Monday, April 25, 2011

Trapped in the Green Valley

When is it better for a film to lose an Oscar than to win one?

John Ford's How Green Was My Valley was a perfectly respectable Best Picture choice for 1941, definitely a little hokey at times, but beautifully crafted, well directed, and packing a real emotional wallop. Sure, it's not up to the Lawrence of Arabia/Godfather standard of winners but it's easily as good as Best Pictures like Rain Man or Mutiny on the Bounty and a damn sight better than a lot of winners - Gentleman's Agreement leaps to mind.

So why would Green Valley had been better off losing in 1941? Because, as most film buffs know, it had the misfortune of beating a film few at the time could have guessed would become synonymous with "Best Movie Ever", one Citizen Kane. Now every time Valley is mentioned it's held not to the standards of other winners but to the Kane standard. Suddenly it is not a strong entry in the John Ford canon, but rather a dated piece of sentimental claptrap that stole Orson Welles' Oscar.

Which brings us to last week's video release of 2010's best picture The King's Speech, a film which I have a gut feeling will suffer a similar fate. In all the heightened emotions of Oscar seasons the anti-Speech crowd was probably guilty of exaggeration when it came to Speech's quality. Sure it's was appallingly safe choice but that doesn't mean it's not an all-around fine piece of work. A handsomely mounted, flawlessly acted period piece that is not going to break onto any top 100 lists, but will likely be well regarded for years to come along the lines of Quiz Show or Good Night, and Good Luck.

Unfortunately for Speech, 2010 produced a few films that, I feel safe in predicting, are going to stand the test of time with much greater stature. Speech will be remembered less for being a respectable, if unexceptional (and historically dubious), piece of work of, and more for being that blatant piece of Oscar bait that somehow trumped The Social Network, Black Swan, and Toy Story 3. Hell, Winter's Bone and The Fighter are probably going to have stronger reputations ten years down the road. 

Here are some other movies and performances I think would've been better off in the long run not winning:

Gwyneth Paltrow - Best Actress, 1998 - Paltrow is wonderful in Shakespeare in Love but consensus quickly formed that Cate Blanchett was robbed for her starmaking turn in Elizabeth. The subsequent careers of the two actresses has only cemented that impression.

Rocky - Best Picture, 1976 -  After all the increasingly cartoonish sequels it's tough to remember what a spare, heartfelt fairy tale the first Rocky was. The fact that it beat Network, All the President's Men, and Taxi Driver hasn't helped matters any.

Dances With Wolves - Best Picture, 1990 - Like How Green Was Valley, Wolves is a film with a lot of strengths that is weakend by its occasional romanticizing of the material. Also like Valley, all anyone seems to talk about anymore is how the film sideswiped a masterpiece that was much to dark for Academy tastes, in this case Goodfellas.

Humphrey Bogart - Best Actor, 1951 - Bogart's great comic performance in The African Queen is a high point in his career but it would probably be a better regarded if it A) wasn't such a blatantly sentimental win for Bogie and B) wasn't the same year that Brando positively demolished Bogart's stylized old Hollywood acting style with his work in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The test of time is absolutely merciless when it comes to putting films in their place. One could make the case that it's better to grab the spot in the pantheon no matter what, but I would argue the reputations of plenty of great artists have been enhanced by the injustice of their not winning: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Barbara Stanwyck. Not winning gets everybody focused on how deserving they are. An ill-timed win accentuates the flaws in a film or performance for decades to come.


  1. I, for one, not only think that Paltrow was the best in her category that year, I also think that if someone else should've won it had to be Fernanda Montenegro who was leagues beyond Cate's good, but rather shallow, performance.
    I'm a great admirer of Blanchett's work, she was ace the following year in The Talented Mr. Ripley and arguably was much better than the woman who won Supp. Actress that year, but I feel her work in Elizabeth is seriously overrated.

  2. This is always a funny phenomenon, and I fall victim to it myself when I bemoan Gigi beating out Vertigo and Touch of Evil - "Who cares about Gigi?! It sucks!" - even though it's a perfectly respectable if overlong musical.

    Alas, the Academy never seems to take the opinions of future cinephiles into account, and the cycle continues. (I will say, though, that I'm glad Benjamin Button didn't win Best Picture, because then I'd REALLY hate it.)

  3. these types of awards should always be given ten years down the road. then every award would actually go to the right film/person, and sentiment and media influence and nothing else would come into play.
    can you imagine if at the end of the year, all awards and even film bloggers started choosing their favourites of 2001? what are the odds that a beautiful mind could beat moulin rouge again?

  4. Jose- Blanchett would've had my vote, but no one's gonna get me to say an unkind word about Paltrow in Shakespeare. Ashamed to say I still haven't seen Central Station.

    Andreas - American Beauty, Sixth Sense and The Insider have been the recipient of a lot of undue scorn from me due to the snubbing of, oh, 11 or 12 movies I find infinitely superior films in 1999. Cider House Rules, on the other hand, deserves the scorn.

    Amir - I have long had a suspicion that if the 1941 Oscars were done over today, and everybody rewatched the films, Green Valley would STILL win. It is such a perfect Academy picture.

  5. "Flawlessly acted?" Okay, I admit to disliking The King's Speech a lot more than most people, but I cannot concede that point. Timothy Spall's performance as Winston Churchill deserved a Razzie and Derek Jacobi wasn't anything to write home about, either.

  6. Robert - You've got me there. I should've said flawlessly acted by the leads, which is what I was thinking.

    It's hard for me to be too hard on Spall since A)Spall, a wonderful actor, is wrong for the part, and was pretty much doomed before the director yelled "action" and B)the Churchill moments are easily the worst in the film, dropped in at random to lend the film an air of signficance

  7. It wouldn't change everything, but it would 1. Cut most of the bad winners and would 2. Most likely give foreign films a more even chance. The Night of the Hunter probably wouldn't have won if best of 1955 was presented in 1965, but Rebel without a Cause or Ordet would have been solid, admirable choices. Today...Kane would certainly win. 1951...Not Kane, but not Valley either. In 51, cultural appreciation of Valley would have likely fallen quite a bit, but Hearst's recent death would have prevented positive reception of Kane among quite a few people. In 51, it would have been like this: In this corner, weighing in at 101 minutes, 11 actors, scrappy noir The Maltese Falcon. In this corner, weighing in at 94 minutes, 15 actors, screwball comedy The Lady Eve. At best, Kane would be seen as an upset, a down the middle winner.