8. 1980 – Ordinary People vs Raging Bull vs The Elephant Man vs Tess
As the decade of the 80’s got underway, the gap in audiences seemed to get wider, with the more adult literate films (usually dramas) released near the end of the year, and the more comedic or action type of films that would attract younger audiences released in the summer months.
The first year of the decade seemed to embrace the older audience. Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, tells the story of the Jarrett family. Son Conrad has been released from a psychiatric hospital after trying to commit suicide due to the accidental drowning death of his older brother, and his sessions with a doctor afterwards.
Raging Bull, starring Robert DeNiro as boxer Jake LaMotta, who uses all his power and anger in the ring, then tries to use those forces in his everyday life, but his machismo alienates his family and friends. The Elephant Man, based on the life of John Merrick, a deformed man trying to earn a living as a circus sideshow attraction discovered by surgeon Frederick Treves, who takes him into his hospital and treats him as the human being he really is.
Tess, directed by Roman Polanski, is the story of a young, poor English girl who tries to find members of her family name and is raped by her assumed cousin. She tries to hide her past when she marries a farmer, which leads to moralistic judgment and death.
As the decade began, the Academy voters seemed to steer clear of the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s and embrace smaller dramas with more dramatic subject matter. Raging Bull, an intense boxing film, with Robert DeNiro undergoing a 60 pound weight gain to play the older LaMotta, was seen by many viewer and voters as a stunt, despite the great acting and great black and white cinematography.
The Elephant Man, based on a Broadway play, was opened up a bit for the screen, but still seemed a bit stage bound. Tess, directed by Roman Polanski, was a costume drama, which was temporarily out of fashion, and wouldn’t be popular again until later in the decade.
Ordinary People, the first film directed by Hollywood favorite Robert Redford, starred actors that the voters could get behind. They enjoyed seeing Mary Tyler Moore play against type, and many voters knew Timothy Hutton’s late father, so he seemed like a known entity. It took Best Picture as it was a film story that many voters could understand.
7. 1967 – In the Heat of the Night vs Bonnie and Clyde vs The Graduate
1967 was another strong year for films, with adult themes really starting to push the envelope. Themes such as race relations, violence and frank sexuality were a highlight of the year in films. Three of the nominees for Best Picture shows these types of themes to large appreciative audiences.
First, In the Heat of the Night, starring the great Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, directed by Norman Jewison, was the story of a black policeman from Pennsylvania and a Southern Sheriff working through their initial mistrust to solve a crime.
Bonnie and Clyde, directed by journeyman director Arthur Penn. Starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it tells the story of the two outlaws in the 1930’s. Finally, The Graduate, directed by the wonderful Mike Nichols, and starring Dustin Hoffman in his first starring role, it’s the story of a young college graduate who becomes involved with an older woman and her daughter.
On Oscar night, Bonnie and Clyde had a level of violence that was too realistic for some voters. The Graduate was a comedy drama, not a genre that the Academy favored. In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture, as voters embraced a thriller and was more willing to endorse strong black characters since the passage of the Civil Rights act.
6. 1974 – The Godfather Part II vs Chinatown vs The Conversation
1974 was an iconic year for American films, with some of the greatest films of all time released. Anyone of the three films discussed here could have won Best Picture. First up was The Godfather, Part II. A continuation of 1972’s The Godfather, directed once again by Francis Ford Coppola. A film of two stories, it depicts the young Vito Corleone rising in the ranks of the mob, while in the present day, it show how Michael runs the family somewhat differently than his father.
Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski and starred Jack Nicholson, is the tale of a private investigator who seemingly gets some information on an affair and then gets caught up in the California Water Wars of the early 20th Century and the family drama that unfolds. The Conversation, also directed by Coppola again and starred Gene Hackman, is about a surveillance expert who may or may not have recorded a murder. Though Coppola claimed the inspiration was the 1966 film Blow-Up, many audiences saw it as a reaction to Watergate.
At the Academy Awards that year, since two of the films were directed by the same person (Francis Ford Coppola) per Academy rules he could only get one director nomination.
As The Godfather, Part II was seen as a richer, deeper film than its predecessor, The Conversation was less likely to win as it had no nominated director, though it did go on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. Chinatown told of a historical land grab that many people did not understand. And the twist ending was a little too startling. So The Godfather Part II won the Best Picture Oscar.
5. 2007 – No Country for Old Men vs There Will Be Blood
2007 was considered a strong year at the Academy Awards for small independent films. None of the top grossing films of the year did much as far as nominations. There were two front runners that year. No Country for Old Men takes place in West Texas in 1980, when a pronghorn hunter comes upon a group of massacred Mexicans and dogs and finds a pilot’s case containing $2 Million which is from a drug deal gone wrong. It then becomes a battle between the finder of the case and a hit man hired to find the money. Directed, produced and screenplay by the Coen brothers.
There Will Be Blood, directed and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson and a favorite among film buffs, is originally set in 1898 New Mexico where Daniel Plainview finds a vein of ore and goes through the assay office to claim the vein, and proceeds to California where he begins an oil company and ruthlessly does everything he can to get all the surrounding line and move the oil by pipeline. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, it was like a master class in acting.
Two very strong films with excellent performances in each, There Will Be Blood was considered more of a cult film, though Anderson fans claimed it was his most mainstream film. No Country for Old Men was produced, directed and written by the Coen brothers who were favorites of the Academy for a long time, so they walked away with Best Picture.
4. 1950 – All About Eve vs Sunset Boulevard
In 1950, many things had started to change in films. Audiences were more willing to accept adult themes in movies. Two of the greatest films of all time were nominated for Best Picture this year. All About Eve, directed and written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who won the Oscar in the same two categories the previous year. Set in the milieu of Broadway, it showed the underside of the stage.
Sunset Boulevard, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder who was one of the 40’s and 50’s most popular writers and directors, was an acrid look at Hollywood, specifically silent film actors and the studios that have passed them by.
While both films received tremendous reviews and multiple Academy Award nominations, the studio heads were displeased with Sunset Boulevard, feeling that it showed an underside of Hollywood studios that they did not want to have exposed. As the studio system was still in place (though starting its slide), the studio bosses still had the power to swing votes, and it was All About Eve they chose to instruct their voters to give the award to.
3. 1994 – Forrest Gump vs Pulp Fiction vs The Shawshank Redemption
1994 was a different kind of year for films, with some films seen as almost aggressively political and some films thumbing their noses in defiance.
There were three films seen as front runners that year. Forrest Gump starred Tom Hanks as an everyman who in many ways shapes popular culture, while Jenny, the woman he loves, embraces a completely different lifestyle. It is definitely seen as the triumph of conservative values over the counterculture of the 60’s and 70’s.
Pulp Fiction, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a black comedy neo-noir film of three interlocking stories of hit men and thieves, it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes that year. The Shawshank Redemption, based on the Steven King story, tells the tale of Andy, a man convicted of killing his wife and her lover. He is sent to prison and befriends another inmate Red. Andy is forced by the warden to do shady business deals as he was an accountant but he gets his revenge in the end.
At the Oscars that year, Pulp Fiction, though nominated in several categories, won for Best Screenplay, as Tarentino’s script was considered the best part of the film. The Shawshank Redemption was mostly unseen. Despite good critical reviews, it didn’t take off until it was released on DVD. It is now the #1 film on IMDB’s top 250 films.
Forrest Gump was popular. It starred Tom Hanks who became the fourth person to win back to back Oscars, and was considered a comedy drama with excellent performances. It received the Best Picture based on this.
2. 1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vs Barry Lyndon vs Dog Day Afternoon vs Jaws vs Nashville
1975 seemed to be a year where everywhere you looked, it was Watergate as a theme. Any of the five nominated films for Best Picture could legitimately have won. First is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with great performances, script, and direction. It tells the story of Randal P. McMurphy, a small time criminal who’s sent to a mental institution, becomes embroiled in a battle of wills with Nurse Ratched.
Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is the story of a young man’s rise and fall, first in the military, then in a rich, loveless marriage. Gorgeous cinematography, costumes, and settings make this a pleasure to watch. Dog Day Afternoon, directed by the great Sidney Lumet and starred Al Pacino in a brilliant performance as part of two bank robbers trying to get money so that Sonny’s lover can get sexual reassignment surgery.
Jaws, only the second theatrical film directed by Steven Spielberg, was a roller coaster ride of a movie about shark attacks at Martha’s Vinyard. All by itself, it defined the term “popcorn movie”: a high-concept plot welded to an action film timed in its release to appeal to a younger audience.
Nashville, directed by Robert Altman, is a musical drama about four days in the title city. Several separate story threads are drawn together to show the underside of the country music business. And how politics fits into the mix.
In the voting for the Academy Awards, Barry Lyndon was unappreciated at the time but has since become a classic and is much more praised today. Dog Day Afternoon had plot points the voters were not ready for, such as gender reassignment surgery. Jaws was extremely popular at the box office and started a trend where voter believed that the money was its own reward. Also Spielberg was not nominated for Director and that at that time made it very difficult to win best picture without a nominated director.
Nashville, which is really more of a drama, was seen as a musical. The musical genre, after the glut of huge budget poor ones in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was ruled out. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest not only won Best Picture, but for the first time since 1934, won the top 5 honors (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay).
1. 1939 – Gone With the Wind vs Mr. Smith Goes to Washington vs Ninotchka vs Stagecoach vs The Wizard of Oz
Many critics and audiences believe that 1939 was the greatest year for Hollywood films. The Best Picture nominations prove the truth of that belief. Let’s look at the front runners for Best Picture that year.
First was the great Civil War romance Gone With the Wind. We would never look at Civil War films the same way again. Next was the film that showed political corruption in the Senate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Starring every man James Stewart, we all knew it would come out right in the end.
Ninotchka was the film that was to show a new side to Greta Garbo. Rather than the melodramas she was known for, this was an out and out comedy, marketed with the tagline, “Garbo Laughs”. Stagecoach, considered the first “adult” western, made a star of John Wayne and started his long association with Director John Ford. Finally, The Wizard of Oz, based on the stories by L. Frank Baum, is the ultimate fantasy film.
These films and five other films were nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. Based on what was known about the voters at that time, it was no surprise that Gone with the Wind was the winner, based on the fact that the other films belonged to genres the Academy has never favored.
Author Bio: Michael Giffey lives in Denver, Colorado. His family and friends say he is full of “useless information”. you can follow him at @giffeymichael on Twitter or on Facebook.