Sunday, March 02, 2014

Defending the Oscars (Sometimes)

It's easy to dump on the Academy Awards; doing so in practically a tradition, one that I've joined in with plenty of times. If you want this year's version, just to build up your snark in preparation for this evening's edition of the annual overblown spectacle, try here or here or here or here, or just Google some more of your own. But you know--sometimes the armchair critics are wrong. But there are at least two times when, as time has gone by and the negative critical consensus has built, I've had to say to myself: no, actually, I think the Oscar voters got this one right.

1. Chariots of Fire deserved the Best Picture award in 1982. This movie doesn't stand out as hated so much as ignored--but if you remind people that Chariots of Fire was nominated the same year as Raiders of the Lost Ark, the fury quickly mounts. A hackneyed, synthesizer-drenched pedantic morality play (or so the critics screech), winning out over one of the greatest adventure movies of all time! Impossible! Well, I disagree. Raiders is a tremendous film, a genre-defining thriller that never misses a beat--but Chariots was just as expertly realized, a careful unity of acting and cinematography and soundtrack that enlisted the viewers in a powerful act of myth-making. And a highly intelligent one too; Vangelis may have long since passed his sell-by date, but Chariots purposefully-overwrought-but-never-unreasonable depiction of class conflict, athletic dedication, religious devotion, ethnic pride, and patriotism still works, scene after scene.

There were, to be sure, crimes perpetrated at the Oscars that year--rewarding the Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn for treacly On Golden Pond, for example, instead of the far more deserving Paul Newman for Absence of Malice and Susan Sarandon for Atlantic City--but the Best Picture race wasn't one of them.

2. Roberto Benigni deserved his Best Actor award in 1999. Not everyone hates Life is Beautiful, but those who do hate REALLY hate it; they find it an utterly despicable, profoundly immoral, aesthetically cheap pastiche of a film--and the central cause of that horror is Roberto Benigni, who they consider a horrible pathetic clown of a man. His win over Edward Norton's vicious turn in American History X is taken taken as evidence of Hollywood's anti-Semitism, or some such thing. Again, I disagree. The viewers who respond to this strangely farcical comedy set during the Holocaust are simply unable to take the opening words of the film seriously: that the whole thing is presented as a bedtime story, a fairy tale, a parable. For myself, as someone who doesn't really buy into the whimsical (and arguably condescending) relationship between Benigni's character and his son, but who found a certain sacrificial beauty to it all the same, Benigni's performance throughout the final half of the film--where he was constantly terrified and yet always able to fully enter into the ridiculous fantasy he is spinning for his boy--was clownish in the best sense, and amazing to watch.

It pains me to say this; also nominated for Best Actor that year was Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters, which I think is a tremendous, too-soon forgotten movie. But no, Benigni deserved it.

Others choices, anyone? Anyone willing to go against the critical consensus and defend Out of Africa or Forrest Gump or A Beautiful Mind? Or even Crash? (Well, of course not that last one; let's not go COMPLETELY crazy here.)


Withywindle said...

I'm happy Braveheart won, although I wouldn't have minded if Apollo 13 or Babe had got the nod instead. But is that controversial?

Russell Arben Fox said...

It is to me! I think Braveheart was hammy (and Apollo 13 merely workmanlike, at best), while I think Babe was tremendous bit of whimsical yet deeply thoughtful storytelling, one of the best movies of the 1990s. (Too bad the sequel was awful.)

Withywindle said...

Ah, I liked some of the historicity in the fabric of the movie (disparity in Scots and English weaponry, as I recollect), and I thought it was a good, bravura epic. But I can't quarrel with someone who loved Babe, since I loved it too. ("Pig ... of ... destiny!") I thought it was a good year for movies, all in all.