The Oscar Could Have Gone To....
Alternate Best Picture Winners At The Academy Awards
By Chris Oakley
Picking up where we left off last time, we’re going to move on to the post-1960 crop of Oscar contenders and winners, with particular attention to a pair of films which could have been major game-changers for Academy Award nomination standards if they had succeeded in taking home the brass ring-- or the gold statuette, as the case may be. And on that note, here are some more forks in the road of Oscar history...
#8: The Jury Is In: Judgement At Nuremburg beats out West Side Story for Best Picture(1961)
As I said in Part 1, musicals tend to prevail more often than not when it comes time to hand out Best Picture Academy Awards; this was particularly true in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, one of the last great eras of film musicals in Hollywood. Although the studio system which had dominated the motion picture business since the days of D.W. Griffith was by 1960 fading into memory, the musical genre it spawned in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s was still going strong. Among the most convincing proofs of this trend was the Best Picture Oscar bestowed on Robert Wise’s cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s urban riff on Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story.
Now contemplate the notion of the Academy opting instead to bestow its coveted gold statuette on Story’s main rival in that category, the Nazi war crimes drama Judgement At Nuremburg. Could that have spelled the end of the movie musical for all time? Well, it certainly would have been a major setback for the genre-- and a simultaneous boost for the courtroom drama variety of film. Who knows, a certain TV barrister might have even gotten to plead his case on the silver screen: at the time Nuremburg and Story were released, Perry Mason was prime time’s most popular courtroom drama if not its most popular drama period. If Nuremburg had copped the Best Picture Academy Award, that might well have paved the way for a feature film adaptation of Perry a few years down the line.
#9: The Face That Launched A Thousand Debts: Cleopatra wins the Best Picture Oscar(1963)
Cleopatra is one of the most famous movies ever made-- largely for the wrong reasons. For starters, it strained 20th Century Fox’s financial resources to the point where the studio nearly went out of business; second, it brought scandal on two of its leading stars when word leaked out they were having an affair; on top of that, it got swamped in a tsunami of negative reviews; and last but not least the drama surrounding its production and the controversy which its runaway expenses engendered cost studio boss Darryl Zanuck his job.
But imagine for just a second that Cleopatra had been able to avoid or overcome all that negative press and thrust itself into the Oscar race. Who would have benefited if it had managed to cop the Best Picture trophy? Zanuck, for starters. If his costly and controversial epic had managed to snag that award, he would have then been able to say "In your face!" to everyone who’d doubted him, criticized him, or made fun of him during the long and tortuous process of bringing the movie to the silver screen. The balance of power at the Fox studios could have been instantly and radically transformed quicker than you can say "Grauman’s Chinese Theatre".
#10: Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal: 2001: A Space Odyssey beats out Oliver! in the Best Picture category(1968)
No knock against Oliver!, but I think Charles Dickens himself would have been the first to agree that Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic rendering of the Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi opus 2001 was more deserving of the Best Picture nod at the ’68 Academy Awards. Just a few of the things 2001 had going for it were an epic story, visual and sound FX that were years if not decades ahead of their time, and an incredibly smart screenplay. And while 2001’s cast was made up largely of little- known or even unknown actors, they were every bit as talented as the megastars in Oliver!-- maybe even a little better in some cases.
Suppose for just a minute the Academy had figured this out in time to give 2001 the Best Picture Oscar it deserved. What would the impact on cinema history have been? Well, for starters 2001 director Stanley Kubrick’s professional stock, as high as it was in the first place, would have been elevated still higher. It’s not too far out of the realm of possibility to imagine that his legendary Vietnam opus Full Metal Jacket might have made it to the silver screen a decade or so earlier than its actual OTL release date.
For that matter, the science fiction genre as a whole could have gotten a shot in the arm from a 2001 win at the Academy Awards-- just think of the kind of audiences that, say THX-1138 could have drawn at the box office following a Best Picture award to 2001. Science fiction movies were extremely ghettoized back in the ‘60s, and even today they still have some problems finding acceptance among mainstream audiences and critics; a Best Picture win for 2001 at the box office could have done a lot to solve or mitigate those problems.
#11: Everybody’s (Not)Talking At Me: Midnight Cowboy gets shut out at the Oscars(1969)
To say Midnight Cowboy was a controversial film would be like saying Ann Coulter has a slight disagreement with Michael Moore’s views on the war in Iraq. As the first major X-rated theatrical film release, it raised eyebrows(and blood pressures) just about everywhere it was screened. And if the X rating wasn’t enough to outrage the more conservative segments of the American movie-going public, the fact one of the major characters happened to be gay would definitely suffice to start an argument or two. That controversy, however, wasn’t enough to stop Cowboy from racking up some serious hardware at the 1970 Academy Awards; it went away with three Oscars, including Best Picture. And Dustin Hoffman’s admonition "I’m walkin’ here!" to a driver who nearly hits his character Ratso Rizzo on a New York sidewalk is now enshrined as one of the most memorable lines in movie history.
But ponder if you will the idea of Cowboy missing out on the Best Picture trophy-- or not getting any Academy Awards whatsoever. Could it have hurt the box office prospects of its principal stars? The jury’s out on that one; Hoffman and his co-star Jon Voight were were still in the early stages of their respective acting careers at the time Cowboy was made, but they were building fairly solid resumes and Hoffman in particular had already made a splash two years earlier with his role in The Graduate. Could it have affected the professional reputation of director John Schlesinger? Possibly, although we can’t be entirely sure how much it would have been affected.
Would the film’s controversial subject matter have combined with an Oscar loss to make similar topics harder to tackle on the screen in later years? Definitely. Dramas about male hustlers aren’t exactly the stuff of megaplex gold, and for all the talk about countercultures and "letting it all hang out" America still held to a fairly conservative moral and sexual code in 1969. An Oscar snub of Midnight Cowboy might well have been construed as vindication of those who felt the movie’s premise was unsuitable for mainstream audiences. The bus that carries Joe to Miami at the end of the film might just as easily have carried him into cinematic obscurity.
#12: Disconnected: A Clockwork Orange beats The French Connection in the Best Picture race(1971)
In a 2009 article titled "The 25 Biggest Oscar Snubs Ever", the magazine Entertainment Weekly cited as one of the most grievous such snubs the Academy’s failure to nominate Malcolm McDowell in the Best Actor category for his work as the leading man in the film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange. The movie itself didn’t do that much better, narrowly losing out in the Best Picture category to the gritty Gene Hackman-Roy Scheider New York City police drama The French Connection(in fact, Scheider’s performance as Det. Buddy Russo may have helped him land his screen history-making role as Chief Brody in the original Jaws four years later).
Suppose the dice had rolled just a bit differently for McDowell and his co-stars on Oscar night when the Best Picture results were announced? At the very least, it would have been sweet revenge for McDowell on the Academy for his exclusion from the list of Best Actor nominees; on a wider scale, it might have meant that outré films like Orange would have had a better chance of getting made, released, and nominated for prestigious awards like the Oscar. Last but not least, it would have been a huge feather in the cap of Anthony Burgess: the original book, as controversial in the literary world as its cinematic cousin would be in the movie industry, had sold millions of copies and a Best Picture might have tempted publishers to commission a sequel(or at least a reprint of the original).
In Part 3 we’ll start delving into the ‘70s and ‘80s and pose the question of what might have happened if the Academy had seen fit to show a certain George Lucas space epic some love when it was time to announce the Best Picture winner at the ’77 Oscars...
To Be Continued