I’m a big fan of the Oscars. It may not be fashionable to admit that but I love the way the film industry gets together to celebrate both the highlights of modern cinema and the successes of years gone by. However, in order to truly appreciate the Academy Awards for what they are, you need to embrace the madness of it all – the iconic, timeless work that is passed over for mediocrity; the filmmakers who are ignored for their masterpieces and later rewarded for much-lesser efforts; and the glamour and spectacle of an evening that seems to completely disregard the troubles of the rest of the world.
The mistakes are as important to the event as the successes. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight some films that weren’t even nominated for a single award on Oscar night - not even a token nomination for, say, Sound Effects Mixing. The only caveats are that they are American productions (so that there’s no excuse for their omission) and that they were eligible from the first year of the awards onwards. Also, some of the films are grouped together to explore a common theme.
10th December 2011 Stephen Evans
20) A Night At The Opera
A tightly written comedy routine is as beautiful in its way as any death or romantic scene. The ‘Signing of the Contract’ scene in ‘A Night at the Opera’ is honed to perfection. Each line heightens the humour and draws on the brothers’ stage experience to deliver such material. To argue that comedy writing of this standard is not something to be highly regarded would be to dismiss the works of Peter Cook, John Cleese and Neil Simon. In cinema, it’s arguably harder to make someone laugh then it is to make them cry.
19) Bringing Up Baby/His Girl Friday
More comedy but not quite as anarchic. The omission of ‘Bringing Up Baby’ is no mystery. It’s well established in Hollywood folklore that the failure of the film nearly ended the careers of Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hawks.
However, when coupled with the neglect of ‘His Girl Friday’, one feels that Hawks may have been years ahead of his rivals and the audience.
Like the writing of a Marx brothers scene, one has to ask – is the level of patter employed by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in ‘Friday’ any less of an achievement than, say, the solemnity of Gary Cooper’s performance in ‘Sergeant York’ or the sense of terror portrayed by Joan Fontaine in ‘Suspicion’?
The screenplay, by Charles Lederer and based upon a play by Charles McArthur and the great Ben Hecht, uses words like a machine gun uses bullets – they’re fired thick and fast and set up a witty battle of the sexes. Last year, Aaron Sorkin was rightfully acclaimed for such dialogue in ‘The Social Network’, particularly its superb opening scene. These guys were doing it seventy years before!
18) Sullivans Travels
Preston Sturges wasn’t completely ignored by the Academy. In fact, he did win an Oscar. And yet ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ fell by the wayside. Quite how is beyond me. A light and enjoyable farce for the first half, it dramatically changes tone for the second and finishes with a truly profound message. Maybe Hollywood thought the argument that a Mickey Mouse cartoon is as important to some people as a Hollywood epic a bit trite or on-the-nose. Shame. This is Sturges’ masterpiece.
1941 was a particularly bad year for Oscar with ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ snubbed and ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Dumbo’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ winning just two awards between them. Now I’m Welsh, so it seems somewhat traitorous to say this, but it seems farcical that the pleasant if unspectacular ‘How Green Was My Valley’ was the big winner that year.
17) Rio Bravo
Hawks again, nineteen years after ‘His Girl Friday’ and still on top form. His response to ‘High Noon’ has John Wayne leading the line, Dean Martin stealing the show and Angie Dickinson looking hot as hell.
‘Ben Hur’ swept up that year. Even Hugh Griffith took home the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award in a year that had Martin in ‘Bravo’ and George C Scott in ‘Anatomy of a Murder’. It’s a situation that reminds me of standing in a bar and watching pretty-if-conventional girls being ignored whilst the guys surround an unattractive girl in hot pants. Like Griffith in ‘Ben Hur’, the garish outfit might fool you, but you’ll regret your choice the day after.
Furthman and Brackett’s screenplay is a great example of how to escalate tension and has been used as a template for many a film since.
That year, for Best Original Screenplay, ‘Rio Bravo’, Francois Truffaut for ‘The 400 Blows’, Ernest Lehman for ‘North by Northwest’ and Ingmar Bergman for ‘Wild Strawberries’ all lost out to ‘Pillow Talk’. Seriously, ‘Pillow Talk’. ‘Pillow Talk’!
16) Groundhog Day
Bill Murray is one of the finest screen comedians there’s ever been. Yet the Academy seemed to wait until all the life had been sucked out of him (in a good way) by Sofia Coppola before choosing to nominate him. Why couldn’t he have been nominated at the height of his game – in full acerbic, sarcastic splendour? This picture is the perfect showcase for Murray, as it plonks him unceremoniously in a world he can’t help but look his nose down. And no one does this in quite as likeable a way as Murray.
One of the Best Picture nominees that year was ‘The Fugitive’. A routine film with a couple of quality set pieces. ‘Groundhog Day’ is a delight from the first moment to the last with its witty screenplay, light direction and enjoyable performances.
Each year, the Academy Awards tend to be dominated by the output of the major studios. Naturally, this is due to the financial strength they are able to give to the campaigns.
‘Detour’, a film noir from a Poverty Row studio, was unlikely to be able to compete with the major productions of that year. However, few films have as much an impact on the audience as this terrific, and little known, gem.
The biggest sin of omission was for Ann Savage for her ruthless, psychotic turn. Never once does Savage try to make her character more sympathetic. There is an unrelenting viciousness to her, and it infects the film with such a sense of nihilism and despair.
Edgar G Ulmer creates great atmosphere and tension on a small budget.
That is a great skill in itself. Hitchcock was nominated that year for one of his lesser works, ‘Spellbound’. I think Ulmer would have been a more worthy nominee.
Judd Apatow recently argued that the Academy Awards should have a category for comedies. Although I don’t agree a new section of awards is required (as you would have to have one for every genre considering how horror and science fiction are equally neglected), as a group of films they should be taken more seriously.
Well, okay, you can’t take the Marx brothers seriously. They’d have hated that more than anyone. However, their anarchic, chaotic films are still treasured years after other more ‘worthy’ titles have been consigned to history.
One reason for its omission may be that too many writers contributed, thus rendering it a team-effort of gags, but then it took five people to write the later-nominated ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’. Also, many other nominated screenplays have benefitted from a variety of figures.