Close to 40 million people will tune into the Oscars on Sunday, most of them hoping their favorite film will take the award for Best Picture. I know I have my heart set on Life of Pi winning, but have little faith that the voting body known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shares my unique perspective on what makes a great movie. Just look at the history of the award for Best Picture. It is littered with bad choices that get more and more glaring over time as the titles that lost rise in popularity and prominence over those that won.
It begs the question, who are the Oscar decision makers? While preparing a groundbreaking report about the Academy in 2012, the Los Angeles Times interviewed an estimated 89 percent of the Academy's Oscar voting members. The median age revealed was 62 years old, 77 percent were male, 96 percent were white, and only 14 percent of those interviewed were under the age of 52. In a nutshell, the report found that these decision makers are mostly old, white men; hardly representative of American society, or my generation in particular.
Best Picture-winning movies that have withstood the test of time, such as Casablanca in 1943, The Godfather in 1972 and Gandhi in 1982, have proven the Academy's occasional genius. Other winners, however, have not stood up to the test, especially when compared against that year's competition for Best Picture.
In an effort to promote the films that should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, I present to you the following list of the Academy's Biggest Best Picture Oscar Fails, one per decade, starting with the 1960's:
1967: The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, is today viewed as an iconic film that speaks to multiple generations. Popular songs were even crafted based on The Graduate's characters, such as "Mrs. Robinson" from Simon and Garfunkel, which reached #1 on the pop charts in 1968. Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, the Academy chose In the Heat of the Night, a cop-thriller drama starring Sidney Poirtier, as Best Picture for 1967. Also overlooked in voting that year? Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, yet another classic, also starring Poitier. 1967 was a horrible year for the Academy.
1979: when I was a kid my parents thought it would be fun for the family to watch Kramer vs. Kramer. By popular demand that horrible movie was halted before we hit the halfway point. It was a depressing view of America's crumbling marriage institution and too much of an emotional chore to endure when all I wanted was to watch Breaking Away, and when all my mom wanted to watch was All That Jazz and all my dad wanted to watch was Apocalypse Now. All three titles have inspired multiple generations, yet lost the Oscar to a lame Kramer vs. Kramer.
1984: the decisions made in 1989 were dubious with Driving Miss Daisy beating out Dead Poets Society, but cases could be made for the merit of each film in that instance. Where a case can't be made is with Amadeus beating out The Killing Fields in 1984. The Academy chose a film involving no recognizable actors about an eccentric musician who had an enormous effect on the world's culture. Nothing wrong with that other than that the film itself was horrid and pompous. The Killing Fields, on the other hand, told a real, compelling and heart-wrenching story in an entertaining, yet realistic manner. Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot's brutal ethnic cleansing campaign killed over two million people and The Killing Fields brought that horrible injustice to light.
1998: the '90s were full of good movies and deserving winners. The Academy faced a number of difficult decisions, for sure, but really failed with the 1998 nominations for Best Picture. Perhaps the best war epic of all time, Saving Private Ryan, was snubbed for Shakespeare in Love? Shakespeare in Love? Really? This failure by the Academy hardly reaches the epic snub of 1984, but it is still a dubious snub. Shakespeare fans around the world (all 20 of them) might groan at the following statement, but the reality is that few generations share any love for the movie, Shakespeare in Love, much less acknowledgement that it even exists. Saving Private Ryan, on the other hand, is a multi-generational classic.
2005: while the Academy pleasantly surprised my nerdy self with the selection of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003, it failed massively with its 2005 selection of Crash over more powerful, more moving films like Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck. The winning film was a fascinating study of institutional racism and corruption and featured an all-star cast led by Sandra Bullock, but paled in comparison to its competition from a filmmaking standpoint, and in connecting with audiences. Brokeback Mountain not only dispelled myths about cowboys, it did so in a manner that spoke to multiple generations. 'Brokeback' eventually became part of the American lexicon, while Crash disappeared.
What could the Academy do to protect against future fails like those mentioned here? Perhaps Denzel Washington said it best in an interview included in the previously mentioned LA Times story, when he said the Academy needs to 'open it up,' and 'balance' its membership: "If the country is 12 percent black, make the academy 12 percent black. If the nation is 15 percent Hispanic, make the academy 15 percent Hispanic. Why not?"
Until that day happens the chances of the most deserving films of the award for Best Picture will continue to get snubbed by old, white, male decision makers.