With the Academy Awards on the horizon, and entertainment writers trotting out their old grudges over Oscar ceremonies past, the inevitable topic of the most undeserving Best Picture winner has come up, as it always does. I'm about ten films shy of having seen all the Best Picture winners, and I doubt I've seen half of all the nominees over the years, but I'm well aware of the most notorious bad calls: "How Green Was My Valley" over "Citizen Kane," "Going My Way" over "Double Indemnity,""The Greatest Show on Earth" over "High Noon," "Rocky" over "Network" and "Taxi Driver," "Ordinary People" over "Raging Bull," "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan," and "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain." Most, I agree were bad choices, but not all of them. And one of the most egregious cases hasn't gotten much press, though I think it's only a matter of time: "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," winning the 2003 Best Picture award, over "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and "Mystic River." For the record, the fifth nominee that year was "Seabiscuit," which I never saw.
Now I'm as much of a "Lord of the Rings" fan as anyone. I loved the first two movies and wouldn't have voiced any complaints if either of them had taken home Best Picture in 2001 or 2002. "Return of the King" is a different matter. It was clearly the worst film of the trilogy, overlong yet badly rushed. There were more than a few grumbles from critics and audiences alike about the multiple codas and uneven pacing. Personally, I was not happy that so much of the film's emphasis was on the spectacle of the battle scenes at Minas Tirith instead of in Mordor with Sam and Frodo, undercutting a lot of the dramatic tension from the books - "Return of the King" was always my favorite of J.R.R. Tolkein's novels. Now there were plenty of things in the film that I enjoyed, enough that I can declare Peter Jackson's adaptation a satisfactory ending to the film trilogy, but certainly not everything that it could have been. Subsequent rewatches over the years have cemented my opinion that "Return of the King" is often painfully mediocre. And yet, this was the "Lord of the Rings" installment that the Academy decided to heap eleven Oscars upon - including Best Picture.
The common assumption was that the awards were really being awarded for the whole trilogy in aggregate. The Academy often takes past consistency into account, and will try to make up for notable snubs by awarding lesser work down the line. It's also notoriously wary of anointing newcomers too quickly, lest they only turn out to be a passing fad. It makes sense that voters would wait for the final film to stick the landing before elevating the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but it's still "Return of the King" that appears on all the winners' lists, and that the footage for retrospectives and clip montages will be taken from. Imagine if the Academy voters had used the same approach with "The Godfather" trilogy. Imagine "The Godfather, Part III" being awarded Best Picture with the understanding that it was really making up for the Academy overlooking the first two, the undisputed classics. It doesn't make up for the initial snubs and only results in more snubs that will have to be made up for later on down the line.
There's also the little matter of the competition. The 2001 race was pretty decent, with Todd Fields' "In the Bedroom" and Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" in the mix, but I thought "Fellowship of the Ring" was a pretty strong contender, and was aghast when all three pictures lost to the saccharine "A Beautiful Mind." I don't think "The Two Towers" matched up to "The Pianist," but it certainly had more going for it than "The Hours," "Gangs of New York," and the eventual winner, "Chicago." But in 2003, the unseen "Seabiscuit" aside, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that "Return of the King" should have been on the bottom of the heap. "Lost in Translation" remains Sofia Coppola's best film, and Bill Murray was robbed of that Best Actor statuette. I say this even though I liked Sean Penn in "Mystic River," one of Clint Eastwood's best films to date. And if the Academy was in the mood for epic filmmaking, Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," delivered on every front.
Oh well. Hope springs eternal. Maybe they'll get it right this time. But why do I even care? Well, everyone likes to pretend that they don't pay attention to who wins on Oscar night, but any serious film fan does. It's inevitable. Like it or not the Academy Awards have cred with the public, and remain a constant point of cultural reference. I expect that some of the most heated arguments about the 2011 Best Picture race won't take place until the winner is announced, at which point the rest of us can pen our reactions and responses, putting our own spin on what it all means. I want "The Tree of Life" to win Best Picture, but I know it's not going to. Yet, the small possibility that it might is currently holding my invective in check. But when they hand the Oscar to "The Artist" or "Hugo" or "The Help," I'll have something solid and definite to rail against.
'Til then. Happy watching.