History and the Oscars

When I wrote last week about whether films as a whole were getting better, my one regret was the comparative lack of contemporary drama. Well, now the Oscar nominations are through. And the nominations for Best Picture are …

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon

Which means that, of all the films produced this year, just one set in the present makes the grade. Is this normal? Let’s look at last year:

No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood

That’s two out of five. Has this always been the case? Let’s look at ten years ago, and the 70th Academy Awards:

Titanic, As Good as it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential

Again, two out of five. Here are the Best Picture winners for the past 25 years:

No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, The English Patient, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, Unforgiven, The Silence of the Lambs, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, Rain Man, The Last Emperor, Platoon, Out of Africa, Amadeus, Terms of Endearment.

True to form, it’s dominated by period films: fewer than a third are set in the present. So what’s going on? Are period movies simply better than contemporary ones? Do they appeal more to the relatively older Academy members? Best Picture winners are certainly more likely to arrive with existing prestige, having been adapted from novels or plays: 12 of the 25. And they’re more likely to be based on real people or events: 14, if you include Forrest Gump. In fact, of the past 25 years of Best Picture winners, how many are original screenplays?

Crash, Gladiator, American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, Rain Man, Platoon 

And of those how many are contemporary dramas or comedies?

Crash, American Beauty, Rain Man.

Three out of 25. But if you look at the list of movies that get made, only a small proportion of them are historical. For one thing, they’re expensive. For another, they can be a tough sell at the multiplex: they smack of worthiness, of history, of school. David Mamet wrote once that “Nothing with a quill pen in it ever made a nickel,” which may not be entirely true — look at Shakespeare in Love — but isn’t far off the mark. Looking at last year’s US box office rankings, only five of the top fifty could be counted as period films, and only one made the Best Picture list:

#3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, #7. Prince Caspian, #22. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, #28. 10,000 Years B.C. , #38 Valkyrie.

It’s also worth noting that despite the perception that popular taste is dominated by sequels, franchises and adaptations, 23 of the top 50 at the box office are original contemporary stories: far higher than the comparative list of “awards movies”. So does this mean that the Academy is getting it wrong? Not necessarily. Of the list I’d personally vote for Slumdog Millionaire, but I also loved Frost/Nixon. But I think my original question still stands: where in the nominations, other than Slumdog, are the exciting, original, contemporary movies that talk about today’s concerns, and can help us navigate the years ahead?


2 thoughts on “History and the Oscars

  1. this is a fascinating analysis!

    compare this to the 1940s when the awards went to:

    How Green Was My Valley (okay, this elegiac Ford piece would be Oscar-bait in today’s climate too)

    Mrs. Miniver (not a great film–but certainly torn from the headlines)

    Casablanca (literally torn from the headlines–and genuinely great)

    Going My Way (feel-good contemporary comedy… not my cup of tea, but that’s not what’s under discussion)

    The Lost Weekend (contemporary dipso-noir)

    The Best Years of Our Lives (again, decidedly contemporary)

    Gentleman’s Agreement (a crusading picture)

    Hamlet–pretty old (although it is one of the literary sources of existentialism)

    All the King’s Men — it has an historical element, but I would call it contemporary, unlike the Sean Penn version, which was inexplicably–and idiotically–reset during the 1950s

    All About Eve– modern melodrama

    that’s 80%!

    We are truly living in what Emerson would call a retrospective age, building the “sepulchers of the fathers”… that’s not a healthy sign!


  2. thank you too for your analysis, which adds a whole extra layer to the argument. Fascinating and depressing to see, as you say, what a nostalgia-focused culture we have …

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