Oscar turns into a serious guy

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Picture preferences: Have Academy members' tastes in best pictures changed over the years?

With 79 years of Oscar nominations behind us, there certainly are differences between the kind of films that get nominated now versus those that made the grade way back in Hollywood's Golden Age. But what about compared to the more recent past -- say the last 30 years? A look back at how Academy members have been voting since 1977 shows some similarities with how they're voting today, but also displays some interesting differences in taste when it comes to what kind of films they think are best.

In 1977 when the Academy celebrated its 50th awards, the best picture went to Woody Allen's romantic comedy "Annie Hall," starring Allen and Diane Keaton. The other nominees were Neil Simon's romantic comedy "The Goodbye Girl," directed by Herbert Ross and starring Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason; the period piece drama "Julia," directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards; George Lucas' blockbuster sci-fi epic "Star Wars;" and the romantic drama "The Turning Point," directed by Herbert Ross and starring Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Looking at those 1977 noms you'd have to say such a list would be highly unlikely today. "Hall" and "Girl" were both comedies and these days comedy is certainly not king when it comes to getting Academy recognition. Of this year's nominees, the only laughs are in "Little Miss Sunshine," which is really in the related but different genre known as dark comedy. While the nod to "Star Wars" recognized its tremendous impact on Hollywood, it's hard to picture such a film receiving anything other than visual effects recognition today. "Julia" and "Turning" were both mainstream big star vehicles from well-regarded but very commercial directors. They'd both have a tough time getting Oscar attention in today's fiercely competitive world of low-budget indie product.

You can argue that there are some similarities, too, in that back in '77 Allen was very much the kind of young filmmaker whose pictures today would be released by an independent distributor or the specialty division of a studio. In fact, United Artists, which released "Hall," was an indie-style major studio at the time and had a reputation for giving filmmakers the most freedom of any distributor. And just as the Academy likes to honor films today that have done OK at the boxoffice, "Hall" was definitely a success. It was made for about $4 million and grossed over $38 million domestically, which was good money for an inexpensively made movie in its day. It ranks as Allen's third-biggest grossing movie -- after "Hannah and Her Sisters" with $40.1 million in 1986 and "Manhattan" with $39.9 million in 1979.

If we skip forward five years to 1982 and the 55th Annual Academy Awards, we find that the best picture went to Richard Attenborough's critically acclaimed period piece biographical drama "Ghandi," starring Ben Kingsley in the title role. The other best picture nominees were Steven Spielberg's sci-fi fantasy blockbuster "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," starring
Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymoore; the South America set missing journalist drama "Missing," directed by Costa-Gavras and starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek; Sydney Pollack's cross-dressing comedy "Tootsie," starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lang and Teri Garr; and the courtroom drama "The Verdict," directed by Sidney Lumet, produced by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown and starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden and James Mason.

With the exception of "Ghandi," it's hard to see any of these 1982 contenders landing best picture noms today. Comedies like "Tootsie" generally don't resonate today with Academy voters. And however well made they may have been, "Verdict" and "Missing" were big mainstream dramas with high-profile stars, the kind of pictures Oscar tends to overlook nowadays. As for "E.T.," love it all you like, but it's light and fun and enchanting and just not what Oscar voters are sinking their teeth into these days when they think about best picture noms.

Moving forward five more years to 1987 and the 60th Annual Academy Awards, we find the best picture winner was the period piece epic historical drama "The Last Emperor," directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring John Lone, Joan Chen and Peter O'Toole. Its fellow nominees were the romantic comedy drama "Broadcast News," directed by James L. Brooks and starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter; the female stalker thriller "Fatal Attraction," directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Michael Douglas, Glenn Close and Anne Archer; the low budget period piece English comedy drama "Hope and Glory," directed by John Boorman and starring Sebastian Rice-Edwards, Geraldine Muir and Sarah Miles; and the inexpensive romantic comedy drama boxoffice hit "Moonstruck," directed by Norman Jewison and starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.

Here, too, several of the nominees probably wouldn't have much of a chance to be nominated by today's Academy members. "Emperor" was the kind of large-scale historical epic from a high-profile filmmaker that Oscar voters used to like to embrace. "Hope," on the other hand, could probably work with today's Academy crowd, small British film that it is and from a well-regarded filmmaker like Boorman. "Broadcast," however, is just an outstanding commercial comedy drama that probably wouldn't be seen as being "important enough" by today's voting standards. And "Moonstruck," too, would fail the "important enough" test. It wouldn't have much chance of getting a best picture nod today, but voters would definitely want to get their hands on screeners so they could enjoy it at home.

If we flash forward to 1989 and the 62nd Oscars we can start to see things changing. The best picture that year went to "Driving Miss Daisy," directed by Bruce Beresford, produced by Richard D. Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck and starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. The other best picture nods were for Oliver Stone's anti-war drama "Born on the Fourth of July," starring Tom Cruise; the small tragic drama "Dead Poets Society," directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams; the baseball themed fantasy drama "Field of Dreams," directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner; and the low-budget Irish drama "My Left Foot," directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as spastic quadriplegic Christy Brown and Brenda Fricker as his strong-willed mother.

It's there in 1989's best picture nominees that we really can see the beginnings of today's nominations taste. Suddenly, all the nominees are serious films. Well, yes, there is some humor in "Miss Daisy," but the movie's about something important -- the 20-year working relationship between an elderly Jewish widow in Atlanta and her black chauffeur. In "Fourth" Stone and Cruise were dealing with anti-Vietnam War political activism. In "Poets" Williams was a teacher encouraging his students to depart from the status quo in life. In "Dreams" Costner builds a baseball field on his farm after hearing a voice tell him, "If you build it, he will come." The film's more commercial in nature, but still has a sense of importance about it.

It was "Left Foot" that ushered in the Miramax/Harvey Weinstein-led era of no-holds barred Oscar campaigning for best picture attention that could then be made to work as a marketing tool to sell tickets to small films that would otherwise be a tough sell. After "Left Foot's" best picture nomination, for years Hollywood handicappers referred to "the 'My Left Foot' slot" as the fifth nomination position in the best picture race, which they felt Academy members would reserve for a similarly serious small drama from a well-regarded international filmmaker.

By 1992 and the 65th Academy Awards we can see the trend toward serious best picture nominees moving forward. Clint Eastwood's tragic western "Unforgiven" won best picture. Its fellow nominees were the British-Irish low budget romantic thriller "The Crying Game," directed by Neil Jordan and starring Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson and Stephen Rea; the military courtroom drama "A Few Good Men," directed by Rob Reiner and starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore; the English period piece drama "Howards End," directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant and starring Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter; and the drama "Scent of a Woman" about the relationship between a blind and embittered Army officer and the schoolboy hired to, in effect, babysit him, directed by Martin Brest and starring Al Pacino and Chris O'Donnell.

At this point, we're not seeing feel good comedies and romantic comedies or romantic dramas being recognized by Academy voters. Now they're definitely going for more serious stuff. And the Miramaxization of the Oscar race, of course, was moving into high gear with "Crying Game" and its great marketing campaign that begged us not to reveal "the secret of 'The Crying Game.'"

Moving ahead to 1997 and the 70th Annual Academy Awards we see the blockbuster epic period piece drama "Titanic" sailing into best picture waters. Directed by James Cameron, it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The other nominees that year were James L. Brooks' romantic comedy drama "As Good As It Gets," starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear; the low budget British indie comedy drama "The Full Monty" about men so desperate for money to take care of their families that they would strip down and go "all the way," directed by Peter Cattaneo and starring an ensemble cast that included Tom Wilkinson and Mark Addy; the low-budget indie drama "Good Will Hunting," directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; and the tragic period-piece drama "L.A. Confidential," directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell and Kim Basinger.

The big question that year was whether "Titanic" would win over the much smaller critically acclaimed drama "L.A. Confidential." The fact that "Titanic" didn't sink meant that the Academy was, in the end, still prepared to celebrate the kind of epic Hollywood filmmaking it had applauded for so many years. But it helped to have lots of tragedy in "Titanic's" story. Nonetheless, despite Academy members' affection for things important, they were happy under the circumstances to be swayed by "Titanic's" very commercial charms. Their nod to "As Good" showed that Academy voters would still embrace a romantic comedy drama if it was about something important -- and what's more important than finding true love? -- and boasted really big star power like Jack Nicholson.

The same sort of love for important movies, but willingness to celebrate great commercial filmmaking presented itself five years later in 2002 at the 75th Oscars. That year's winner was the musical urban drama "Chicago," directed by Rob Marshall and starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Also nominated were Martin Scorsese's violent period piece drama "Gangs of New York," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz; the tragic AIDS-based drama "The Hours," directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Miranda Richardson and Ed Harris; the epic fantasy franchise episode "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," directed by Peter Jackson and starring an ensemble cast that included Cate Blanchett, Elija Wood and Orlando Bloom; and Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama "The Pianist," starring Adrien Brody.

By now there's no question that if you want to be in the best picture race you've either got to be small serious drama or a big glitzy commercial film, but hopefully with some serious or, better yet, tragic undertones. This fits very well with today's Academy appetite for portentous indie dramas that, preferably, have been made for very little money.

Of course, history won't be repeating itself this time around since there won't be a big splashy musical to compete for best picture in the hopes of following in "Chicago's" footsteps. "Dreamgirls" may score in some of the eight races in which it's competing -- particularly in the supporting actor (Eddie Murphy) and supporting actress (Jennifer Hudson) categories -- but with the film shut out from the key races for best picture and director its impact can't be prime.

On the other hand, there's a very wide open race between two low budget critically acclaimed international dramas ("Babel" and "The Queen"), one big-budget very commercial violent gangster drama from a high profile filmmaker Oscar's overlooked for years (Scorsese's "The Departed"), one low-budget small Japanese language World War II drama from a high profile filmmaker Oscar's embraced for years (Eastwood's "Letters") and one low budget dark comedy ("Sunshine") that hopes to sneak in and win.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 23, 1988's column: "Although theatrical features predominate today in home video, not everyone in that business thinks they will always be the principal type of programming.

"'There are going to be a lot of other types of programming that are going to come on-line that will compete for viewers' time,' observes Michael Nesmith, the former Monkees pop music star and creator of the MTV concept, who's now president and chairman of Pacific Arts Corp., a 10-year old company active in film production, video distribution and video publishing.

"'Right now, the predominance of films has more to do with the fact that there isn't a lot of competitive programming than the consumer selecting it out of a vast array of programming,' he explains. 'Until we have the same kind of playback systems and theatrical event available to us at home -- which may or may not come with high-definition television -- really the best place to watch movies is in a theater.'

Nesmith believes home viewers prefer programming that's shorter than the 90 minutes or more that movies run: 'The attention span isn't that long and the interest level begins to wane because of it. People who watch television now are more accustomed to short-form programming.'

"What changes does he see ahead for home video? 'What's going to happen -- and probably pretty quickly now -- is that shorter-form programming is going to come into the marketplace and compete with the big theatricals on a price point sell-through basis and will begin to slowly dominate the market. I expect that will happen over the next two or three years. I don't think you'll see the motion picture rate decline. It will probably stay just about where it is, but in terms of its overall market share it'll be a smaller percentage.'

"The expansion of the VCR population in the United States, he notes, is stimulating advertiser interest in video: 'The VCR can deliver a very specific market group to an advertiser with a built-in desire to see the ad. It's like specialty interest magazines, which is one of the fastest-growing types of media in the last two years. ... There is a hierarchy of windows that the entertainment business has generally depended on. Now we're going to have programs that come on-stream which have video as their first exhibitor's window and will give video an ability to move in a way that it hasn't before.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel updatehollywood.com

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