What makes an Oscar winner? I have no idea, really. But I can take a guess by watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.
The 34th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: Gandhi, Tootsie (10), The Verdict (5)
[ bold = winner / italics = losers (nominations) ]
When I watched these: October 14th – 17th, 2017
The snacks: chicken taquitos, chips and cheese, and mini tacos all made appearances. There’s a holding pattern with our snacks lingering from our time through the IMDb Top 250, but we’re okay with this.
The year: 1982.
Did I skip any of the movies?: Yes – E.T. (9). There were several others that had more nominations than The Verdict, but none of them were nominated for Best Picture.
So why did the other movies lose?
After watching the IMDb Top 250, it seems like movies made in the 1980s were generally overwrought and laborious, having to compete with some monster titles from the decade prior (Star Wars, Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter(!) ). And so we encounter Gandhi and its 1983 Oscar nominee peers, the latter of which are considerably shorter — for how is it possible to encapsulate a man like Gandhi in a mere film? — and naturally these others come across as more intense in nature. I remember watching E.T. as a kid and daydreaming about the ESP/drunken frog scene (without the ESP/drunk part) and having nightmares about the flour version of the awkwardly slow alien. And this one may no longer be my favorite of the group.
The entertaining Tootsie isn’t my favorite either, but it was certainly a laugh. The film explores woman empowerment and stereotyping, vilifying multiple males to get its agenda across. The opening surprise party prior to Hoffman’s cross dressing venture might be the best scene in the film, reflecting the chaos of insecure people, primarily unemployed narcissistic actors, knocking their heads together at some overnight gathering. More narcissism abounds as the plot progresses, and the film fiddles with homosexuality and role swapping, which are dangerous topics to overlook when selecting Academy nominees. I can’t say it wasn’t a fabulous film — and it was certainly fabulous — but it would have been politically incorrect to ignore the themes. It’s a rare comedy among many serious Oscar picks. But this doesn’t make it a winner.
The Verdict leans more toward what we’d expect out of a Best Picture film. The now-legendary white-haired Paul Newman, playing none other than a drunken never-has-been attorney chasing families of the deceased to get cheap cases first, turns in a convincing performance, and possesses underdog qualities that we quickly empathize with a la Cool Hand Luke. The protagonist is the system, manifested by stereotypically untouchable wealthy doctors and lawyers, a corrupt judge, and the evil and uncaring religious guy. They’re all out to make a buck; Frank (Newman) is out to prove everyone wrong one last time. “Do you have a heart?” James Mason as the cunning Ed Concannon is the champion supporting actor of the movies I watched; unfortunately, Charlotte Rampling as Laura comes across as disingenuous, and the film really fumbles the potential love story. This might have been the difference between The Verdict finishing behind the epic Best Picture winner.
So why did Gandhi win?
It’s long, has several colorful characters, contains a moving biography that begins/ends with an assassination, and Ben Kingsley puts together a monster performance that probably defines his career. Like West Side Story, it deals with prejudice and the evils of violent retaliation juxtaposed with pacifism, and it also propagates a universalist religious perspective. Gandhi is poised nearly the whole film, almost losing his cool exactly once, and never saying the wrong thing in any situation. Gandhi’s wife plays a prominent role in the film, arguing for women’s rights in a subtle way; the Indian culture typically puts women in a position of inferiority, but she is elevated as a strong figure. It also deals with some strong nationalistic/political themes. It’s packaged nicely and looks great as a Best Picture winner.
The movie that should have won: Gandhi
It was less boring the second time around, admittedly. But it’s still about the agenda, and strangely resonant with millennia-old truths: love and serve one another, don’t play favorites, turn the other cheek, etc. It borrows heavily from several aspects of the Bible, yet refuses to look at Jesus as the only God because it’s literally inconvenient to the narrative. The other two films are more entertaining and less arduous, but still take shots at similar themes, even risking appearing stereotypical. At least there was MTV in the 80s.