The 88th Annual Academy Awards are tonight, so to commemorate some of the previous winners on this holiest of evenings, self-appointed Oscar experts Jack and Jake are here to discuss a pair of the most surprising films to take home the gold, as declared by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Readers beware: this is truly controversial stuff.
1981: In the Case of The (Ordinary) People vs. Raging Bull
It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to AMPAS and their decisions. Like any industry ceremony, the Oscars isn’t really celebrating the product, it’s showcasing the quirky ways in which the industry itself is broken. But even broken clocks are right twice a day- and possibly even more frequently, depending on how loosely you interpret the phrase, ‘on time’. So while cynicism is both valid and fun, I’m going to try and take another direction.
For many years, my primary outlet for discussing cinema was the internet. Okay, so nothing has changed. But I’ve found that certain kinds of narratives dwell on internet film discussion boards, fueled by a populace that skews heavily towards young, white males. For better or for worse, one filmmaker whose work resounds with this demographic is Martin Scorsese. Now of course, his work is good enough to find fans among a much wider spectrum, but if you’re a male teenager, just getting into film, tracking down a copy of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or Raging Bull is practically a rite of passage. It was Raging Bull that was nominated for several high-profile Oscars in 1981. And in many of those categories it was, I have been informed countless times, robbed. How could you AMPAS? How could you!?
Now, I’ve no interest in tearing down Scorsese’s film. As a white guy who used to be young, I think it’s a masterpiece. Rather I’m interested in the thief that stole its ‘Best Picture’ crown, Ordinary People. It was this film, helmed by Hollywood golden boy, but first-time director, Robert Redford (he also stole Scorsese’s ‘Best Director’ gong) that took home the top honor that night. In doing so Ordinary People also beat out David Lynch’s, Elephant Man, and Roman Polanski’s, Tess. Yes, it was a pretty competitive bracket that year. Although I’ll concede that giving Polanski the award, just three years after he infamously fled the US, would have been one ‘tale of triumph in the face of insurmountable odds’ that the Academy probably wasn’t going to latch onto.
In my experience, because of its relationship with Raging Bull, Redford’s film has become one of the more disliked and dismissed Oscar winners. Which is only made worse since I’ve found that many of its most ardent naysayers have never actually watched it. Ordinary People is often introduced or sought out specifically as the film that “robbed” Raging Bull. That’s hardly a fair introduction. That’s film criticism ‘Manitowoc-style’ (yeah, that’s a Making a Murderer reference. Your move, US Judicial system!). The truth is that Ordinary People is an exceptional film. But it’s a quiet film. A little film, shot in bourgeois homes. There’s no chiaroscuro burning a hole in the cinema screen, or blood-soused set-pieces. Discussions of wife-fucking are also kept to a minimum. It’s not a film that ever permeated the social consciousness or found its way into the grand narrative of cinema as it is taught or studied. Which doesn’t mean it’s not an exceptional film, simply that it never became a cultural referent. And that’s why it’s easy to pick on.
Ordinary People’s focus is, well, more “ordinary” than Raging Bull, but AMPAS all too often overlook films like that too. Honestly, if Brooklyn wins Best Picture this year, I’ll eat my metaphoric hat. So let’s check out the bright-side here, in 1981 The Academy failed to reward a searing portrait of masculinity in self-destructive free-fall to instead recognize a film that sensitively, intelligently, and fearlessly portrayed battling with depression. That alone is significant but then it also ruptured the bedrock of American idealism, the family unit, by depicting a mother who simply could not love her own son. This mother is no, “They’re all going to laugh at you,” wire-hanger wielding lunatic either, nor is her son some demonically possessed hellion deserving of reprimand and rejection. They’re just, you guessed it, ordinary people. Any other year, a win for a film like Redford’s would be considered a rare moment of clarity. Instead, for some who’d deny themselves the pleasures of one great film over another, it’s the scene of a crime.
So that’s about as non-cynical as I can get. Also, AMPAS, you gave Private Benjamin how many Oscar nominations? Three!? Well okay then, sure. If that ever came up in a pub-quiz, I’d have been screwed.
2008: The Bourne Fallacy
Spider-Man 3 aside, 2007 was a surprisingly potent year in recent film history. This was when we saw the Coen Brother’s masterpiece No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson’s astonishing There Will Be Blood, Tony Gilroy’s brilliant Michael Clayton, and Joe Wright’s gorgeous Atonement all vie for Best Picture at the 80th Annual Academy Awards. That’s quite the lineup, and it made for a genuinely thrilling Oscar race that found the Academy voters at their most cynical (“Thank god for teen pregnancy” host Jon Stewart quipped, in reference to fifth nominee/mistake Juno). Of course, No Country emerged victorious with the top prize (deservedly so), and to this day remains one of the few Best Picture winners that I actively agree with. In fact, most of the awards granted that evening were entirely deserving: Daniel Day-Lewis took home his second Oscar for Best Actor, Javier Bardem won his first for Best Supporting Actor, and the Coens cleaned up Best Director and Best Screenplay (Adapted) on top of their Best Picture prize. There’s often a source of contention between the choices of the Academy voters and I, but in this case it appeared they were more than capable of doing some good in this world.
However, there was still a thorn in the Academy’s side, and his name was Jason Bourne.
Action films don’t garner much love from the Academy, and when they do, it’s usually only for the “technical achievement” awards, if anything. For instance, as rubbish as they all are, the Transformers still receive nominations in the Sound departments (Mad Max: Fury Road is a recent example of how an action film can transcend its own genre into something greater). The Bourne Ultimatum walked away with three of these awards: Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. These were also the only three Oscars that film was nominated for, and the most amount of Oscars won by a film that evening (aside from No Country, which won four). The Academy was at their most cynical all right. This is absolutely baffling to me, because up until that point, the Bourne series was never viewed as a serious awards contender. Sure, the films were critically praised (Ultimatum is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes) and had a legion of fans (though I’m not sure how many of those remain after The Bourne Legacy), but an Academy Award winning feature? Don’t make me laugh. The Bourne Ultimatum did not deserve to win a single Oscar, let alone three, and by doing has exposed an egregious flaw in the Academy’s voting system.
Let’s discuss the Best Editing Oscar. When director Paul Greengrass came aboard The Bourne Supremacy, the franchise adopted his trademark shaky-cam/hyperactive editing technique, a style he’s utilized in his entire filmography, including 9/11 drama United 93 and Bourne-clone Green Zone. Some find it mesmerizing, others find it nauseating, I find it to be an affront. The action in Ultimatum wears out its welcome almost immediately. The film is reduced to shambles as entire scenes play out in a flurry of movements and edits that abrade on the senses and throw coherency out the window. What is intended to be exciting becomes frustrating to watch. Here’s a scene from Ultimatum, in which our hero, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is tasked with fighting another agent to save Julia Stiles. See if you can follow their fight choreography (or even determine how Bourne locates the building they’re in):
Now, let’s watch how a typical action scene plays out in No Country for Old Men:
See the difference? The Coen Brothers (under their usual pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) have constructed their film carefully, favoring longer, more deliberate shots over glimpses of motion. They also only cut when absolutely necessary, and when they do, it’s to underline emotion, not action. The result is a sequence that is infinitely more compelling than anything found in any Bourne Whatever.
The Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing often go hand in hand, meaning if a film wins one they’re likely to win the other. There are exceptions of course, but the Academy likes to keep things simple, or they just don’t know the difference (for those who don’t know: “editing” is the creating and recording of new sounds, “mixing” is how they are all layered together to compose the film’s soundtrack). No Country features one of the most engrossing sound designs I have ever heard. Using the clips above for reference, there are many things to appreciate in the Coen’s work: the heavy footsteps of Anton Chigurh (Bardem) approaching the cashier, the perfect flink of the coin toss, the crumpling of the peanut wrapper that seems to be gasping for air on the counter. They’re all exquisite. The Bourne Ultimatum clip is more of a blunt instrument; as a fight scene, it’s naturally going to be louder, but that does not justify why it has to be as dull as it is. And is it more, or is that same punch sound effect used multiple times as the opponents trade blows? It’s kinda unforgivable, really.
What I find to be the most troubling aspect about all of this is not that No Country won’t be remembered for having good editing or sound design, but how much the Bourne series has informed the aesthetics of action scenes today. Everything from the Taken series with Liam Neeson to James Bond (Quantum of Solace) to The Hunger Games has modeled it’s approach to action to that of the Bourne films. The sooner filmmakers understand that rapid camera movements and quick cuts add up to dissonance and headaches, not excitement or tension, the better off we’ll be. The most surprising Oscar win to me? The Bourne Ultimatum.
At least we’ll always have Mad Max: Fury Road.