Oscars 2018: Best Picture winners may be a reflection of our times, but are not always timeless masterpieces

Gautam Chintamani

Feb 20, 2018 15:50:55 IST

For most of us, an Oscar is as good a reason as any to brand a film as ‘great.’ While great films are timeless, more often than not, the awards that acknowledge them are a reflection of the era in which they were made. A look at this year’s Best Picture nominees shows that six of the nine films are set in different periods ranging from the Second World War (Darkest HourDunkirk), post-WWII (Phantom Thread), the mid-1960s (The Post) to the early 1980s (Call Me by Your Name) and the height of Cold War (The Shape of Water). Yet, they all appear to resonate with present-day anxieties. Chances of one of them being felicitated for that very reason, say The Post (which tells the true story of the first female publisher of a major American newspaper — The Washington Post — and its attempts to publish classified documents regarding the 30-year involvement of the United States government in the Vietnam War), is especially appropriate to emphasise the timelessness of cinema in the era of President Donald J Trump.

The Darkest Hour (L) and Dunkirk (R)

The Darkest Hour (L) and Dunkirk (R)

When it comes to the Best Picture category, Oscars have, for the want of a better expression, gone with the flow for a long time. Take for instance how at the height of the Second World War the Academy chose John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), a film widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. One of the reasons for picking How Green Was My Valley could be the strong message it sends out about family, loss of life and the simple hard-working folks, which in the time of war was far more inspiring as opposed to Welles’ roman a clef of the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t really lead a model life. Similarly, the story of the all-American underdog Rocky (1975) who achieves the impossible was easier to laud than the tale of a Vietnam vet-cum-sociopath (Taxi Driver); a television station that exploits an anchor’s moment of awakening to bolster ratings (Network); or journalists who uncovered the infamous Watergate scandal that brought down an American president (All the President’s Men). Today, Rocky is just another underdog story that is spoken about once in a while but Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men inspire more awe with each passing year.

Perhaps the best way to understand how the Academy operates when it comes to choosing its nominees or the winners is to first examine and analyse the reasoning process which governs the nature of experience. In hindsight, the manner in which working-class America feels or operates was for long the raison d'etre for many of Academy’s decisions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s most of the films that won the Best Picture award – beginning with Rocky, the winners over the next few years Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), and most famously Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) - had this sentiment in their narrative.

The Academy also loves throwbacks to the more classical storytelling or filmmaking and rarely lets go of an opportunity to reward that. In the early 1990s, the western genre saw a revival in the mould of a John Ford or King Vidor film with Dances with Wolves (1990) and the film’s 12 Oscar nominations including Best Picture was nothing less than a testimony to the same. While it was a foregone conclusion that Dances with Wolves would walk away as the biggest winner of the night, almost everyone was certain that Martin Scorsese would finally win the Best Director for Goodfellas (1990), his strongest film in years and one of most daring depictions of organised crime on screen. But Kevin Costner, who directed the visibly indulgent Dances with Wolves, was adjudged the winner and also became the second actor moonlighting as a director after Robert Redford on Ordinary People to whom Scorsese lost. A few years later Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven became the high point of the western revival and also went on to win the Best Picture in 1992.

A still from Crash

A still from Crash

It’s but the result of what was happening around the awards that saw a sub-par Shakespeare In Love (1998) win the Best Picture over – hold your breath – a Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line. This was a time when Harvey Weinstein and his production company Miramax become the most influential studio in the world and the massive pre-award lobbying that they would unleash could literally make something like a Shakespeare In Love appear as the greatest film ever made. Their blitzkrieg saw films like The English Patient (1996) Chicago (2002) and No Country for Old Men(2007) edge out films that were perhaps a tad more deserving — Fargo (1996), The Pianist (2002) or the seminal There Will Be Blood (2007).

It’s not just the events of the world outside of films that impact the Academy members' decision but also their desire to do the ‘right’ thing. Infuriated by the loss of Brokeback Mountain, which was adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the author famously wrote an op-ed piece calling the year’s Best Picture winner Crash ‘trash.’ This is one of the factors that could swing the chance of Get Out winning as it would finally rest the ghost of controversies like #OscarsSoWhite. It could also bring to fore the present anti-establishment mood in the US thus providing films like The Shape of Water or The Post a better chance to win the top honour. Unfortunately being politically correct (how else does one explain Crash winning?) or going with the mood of the moment (The Post being nominated but not The Florida Project) sometimes comes at the cost of films that go on to become cinematic milestones.

Updated Date: Feb 20, 2018 15:50:55 IST