. Or the most popular and hyped up film with the best ad campaign. The important thing to remember is that these categories are not mutually exclusive and never were.

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