Sunday, November 23, 2014

What Watching All of the Best Picture Winners Taught Me (Part 1)

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
You can read Part 2 (1970-2013) here.

I have officially done it. After a few years of watching Best Picture films once a week with occasional brief hiatuses, I have achieved a rare feat. I have watched every last one of them. From Wings (1927) through 12 Years a Slave (2013), I have seen the progression of film as dictated by the most prestigious award in Hollywood. It wasn't entirely easy, but it did open me up to a lot of new and fascinating films while introducing me to new favorite actors and directors. As time will go on, I will occasionally share my thoughts on the films, including various superlative lists. However, with my completion, I thought that I would start by sharing something more broad. Here is a look at what I have learned about cinema through the decades as present in the Best Picture winners.

I hold a general belief that the Academy Awards embodies a general populous reflection of their era. Yes, there have been a lot of amazing films that lost. There's some that frustrate me to this day. However, when you look at the trends, there are bigger context clues as to what were important themes of the time. These are the ones that draw you in and give you a glimpse into life in any given decade. Some were stronger than others, but I feel like the award is a consensus that for the most part suggests the conflicts of the time. Film is a subjective medium. We won't always agree, but in my opinion, I can better understand audiences through the winners. It is what we were going to see. It was how film evolved and we came to appreciate it. 

So here, decade by decade, is an account of trends and things that I have learned about the times based on Best Picture winners.

Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind

- Winners -
Wings (1927)
The Broadway Melody of 1929 (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Cimarron (1931)
Grand Hotel (1932)
Cavalcade (1933)
It Happened One Night  (1934)
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
You Can't Take It With You (1938)
Gone With the Wind (1939)

It all began with Wings. The film opened with a patriotic message in which it asked its characters to soar in the clouds and fight for what's right. As a cinematic metaphor, it seemed perfect for everything that would come in the years since. Still, it was a chaotic start, as The Academy had yet to establish itself as anything but an award for great movies. It wasn't even called Oscars at first. Still, the category seemed more assured than one would initially think in finding the subjects that it would come to embrace as its bread and butter. Wings was an epic that had romance, war and societal subtext: three main ingredients for what would become called "Oscar bait."

The one more fascinating thing is that the idea of struggling to decide between importance (All Quiet on the Western Front) and spectacle (The Great Ziegfeld), The Academy has always been divisive between the two and it definitely divides audiences. Still, with a few technical films being recognized, this was a year in which both were at odds with each other. For every engaging film such as Mutiny on the Bounty, there was a stage adaptation such as You Can't Take It With You that was too rooted in movie's ancestor: theater. If the decade suffered from one thing, it was trying to distinguish itself as a medium. Performances were sometimes too over the top (Broadway Melody of 1929) or just plain boring (The Life of Emile Zola) in ways that would be whittled into something more interesting. 

It was also the start of the acting stars as Oscar bait. Starring in three Best Picture winners, Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone with the Wind) is one of the most noteworthy actors based on the Best Picture category. Bridging the gap between spectacle and importance was Frank Capra, who is the first director to win Best Picture twice (It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You). While the subject matters were clearly down in heavier subject matter since the start (four films won based around historical wars), likely because of its importance to people of the times. World War I was a current event and as a result, Hollywood needed to comment on it immediately. It is something that would continue to grow and grow as time went on. Still, as the experimental baby steps, this decade is more fascinatingly all over the place.

BEST EXAMPLE: Gone with the Wind not only holds the honor of being the first film in color to win (an honor held until 1951 with An American in Paris), but it embodies what the award would come to embody. It was an epic full of war and romance with great performances, a breathtaking score and gorgeous cinematography. It was a populous film as well as the definition of cinematic art. If it had a Broadway number, it could easily have covered all the thematic quadrants of every nominee that came before. By this point, the experimental wins between spectacle and importance were working themselves out and cinema was moving away from theater. It also has Clark Gable in it, which as stated makes him the MVP of the decade.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
The 1940's

- Winners -
Rebecca (1940)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Casablanca (1943)
Going My Way (1944)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Hamlet (1948)
All the King's Men (1949)

It was time for the second act. How was the Academy going to evolve in its stature of importance? It personally feels like this is the "Auteur Decade." Starting off with Alfred Hitchcock (Rebecca), majority of these directors have gone on to be some of early Hollywood's biggest and most important figures. While there were a few still rooted in the theatrical roots (Going My Way), most of the films were evolving into something more engaging and technically impressive (All the King's Men). Films were getting more ambitious with more lively scripts (Casablanca) and beautiful cinematography (Mrs. Miniver) becoming more and more the normative. It is a decade that made an iconic William Shakespeare adaptation (Hamlet) and turned to tragedy for substance. With exception to Going My Way, every film has some form of a tragic moment that shatters innocence.

It was also a time when film was becoming more involved in the important themes. Unlike the previous decade, there wasn't really any room for laughing or dancing. There wasn't any real recognition of important figures. Everyone was flawed. The Lost Weekend proved that alcoholism was an illness and shouldn't be held for laughs. It created complex romance (Casablanca) and questioned politics (All the King's Men) in ways that were ahead of their time. This could be that it was an immediate reaction to World War II. People were frustrated and were turning to cinema for their triumphant ventilation. It did produce the masterpiece The Best Years of Our Lives, which along with Mrs. Miniver gave William Wyler two Best Picture wins and a clear stance on his opinion. He could pack his scenes with visual provocation and made us care. The final shots of Mrs. Miniver are especially striking and serve as strong propaganda the likes that hadn't been seen since All Quiet on the Western Front. Even then, Wyler's cinematography and emphasis on image made him somewhat of a wunderkind.

It may have been a little bit of a stagy decade for film. Performances were slowly starting to catch up with the performances. Even the societal commentary didn't always work (Gentleman's Agreement), but there was a deeply rooted sense of importance for the common man (Going My Way) to rise up and do something. It's strange to look back at the first 20 years of the Academy because they were very much patriotic. It explored America's conflicting nature between identity and loyalty in fascinating ways. Save for the two films in the 20's, this is the only decade to also have Best Picture winners that were entirely in black and white. It added a nice misery to the themes, but it also added a timeless quality that makes this decade probably the most cliche of every decade in the best way possible.

BEST EXAMPLE: The Best Years of Our Lives was a World War II epic made on the cusp of the war and featured actual soldiers, one of whom was missing limbs. It was a heartbreaking tale full of personality and social relevance without beating us over the head. Few films are as powerful in talking about anti-war than that of the final 20 minutes in which an abandoned field of used airplanes becomes strong symbolism for war and reliance. It was bold then and still remains so today. It was a positive reflection of where cinema was going to go in the decades following both visually and mentally.

Scene from Gigi
The 1950's

- Winners -
All About Eve (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
From Here to Eternity (1953)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Marty (1955)
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Gigi (1958)
Ben-Hur (1959)

This is quite possibly the most baffling decade of them all. More-so than the problematic 80's, this is the decade that predicted the pathway for what the Oscars would be lampooned for. For many, the ridiculous epics (Around the World in 80 Days) are a tough dated watch. While this isn't entirely false, I do feel like there's more substance than some would lead on. Sure, it was about spectacle, but the stories within them were also starting to become more complex. Between The Greatest Show on Earth and Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston ruled the decade with his scenery-chewing talents and dedication to strange source materials. Even on the musical front, Gigi (starring Leslie Caron, who was also in An American in Paris) is a strange musical to watch because despite the occasional catchy song, it does have an uncomfortable pedophile undertone with its lead song being "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

It is a decade that feels like it overcompensated on Technicolor. While All About Eve fit in well with the themes of the previous decade's miserable contemplation, it also had a little camp and snarky theatrics that made it an appropriate gateway that by the time An American in Paris kicked in, it was to be expected. The only logical answer to why films took a complete turn from the previous decade is that the war was over and we needed escapism from the troubling subject matter. Even then, there were still films that continued to question politics (On the Waterfront) and captured the human complexities of war (Bridge on the River Kwai). Spectacle was still rampant, but it was beginning to turn into symbolism. It was probably too buried in camp to resonate with today's audiences, but they were proving their points.

The decade remains a fever dream of sorts that reflect a stranger time in Academy history. There's things to admire about all of these films, but it feels like a dropped ball in tone for most of the time. Even with great ensembles (From Here to Eternity) or great scripts (Marty) scattered throughout, there's still the epics that were possibly too ambitious and lacked self-awareness. It was a time of rediscovery, which likely came from World War II and the need to move on. Still, the regret that lingers in On the Waterfront is something that is still felt today. There's oppression, even among the happier days.

BEST EXAMPLE: All About Eve is one of the few films from this decade to have everything that would come to plague the decade without being totally ruined. It has the witty script and amazing Bette Davis performance. It has the spectacle and visual metaphors of cynicism as people age. It has the campiness that comes with being a performer. It is as much a commentary on show business as it is about personal relevance, which is an appropriate feeling for the Oscars throughout this decade that didn't exactly live up to the Auteur Decade before it in terms of dramatic potential.

Scene from My Fair Lady
The 1960's

- Winners -
The Apartment (1960)
West Side Story (1961)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Tom Jones (1963)
My Fair Lady (1964)
The Sound of Music (1965)
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Oliver! (1968)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)

In the wake of the baffling 50's comes the decade it wishes that it was. For many reasons, the 60's is probably one of the best overall decades for the Best Picture category. For starters, it is more assured in what it wants. There are four musicals that won, two by Robert Wise (West Side Story and The Sound of Music), and they're all mostly iconic. If anything, the 50's was a period in which the kinks were worked out in how to apply spectacle to bigger themes. Exploring segregation through dance (West Side Story) or how language connects us (My Fair Lady), there was an assurance here that made it a time that was as dazzling as it was locked in trying to explore important themes.

It is interesting to compare the first and last Best Picture winner of this decade. The Apartment was a satire on the conservative nature of society in the 50's. It was bleak in ways that hadn't been seen since the 40's. Then there's Midnight Cowboy, which on subject matter alone makes it a baffling entry into the canon. It's story about a male prostitute and his pimp is the closest to date that a gay film has won (even then, it is subtext here). It reflects how open we have come in film. In the decade, there was exploration of racism (In the Heat of the Night) and maniacal men with power (Lawrence of Arabia). Even among it all, there was an artistic quality to even the most simplistic of films (Tom Jones) that captured something provocative about film.

It could all be that it was a strange decade wrapped around the conservative past and the free love future. It could also be that things were officially a few steps removed from theater (save for A Man For All Seasons). Movies were becoming their own medium with the capability to go anywhere and do anything. Even if there are a few duds in the bunch (Oliver!), there's an ambitious nature to everything that feels self-assured and timeless in ways that The Academy hasn't really felt too much since. This is what many people imagine when they think of Best Picture material. It is lively and important without stepping on each other's toes too much.

BEST EXAMPLE: West Side Story encapsulates the shift perfectly. Its epic length and elaborate choreography added style to a message about segregation and teenage romance. It was powerful, loud and demanded your attention. It could provoke you to care and make you reconsider simple differences like race. It was powerful as both a visceral and mental exercise executed on film. It is the middle point for every film of the decade because of this.

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