In the course of recent years, Oscar watchers have been lamenting the lack of truly popular films among the nominees for Best Picture, a race that, more often than not in the last 10-12 years, has favored smaller, independent films at the expense of the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The omission of THE DARK KNIGHT from the Best Picture nominees for 2008 led to a new set of rules in 2009 that allowed for a greater number of nominees, thus allowing popular favorites like James Cameron’s AVATAR and Pixar’s UP to be included among the Best Picture nominees of 2009. Still, a small, relatively low-budget independent film, THE HURT LOCKER, wound up winning that year. And in 2010, this allowed INCEPTION and TOY STORY 3 to be nominated, although both lost to THE KING’S SPEECH. This year there are nine nominees and some indeed are big-budget prestige productions, e.g. HUGO and WAR HORSE, both by veteran filmmakers in Hollywood’s top tier of directorial talent, but, alas, only one of the nine is a popular hit at all (THE HELP).
I can recall a time when Best Picture winners/nominees were both popular with moviegoers and acclaimed by critics. It was once the norm for enough films to come out every year to find five Best Picture nominees which had both popularity and prestige.
A typical Best Picture winner from my childhood was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), which was directed by a world-class filmmaker (David Lean), boasted an all-male cast of acclaimed veteran actors (Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, etc.), introduced two new stars (Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif), was over three-and-a-half hours long, and told an account based on historical fact, complete with detailed recreation of a wartime setting.
The critics loved it and it played a Broadway theater on a reserved seat basis for nearly ten months, during which it won the Best Picture award, before finally coming to neighborhood theaters in October 1963, which is when I saw it. Coincidentally, I saw two of LAWRENCE’s competitors for Best Picture of 1962 around the same time. I saw MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY at the same theater (the Loew’s Paradise) a month earlier and THE LONGEST DAY a week later at a different theater. Both were three-hour historical epics with notable casts.
Earlier in the year, I saw the 1961 Best Picture winner, WEST SIDE STORY, when it finally arrived at neighborhood theaters after playing the Rivoli Theater on Broadway for over a year. A few short weeks after seeing WEST SIDE STORY, my class went on a trip to see one of the future Best Picture nominees of 1963, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, in Cinerama at the Capitol Theater on Broadway. A couple of years earlier I’d seen the 1959 Best Picture winner, BEN-HUR, at a neighborhood theater.
In January 1964, I saw another Best Picture nominee of 1963, LILIES OF THE FIELD, at a neighborhood theater on a double bill with THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD. A drama which touched lightly on race relations, LILIES starred rising black star Sidney Poitier as an unemployed handyman in the southwest who decides to help a group of nuns build a new chapel. It stood out from the other Best Picture nominees I’ve mentioned by virtue of being a low-budget drama, in black-and-white, with a small cast of characters. (Poitier would win his only Best Actor Oscar for this film.) But, like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and all the rest, it was also prestigious and popular. (I remember the theater being full on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of January and I don’t think enough people in the audience knew enough about the co-feature, a dubbed-in-English Russian fantasy film originally called SADKO, but marketed, most misleadingly, as a Sinbad film, to be drawn in by that.) Three months later in 1964, I would see a 1964 nominee for Best Picture, DR. STRANGELOVE, at a neighborhood theater.
So, before I’d even turned eleven, I’d seen three Best Picture winners and five Best Picture nominees, seven at neighborhood theaters in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. Wait, add THE ROBE, a 1953 nominee and the first film released in Cinemascope, to the list because I saw it at a neighborhood theater when I was about five (and a little too young and fidgety to fully appreciate it, although its sequel and co-feature, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, worked just fine). And over the next few years, I’d see several more Best Picture winners/nominees in theaters, including MARY POPPINS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (winner), DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, BONNIE AND CLYDE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (winner), ROMEO AND JULIET, and RACHEL, RACHEL. I even saw older Best Picture winners and nominees in theaters in those years. 1956 nominee THE TEN COMMANDMENTS came to a local theater in the summer of 1966. The 1939 Best Picture winner, GONE WITH THE WIND, got re-released in 1969. My mother took me to a revival theater when I was in junior high school to see her favorite movie, CASABLANCA, the Best Picture winner of 1943.
At home, we watched television where numerous past Best Picture winners were frequently shown, although to be honest, the only one I remember seeing on TV before I started college was THE APARTMENT, the 1960 winner. After I started college and bought my own TV set, and started going to revival theaters with a vengeance, I did a lot of catching up and got to see such BP winners for the first time as IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, HAMLET, ALL THE KING’S MEN, ALL ABOUT EVE, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, ON THE WATERFRONT, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and GIGI, among others.
Getting back to the late ’60s, as the production code diminished in power; the ratings system emerged; and films got more mature, the number of child- or adolescent-friendly films among the Best Picture nominees decreased. The Best Picture winner of 1969, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, was rated X when it was released. A Best Picture nominee of 1971, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, was also rated X back then. I was older by then and managed to see both in theaters at the time, much to my mother’s dismay. Of course, today, both films have been re-rated R, although, to my jaded eyes, they’d barely merit a PG-13.
Still, in looking over the Best Picture winners and nominees of the last 40 years, I do find at least one in each year that would have been okay for ten-year-olds, using my own 5th-grade self, with an above-average interest in film, as a barometer. I would have liked PATTON, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GODFATHER, SOUNDER, THE STING, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, THE TOWERING INFERNO, JAWS, ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, STAR WARS, THE DEER HUNTER, APOCALYPSE NOW, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, E.T., THE RIGHT STUFF, THE MISSION, THE LAST EMPEROR, DANCES WITH WOLVES, JFK, UNFORGIVEN, THE FUGITIVE, BRAVEHEART, APOLLO 13 and possibly a few others. The pickings get slimmer in the last 15 years, though.
How many recent Best Picture winners/nominees would be seen by a more typical 10-year-old today? Well, we can count the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, each of which was nominated (2001-2003), with the last, RETURN OF THE KING actually winning Best Picture. In the last couple of years, with the increase of nominees, we’ve seen the Pixar 3-D animated hits, UP and TOY STORY 3, get nominated. We can count MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, which lost to RETURN OF THE KING, as the equivalent of the serious historical epics I enjoyed as a kid and the kind of film I wish more children were exposed to, just to counterbalance the steady diet of big-budget fantasy they consume. There’s also GLADIATOR, the Best Picture winner of 2000, although I have to confess I found it wanting when stacked up against the similar fare I saw as a kid. A little too grim and far-fetched for my tastes. But beyond that, there haven’t been a lot of child-friendly Best Picture winners and nominees since the years when STAR WARS (1977), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. (1982) were nominated (and the era of big-budget fantasy started to crowd out the historical epics of yore).
So I have to count my blessings that I grew up at a time when big-budget Hollywood blockbusters tended to be based on fact and gave their young audiences a taste of history and an interest in seeing the social, cultural and political forces that shaped our modern world get dramatized in an exciting, cinematic way that was best appreciated on the big screen. I’m grateful that I was able, as a ten-year-old, to see over the course of a few months the following lineup of films (not all of them based on fact, of course):
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
THE LONGEST DAY
THE GREAT ESCAPE
LILIES OF THE FIELD
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY
This was all in additon to a steady diet of less prestigious and even downright disreputable (but still enjoyable) fare in that same period, including the following: BEACH PARTY, HOOTENANNY HOOT, THE YOUNG RACERS, X-THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, DEMENTIA 13, TAKE HER SHE’S MINE, WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? and TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI, not to mention two actual children’s films, SWORD IN THE STONE (the one classic Disney film mentioned in this thread) and THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, both of which I took my younger sister to. All at single screen theaters where you entered from the street, walked a few yards to your seat and found yourself facing a huge screen illuminated by a beam of light originating behind us from a spot way up there!
I’ll be watching the Oscars tomorrow night, where the presumed winner of Best Picture of 2011 will be, according to all the smart money, THE ARTIST. But there’s a part of me that would like nothing better than to put in a DVD of BEN-HUR or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA instead. Or X-THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, for that matter.