It’s the Oscar season again the movie industry is getting swept up in its fever. And why shouldn’t they? There is a mystique about the Oscar that has always put it ahead of the Emmy and the Grammy, in part because it is older, but also in part because the idea of the movies is bigger than the idea of television or record albums.
Because of this, the Oscars seem to get a free pass in collective memory as people just assume that its reputation is borne out by its record. But is it?
In this spirit, I would like to submit three of the biggest myths about the Oscars.
1. Best Picture always goes to a classic. Luckily, for the Academy, they have gotten it right enough times to create the illusion of the Best Picture winners being a definitive shortlist for the canon of film: Casablanca (1943), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Godfather (1972) have all won the prestigious award. But there are several problems. First of all, there are some simply bad films that have won Best Picture. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is generally considered the worst (and it beat out High Noon to get it, much to the chagrin of every critic ever), but not that far behind it are The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and (for many, myself included) Crash (2005). Cavalcade (1932/33) is so bad, it’s never been readily available on DVD, not that anyone seems to notice. Which calls to mind all of the Best Picture winners that leave no real mark in the collective memory, such as The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marty (1955) Tom Jones (1963), and Ordinary People (1980), which are the Best Picture equivalent of Millard Fillmore. Finally, there are the films that are good-to-great but beat out bigger/better classics to get there. The most infamous example of this is How Green Was My Valley (1941), which beat out Citizen Kane, which is generally considered the greatest film of all-time, ever. I’m told that Valley is actually pretty decent, but I’ll never know because I’ll never watch it out of principle.
2. Great actors are always rewarded for their signature roles. Once again, the Academy has gotten it right enough times for people to assume this is true: Gregory Peck won for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Bette Davis won for All About Eve (1950), Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump (1994), and Clark Gable won for…It Happened One Night (1934). Gable actually lost the Best Actor award for Gone With the Wind (1939) to Robert Dunat, who won for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Another person Dunat beat that year was Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which upset so many people that Stewart was given one of the first “consolation” Oscars the following year for Best Actor in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a film in which he received third billing. Stewart’s 1940 Best Actor win meant that he beat out Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (Fonda got his own consolation Oscar over 40 years later for On Golden Pond). To round out the list, Humphrey Bogart won for The African Queen (1950), not Casablanca (1943); Audrey Hepburn won for Roman Holiday (1953), not Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field (1963), not In the Heat of the Night (1967); and John Wayne won for the original True Grit (1969), not The Searchers (1956), in part because The Searchers received no Academy Award nominations, period. But that’s a whole other list…
3. The Oscars always reward the best of the best. Sometimes the Academy Awards get things right. But for every other time, there’s always an honorary Oscar award. Cases in point: Alfred Hitchcock, generally considered the greatest director ever, never won a competitive Oscar, but was given an honorary one in 1968. Cary Grant, often considered the greatest actor ever, also never won a competitive Oscar, but was given an honorary one in 1970. And, as noted above, Citizen Kane, generally considered the greatest film ever, did not win Best Picture; any time you see print for it proclaiming it an “Oscar winner,” follow the fine print down to the bottom where you can see Orson Welles won for Best Original Screenplay (his only competitive Oscar – he got his honorary one the same year as Cary Grant). Other honorary-only winners include Charlie Chaplin (1927/28 and 1971), Greta Garbo (1954), Fred Astaire (1950), and Groucho Marx (1973). Judy Garland and Shirley Temple were both only given a now-defunct special “juvenile” award (a somewhat degrading pint-sized Oscar) for their work in 1940 and 1934, respectively. James Dean was nominated twice (posthumously) and lost both. Which leaves us with Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most iconic movie star of all-time, who was neither given nor even nominated for an Academy Award. Many believe she should have been nominated for Some Like It Hot, which many consider to be the greatest comedy ever, and features Monroe’s finest performance. Instead, the Oscar that year went to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top. Whom I’m sure we all remember just as well.