Oscars: Why the Academy Often Gets Best Picture So, So Wrong

Illustration By Lars Leetaru

'Vertigo' and 'Citizen Kane' barely were recognized, while 'Shakespeare in Love' and 'Dances With Wolves' rose to the top.

In 2012, Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane at the top of Sight & Sound's list of the all-time greatest films. The greatest movie ever made, it seems, was no longer the greatest after all. It had taken Vertigo more than a half-century to reach that lofty position; the 1958 thriller didn't even feature in the top 10 of Sight & Sound's initial rankings in the early 1960s but steadily chugged its way up to the top, finally beating the 1941 Orson Welles drama — which had reigned unchallenged at No. 1 from 1962 on.

Today, both films are widely acknowledged to be masterpieces. And yet you'd never know it from their Oscar history. While Kane received nine nominations (and won for original screenplay), Vertigo only got two — for sound and art direction — and then lost in those categories.

All this should give us pause as awards season comes to a boil. No award in the world, with the exception of the Nobel Prize, has attained the Oscar's level of renown and prestige, but as a litmus test for quality, it leaves much to be desired.

In 1981, instead of going to Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull, the Oscar went to Ordinary People. In 1983, instead of Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, now a beloved classic, it went to Gandhi. Ordinary People and Gandhi have their merits, but it's been years since I've heard anyone mention either of them, let alone in the same breath as those other two films.

Nor did the Academy do much better in assessing a host of movies that have reached iconic status, according to the latest Sight & Sound listing, which is based on a poll of 846 critics, filmmakers and other movie connoisseurs. Rounding out the top 10 were Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Federico Fellini's (1963). Only one of those pictures walked away with the Oscar — Sunrise, which took one of the two top prizes given in the early days of the Academy Awards. (Wings won the other.)

Each of the Sight & Sound top 10 is taught in film schools around the world; each has been cited by today's most distinguished filmmakers. But Oscar winners? The only other one on the list that came close was , which was named best foreign-language picture in 1964.

We all know that some of our finest directors have been overlooked by the Academy; neither Hitchcock nor Welles won a directing Oscar, and it took Scorsese and Spielberg years before their work was officially sanctioned. But it's amazing how many sheer masterpieces never won the ultimate bauble or lost to lesser films.

God knows I enjoyed Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), but did it really deserve to beat High Noon and The Quiet Man? I even quite liked Dances With Wolves (1990), but what was the Academy smoking when it gave Kevin Costner's film the Oscar over Goodfellas? John Madden's Shakespeare in Love was a whole lot of fun — but seriously, would you give that pride of place over Saving Private Ryan?

What most of the winners have in common is three things: They tend to be lighter and brighter and lean toward optimism rather than pessimism. They display their production values on their sleeves. And they tap into an undefinable ethos of their times, either because the audience is in a mood for escape or the precise opposite.

All of these factors will impact the upcoming 89th Oscars and likely favor La La Land over its closest rival, Moonlight. The former may be tinged with sorrow, but it sizzles and burns with the joy of being alive; its production qualities are evident from its very first shot, all done in what is designed to look like one take; and at a time when the vast majority of Academy voters still are licking their wounds from the election of Donald Trump, it offers the kind of escape from our desperate problems that we all wish we could experience in real life.

A half-century from now, I suspect Moonlight will hold greater sway. But I could well be wrong — just like so many Oscar voters in the past. Maybe Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be the highest-regarded picture, after all.


A recent THR poll found only four of the industry's top picks (*) also were best picture winners.

1. The Godfather*
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Citizen Kane
4. The Shawshank Redemption
5. Pulp Fiction
6. Casablanca*
7. The Godfather: Part II*
8. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey
10. Schindler's List*

This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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