I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Ordinarily I try to see all the nominees before the Oscars, but this year's expansion of the field to ten films had the counter-productive effect of 1) making the award seem less important and 2) discouraging me from seeing those films, since it's hard enough for me to see five and there was no way I was going to get to ten. (Of the ten nominated films, I did see Avatar, District 9, Up, and Up in the Air; if it had been a five-picture category, seeing the fifth wouldn't have been a big deal. I hope they go back to the old system next year.)
As Alvy Singer says in Annie Hall, "All they do is give out awards: greatest fascist dictator, Adolf Hitler," and it does get a little silly. But part of the fun of looking at past Oscar winners is that they weren't always the best film of the year; they just tapped into something the Oscar voters cared about. They're less an indicator of artistic value than a symbol of contemporary cultural values . . .
Sorry, getting a little pseudointellectual here. These are five past Best Picture winners I haven't seen, and in several cases am not likely to see.
1. The Broadway Melody, 1929. The first musical and the first talkie to win the Best Picture award, which is less impressive when you realize it was only the second winner of the award, period. Directed by Harry Beaumont from a script by Norman Houston and James Gleason, based on a story by Edmond Goulding. Anita Page and Bessie Love play sisters with a vaudeville act who both fall in love with song-and-dance man Charles King. The talkie was released simultaneously with a silent version, in a 1920s version of releasing 2-D and 3-D versions of a movie. (In the early years, many people preferred silent movies for a whole host of reasons; I think about this when I hear complaints about 3-D.) It's also known as The Broadway Melody of 1929, and is available on DVD.
2. Cimarron, 1931. Directed by Wesley Ruggles from a script by Howard Estabrook, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Richard Dix and Irene Dunne play a husband and wife who stake their claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush. Howard Estabrook's screenplay won an Oscar for Best Writing, Adaptation, but contemporary reviewers criticize the film's casual racism. It's available on DVD.
3. The Life of Emile Zola, 1937. Can you imagine a movie with this title being released today? Even if anyone could talk a studio into funding a biopic about a French novelist, they'd have to call it Zola, or maybe Zola! Anyway, William Dieterle directed this film from an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine. Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus; Paul Muni played Zola, and Vladimir Sokoloff played Paul Cezanne. It too is on DVD.
4. Ordinary People, 1980. I've seen so many clips from this film that it would be easy for me to pretend I have seen it, but I haven't. I did read the book, by Judith Guest; Alvin Sargent won the Oscar for his adaptation. The film was directed by Robert Redford, who also won the Oscar that year, and starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The movie is the story of the Jarretts, a seemingly ideal suburban family that is reeling from the death of one son and the attempted suicide of another (Hutton). I assume this movie is a time capsule of the late-1970s, that time when Americans believed we were actually supposed to talk about our feelings and that psychotherapy could fix us. Ugh, I shudder just thinking about this. I know it's supposed to be enriching and enlightening, but where's the entertainment value here?
5. The English Patient, 1996. It's entirely possible that I have pretended I've seen this, but I've never been able to sit through the whole thing. I read the book, which I found ponderous and unnecessarily complex and obscure. The film adaptation, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, focuses on one major plot thread, the romantic history of a mysterious wartime patient (Ralph Fiennes) who is recovering from terrible burns in an Italian monastery. It looked gorgeous, and I like Ralph Fiennes as much as the next heterosexual woman, but the dang thing is two hours and 42 minutes long, and I've always found better things to do with that time.
Which Best Picture winners have you missed? Got any overpowering arguments for why I should watch any of these movies? Leave them in the comments section.