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The Oscars Want to Be “Popular” Again, So Let’s Pick the “Popular” Winners of Years Past

We look back at 18 famously ignored Oscar also-rans and grant them the justice that the Academy hopes to dole out with its recently announced new prize set to be awarded at next year’s ceremony

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Those who consider the Oscars to be an accurate and enduring barometer of artistic merit were rocked by the news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors voted to include a new category for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”; for the rest of us, the announcement was just really funny, revealing the full-frontal-naked desperation of a 90-year-old organization—one with its roots in union-busting and studio-mogul largesse—to simply keep pace with the popular filmgoing taste it’s supposedly shaping. (Or else to please corporate overlords who, coincidentally, are also the ones pumping out Marvel movies from now until the end of time.)

If the goal was to get people talking about the Oscars even earlier than usual, the Academy succeeded, although most of what has been circling around the internet so far is either roundups of skeptical-to-savage Twitter reactions (your winner, at least for the first 24 hours: Rob Lowe) or explanations of why this is such a bad and essentially untenable idea. Which it is, even though it points to something true, which is that since the start of the 2000s, there has been a widening gap between the sorts of movies that garner awards consideration and the ones that are seen more widely beyond media and industry centers like New York and Los Angeles.

It should be said that the very first Oscar ceremony included citations for both “Unique and Artistic Picture” (won by F.W. Murnau’s unique, very artistic Sunrise) and Outstanding Picture (which went to Wings), introducing a dichotomy that actually narrowed in the ensuing decades: from Gone With the Wind and Casablanca to The Greatest Show on Earth and My Fair Lady, mass entertainments regularly won Best Picture through the beginning of the 1970s, when The Godfather (which only narrowly defeated Cabaret) seemed to synchronize things perfectly. Best Picture nominations for Jaws and Star Wars suggested that the exponential growth of box office grosses could still be reconciled with the Academy’s upper-middle-brow mission, but by the ’90s—with the exceptions of Forrest Gump and Titanic, both Spielbergian entertainments even if they were signed by other directors—the divide between strategic awards-season releases like The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love and the opening-weekend warfare practiced by Independence Day and Armageddon was palpable.

In recent years, the Oscars have acknowledged this schism in the form of sketches stitched self-deprecatingly into the congratulatory fabric of the telecast: recall Chris Rock quizzing moviegoers in Compton (“Do you think that Trumbo should have been a bigger hit?”) or Jimmy Kimmel’s movie-theater-invasion stunt, with its implied “thank you” (and implicit “fuck you”) to the “ordinary” moviegoers who just won’t tune in in large enough numbers to see Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro hoisting their statuettes. Would the ratings go up next February if the team behind Black Panther were guaranteed some prime-time face time? Or would they be even higher if viewers didn’t suspect that things were being rigged in that direction—and away from Ryan Coogler’s movie forcing its way into the awards conversation on terms beyond its billion-dollar valuation?

We don’t know yet what the criteria are going to be for the “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” prize, or whether consideration will affect eligibility in other categories. But it would be fun—more fun, even, than complaining—to think about which movies might have won the award in years past if only it had been instituted sooner. And the only thing more fun than alternate-timeline awards is creating a set of arbitrary but rigorous rules for our thought experiment, so here it goes:

  1. We’ve limited the game to the past 25 years, meaning that there will be no extended explanation of why Basic Instinct would get the award as the outstanding popular movie of 1992 (which it was).
  2. Only films that finished among the top 25 grossing titles of their respective years will be considered.
  3. None of the winners can have won or been nominated for Best Picture, which eliminates potential worthies like The Fugitive, The Lord of the Rings, and Gravity.

With that all established, let’s get to it. —Adam Nayman

1993: Jurassic Park

Nayman: Under a more forgiving set of rules, Steven Spielberg would have won this award multiple times in the 1970s and ’80s: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. were all massive hits and Best Picture nominees at the same time. But in 1993, the director made a conscious effort to split himself into two distinct selves: the mass entertainer, working with vivid, weightless CGI monsters on a water-colored island canvas, and the serious artist, shooting handheld on sacred ground in stark black-and-white. As cinematic magic tricks go, Spielberg’s year was the directorial equivalent of the Transported Man, complete with a prestige in the form of Schindler’s List. Jurassic Park’s lack of awards traction, meanwhile, was an afterthought to its record-setting box office. Since that summer’s actual best blockbuster (that’d be The Fugitive) earned a Best Picture nod, it seems right to go with some second-tier Spielberg for our inaugural “most popular” Oscar.

Fennessey’s Alternative: I’m not one to quibble with celebrating Jurassic Park (in fact I recorded a whole podcast in praise of it). And it doesn’t have much competition (Sorry, Mrs. Doubtfire) in ’93. But if I’m being honest, the 1993 movie I have seen the most times that seems to truly embody this ill-defined “popularity” conceit is—rules above be damned—The Fugitive. It should not work: a revived TV property specifically designed to bring viewers back on a weekly basis to see whether Dr. Kimble can finally find the one-armed man who killed his wife, whose murder led to his wrongful imprisonment. Great idea for a TV show. It could have been a disastrous movie, but with director Andrew Davis’s madcap action sequences, Harrison Ford riding the headwinds of his “I’m getting a little cranky now” phase, and Tommy Lee Jones throwing darts across the set with abandon, The Fugitive became a kind of pop-action classic. Is it better than Jurassic Park? This new award is a farce, and the answer is simple.

1996: Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire [TIE]

Nayman: We all know why Seinfeld went in on The English Patient: because it’s a slow, ponderous, faux-romantic bore—an unfortunate standard-bearer for a year in which the Academy seemingly went out of its way to nominate smaller titles for Best Picture, including Secrets & Lies, Shine, and Fargo (the obvious standout in that crowd). Rewarding Jerry Maguire, a movie seemingly engineered in a lab, Isla Nublar–style, to get Tom Cruise an Oscar is tempting, even if as a reminder of a slightly bygone era when a white-collar professional’s ethical dilemma could pack ’em in at the multiplex, but it’d be more apt to cite the star’s other 1996 credit, Mission: Impossible, because (a) it had no overt “serious” aspirations (which is one of the reasons it’s so good) and (b) because it’s absolutely hilarious to give Brian De Palma—a filmmaker who has managed to be proudly, defiantly unpopular in five decades (and he’ll make it six if his Harvey Weinstein horror movie ever comes to pass)—a “Best Popular Movie” trophy. (I defer to Nick Pinkerton’s wise assessment of BdP in Reverse Shot: “The ultimate badge of honor for a noteworthy American director: he has never won an Oscar, and he never will.”)

Fennessey’s Alternative: Both Cruise efforts are fine films, canon-worthy in some quarters. But I suspect that this award would go directly into Will Smith’s empire-building mitts, the first brick in the foundation of a Hollywood life spent performing for approval. And so, it is with Independence Day that this truly cynical, crowd-pleasing, self-abnegating prize discovers its destiny. Welcome to Earth.

1998: There’s Something About Mary

Nayman: Behold, two romantic comedies, both alike in dignity: well, actually, There’s Something About Mary doesn’t have a dignified bone in its gangly, slovenly, pustule-infected body, and that’s only one of the reasons it’s better than Shakespeare in Love (which has more nudity but no visible bodily fluids; both movies also feature fake British accents, for the record). Mary’s genuine word-of-mouth popularity, combined with its (slight) step up as a piece of craftsmanship following the Farrellys’ breakthrough with Dumb and Dumber is enough to give it the nod over more transparently pandering crap like Armageddon (although the latter is the one with the Criterion Collection spine number).

Fennessey’s Alternative: The Truman Show. Jim Carrey made a boldfaced play at an Oscar with this high-concept dramedy about a man raised—unbeknownst to him—inside a 24/7 reality show coming to grips with the artificiality of his own life. Director Peter Weir, screenwriter Andrew Niccol, and supporting actor Ed Harris all received nominations, but Carrey was boxed out. In fact, he’s never been nominated. Truman draws together the two poles of Carrey’s identity: manic, overexposed hyena-man and wounded, withdrawn sad clown. I rewatched it recently—it’s an amazing performance, filled with ache and desperation and mad-eyed reach. It holds the entire movie together, and has aged gracefully. Bear in mind, this was the year of Roberto Benigni’s cringe-inducing win for Life Is Beautiful. Why not trade one mug for another?

1999: The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project [TIE]

Nayman: Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, Eyes Wide Shut, and Boys Don’t Cry are all better movies than American Beauty, my choice for the Best Picture winner that holds up the worst (at least until people rewatch The Shape of Water in their flood-shelter rec rooms in 2037). But these are also the sort of midsize, critically acclaimed, auteur-forward titles that could, should (and yet did not) compete for a Best Picture Oscar. Once again, I’m proposing a tie between a pair of movies that occupied slightly askew positions on the millennial vanguard: The Matrix for being more artful and visionary than anybody could have reasonably expected from a largely unhyped Keanu Reeves action movie, and The Blair Witch Project for countering the decade’s irreversible drift toward digital spectacle (embodied, by the way, by The Matrix, with its CGI effects depicting a CGI world) by turning celluloid into a plot point and weaponizing negative onscreen space.

Fennessey’s Alternative: Three years after The English Patient, the Anthony Minghella film that should have been righteously celebrated with an Oscar was his cool, glamorous take on Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which features career-best work from just about every actor in it. Alas, Ripley, the 27th-highest-grossing film of the year, isn’t eligible in our fake game. So I will select … The Phantom Menace? George Lucas has never won an Oscar in competition. (Way back in 1991, he was given the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, at just 56 years old.) Despite four early-career nominations for his writing and directing on American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas has not earned the same hardware as his old pals Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. (He is, however, very rich.)

Is The Phantom Menace deserving of an Oscar? No! (It was nominated in three technical categories.) But Lucas’s return to the galaxy far, far away, disappointing and problematic as it was, ushered in a new kind of IP-focused, serialized legacy storytelling strategy in Hollywood. There had been bigger movies before it, like Titanic. But nothing that changed the industry like the first Star Wars prequel.

2006: Casino Royale

Nayman: The only choice here—and probably one of the few movies that would actually ennoble the idea of an alternate award for purely commercial filmmaking—is Casino Royale, which is as beautifully constructed, composed, color-timed, and choreographed an action movie as has been made in the 21st century—not to mention far better written than coauthor Paul Haggis’s actually-Oscar-winning Crash from the previous year (which I had forgotten when I said the thing just now about American Beauty and gladly substitute in its place).

Fennessey’s Alternative: [Whispering.] This was a baaaaaaad movie year. But hey, in the spirit of mixing it up, why not just give Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby the prize here? I’d like for Will Ferrell and Adam McKay to have an Oscar. And remember: If you ain’t first, you’re last.

2008: The Dark Knight

Nayman: Everything I just said about Casino Royale is how most people feel about The Dark Knight—mainly that it was too good to be considered product and would have been more deserving of Oscar recognition than several of the movies that stole its Best Picture nomination (this is true if we’re talking about Frost/Nixon or The Reader, which Hugh Jackman at least had the grace to admit he hadn’t seen). Save for Heath Ledger’s electric, inventive performance—which, among other things, featured so much mumbled dialogue that Christopher Nolan and Tom Hardy had no choice but to make Bane fully inaudible in The Dark Knight Rises—it’s a draggy and ideologically confused piece of work (I forget who deemed it an “airline edit of a Michael Mann movie” but I still laugh at that one). But as all the recent 10th-anniversary pieces indicate, it’s also the movie from 2008 (a year defined by glimmers of hope that now seem pretty far away) that’s kept the firmest hold on the collective imagination. It may not be the Most Popular Movie winner we deserved, but it was the one we needed (in that alternate timeline where we need any of this silliness).

Fennessey’s Alternative: WALL-E. A no-brainer that stands as one of the defining achievements of Pixar, a movie that is both small stakes and big picture, beautiful to look at, surprisingly sensual (for a movie about robots on a garbage planet), and funny when you least expect. NOTE: In full, I view the awards handed out at the 81st Oscars as the absolute nadir of the whole enterprise.

2014: The Lego Movie

Nayman: Maybe the most dire year of the new millennium as far as the relationship between box office grosses and some semblance of artistic quality goes—or maybe you perceive secret greatness in Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, or Maleficent. Actually, the Academy had a great chance to reward a big, populist hit in the form of American Sniper, which received six nominations in addition to being easily the most successful movie of Clint Eastwood’s career, thus disqualifying it under our rules. (I would have also disqualified it for the obviously fake baby, but for some that’s a plus.) The one 2014 mega-hit worth deconstructing (sorry) was The Lego Movie, which, with its underlying theme of brand loyalty and cheerful, officially licensed array of characters from other hit franchises, reflected the entertainment-industrial complex more perceptively than the superhero satire of Birdman.

Fennessey’s Alternative: Adam, you have forgotten about the most incisive (prescient?) portrait of male toxicity of recent times: Gone Girl. David Fincher’s dream of turning Ben Affleck into a paunchy middle-aged emotional flyweight with bad style and an absence of decency remains not just a thrilling, arterial spray of Hitchcockian invention; it’s sociology taught by the meanest tenured professor around.

2017: The Greatest Showman

Nayman: The second I read about AMPAS’ plans, red-tinged visions of Hugh Jackman bounding onstage to collect a statuette for his grotesque, toe-tapping P.T. Barnum hagiography came to me: a million nightmares keeping me awake. (The fact that I’m paraphrasing specific song lyrics here indicates that to some extent the music has gotten stuck in my head due to exposure; at this point, I’ll have to drill a hole in my skull to expunge “Rewrite the Stars.”) The rabid, undeniable audience appeal of a film as badly reviewed as The Greatest Showman—still the only movie that noted Oscar watcher Donald Trump has openly gushed about while in office, by the way—speaks to the precise divide that the Academy is trying to exploit by creating an artificial, intelligence-insulting dichotomy between artistry and success. That the film itself features a snooty critic who learns to lighten up and admire a freak-show magnate on the grounds that his menagerie constitutes a “celebration of humanity”—the most embarrassing fate for such a character since Bob Balaban got mauled by a scrunt in Lady in the Water—would make such a pandering prize seem all the more deserved.

Fennessey’s Alternative: Sure, that’s fine, but: Coco.