The Oscars may be just a horse-race between larcenous, ego-queen jockeys riding $100 million braindead nags, but even so, sometimes the right movie wins. Often the wrong movie wins, and other times we can be thankful a middling movie or actor wins by the grace of fate so that another movie, a real populist crater, doesn’t. With these you can almost feel the hand of divine intervention come down and coax the Price Waterhouse envelopes open like an accountant’s zipper.
Yesterday, the perfectly serviceable if rather Top Gun-ish “Hurt Locker” won instead of “Avatar,” and so we were saved from seeing James Cameron speak in that stupid language of his in front of half a billion viewers. Even people who hate Kathryn Bigelow movies want to buy her a cocktail now, and her big win is part of an all too infrequent contemporary Academy reflex. Sometimes, Hollywood decides to save us from itself. Here, a brief history of the Thank-God-It’s-Not Oscar Block:
“The Apartment”: Best Picture, 1960
A small, Yiddische Billy Wilder comedy, elevated to AFI-classic status after the postwar Academy members decided they’d had enough for the moment of historical epics (“The Alamo”) and lit-class melodramas (“Sons and Lovers,” “Elmer Gantry”). You couldn’t blame them.
“Tom Jones”: Best Picture, 1964
Nobody’s idea of a masterpiece, this extremely goofy bit of retro-Brit-ness blocked the lumbering, monstrously wasteful, absurdly popular “Cleopatra,” and for that it can be fondly remembered, if not for much else.
Lee Marvin, “Cat Ballou”: Best Actor in a Leading Role, 1966
Honestly, the Academy nomination-voted itself into a corner on this one, and so they had to essentially decide between awarding either Rod Steiger or Richard Burton for being stone-faced, or Laurence Oliver for parading in blackface (for “Othello”), or Marvin for having drunken fun in a stupid spoof. I’d give an Oscar to Marvin for getting out of bed in the morning, which for him wasn’t always easy.
“In the Heat of the Night”: Best Picture, 1968
In 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was exactly the sort of cold oatmeal everyone expected the ever-aging Academy to fete, but sanity somehow took hold. Since both “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate” were a little too radical in their own ways, the nod went to this modest, civics-minded policier. Given the times, they had to pick a Sidney Poitier movie, and with a degree of surprising grace they picked the one that doesn’t make you taste your own stomach acid.
“Patton”: Best Picture, 1971
This is, frankly, a rotten movie, but it’s more bearable than either “Love Story” or “Airport,” which both made much more money and had bestselling novel points in their favor. “Five Easy Pieces” and “M*A*S*H” were too new-generation, too anti-establishment, to stand a chance. Imagine a world in which “Love Story” won a best picture Oscar — you wouldn’t have been able to forget about it until now.
Louise Fletcher, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: Best Actress in a Leading Role, 1976
Generally regarded as one of the most puzzling of all best actress awards, this one makes sense if you look at the competition — Isabelle Adjani, being French, couldn’t really qualify, and Carol Kane, in micro-indie “Hester Street,” couldn’t either. But no one wanted to give it to Glenda Jackson doing Ibsen (she’d already won twice, and they were not good memories), and certainly no one wanted to give top prize to Ann-Margaret in “Tommy,” the sheer nomination of whom may be the strangest fucking thing the Academy has ever done, and I’m remembering Rob Lowe and Snow White.