The entire principal cast of A Streetcar Named Desire received Academy Award nominations for acting in 1952. Three of them won. The one who didn’t? Marlon Brando.
I’ve been following the Oscars regularly for nearly as long as I have been a serious movie buff. That’s a long time, and the quizzerly part of my brain (i.e., the part that stores useless trivia in memory locations reserved for what I need to get from the store on the way back from work today) has used these years to collect a whole bunch of interesting trivia about one of the most coveted set of film awards on the planet.
Or at least the part of the planet I inhabit. Aamir Khan, for instance, is well known for not attending the Filmfare awards or any other Indian award show, but pulled out all the stops while promoting Lagaan in the run-up to the Oscars. I’m sure he has his reasons, but the point I’m trying to make is this: we (our film industry as well as the unwashed masses) celebrate the Oscars more than any other film award.
For a long time, I subscribed to that view. In some ways, I think I still do. I couldn’t stop grinning when Scorsese finally won Best Director, even if The Departed wasn’t his best work. As much as I thought that Slumdog was one of Rahman’s least impressive albums, I still celebrated when he won a couple of statuettes. Resul Pookutty’s win was another huge moment.
But strangely enough, it was Slumdog‘s Best Picture win that changed my thinking about the Oscars. Personally, I thought the film was a well-made but badly written work that didn’t deserve all the praise it was getting. I could also see, however, that a lot of Westerners liked the film, so I even wondered if I would’ve been more charitable towards it, had it been set in some other developing country — say, Brazil — rather than India.
Then I realized something: Slumdog won Best Picture, not because it was the piece of work most people in the Academy admired. It won because it was the piece of work most of them liked. As much as I admire Citizen Kane (nominated for Best Picture, lost to How Green Was My Valley), my favourite movie is still Before Sunrise (not even nominated).
This year, for instance, most of the awards were cleaned up by a couple of movies that were, above all, enjoyable. The Artist was a black-and-white silent film that was enjoyed by everyone who got past those two adjectives and actually watched it. Hugo was a love letter to early cinema pioneers in the guise of a children’s film, and an equally enjoyable ride.
Wonderful films? Absolutely. Best Picture candidates? What does that mean, really?
Now, admittedly, the Academy’s “liking” is often tinged with a touch of self-consciousness. Likeable, relevant serious films very often trump comedies and box office successes. Barring a few exceptions, your safest bet for winning a Best Actor/Actress statuette is to play someone who is either dysfunctional or real (often the same thing). It’s as if the Academy voters have a couple of miniature versions of themselves perched on their shoulders arguing:
Oh come on, admit it, you loved it more than any of the other nominees.
It’s a wonderful movie, but does it really deserve to win Best Picture?
Maybe, as the Clint Eastwood character says in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
ps: In case you were wondering, Brando lost to Bogie for The African Queen. And the Best Picture award in 1952 went to a musical: An American in Paris.
pps: The title of this post is a reference to a Chris Rock sketch introducing the 2005 Oscar ceremony, where he asked random people on the street whether they had watched any of the big nominees that year (Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland), and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. On the other hand, all of them had watched and enjoyed a critically-panned Marlon Wayans starrer named White Chicks. Finally, he gets to a serious-looking guy who says he has watched all of the nominees. But when Rock asks him if he has watched White Chicks, his face lights up and he says, “Best movie of the year!”
ppps: Plus, I figure an offensive title like that would get my blog a lot of eyeballs on Women’s Day.
pppps: You realize I was kidding about that last line right?