Just in time for Oscar weekend, Vulture has a fascinating examination of this year’s crop of nominees, and how exactly they fit it into our notion of what an “Oscar movie” is. And you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that, like everything else in the movie biz, there’s a formula at work here: “movies with some combination of the four top genre categories — biography, drama, history, and war — have always gotten the most nominations, but over time they’ve slowly been crowding out everything else.” But, it must be noted, it wasn’t always so — in fact, a perusal of the Academy Award nominations for Best Picture makes it clear that the increasing dominance of biopics about troubled geniuses is a stark contrast to an organization that used to be just as comfortable nominating musicals, Westerns, thrillers, and even comedies for the night’s biggest prize. Yet even when taking that changeover into account, there are still a few Best Picture nominees that stick out, either as just plain odd on their own terms or for the fact that they’re unthinkable as serious Oscar contenders now.
Trader Horn (1931)
The Oscars were only four years old when this adventure flick got its Best Picture nomination, so maybe you can just write it off as a youthful indiscretion. But it must be said: young or not, the AMPAS nominated an African safari movie — with all of the depictions of black “savages” (and their blonde, white “jungle queen”) that you would fear/dread/wince over — that’s best remembered these days for its accident-ridden shoot, where two crew members were killed by wild animals and much of the crew came down with malaria. Oh, and the rest of the animal scenes were shot in Mexico, so MGM didn’t have to comply with the (very loose!) animal treatment rules of the day. Hooray for Hollywood!
Dr. Doolittle (1967)
Motion pictures were undergoing a giant transition in the late 1960s, from the kind of big, brassy, mainstream studio entertainments that had dominated earlier in the decade to the more mature, intellectual, introspective fare that would take over in the 1970s. And that gradual changeover makes for two really fascinating groups of Best Picture nominees. In 1967, the films up for the top honor were In the Heat of the Night (the eventual winner) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, two examples of established mainstream filmmakers and stars treading gingerly into topical content; The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, two controversial, youth-oriented pictures from rabble-rousing new filmmakers; and, um, Doctor Doolittle. Richard Fleischer’s musical adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s stories was a notorious boondoggle, tanking with critics and losing millions of dollars — but it wormed its way into the race as some kind of mascot for the Old Hollywood voters who weren’t quite ready to embrace those violent, dirty-talking, social consciousness pictures just yet. (Mark Harris’s fabulous Pictures at a Revolution looks at the New Hollywood transition through the lens of those five nominees, and it’s one of the best books about movies you’ll ever read.)
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Academy voters (and moviegoers) were faced with a similar head-scratcher two years later. The eventual winner, and best example of the change in the air, was John Schlesinger’s X-rated character study Midnight Cowboy; its fellow nominees included Costa-Gavras’ blistering Algerian/French political thriller Z and the more conventional (but still offbeat) Anne of the Thousand Days and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And then there was Doolittle Redux, with a Best Picture nomination for Gene Kelly’s widely panned adaptation of the stage hit Hello, Dolly!, another budget-busting musical flop that signified everything that was on its way out of the studio system.
As the ‘70s dawned, there were precious few big-budget musicals to get that symbolic “Old Hollywood” nomination, since the studios — having learned their lesson — stopped bankrolling those money-sucking nightmares. But, contrary to our rosy current affection for the period, it’s not like they were only making Godfathers and Taxi Drivers. George Seaton’s film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s novel was a box-office smash, grossing $100 million (and that meant something then) on a $10 million budget. It kicked off a years-long trend of star-packed “disaster movies,” and the industry showed its appreciation for a movie that made them all that money (and employed so many of them) at Oscar time, with an astonishing ten nominations. One of those was for Best Picture, where it faced off against such New Hollywood faves as Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H, as well as the politically flexible Patton (the eventual winner) and another bad movie that made a whole lotta money, Love Story. And co-star Helen Hayes won the prize for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Pieces’ Karen Black, M*A*S*H’s Sally Kellerman, The Landlord’s Lee Grant, and Hayes’s Airport co-star Maureen Stapleton.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
Four years later, another giant moneymaker landed an even more insane Best Picture nomination. As far as disaster movies go, Inferno is fine: it’s got the handsomeness overdose of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen as its stars, Faye Dunaway being Faye Dunaway, and O.J. Simpson saving a cat. But the idea of it even being mentioned in the same breath as The Conversation, Chinatown, Lenny, and The Godfather Part II (the winner) is bonkers, especially considering that its slot could well have been filled by something like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, or California Split.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
To be clear: Warren Beatty and Buck Henry’s remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is totally charming! It’s got a clever body-switching-after-death premise, and Beatty is likable as hell, and Julie Christie’s stunning, and Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon are hilarious. But looking back, it’s hard to figure out exactly how such an aggressively lightweight entertainment pulled nine nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Best Picture — up against such very heavy fare as Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman, Coming Home, and winner The Deer Hunter. But, simply put, the Academy loves them some Warren Beatty; in addition to his four nominations for Heaven, he was nominated nine more times for acting, writing, and producing, and won in 1982 for directing Reds. Sometimes, to paraphrase a famous Oscar winner, they like you, they really, really like you.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
And sometimes, they really like the movies you did previously. The first two parts of The Godfather were big winners at the Oscars; each won Best Picture (the first of only two times a sequel took that honor), with the first film taking two more trophies and the second nabbing an additional five. That meant expectations were crazy high for the 16-years-later third installment, and if you just looked at the nominations, you’d think they’d been met: seven nominations, including Best Picture. The problem (and I say this as a Part III apologist) is that it’s not even in the same league — not just of the earlier movies, but of the best films of the year. It wasn’t even the year’s best gangster movie; that’d go to fellow nominee GoodFellas (and Miller’s Crossing, which wasn’t nominated).
Truth be told, 1995 was a weird year. The Best Picture nominees included such predictable picks as the period literary adaptation Pride and Prejudice, the historical epic (from an actor-turned-director, they love that) Braveheart, and the high-grossing historical drama Apollo 13. But the slate excluded such no-brainers as Dead Man Walking, Leaving Las Vegas, Casino, Nixon, and The American President, as well as such notable genre efforts as Heat, 12 Monkeys, and The Usual Suspects, to give a slot to the Italian comedy/drama Il Postino (chalk that one up to the Weinstein machine) and Babe, an adorable family picture about a talking pig. It’s a wonderful movie, sure. But just try to imagine, 20 years later, something like that getting nominated over a historical biopic or a Death Row drama.
District 9 (2009)
The expansion of the Best Picture slate from five nominees to up to ten in 2009 was widely seen as an attempt to rectify the frequent exclusion of genre films and crowd-pleasers (specifically, the absence of The Dark Knight from 2008’s nominees, in favor of Oscar-courting pap like The Reader). So 2009’s nominees were likably diverse: in addition to such expected nominees as The Hurt Locker (the winner), Up in the Air, Avatar, and The Blind Side, we had smaller indie dramas A Serious Man and An Education, the animated masterpiece Up, and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. But even with the new parameters in mind, it was still a shock to see Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 on that list — this was, after all, a low-budget, foreign-made action/sci-fi picture (not exactly an Oscar sweet spot), full of aliens and lasers and shoot-outs and the whole nine yards. And perhaps the best evidence of Vulture’s Oscar-bait escalation argument is that it’s tough to picture even something this recent getting a Best Picture nod today.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
But if we’re making that argument, we might as well go back to the big enchilada, the last movie to win all five major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress): Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. It’s rare enough for a movie to do that kind of clean sweep (only two other pictures, It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, have pulled it off), but consider the fact that this is a mystery thriller, filled with graphic violence, about not one but two serial killers — and it was released in February, traditionally too far in the Academy’s rearview to warrant year-end consideration. Considering how interchangeable studio Oscar bait has become, it’s hard to imagine when we might see a big Oscar player like Silence again.