Monday, July 7, 2014

A Look Back at "Forrest Gump" and its Controversial Best Picture Win Over "Pulp Fiction"

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
In honor of Forrest Gump's 20th anniversary, I have decided to run something special. I have decided to personally explore the Best Picture category of 1994 as well as my personal thoughts within the nominees. Despite becoming an iconic film with countless catchphrases, a restaurant chain, and a rock band, it seems like Robert Zemeckis' technologically groundbreaking film has received flack for pandering to baby boomers through an intellectually stunted character by rewriting American history. I won't go into politics, but it does challenge how I view the film, especially as it was an iconic piece of my childhood. Instead, I will choose to focus on the "controversy" that surrounds it. Did it deserve to beat Pulp Fiction?

Every year, it seems likely that the Best Picture race will get some arguments from people. Did 12 Years a Slave deserve to win, or was it the white guilt bias? Cinema is a subjective medium and the Academy is even more subjective given their limited range of genre nominees. It is about playing the prestige card and that has offended many people out of liking the Oscars. That is fine. I rarely agree with Best Picture's winner, but I notice why they were selected most of the times. However, there are some years, like 2005 with Crash, that the Best Picture race hits a deeper chord in mainstream culture and raises the "x should have won!" debate for all of eternity. Should Citizen Kane have won over How Green was My Valley? Yes, though there were politics involved and the greatly ignored gem of Sergeant York should have won instead given time and context.

This is the motivation for Forrest Gump. While not as reviled as some other years, it does seem like the community has a bitter taste about it. To many, it represents the appeal to older audiences. Many claim that Pulp Fiction should have won. There's no doubt that it remains a kinetic, influential film that everyone has plagiarized since. However, consider the era. It was a time when the Oscars was watched by its largest audience and had films appealing to its widest audience. As much as it is about picking the "best," it is about picking the universal form of "best." I feel that the Academy has evolved to a time capsule of the era in which the films won. Prestige is just another factor in the big picture.

Also, the overall question should be raised: since when has the Academy gone edgy? Yes, it gave Best Picture to Silence of the Lambs once, but Pulp Fiction was stylized violence with frantic pacing and wondrous profanity. It was also only Quentin Tarantino's second film. Even if it won the Palme d'Or, it was a miracle that the film even was nominated (it did win Best Original Screenplay, which I feel is its ultimate strength). It was edgy and the influence wasn't entirely there on the general public. Simple factor: look at Robert Zemeckis' reputation to Tarantino's at the time. Tarantino was not a savant, but a promising new talent at this point. Regardless of talent, the Academy has rarely recognized young talent in the Best Picture wins. With exception to Sam Mendes for American Beauty, there hasn't been a director short of more than a few films to win in the past 30 years. Also, simply compare box office: Forrest Gump - $677 million. Pulp Fiction - $213 million. 

Yes, this logic doesn't always make sense, such as the year that Annie Hall beat Star Wars (a considerably higher grossing film). However, the Oscars were slowly moving into a more commercial period where Braveheart and Titanic won most likely because of their universal appeal. They weren't necessarily the best films, but the Academy was recognizing them for their appeal. Also, this is related to Forrest Gump in that the Academy had a strange fascination with historical films in the 90's. Save for American Beauty, every film that decade has some sort of prominence in a time decades back. The 90's was, in a sense, the Oscars' nostalgic decade. It kind of handicapped its credibility, but it's important to the context.

So basically, Pulp Fiction won what it needed to: Best Original Screenplay. It is a revolutionary screenplay given its influence since. Case in point: People will remember the dialogue long after the imagery has escaped them. Meanwhile, Zemeckis' technological achievements in Forrest Gump were striking for the time. They remain impressive as Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is shaking hands with the actual John F. Kennedy. It is impressive and made for high quality entertainment. To discredit the films achievements in mixing advancements with an ingenious story appealing to the Academy is to not understand why the film inevitably won against Pulp Fiction. Which holds up better? Depending on which side of 40-years-old you are today, the answer varies.

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption
Before closing the book on Forrest Gump's Best Picture win, I want to explore its two other strong competitors. First up is The Shawshank Redemption. For starters, the film's reputation has grown since the film's release. It only made $28 million at the box office (considerably less than the previous two in discussion). Despite now being IMDb's top rated film, it still feels slight to call it the Best Picture of 1994. Beyond Morgan Freeman's iconic narration or Tim Robbins' solid performance, it wasn't nearly as flashy or interesting to talk about at the time. For starters, the numbers reflect that a large quadrant of audiences hadn't seen it. There's no universal appeal. Also, it was Frank Darabont's debut. Considering my dismay towards Tarantino winning solely because it was his second feature, Darabont's win seemed less likely.

Please don't take this as a dismissal of The Shawshank Redemption. As it stands, these three films having a feud over "which is the best" should reflect how impressive of a year that 1994 was. If anything, this particular film has aged impressively well. Its spiritual exploration of prison life and the plight of the common man has only become more seeped into our culture. There are moments that become overpowering in ways that overshadow its competitors. It is one of the definitive prison movies in cinematic history and nothing about it could be undermined.

With that said, I have trouble seeing how anyone logically finds it hard to see why it lost. For starters, the film's strengths is its longevity. It is one that audiences will likely keep talking about years later. Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction are immediate in their demands. They have catchphrases and iconic moments with far more impressive casts. Even if Freeman was on board, there's still the fact that he wasn't the iconic, godly Freeman yet. He was busy being overshadowed by Samuel L. Jackson's only (yet deserving) Best Supporting Actor nomination to date. Freeman eventually got his due for Best Supporting Actor in Million Dollar Baby about 10 years later. Of course by then, his reputation almost made it a necessity.

Simple truth: The Shawshank Redemption didn't have the immediacy necessary to win. Given its low box office, it is even harder to understand why people now can't acknowledge all of the logistics that goes into it. There's unfortunate politics that age some of the winners badly. Thankfully, Forrest Gump has managed to be one of the more revered films to fit this controversy. Simply put: Forrest Gump has a box of chocolates where The Shawshank Redemption has a river of fecal matter. No matter how symbolic and powerful that film is, people at the time were more ready to embrace the chocolate. That, and it simply must be asked: who saw The Shawshank Redemption initially? 

However, there is one film that I feel gets ignored in the conversation that i feel is in some ways almost more deserving of a legacy and reputation...

Ralph Fienns in Quiz Show
That film is Quiz Show. Yes, it grossed $24 million at the box office, making it the lowest grossing of the five (Four Weddings and a Funeral grossed $245 million). However, there's so many elements at play that make it more appealing than the spiritual nature of The Shawshank Redemption, the frantic creativity of Pulp Fiction, or the nostalgia of Forrest Gump. Quiz Show is a film that I feel time has sadly forgotten when it comes to "Best of 1994." Following the story of Herb Stempel (John Turturro) and Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), it is about the scandal on quiz show Twenty One in the 50's. Along with a main plot point centering around Best Picture winner Marty, the film remains an important commentary on media's projection to society. What is truth and fiction? 

It also had one of the strongest pedigrees of the bunch. Ralph Fiennes was coming off of Best Supporting Actor nomination for Schindler's List and director Robert Redford had won acclaim both behind the camera (Ordinary People) and in front of (Out of Africa). With cameos by past nominees and winners Barry Levinson and Martin Scorsese, the film was implicitly Oscar bait. Thankfully, it had the quality behind it to back it up. The film may be a lot more somber than its competitors, but the messages it discusses remain phenomenally relevant to this day. Its depiction of the 50's at times even surpasses Forrest Gump's. It was an authentic, fresh story that ranks among Network and The Truman Show as relevant examples of how media influences reality.

Quiz Show's only downside, like The Shawshank Redemption, was the lack of popularity at the box office. Compared to the top two contenders, it was the boring, thought provoking drama that didn't matter. It didn't have as vibrant of spectacle. Even with Fiennes, who seemed to replace Kevin Costner briefly as their favorite actor, there wasn't much to it that could be done. Quiz Show was about a goofy thing compared to American history, prisons, and mob life. Of course, it does unfortunately seem like Redford the director's pedigree also is overshadowed in history's rolodex. Even then, if Quiz Show had come out any other given year, I am confident it would have been more regaled and possibly even stood a chance of winning. 

I won't talk about Four Weddings and a Funeral because it is doubtful that anyone cared that much about it. I will say this, though. 1994 was a great year for film and the four nominees that I discussed are all worth checking out. They all produced some of the best moments in cinema for that decade. The only complaints that I would give is that fifth nominee, which felt like a tacked on "We love British cinema" thing. There were some films that deserved the spot more. There are two that come directly to mind: Ed Wood and Krysztof Kieslowski's Red. Without elaborating too much, the latter film is the more logical solely because the director did manage to earn a Best Director nomination. However, the power of Red is something worth remembering, as it is a strong piece of international cinema that captures more emotional, visual, and creative depths than all of these nominees. Since the Academy rarely recognizes foreign films, this is only slightly egregious. It would've been nice to see Ed Wood make the cut, but it was in a time before the Academy felt self-involved and gave awards to "movies about movies" regularly as evidenced with The Artist and Argo.

Left to right: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction
So, where do I stand on the issue of the Forrest Gump winning Best Picture? I feel that it isn't my favorite of the bunch, but it is one more deserving in context. Many films' influence isn't immediately clear while others are blatant. Pulp Fiction's influence is felt right now because the tropes have been parodied to death. That isn't something that came by the time of the Academy Awards ceremony. It took awhile. Forrest Gump was the most immediate of them not only in box office, catchphrases, technological advancements, but also just in iconography and familiarity. The film became embraced rather quickly because it was the most universally acclaimed. Say what you will about the Oscars in the latter years, but they have always felt a little self conscious in picking the Best Picture. They don't want to step on anyone's toes. Even if Quiz Show or The Shawshank Redemption were well deserving, it would be an offense to Zemeckis' techniques or Tarantino's anarchism. The film won because it was the safe bet. If there's anyone complaining about that, just find another year with less interesting selections to complain about.

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