Tonight in one of the most wide-open races in years, Oscar fans with hopes of what film will join the historic pantheon of Best Picture winners that includes "All About Eve", "Casablanca", "The Godfather", "Gone with the Wind", and "On the Waterfront". But there’s no reason to get nervous about it, because who wins Best Picture is irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the Oscars are irrelevant. Every acting and directing award has been paramount to helping that person’s career flourish and the same goes for the other categories.
The nominations for Best Picture are also of the utmost importance. Three years ago, for example, six pictures were considered locks for an Oscar nomination and "Cold Mountain" found itself the odd film out. While "Cold Mountain" isn’t necessarily forgotten in history, its status as a future classic is less assured than "Master and Commander" or "Seabiscuit." The same thing happened the year before with "Far From Heaven". Ask your average person on the street if they have ever heard of "Far From Heaven" and think about how different that answer would be if it was "Best Picture Nominee Far From Heaven." The point is recent history suggests that being the perennial sixth film doesn’t bode well for your legacy. While "Dreamgirls" fans were massively disappointed at the film’s snub this year, I doubt they’ll still be making much noise three or four years from now.
But losing an Oscar in a close race, on the other hand, does wonders for your legacy. Aside from "Schindler’s List", the most loved films of the 1990’s have arguably become "Pulp Fiction", "Shawshank Redemption", "Saving Private Ryan", "Fargo", and "Goodfellas", all losers in close races. The winning pictures of "Forrest Gump", "Dances with Wolves", "The English Patient", and "Shakespeare in Love" get the actual award and a place in the history books, but the losers get a contingent of loyal supporters who will protest the merits of those films and who they thought was the rightful winner for years to come. How many message board threads or articles have you read on the topic? “Greatest injustices the academy has made” and counted the victories of "Forrest Gump" and "Dances with Wolves." Little by little, each of those threads, posts, and articles helps that picture get more action on the DVD shelves at local video stores.
The overkill on this subject comes from everyone from Richard Roeper to the guys posting on the IMDB and OscarWatch message boards. My theory is that it comes from a sense of pride you might have as a self-proclaimed film buff. That losing picture, whether Goodfellas or Shawshank, represents you and your tastes and not only can you take pride in promoting a film as one of your favorites that’s a good film, but you can also take pride in personally promoting a film that the high-and-mighty Academy got wrong. You can go around saying, “Schindler’s List is such a great movie, you’ve gotta see it!” but everyone knows that. Identifying yourself as a fan of these also-rans becomes a calling card of sorts for film snobs who wish to proclaim their tastes superior to that of the mainstream.
With the increase of the prominence of the blogosphere and Oscar sites, it seems only likely that this backlash against a best picture win will grow stronger as evidenced by last year’s win. How many hits are there on a simple Google search for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crash” proclaiming the Oscar injustice there.
Perhaps, people are forgetting that the films that won aren’t necessarily unworthy films in their own right. For example, back in 1994, "Forrest Gump" had both critics entranced and moviegoers all over America buzzing. It didn’t even finish #1 on its opening weekend at the box office (True Lies did) but through good word-of-mouth it became the highest grossing film of the year and the 4th highest to date. It also won at the WGAs, the DGAs, was nominated at the BAFTAs (where it lost to Four Weddings and a Funeral) and won the National Board of Review’s prize.
Roger Ebert gave it four stars and wrote, “I've never seen a movie quite like ‘Forrest Gump.’ Any attempt to describe him will risk making the movie seem more conventional than it is.” Rolling Stone called it, “A movie heartbreaker of startling wit and grace,” and gave it 3 ½ stars which was the same rating he gave to Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption. A look back to reviews originally written in 1994 on rottentomatoes.com, shows that with the exception of the New York Times’ Stephen Holden, most of the reviews were highly favorable. Many of the ones that gave poor reviews were only written years later in retrospect. Christopher Null of Filmcritic.com wrote, “Run, Forrest, run! It sure seemed great at the time, but Gump is aging, and it's starting to show a wrinkle or too….. what a crazy chain of events Forrest Gump has spawned: a poorly-received book sequel, a restaurant chain, and hordes of imitators -- not to mention a critical backlash.”
My theory for the backlash would be that Forrest Gump was a bittersweet emotional ride that resonated with a certain generation at a certain point in time. It’s not something that holds up well to repeat viewings. Pulp Fiction, in contrast, is a revisionist genre film that can be watched over and over again by film students interested in dissecting its film conventions. The same can also be said for neo-noir films Fargo and LA Confidential, which were also best picture losers. "Dances with Wolves", similarly is an emotional epic that swept many viewers away on first viewing and was the first Western with a fighting chance of being honored since "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (the only previous Western to actually win the award was the 1931 film "Cimarron").
As for Shawshank, Tim Dirks at Filmsite.org summarizes its predicament best: “Only through positive word-of-mouth (following cable TV and broadcast airings, and then video releases) did the film do well - although its original reception at the box-office was lukewarm.” Shawshank didn’t even get voted into AFI’s Top 100 Films, but when the Institute rereleases their Top 100 list later this year, rest assured that revisionist history will give Shawshank a place (both the winner Forrest Gump and other runner-up from that year Pulp Fiction are on that list). But as with "Dances with Wolves" and "The English Patient" (I won't say "Shakespeare in Love" was exactly deserving), people fail to acknowledge that at the time those were the most popular films of their year and only through a revisionist tide do those facts get lost. That tide is a powerful one, so let that be a consolation to you if your picture loses tonight.