Those Left Behind: Inspecting the Jilted Best Picture Nominees

Roger Ebert had a good piece the other day about whether someone can really be “robbed” of an Oscar (I'm glad he's still on his game. He confused Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain in his Oscar post the other day, and I got worried about him). It’s a reward, not a right, based on people’s opinions, so how can any Oscar really be “wrong”?

I agree, up to a point. I think there’s something to be said for a little bit of righteous outrage on behalf of the people and movies left behind. The ignored have a small window to complain about being unjustifiably forgotten, and everyone is very sympathetic during that time – and then a few months pass, everything dies down, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close get to have “Best Picture Nominee!” on its DVD cover for all time, and everyone forgets that people thought Young Adult even had a chance.

Sure, sometimes it’s better to be the jilted than the triumphant (anyone who thinks that Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump for Best Picture was bad for that movie’s credibility long-term needs to have their head examined), but for every derided win (Crash, Shakespeare In Love), there’s a hundred more wins where no one even remembers who else was in the competition.

So let’s have a quick moment for those left behind.

Best Picture

We’ve covered these movies before, but let’s cover the half-dozen movies that didn’t snag a nomination that might’ve deserved to:

There were three or four movies that didn’t get nominated where the conventional wisdom is that the films were “too dark” for the Academy.  There’s a case to be made that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Drive, Shame, and Young Adult were all legitimate contenders that never made it out of the gate because they were thematically bleak or had disturbing violence. But I’m not sure I buy the premise. The Academy loves schmaltz, but it also loves being considered cutting-edge. If the studios of any of those films had tried to gather Oscar momentum for them, I don’t think their subject matter would have mattered.

More to the point, no one really feels that these movies were the best picture of the year, they just feel that they were better than three or four of the nominees who made it in. Would I feel better about the nominees this year if we lopped off Extremely Loud and War Horse and wedged in Dragon Tattoo and Young Adult? Sure. But none of those four films could win this thing, so what does it matter. There’s at least a handful of critics who loved the first two of those films, and as I mentioned last week: small pockets of belief that something is fantastic is much better than broad appeal from all quarters.

The Bridesmaids question is a different one. The argument for including it goes like this: it was critically beloved, a box office hit, and a breakthrough for women comedians (I’d argue this last point, and I imagine Lucille Ball, the cast of “Laverne and Shirley,” and anyone on SNL the last ten years would, too).  People arguing in favor of it say that comedy is much harder than drama (it is), say that comedy is underrated by the Academy (indisputably), and point out that if a comedy is this well-reviewed and successful and still can’t get nominated, what would it take for a comedy to get in? The answer to that last one, of course, is “it would have to be written by Woody Allen.”

Let’s separate from this and look at this more historically. Pretend for a moment that over the last ten years, the Academy had actually been biased towards big comedies. What would the award landscape look like then?

Well, we’d have to take a look at our most well-reviewed, successful comedies and see how we’d feel about them as Best Picture winners. Two years ago, The Hangover had a 78% score on Rotten Tomatoes and raked in $277 million at the box office. What would your response have been if it’d won Best Picture over The Hurt Locker? What about Borat? It had a 91% RT and made $128 million. Not to mention Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (72% RT, $148 million) and The Devil Wears Prada (76% RT, $124 million). Would you have picked any of those over The Departed?

Both of those years were weak ones for film. A comedy with some studio backing could have been in a real battle for the title.

Let’s keep going. Wedding Crashers over Crash? Anchorman over Million Dollar Baby? How about or Shrek 2? It made $436 million and had an 89% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, after all. Of course, let’s not forget the first Shrek, which came out the same year as Bruce Almighty. Would you pick either over A Beautiful Mind? Would you take My Big Fat Greek Wedding over Chicago? I might, actually. But I wouldn’t take Men In Black over Titanic. Or What Women Want over Gladiator. Or Austin Powers over American Beauty. Or Mrs. Doubtfire over Schindler’s List.

These are the best reviewed and most successful mainstream comedies ever made. And none of them seem like Best Picture winners.

Comedies don’t age well. What seems like a real argument now seems sillier in retrospect. That’s why the more recent comparisons seems sort of plausible (Borat was groundbreaking, right? At least compared to The Departed), but the further back in time we go, the less and less acceptable these suggestions seem. Comedies have a shelf life. Most of the films that seemed hilarious in the 70’s seem slow and stagnant now. We still adore a good half dozen of them (Animal House, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, some of the Monty Python films). But the Best Picture winners from 1970-79 were, in order, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather: Part II, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs. Kramer. All of those films have held up over time. How badly do you need to wedge a Mel Brooks picture in there? Especially when you consider that I can name a baker’s dozen of other deserving nominees without breaking a sweat: The Clockwork Orange, Fiddler On The Roof, The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti, The Conversation, Chinatown, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, All The President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, and Apocalypse Now. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for Up In Smoke or Return of The Pink Panther.

So, take heart, Bridesmaids fans. Maybe you didn’t score a nomination you felt you deserved. But you definitely won’t be talked about in ten years as a ridiculous nominee for an award you’ll never win. And that’s something to be glad about.