In a few days, Roma will (hopefully) win the Best Picture Oscar. So, I thought it would be fun to look at the history of the most coveted award in cinema history – even if it really doesn’t mean much.
Not too long ago, I realized that I’d seen all but five of the current 90 Best Picture Oscar winners. Now that I have seen those five, I can tell you that none of them is a masterpiece. The best, Mrs. Miniver, earned a B+. I gave the worst, Cimarron, a D.
Clearly, the Best Picture winner rarely goes to the year’s best picture. In 1933, Hollywood released King Kong, Duck Soup, 42nd St., Dinner at Eight, and Queen Christina. And yet the Academy gave the Best Picture Oscar to the deservedly forgotten Cavalcade (I gave it a C+). Only five Best Picture winners made it onto my A+ list – six if you count Sunrise (I’ll get to that exemption soon).
While I’ve seen them all, there are many I haven’t seen in a very long time and don’t remember well. For instance, I saw The Sting soon after it won the Oscar in 1974, and have had no desire to see it again.
What’s in a name?
Someone probably told you that Wings was the first Best Picture winner. It even says so on the Blu-ray box. But the award it actually received was called Outstanding Picture. And to make it more confusing, the above-mentioned Sunrise won the award for Unique and Artistic Picture. Neither of those awards were ever given again, but one could argue that Wings and Sunrise both received a forerunner of Best Picture.
The next year, there was only one award for the best movie, and it was called Outstanding Production – a name that lasted just over a decade. In 1942, the award became Outstanding Motion Picture. That name lasted only three years before it became Best Motion Picture. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was the very first film to win an Oscar called Best Picture. The title sticks.
Do you speak subtitle?
We call the award Best Picture, and then give separate awards for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Film. Strange when you think about it. Is the Academy telling us that non-fiction and non-English films are not worthy of the top prize?
Apparently so. No documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.
Things are somewhat better on the foreign front, but not by much. Roma is only the tenth foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture, but as I write this, none have won. (I’m not including Babel, which is on Wikipedia’s list, because it contains a great deal of English dialogue.) Surprisingly, only four of these nominees also won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar: Z, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Amour.
I hope that will change this Sunday with Roma winning Best Picture. There’s a good chance it will win both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. That might cause a stir.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Keep a stiff upper lip
The Academy loves British movies. Several British films, and American films set in Britain or its colonies, have won the big prize.
Twice, the Academy went all Anglophile for several years in a row. The first string of British-set winners came in the early 1940s, when England was facing the Nazis alone. The winners were Rebecca (The Grapes of Wrath should have won), How Green Was My Valley (winning over Citizen Kane), and the aforementioned Mrs. Miniver.
These were all made in Hollywood, with mostly British casts. Rebecca pretended that the war wasn’t going on. Valley was a period piece, so the war wasn’t involved at all. Miniver was very much about the war.
The second string of Anglophile winners came in the early- to mid-1960s. It started with Lawrence of Arabia, which is mostly set outside of Britain, but in the British army. That was followed by Tom Jones, a very British period comedy made in England. Next came My Fair Lady, which like those three ’40s winners, was set in England but shot in Hollywood. The Sound of Music is set in Austria, but has a largely British cast. Finally, A Man for All Seasons was a British as they came.
A Man for All Seasons
A few oddities
Up until 1956, only three color films won Best Picture: Gone with the Wind, The Greatest Show on Earth, and An American in Paris. Since then, we’ve seen only three black-and-white Best Pictures: The Apartment, Schindler’s List, and The Artist. I’m hoping a fourth will add to the list with Roma.
Originally, the Oscars went not for films of the previous year, but something more complicated. The first Oscars, given out in 1929, was for films released from August 1, 1927 to July 31, 1928. It wasn’t until 1934 that the awards switched to films from January 1 to December 31.
Only eight comedies have won Best Picture: It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It with You, Around the World in 80 Days, The Apartment, Tom Jones, Annie Hall, Shakespeare in Love, and The Artist.
John Ford still holds the record for the most Best Director Oscars, and none of them were for westerns.
My Best and Worst Winners
Here are my favorite Best Picture winners, in chronological order:
- Sunrise (arguably not a Best Picture winner)
- Lawrence of Arabia
- The Godfather
- The Godfather, Part II
- Annie Hall
And my least favorite winners:
- The Broadway Melody
- The Greatest Show on Earth