What transpires in the next several paragraphs are not-so-casual observations by a cinephile. These are moments where the Academy for the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or AMPAS) got it wrong during the 1990s (and sometimes right). Now there are more than ten occurrences where the Oscar “should” have gone to this person or that person as well as instances where the voting body overlooked a film or performance altogether. Let’s begin.
Better to Dance with a Good-fella, not Wolves
Few filmmakers can make the claim that they have directed classics in four consecutive decades. Martin Scorsese can. From “Taxi Driver” in the ’70s and “Raging Bull” in the 1980s, arguably his greatest came in 1990 with the release of “Goodfellas,” a film that I find more palpable than Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” This is on account of the way Scorsese went about constructing the narrative, with its in medias res open, catalog music soundtrack in place of score, and voice-over narration that would have a profound influence on how Frank Darabont approached making “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“Goodfellas” would win a few Oscars but lost out to Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” in the directing and picture categories. This wouldn’t be the first time Scorsese would lose to an actor turned director. It happened before when Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” beat “Bull” and again with Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” over “The Aviator.”
The non-appearance of a pre-“Fargo” Coens masterpiece
It seems the line of demarcation when it comes to the Coen brothers and love by Academy voters is 1996’s “Fargo.” That’s the film where it finally clicked in with the voting body that the brothers are legit. If only they were cognizant earlier when the Coens were making such gems as “Raising Arizona” and “Miller’s Crossing,” a film that should have replaced one of the best film nominees in 1990. Time favors the bold and “Crossing” is a gangster classic with strong performances by Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden.
One female lead is fine for Best Picture but two’s a crowd
1991 was one of rare instances where a film released earlier in the year (in this case during the month of February) would go on to win Best Picture. “The Silence of the Lambs” swept all the major categories of Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. This was also the first time an animated feature (Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) was nominated for Best Picture. What was surprising is that you could have a film nominated for two Best Actress statues, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and not get a Best Picture nomination. That dubious distinction goes to Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” A picture that is surely more memorable than “The Prince of Tides” or “Bugsy,” which were both nominated for Best Picture. With a pair of knockout performances by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon plus a breakthrough role for Brad Pitt, “Thelma & Louise” must have had too much girl power for the Academy to give a picture nod.
We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, but we lost to blind Scarface
The Oscars is notorious for what is best to be called “make-upsies.” In 1992, Al Pacino won his first Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “Scent of a Woman.” A fine performance that would ultimately become his undoing in extravagant scenery-chewing moments years later in films like “The Devil’s Advocate” and “Any Given Sunday,” it’s also an award Pacino should have won several years earlier. His win for “Woman” should have gone to Denzel Washington for “Malcolm X.” Instead, Washington would be bypassed again in 1999 for “The Hurricane” before finally winning the statue for 2001’s “Training Day.”
A changing of the guard in movie-making but audiences and Academy go for chocolate
1994 marked an important period in Hollywood. The arrival of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” was an adrenaline shot to the heart of movie-making. The Academy was put on notice two years prior with the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” a film that probably should have found its way into the original screenplay category that year at the very least. But 1994 was the year of schmaltz with “Forrest Gump” picking up multiple wins for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor among others. Seriously, Robert Zemeckis’s win for director and film should have come back in 1985 with “Back to the Future,” a film that is still better than the five that were nominated that year, including winner “Out of Africa.”
1995: The year without a best picture
It’s been a while but does “Braveheart” still hold up as a Best Picture winner? I know it’s one of the ultimate guy movies, like “The Godfather,” “The Dirty Dozen,” et al., but 1995 was the year that also gave us “Seven,” “Toy Story,” “Get Shorty,” “The Usual Suspects,” “12 Monkeys, “Strange Days,” “Clueless,” “Bad Boys,” and “Tommy Boy” (okay, and “Showgirls” too). Now that it’s been twenty years it’s possible that Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” would still take home the gold but it almost feels like a year where no film should have won. Though rare case, the same occurred in 1998 with “Shakespeare in Love” winning in a thin Best Picture category while “The Big Lebowski” didn’t pick up a single nomination.
Better to boogie than keep things confidential
Rather than go with the obvious “L.A. Confidential” should have beat “Titanic” for best picture, I’ll concede and admit that James Cameron’s seafaring epic-catastrophe is a good flick. I may not have it on replay like other Best Picture nominees from that year (“Confidential” and “Good Will Hunting”) but it’s not unwatchable. Instead, let’s look at supporting actress. In a year that saw Joan Cusack (who doesn’t love her?) nominated, the best performance of the five nominees was Julianne Moore in “Boogie Nights.” A film that I had to see multiple times to warm up to, Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his debut feature “Syndey” (better known as “Hard Eight”) is “Goodfellas” for the porn industry with multiple characters and stories. While Kim Basinger had a vital role in “Confidential,” Moore’s character, Maggie (aka “Amber Waves”), goes from being a mother hen to Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and “Rollergirl” (Heather Graham) to having a custody battle with her ex-husband. But her years in the porn industry and cocaine addiction make her an unfit mother. Which I guess is much hard to stomach than a woman cut to look like Veronica Lake.
American not so Beauty
The year 1999 is one of those watershed moments in cinema history, a confluence of events and openings where you see the future of great things to come. That’s what we all thought for M. Night Shyamalan. But the writer-director plateaued with “The Sixth Sense.” So that might have been the year to give the best picture honors to the film that had the most talked about ending of a Best Picture nominee since 1992’s “The Crying Game.” Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” was a film of the time and hasn’t aged all that well and “The Green Mile” doesn’t snap and crackle like Darabont’s other prison-set Stephen King adaptation, “The Shawshank Redemption.” It would have been best to replace it with Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.” Surprised by its absence was David O. Russell and “Three Kings.” Now he’s an Academy favorite but in 1999 it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time prestige.
Screenplays as the audience award
Sad to say but not all Best Picture winners have the best screenplays. The year “Titanic” dominated the competition in eleven of fourteen categories it failed to secure a screenplay nomination. The winners that year were for “Good Will Hunting” (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) and “L.A. Confidential” (Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland). In fact, some of the best movies of the 1990s were either acknowledged with a nomination or win and were a mix of mainstream and arthouse selections. This includes films not already mentioned like “The Grifters,” “The Player,” “Quiz Show,” “Trainspotting,” “Wag the Dog,” “A Simple Plan,” “Out of Sight,” “Election,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Fisher King,” “Ghost,” “Dave,” “Heavenly Creatures,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Lone Star,” “The Truman Show,” and “Magnolia.”
Jack Nicholson was right when he said Marisa Tomei
In a field that saw Tomei contending with Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson, the “My Cousin Vinny” starlet seemed to be outclassed by British and Australian thespians. Yet, while Tomei’s victory came as a surprise at the time she has delivered great supporting turns in both “In the Bedroom” (I can still feel the slap Sissy Spacek gave her) and “The Wrestler,” nabbing supporting nominations for each.