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.
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.