Inspired by this weekend’s Oscar ceremony, this week’s question comes from The A.V. Club’s film editor, A.A. Dowd: What’s your least favorite Best Picture winner?
Though I’d never dispute the film’s importance to cinema history, I’ve always found Gone With The Wind to be the epitome of Hollywood excess—an epic bore, a thin soap opera stretched to its absolute breaking point. Three directors and at least five writers labored to bring Margaret Mitchell’s acclaimed novel to the screen, which explains why it’s so lacking in authorial personality. Andrew Sarris once called it a “producer’s film,” which is a polite way of saying that sitting through its ass-numbing four hours is akin to watching money set ablaze on screen, like the mighty Twelve Oaks plantation that goes up at the midpoint. Speaking of which: Gone With The Wind’s true offense isn’t its bloated running time or its lack of artistic character, but its severely rose-colored vision of the antebellum South. The movie celebrates the nostalgic myth of kind-hearted slave-owners and their happy, grateful slaves, asking viewers to root for a spoiled plantation heiress who keeps human beings as property. (Her may be my personal favorite of this year’s Best Picture nominees, but a big part of me is rooting for 12 Years A Slave, a film that punctures the very lies Gone With The Wind perpetuates.) As for the film’s legacy as an unrivaled moneymaker and a tribute to the can-do spirit of the studio system: Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn.
I know there are worse movies than A Beautiful Mind, but it ranks rather high on my list of least favorite Oscar winners. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s take on mental illness just rubbed me the wrong way, and there are precious few movies that I actually like Russell Crowe in. While A Beautiful Mind is arguably “important,” it’s “important” in that kind of bland, moneymaking Oscar way, as if the Academy decided, “We should award this film, because it’s about an important person with a serious illness”—rather than because it was the best film nominated. Though, to be fair, none of that year’s other nominees really did it for me, either. I mean, Moulin Rouge!? Ugh.
Time has not been kind to American Beauty, which is fitting, because American Beauty is a navel-gazing, faux-profound panic attack about the ravages of time. It’s one of those movies that’s hard to separate from my own pop-culture coming-of-age, when my mind was blown by the “most beautiful thing” Wes Bentley had ever glared at—and was probably more enchanted by a rose-petal-covered Mena Suvari than I was willing to admit. But then, as teenagers are wont to do, I saw more movies, and came to recognize the false ring of the ironies in Alan Ball’s script. (A few years removed from my own suburban experience, it was easier to see all the unbecoming sneering in the film’s portrayal of the ’burbs, too.) Coming across the film as an adult, it’s a bit like stumbling over song lyrics or op-ed columns I wrote in high school—how did I ever think any of this stuff was good?
I curse the 81st Oscars to this day for one reason: Slumdog Millionaire. Each year, I make it a point to see the Best Picture nominees in theaters (Blast you, Captain Philips for hightailing it out of there so fast this year), and in 2008, I almost couldn’t do it. Two times I arrived at the theater to see Slumdog and then bowed out to see something else. I favored Milk, a hands-down superior film, to win that year. Both showed the triumphant rise of a main character in a somewhat limiting linear fashion, but Milk was real, whereas Slumdog provided a hackneyed slums-to-riches plot and painfully contrived narrative arcs in which every game-show question answer chronologically corresponded to a life event experienced by the protagonist. Then, as if that win wasn’t bad enough, “Jai Ho” snagged Best Original Song, which rightfully belonged to Peter Gabriel’s “Down To Earth“ from WALL-E. Of the eight awards Slumdog took home that year, it deserved maybe half.
The Oscars had a stretch in the early ’80s where the Academy awarded Best Picture to a slew of snooze-inducing films whose reputations haven’t improved since then. How many people remember Chariots Of Fire that fondly three decades later? Gandhi was the cinematic equivalent of eating your vegetables for three hours straight. I wasn’t subjected to any of those in the theater, unlike Out Of Africa. I went to the movies with my parents in December of 1985, and though I campaigned hard for Spies Like Us—which was much friendlier to a 9-year-old boy like myself—my parents forced me to sit through Out Of Africa’s 161 interminable minutes. (RottenTomatoes describes the film’s pacing as “glacial.”) Maybe I’d like the movie more if I revisited it as an adult, but my brain still reacts almost violently to the thought of watching it again. Is it possible to have PTSD from boredom?
I had a gut-level reaction to Forrest Gump that I still have some trouble processing all these years later. I’m usually a “to each his own” person with regard to taste in pop culture, but that movie just makes me want to argue with everyone in the entire world who thought it was anything more than an offensive gimmick. Let’s try an elevator pitch and see how far it gets: “The luckiest mentally challenged man in the world ends up at big events in world history, while also falling in love and having a super positive effect on the world around him. Also, he’s magical or something.” What sort of cultural wish fulfillment was going on here? The desire to see a person with disabilities succeed in spite of himself? The desire to believe in astonishing coincidences? Why did the Academy reward the most pandering, ridiculous, borderline-offensive story possible with its highest award? Say what you will about Forrest Gump’s competition, but The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction endure, while Forrest Gump feels like a movie that just put one over on the world.
I don’t dislike Titanic so much as I resent it. I find the movie hokey now, but I enjoyed all the soft-focus tear-jerking when I originally saw the movie in high school. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that as the credits rolled and my heart swelled with the emotion of it all, I turned to my left and kissed the girl I had brought to the movies that night—a girl I’d had a crush on for a while. It was the first makeout session of my life, and it was sure to be the start of an epic romance, just like in the movie! Except not. A month later, the girl ended our quasi-relationship by insisting that we should just be friends. She made this declaration at the beginning of an eight-hour drive with just the two of us in the car. Oh, and we were driving back from her father’s funeral, which was the day before—he had died after a long, cancer-fueled decline. Since it felt so very wrong to argue or plead with someone who had just experienced such profound tragedy, I just said “okay” and spent that eternal drive attempting to tamp down my own shock and sadness. The thought occurred to me more than once that this mess was all Titanic’s fault. Yes, I’ve since realized that this was a valuable “growing up” experience, but I still have never seen Avatar, because screw James Cameron and his Hollywood horseshit.
Shakespeare In Love is a stupid, stupid movie that tries to fool its audience by being eminently British. It’s funny! Tom Stoppard wrote it! It has these dudes! And that lady! But really, it’s a badly told snooze-fest that willfully obscures Shakespeare’s life so he can fit into a romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow. It, like Moulin Rouge, is a shitty film masquerading as a much better one, and somehow gets away with it, and for that, I will hate it forever. The only thing less redeeming than the film is how much the Academy loved it that year (Judi Dench winning for best supporting actress? She was on screen for EIGHT minutes). Watch how unimpressed Harrison Ford is when he presents the Best Picture Oscar. He’s spent most of his career fighting aliens, yet he still knows a turd when he’s seen one.
This has become a lot more contentious than I realized. I assumed Crash would sweep—but that’s just because I hated every minute of sitting through that movie, and guys, I thought we all agreed that Brokeback Mountain was horribly robbed? But what is this? I love Shakespeare In Love! I really enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire! I even liked A Beautiful Mind for some reason I can’t remember! I don’t know what’s wrong with all you heartless people. But anyway, now that I’ve told you you’re wrong: Crash is the worst, worst, worst movie that has ever won the Academy Award—it’s a travesty of a film, an execrable piece of garbage. I hated every minute of sitting through that movie. It’s not just that it’s ham-fisted and syrupy—though it is—it’s that Crash is so damn sure of how “meaningful” and “important” it is. That is nonsense. It is a patronizing slog, a message movie that is 99 percent message and one percent Matt Dillon looking grim. That it won the Best Picture Oscar seems to have been a combination of white guilt and bad politicking by the Brokeback Mountain team. But go back and watch the two: Brokeback is a goddamn classic; Crash was forgotten the minute after it won—except by me, because I’m still really mad about it.
To be fair, there are no utterly terrible Best Picture winners, give or take a Crash, but even that film has a handful of good scenes scattered throughout its well-meaning morass. The problem is what happens when a perfectly adequate movie that might have made you shrug and say, “That was fine” wins the Oscar, and it suddenly has to stand up to that title of Best Picture. Even when we consider this is primarily an award for American films, there are generally so many more great American films in any given year. In many cases, the title of Best Picture is more of a curse than a benefit. All of which brings me to 1968’s Oliver!, a movie that is the epitome of Hollywood’s cluelessness about the exciting new directions film was beginning to take amid the breakup of the studio system. In and of itself, it’s basically okay, with some nice songs and a few good performances. But a Best Picture winner? Absolutely not. It’s a big, bloated musical, the sort of movie that had dominated the Oscars in the ’60s (in the wake of West Side Story, which is one of those winners that still holds up), but it’s so big and so bloated that it its excess becomes almost funny. Then you remember that not only did it theoretically beat 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that movie wasn’t even nominated, and you have this perfect picture of Hollywood at a crossroads, even if it’s one you can only see in hindsight.
I feels a little mean-spirited picking on Argo, last year’s Best Picture winner; it’s one of the more determinedly inoffensive movies I’ve seen, if you’re willing to look past the shallow gloss of history and the script’s (and director Ben Affleck’s) willingness to prop up heroes in a situation far too complex to allow for such dramatically satisfying invention. But I hate it just the same. The main problem is that I didn’t get around to seeing it until after the awards had been handed out, by which point certain standards came built in. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, but I hoped for a gripping, smart thriller, with some fine character actors and a good sense of humor about itself. What I got instead was two hours of shallow, bland, and routinely self-congratulatory nonsense, which had nothing better to do with its time (or mine) than casually throw out a shot of its protagonist (who just happened to be played by the director) without his shirt on, because, hey, those abs aren’t going to admire themselves. Combine that with an infuriatingly insipid catchphrase (as God is my witness, I thought “Argo fuck yourself” was a joke critics made up themselves), and competence so functional and uninspired it felt like the longest Super Bowl commercial of all time, and, well, you don’t get much. I just hope Gone Baby Gone holds up.
A perverse part of me wants to enjoy the fact that The Greatest Show On Earth, a bloated Cecil B. DeMille monstrosity, could win Best Picture. I mean, it’s a 150-minute tribute to the awesome power of circuses, replete with breathless voiceover narration, ample circus-performance footage, and clown reaction shots. It does, at least, have to be seen to be believed. But I wouldn’t recommend seeing or believing it. I think there may be a general perception that these kinds of overblown spectacle machines get Oscar attention all the time, but many of the most egregious examples tend to be nominees like Airport—not actual winners (though Around the World In 80 Days was anointed in 1956). So, while I was tempted to pick an overpraised production like Gladiator, at least Ridley Scott’s movie works on its own vaguely stupid terms. The Greatest Show On Earth, despite its inclusion of Jimmy Stewart as a clown with a troubled past, has little entertainment value, let alone artistic worth. This “wild tangle of man, machine, and beast” sets an amazingly low standard, even for ludicrous, undeserving faux-epics.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Driving Miss Daisy on its own merits—it’s exactly the kind of self-congratulatory “racism is bad” movie Hollywood loves patting itself on the back for making. Morgan Freeman is more or less the platonic ideal of the saintly black man, as he patiently cares for Jessica Tandy and helps her work through Important Issues. But its Best Picture win was particularly galling, because it came at the expense of the actual best film of 1989, a far more honest and insightful look at race, and a genuinely groundbreaking film from a technical standpoint, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. The fact that the film wasn’t nominated, and director Spike Lee wasn’t nominated for Best Director, receiving only a nomination for Best Original Screenplay—the Miss Congeniality Award of the Oscars, which he lost to the schmaltzy Dead Poets Society—remains one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the modern era. For the record, three of the films that did get nominated—My Left Foot, Born On The Fourth Of July, and even Field Of Dreams—would have been better choices as well.
A couple years ago I watched every Best Picture that I hadn’t already seen in one week like it was a junior-high blender dare, and at the end I wrote that nine of the 10 worst were named after 1980. Most of the truly heinous have been covered—Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump—but I think I had 1933’s Cavalcade in mind for the other one, the film equivalent of a two-by-four. I can’t defend it as the worst, but those two hours lasted a week. The actors stand politely in a row as Britain endures its cycle of war and “Auld Lang Syne” yet still soldiers on. The staginess might have been something in Carl Dreyer’s hands. You don’t even have to imagine the William Wyler version. It’s called Mrs. Miniver, and it has actual legs. Cavalcade just sits there like a bust. Adding insult to injury, Cavalcade is the last Best Picture before the Hays Code put the brakes on Hollywood, beating out nominated classics like 42nd Street and un-nominated ones like Trouble In Paradise, a precedent for Oscar’s own tradition of quality.
If someone had asked me this six months ago, there’s no way I would have said The Sound Of Music. I’d have cited something from my adult movie-going lifetime that I actually had to put up with, like Forrest Gump or Gladiator. I grew up in a world in which the monolithic commercial success of The Sound Of Music was understood to have been a massive aberration that no one would admit to having been a part of, and when, in the late ’90s, the movie was revived as a camp sing-along like Rocky Horror, I didn’t mind. But ever since that live TV revival last December, I’ve been hearing that the movie itself really is a timeless classic, and this shit needs to stop. It’s a lobotomized bucket of treacly slop with Nazis on top, and its sole redeeming characteristic is Christopher Plummer’s performance—not because he’s good, but because, in the context of all those sugary smiles, he’s one torn throat away from playing Dracula. When it was the biggest moneymaker of its time, The Sound Of Music defined the mainstream culture to a degree that felt oppressive. Today, when people think of ’60s pop culture, they tend to either think of Mad Men-swinger culture, or the late-’60s counterculture. Both are more fun, and both were invented by people who were doing their best to forget that they were sharing a planet with Julie Andrews.