Yesterday Variety‘s Tim Gray posted his choices for the 10 worst Best Picture Oscar winners of all time. The all-time worst, he feels, is Cecil B. Demille‘s The Greatest Show on Earth (’52). I understand where he’s coming from and sympathize to some extent, but HE’s all-time worst is a four-way tie between The King’s Speech, Driving Miss Daisy, Around the World in 80 Days (fifth on Gray’s list) and The Artist (which Gray ranks 10th).
Gray’s list, top to bottom: 1. The Greatest Show on Earth; 2. The Broadway Melody (’29 — never seen it, don’t want to); 3. Vincent Minnelli‘s Gigi (’58) 4. William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur (’59); 5. Mike Todd‘s Around the World in 80 Days (’56), 6. Cimarron (’31), 7. Cavalcade (’33), 8. The Great Ziegfeld (’36) 9. American Beauty (’99), and 10. The Artist (’11).
Wells dispute #1: American Beauty. Explanation: Every year I trot out the old saw about values and lessons being the main determining factor in the choosing of Best Picture winners by Academy voters. People recognize strong stories, first-rate artsy elements and high-level craft, but more often than not the tipping factor is a film “saying” something that the Academy recognizes as fundamentally true and close-to-home — a movie that reflects their lives and values in a way that feels solemn and agreeable.
Ordinary People beat Raging Bull because the values espoused by the former (suppressing trauma is bad, letting it out is good, wicked-witch moms are bad) touched people more deeply than the ones in Raging Bull. What values did Martin Scorsese‘s film espouse? Art-film values. Great goombah acting values. Black-and-white cinematography values. The only value that resulted in a big Oscar was Robert De Niro‘s commitment to realistic performing values — i.e. putting on 50 or 60 pounds to play fat Jake LaMotta. But there were no values in the film at all. What, it’s a bad thing to beat up your brother in front of his wife and kids?
American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar because it said something that everyone (particularly workaholic careerists) believes to be true, which is that we spend so much time and energy running around in circles that we fail to appreciate the simple beauty of things. On top of which it’s a pungent, occasionally hilarious satire of American middle-class values and lifestyles.
True, American Beauty isn’t as good as Michael Mann‘s The Insider, which was also nominated for 1999’s Best Picture Oscar, but American Beauty values were deemed richer and more resonant than The Insider‘s, which not only wasn’t emotional enough for most voters — it wasn’t emotional at all.
Wells dispute #2: Ben-Hur. Explanation: Yes, it’s generally a slow and ponderous film with only three strong sequences — Ben-Hur being given water by the Nazarene, the Roman slave-ship chapter (energized by the interplay between Charlton Heston‘s Ben-Hur and Jack Hawkins‘ Quintus Arrius) and of course the famous chariot race. But my regard for Wyler’s film shot way, way up after seeing Timur Bekmambetov‘s recent remake, which was awful in more ways than I want to recall. Wyler’s film was slow, but it had class and character.
And when you compare Ben-Hur to the other Best Picture nominees of ’59 — Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story and Room at the Top…I’m not sure what to say. My personal pecking order would be Murder, Room At The Top, Ben-Hur, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Nun’s Story, but I understand why Ben-Hur tallied the most votes.
[Portions of this were lifted from an HE post called “Values Again,” posted on 10.31.10.]