Academy Rules: Best Picture of 1992

AR UnforgivenAs part of celebrating the occasion that the Summer of ’92 series is finally complete, I decided to resurrect the long dormant Academy Rules. I have already let my thoughts on most of these movies be known as part of Summer of  ’92, so I’ll be approaching this mostly from a historic perspective, trying to consider what the Academy responded to in these nominees, and what kept them from giving them the award…

There were quite a few stories that developed through the 1992 Oscar season. One of them was the surprising Marisa Tomei win in the Supporting Actress category, which became one of the most infamous moments in Oscar history. Since her win, Tomei has proven to be a pretty terrific actress (she’s been nominated twice since then), but at the time people were quick to question the motives and legitimacy of the Academy voting for a young, hot, American actress in a light comedy over a group of older and more respected foreign nominees. Be that as it may, the biggest scandal of the season didn’t have anything to do with the Oscars, but with The Golden Globes. But I’ll get to that in a second, let’s just take our time to look at the nominees for the Best Picture of 1992…

Unforgiven
The big winner of the night was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Eastwood had been directing for a couple decades already, but he was just starting to be recognized as a type-A auteur. Critics loved Unforgiven, and the Academy is an awards-giving body that likes to reward actors when they become directors (Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, and Ben Affleck are all examples of this trend). That being said, Unforgiven is a surprisingly dark choice for Best Picture, especially at this point in the Academy’s history. True, The Silence of  the Lambs had just become the first “horror” movie to win for Best Picture the year before, but take a look at the winners that came before that: Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rain Man are all movies that easily classify as what we think of as “Oscarbait” a.k.a. movies that seem designed to win awards.

Part of the reason why Unforgiven won must have had to do with the idea of finally rewarding a hardworking veteran who was showing a surprising amount of maturity as a director. It also must have had something to do with how powerful and elegant a movie Unforgiven is. I always think of it as a perfectly oil machine, that is always moving forward. But I also think that Unforgiven wouldn’t have pulled off the win if it had been directed by someone else. Even if it were as powerful and dark as it is in its current form, the idea of Eastwood, one of the roughest and toughest guys in cinema history playing a broken-down, tired man who has been destroyed by the violence he has committed gives the movie a meta layer that Hollywood must have loved. I mean, most reviews at the time took notice that Eastwood’s movie echoed the actor’s own history as a celebrity.

AR Crying GameThe Crying Game
Like I said when I wrote about this movie for Summer of ’92, The Crying Game was kind of the sensation of late 1992. People, including critics, fell head-over-heels for Neil Jordan’s tale of an Irish terrorist who tries to start a new life in London. Oscar voters were also excited about the movie, nominating it for six awards, and giving it the Original Screenplay trophy. The most talked about thing about The Crying Game, both at the time and nowadays, is the twist that comes roughly halfway through the movie. Now, fans of the movie say that it is much more than just the twist, and while I agree that the twist is by no means the most interesting thing about the movie, I still don’t understand what people see in The Crying Game. 

The Crying Game is also notable for being the first Miramax film nominated for Best Picture. Those of you familiar with recent Oscar history will recognize Harvey Weinstein as the relentlessly aggressive Oscar campaigner of the modern age. First as head of Miramax, and now as head of The Weinstein Company, he perfected the art of using publicity and PR to get Academy members to see and vote for his movies. In 1992, the audience response to The Crying Game gave him the ammunition he needed to enter the big leagues. He would go on to have at least one movie nominated for Best Picture for the next ten years. And he is obviously still going strong (The King’s Speech and The Artist are his latest Oscar successes).

AR Few Good MenA Few Good Men
A Few Good Men went into the Oscar race as the favorite, especially after it got nominated for seven Golden Globes (more than any other movie that year). However, its chances were greatly diminished when it left the Golden Globe ceremony empty-handed. It obviously managed to get nominated for Best Picture, but I get the sense that it barely made it. The most telling sign is that, despite getting four Oscar nominations, none of them were for Best Director or Best Screenplay. Historically speaking, movies that aren’t nominated in either of those categories have little to no chance of winning, so A Few Good Men‘s odds weren’t all that good to begin with.

I think what happened to A Few Good Men is that it was hurt by being perceived as the early front-runner. It’s something that’s happened countless times in Oscar history: it’s better to be a surprising “little movie that could” than be the one movie that everyone expects will do great. I obviously didn’t follow the 1992 race (for I was less than a year old), but I remember when similar things happened to Cold Mountain and Up in the Air. A Few Good Men had all the elements to be a “big Oscar movie”. It had a cast full of the biggest stars of the moment (Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson), it dealt with an important subject matter (corruption in the military), and it was directed by Rob Reiner, one of the most popular directors of the time. The ways in which it would be a no-brainer for Oscar season were so obvious that it was very easy to take down. Many critics were underwhelmed by the movie, even those who liked it hesitated to call it “great”. I would agree with most critics in so far as saying that A Few Good Men isn’t a great movie, but it’s a pretty good one. It’s the kind of big-star, medium-budget drama that doesn’t get made anymore. At least not of this quality.

AR Howards EndHowards End
Unforgiven was the big winner of the night, but it was actually tied up for the most nominations, nine, with this English literary adaptation. By this point, the work of Merchant-Ivory had become synonymous with a particular kind of movie. Their productions had gathered Oscar attention before (most notably A Room with A View), but Howards End was probably their biggest hit both critically and at the Oscars. When I wrote about it for the Summer series, I was quick to point out how it might seem at first glance like a typical, stuffy English drama, but that it is a far angrier and more visceral movie than you’d expect. It’s a story about class, and injustice, in which even the heroes end up turning a blind eye to the dark repercussions of their mistakes. It is also not, as one might assume, a showcase for good writing and solid performances, it is very interesting on a visual level. James Ivory, working at his peak, was a master staging scenes in ways that were beautiful, but also added to the movie’s themes and meaning.

AR Scent of a WomanScent of a Woman
This is the only movie of the nominees I didn’t write about for the Summer series, and… ooff. Scent of a Woman was the movie I alluded to in the opening paragraphs of this post. It was after it won three Golden Globe (including Best Motion Picture – Drama) that rumors started going round that it had won because Universal Pictures had flown the voters to New York for a “special” screening, which was an elegant way of saying they had “bought the election”. Now, it’s worthy to notice that the Golden Globes  have suffered such claims for as long as they’ve existed, and that they are an organization known for being most interested in getting to hang out with famous actors than with giving awards to quality movies. Be that as it may, it seems like people did like Scent of a Woman at the time. Or at least Oscar voters did, giving it four nominations in the most important categories.

The reason why the movie did so well at the Oscars, I cannot understand. Scent of a Woman is, simply put, a bad movie. It’s a tired story about a young man (Chris O’Donnell) connecting with an old, sour, grumpy ex Colonel (Al Pacino), who proves to be much more than meets the eye. The story is tired and overwrought, the direction not particularly interesting in any way, and the worst part of it all is, as faith would have it, the one thing for which it won the Oscar: Al Pacino’s performance. The Academy was clearly eager to give Pacino an Oscar after two decades of being nominated without a win, but it sadly came at the moment in which Pacino officially turned from a complex, interesting actor, into an overacting ham-machine. If Pacino had to win this year, then a much better choice would have been his role as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, at least in that movie he manages to be both charismatic and intimidating, neither of which he is in Scent of a Woman, no matter how much the movie wants this to be so.

Overlooked Movies:
The one that probably came the closest, was probably Robert Altman’s The PlayerIf you read my take on it, then you know how much I love the movie. In my opinion, not only should it have been nominated, but it should have won. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical), as well as the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. It ended up getting three nominations, including Altman for Best Direction, which makes me think it probably came in sixth place for Best Picture. The other big omission of the year was Spike Lee’s biography of Malcolm X, one of the most talked-about movies of the year. When it was finally released, the movie was greeted with generally warm praise, but few critics were outright excited about it. The movie ended up getting two nominations (Denzel Washington for Lead Actor, and Costume Design for Ruth Carter).

Did the Academy make the right choice?
I would say yes. I would have had a tough choice deciding between Unforgiven and Howards End for the win, and considering they were the nomination leaders, they were probably the Academy’s favorites. I can’t say this is a particularly strong set of nominees (those two are the only ones I would describe as great), but it’s also not particularly bad (only Scent of a Woman is an outright bad movie). I guess if I had to rank the nominees, I’d do like this: 1. Unforgiven 2. Howards End 3. A Few Good Men 4. The Crying Game 5. Scent of a Woman. 

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