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And The Oscar Could Have Gone To....

Alternate Best Picture Winners At The Academy Awards

 

By Chris Oakley

Part 1

 

 

How many times while watching the Academy Awards have you said to yourself "That movie was robbed!" or "How did that film get an Oscar? It was CRUD!"? Quite a few, Iíd wager. However, this particular essay is meant to pose a different question regarding the Oscars-- namely, the question of how the course of cinema history might have changed if certain choices in the Best Picture category had gone differently. Who in Hollywood would have benefited from those roads not taken, and who would have been left out in the cold? Letís take a short look at some of the ways the silver screen history books could have been rewritten over the last eight-odd decades...

 

#1: On the Avenue Iím Taking You To: 42nd Street beats out Cavalcade (1933)

Musicals rarely even get nominated for the Best Picture trophy, and itís even rarer that they win. And when said musical happens to be up against a field of challengers that includes a romantic drama spanning a half-century of British history and adaptations of two of Americaís great literary classics...well, thereís not much need to bother with drafting an acceptance speech, is there?

But imagine for a moment if the Academy voters had defied the conventional wisdom and given 42nd the Best Picture nod. What might the consequences have been? Well, for starters, a huge shot in the arm for the movie musical genre as a whole; as Titanic director James Cameron could tell you, winning an Oscar can do wonders for oneís career. (And speaking of Mr. Cameron, weíll be getting to him later.) When a motion picture is successful, it usually spawns a host of imitators-- witness the dozens of disaster movies that cropped up after Towering Inferno struck gold in theaters and the surge of quirky teen comedies that are following in the footsteps of Juno.

Conversely, if 42nd had beaten out Cavalcade in the Best Picture category, historical dramas might have had a harder time getting the green light from studios or finding an audience in theaters. One movie in particular could have found itself out in the cold; if Cavalcade hadnít snagged the Best Picture Academy Award in 1933, it could have been an uphill climb for Gone With The Wind to find an audience in the theaters-- assuming, that is, it could have gotten greenlighted in the first place.

 

#2: A Clean Sweep....NOT! It Happened One Night loses out to The Thin Man(1934)

Prior to the 1935 Academy Awards, write-in votes werenít accepted for the final ballots in Oscar voting.1 If they had been, it might have been W.S. Van Dyke and not Frank Capra celebrating a win in the Best Picture category at the 1934 Oscars-- and Itís A Wonderful Life, to name just one of Capraís later projects, might have had a harder time getting made. Indeed, it might never have been made at all. With the inaugural movie in the Nick and Nora Charles comedic mystery saga as the 1934 Best Picture winner, Van Dykeís stock in Hollywood would have risen and Capraís fallen in the years afterward.

Another potential beneficiary of a Thin Man upset win in the Best Picture race: TM leading man Dick Powell. Not that Powell was exactly hurting for work in OTL, but with an Oscar in his pocket he would have had every decent director in Hollywood(and most of the indecent ones, for that matter) beating a path to his door. In fact, itís not totally beyond the realm of possibility to imagine Powell and his leading lady from TM, Myrna Loy, in that legendary airport farewell sequence at the end of Casablanca...

 

#3: (Bleep) You, Hearst! Citizen Kane wins for Best Picture(1941)

What a delicious irony it would have been if William Randolph Hearstís relentless and remorseless efforts to undermine Orson Wellesí debut motion picture had backfired and the Academy voters had decided to give Kane the Best Picture trophy just to spite Hearst. This may be just a hunch, but Iím guessing that the sounds of breaking china and Hearst screaming in apoplectic rage would have echoed throughout the halls of San Simeon. Hearst was not the kind of guy who took criticism very well.

Meanwhile his arch-nemesis, Orson Welles, would have been boosted into the Hollywood stratosphere by an Oscar win; emboldened by having succeeded in attacking (albeit indirectly)one of the most powerful men in corporate America, he probably would have gone on to target other high-profile individuals in his subsequent movies. And Lord knows, he certainly would have had plenty of targets to choose from. Self-styled fascist leader Fritz Kuhn, infamous anti-Semitic priest Father Charles Coughlin, populist political demagogue Huey Long, Communist Party USA chief Gus Browder, crime boss Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and Hearstís pit bull of a gossip columnist Louella Parsons are just a few of the potential objects on whom Welles could have vented his artistic scorn.

Finally, Mercury Theater would have been quickly confirmed as an American cultural institution; as more than a few recent Academy Award Award winners could tell you, thereís nothing like an Oscar to boost your status in the American arts & entertainment world. Heck, Mercury Theater could have even gone on into the television era as a kind of video repertory troupe.

 

#4: You Must Remember This... Casablanca loses out in the Best Picture category(1942)

Casablancaís place in American cinematic and pop culture history was cemented forever when it won the 1942 Best Picture Oscar at the 1943 Academy Awards. But it wasnít totally a slam dunk win for Michael Curtizís stirring romantic saga; Casablanca had at least eight other challengers nipping at its heels, and its initial box office stint, while profitable, hadnít exactly been a Spielberg-level blockbuster.

In fact, it wasnít even the only film adaptation of a theatrical play up for the Best Picture Oscar that year-- Watch On The Rhine, based on the Lillian Hellman play of the same name, and Heaven Can Wait, an adaptation of the Leslie Bush-Fekete Broadway comedy Birthday, were also in contention for the gold statuette. So suppose for a second or two that one of them, or even a long shot contender like Madame Curie, had taken home the coveted gold statuette. Who would have missed out on superstardom?

Not Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman, certainly-- letís face it, it was practically etched in granite that those two would be in the ranks of the Hollywood elite. And while Claude Rainsí career prospects might have taken a temporary hit, itís a safe bet that he too would have made it to the top rungs of the Hollywood ladder. However, the movieís director, Michael Curtiz, might have seen his professional prospects diminished a bit if his brainchild had been passed over for the golden statue. In some respects, being nominated for an Oscar and losing can be worse than never getting nominated at all.

 

#5: Gentlemenís Disagreement: Best Years Of Our Lives gets snubbed by the Academy(1946)

Harold Russellís The Best Years Of Our Lives is rightly hailed as one of the most gripping and true-to-life drama films in Hollywood history; though Russell, a World War II veteran, naturally focused his story on servicemen returning from that conflict, the struggles of its protagonist to readjust to civilian life can just as easily serve as an allegory for the GIs who came back from Korea or Vietnam-- or the current generation of service vets returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1946 is a testament to its enduring power as a drama film.

And yet itís distinctly possible Russellís masterpiece might not have gotten the Oscar love it deserved. When it first hit theaters, America was just beginning to reorient itself to a peacetime society after almost four years of savage conflict with the Axis powers-- and the need for escape was overwhelming. That need could very well have cancelled out Yearsí chances for gaining the coveted gold statuette.

So who would have been the number one beneficiary if Years had been left off the Oscar nominations list? Most likely Itís A Wonderful Life, Frank Capraís famous tribute to small-town America and the value of an individual life. Another film that could have reaped the rewards of Yearsí absence from the Oscar nominations list is Edmund Gouldingís adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel The Razorís Edge; sweeping historical dramas, as Iíve hinted at the beginning of this article, generally tend to get a lot of from the Academy at nomination time(and if you donít believe me check out the Oscar stats for Shakespeare In Love).

 

#6: I Couldíve Been A Contender: The Caine Mutiny beats out On The Waterfront for Best Picture(1954)

In one of the previous segments of this article, I speculated on how cinematic history might have been affected if one of Humphrey Bogartís early pictures, Casablanca, had fallen short of winning the Best Picture Oscar. Now Iíd like to jump to the opposite end of the scale and ponder what the results might have been if one of his late- career films, The Caine Mutiny, had succeeded in taking home the gold statuette.

In OTL, Caine got narrowly edged out by Elia Kazanís epic social drama On The Waterfront-- and as a product of Waterfrontís triumph its brooding and intense star, Marlon Brando, was propelled into the movie industryís stratosphere once and for all. But if things had worked out the other way around and Caine prevailed, it could have been a massive blow to Brandoís pride. Brando was famous for his sensitive nature, and if Waterfront had lost out to Caine in the Best Picture Oscar race it might have put him on the shelf for a long or time-- or possibly even driven him out of the acting profession altogether.

For that matter, Elia Kazan might not have fared too well either; he made Waterfront partly as an allegorical defense of his decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and if his movie had been passed over for Caine that could have been interpreted in some circles as an implicit repudiation of his decision. If that  had happened, Kazan might have found directorial assignments harder to come by in later years; Hollywood is in political terms a mainly left-wing town, and its citizens never forgave Kazan for co-operating with HUAC.

 

#7: Youíre Killing Me Here: Anatomy Of A Murder upsets Ben Hur in the Best Picture category(1959)

As I mentioned previously in this commentary, historical dramas more often than not tend to do well in the Best Picture category-- and there are few better examples of this trend than Charlton Hestonís legendary Roman saga Ben Hur. But Ben Hur faced a rather formidable challenger for the 1959 Best Picture Academy Award in the form of Otto Premingerís taut courtroom epic Anatomy Of A Murder. Suppose for just a minute Anatomy had bucked conventional wisdom and edged out Ben for the Best Picture Oscar? What might the consequences of such an upset have been for the careers of all parties concerned?

Well, at the very least, Otto Premingerís already considerable prestige in Hollywood would have been further heightened. On top of that, the murder mystery genre as a whole would have gotten a major shot in the arm from such a victory-- it might have even become the dominant cinematic genre of the 1960s. Historical dramas, on the other hand, might have become an endangered species; even in the days before CGI and star entourages the size of a small Latin American village, such movies were notoriously expensive to make. In fact, 20th Century Fox nearly went out of business thanks to the cost overruns which got accrued during the making of Cleopatra.

Another potential casualty of a Ben Hur defeat at the Academy Awards: the literary reputation of Lew Wallace, the Civil War officer who wrote the original novel on which William Wylerís Cinemascope epic (and a 1929 silent film) was based. Although in Wallaceís own day the book had been a huge bestseller and the inspiration for a spectacular theatrical show, by the time Wyler got around to adapting Ben for the Cinemascope era the book had been eclipsed in sales and popularity by the likes of Gone With The Wind, Giant, and Peyton Place. If Wylerís version of Ben had fallen short in its quest for the Best Picture award, the book itself might have fallen to cult status or even faded from public memory altogether.

In Part 2, Iíll start looking at potential turning points in more recent eras of Oscar history, with special attention to two Ď60s films which could have upset Hollywoodís apple cart...

 

To Be Continued

Footnote

[1] Information found at the Internet Movie Database.

 

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