The year was 1997. Stop me when this sounds familiar. Box office giant Titanic stormed through Oscar night picking up technical award after technical award. It also won Oscars for its score and director (James Cameron). But the film did not receive a nomination for its screenplay and the film’s lead actress (Kate Winslet) was nominated but didn’t win the Oscar. Meanwhile, L.A. Confidential, a highly respected American historical film dealing with some nasty subject matter, won Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay. In the end the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Titanic. Well… that’s where it stops being familiar.
Last night was 1997 all over again… but better. Mega box office blockbuster Gravity won a bevy of technical awards, an Oscar for its score and Alfonso Cuarón was named Best Director while Sandra Bullock watched someone else win Best Actress. 12 Years a Slave won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o). But I think the Academy learned their lesson from 1997. Not directly in relation to this year’s Oscars, but I think Titanic was a wake-up call for the Academy to take a more thoughtful approach to their voting.
The Oscars in 1997 were marked by a mania over Titanic like nothing I’d ever seen before or, thankfully, since. Don’t get me wrong. I thought Titanic was a good movie. I came out of the theater afterward having enjoyed myself and feeling thoroughly impressed with the film’s technical achievement. And then I went on with the rest of my life. Apparently a lot of people weren’t able to do that.
America was in a Titanic craze. Teenage (and not-so-teenage) girls (and a lot of fellas) from coast to coast were buying tickets to see Titanic over and over again. I read an article about someone who had seen it 70 times. Yes, you read that correctly. Se-ven-ty. It was the mother lovin’ blockbuster of them all. And the Academy was not immune to Titanic fever. It all culminated on Oscar night when not only was James Cameron the self-crowned king of the world, but Titanic won more Oscars than any film before it.
But I think the Academy came out of that mania with a hangover. “Oh man… I got so drunk last night and gave Titanic the Oscar for Best Picture.” I think they realized some of the integrity of the Award was eroding. The following year they stood their ground and didn’t become similarly obsessed with Saving Private Ryan. The film earned some well-deserved technical Awards and even gave Steven Spielberg his 2nd Oscar. But they drew the line there and named Shakespeare in Love Best Picture.
The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan is still some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. But after that the film drifts headlong and heavy-handedly into trite clichés, shameful emotional pandering and needless predictability. But audiences loved it. They ate it up. It was that year’s highest grossing movie. Whether or not you concur with the Academy’s assessment of Shakespeare in Love, you’ve got to admire them for resisting the power of popularity. Even though I haven’t agreed with all of their Best Picture winners, they have generally avoided the Titanic trap over the last 15 years.
It also reaffirms a belief I’ve held since those Oscars in 1997. It’s hard for me to fully support the idea that a film whose screenplay was not nominated can be named the Best Picture of the year. I firmly believe that all great filmmaking begins with great screenwriting. If the Academy doesn’t think your screenplay, the essence of your story, is one of the 10 best, how can the Academy name your film Best Picture of the year?
Of the 9 Best Picture nominees this year, 8 of the 9 were also up for either Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. The only one that was left out in the cold was Gravity. I still thought it would win though. Gravity was groundbreaking filmmaking. I also thought it had a great story. But without a screenplay nomination it makes sense that it didn’t take home the night’s biggest award.
I was pulling for American Hustle but 12 Years a Slave is a worthy winner. I wasn’t blown away by it and wished the film had developed a stronger connection between the audience and Solomon Northup the man, not just Solomon Northup’s plight. But it’s a solid pick. I also disagree with some who claim it won because of the film’s subject matter. That’s just hooey.
And in another weird coincidence, the best film I saw in 1997 (Donnie Brasco) got a screenplay nomination but wasn’t up for Best Picture that year just like August: Osage County didn’t get nominated for Best Picture this year. Weird, huh?
So, now it’s all in the books. The 2013 Academy Awards have all been handed out. I can now catch up on some of the movies that had to take a back seat to my annual Oscar Watch and look forward to a popcorn-fueled summer of blockbusters.
What did you think of the Oscars? Agree? Disagree? Also, feel free to take me to task on Saving Private Ryan. Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Comment below or use your Twitter machine (@cmselby).