Counting to ten

Posted by · 9:17 am · July 2nd, 2009

Since the Academy announced the new ten-lane track for the Best Picture race, any number of bloggers have projected which extra films might have made the cut under this format in the last few years, a process that, for many, retrospectively hands hypothetical nods to everything from “Doubt” to “Memoirs of a Geisha” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

It’s a process that is as dispiriting as it is occasionally heartening, but so far there hasn’t been much informed analysis of how the Academy’s weighted balloting system might affect the lower reaches of the list. (I must wonder, for example, whether a “Geisha” had enough number-one votes to even crack a list of ten — the new format will certainly test the remaining power of the studio system.)

Anne Thompson, however, offers by far the most interesting backward-glancing “what-if” piece I’ve yet read, in which an unnamed (but clearly authoritative) film historian digs a little further back to consider what a ten-nominee Best Picture category might have looked like in the years from 1967 to 1979.

This is a fascinating period of Oscar history, one which found the Academy still partially trapped by the conservative machinations of the studio system, while simultaneously going some way towards embracing the shock of the new.

As such, while the Best Picture race served up shamelessly studio-bought nominations for irredeemable flops like “Doctor Dolittle” and “Nicholas and Alexandra,” the voters also demonstrated newfound adventurousness by acknowledging foreign-language fare (with 3 nominees in the space of 5 years), as well as populist genre hits like “Jaws” and “The Exorcist.” In keeping with the decade’s re-energizing of American filmmaking, the 70s were arguably the Academy’s gutsiest decade.

Thompson’s source keeps this in mind as he compiles his speculative nominee lists, suggesting daring arthouse and foreign-language titles (“Last Tango in Paris,” “Women in Love,” “Seven Beauties”) alongside crowd-pleasing blockbusters (“Saturday Night Fever,” “The Poseidon Adventure”) and a fair amount of studio-pushed failures.

It’s in the latter category that the case against ten nominees is made most clear. It’s embarrassing enough that abominations like “Dolittle” will forever have the title of Best Picture Nominee thanks to crafty campaigning, but shouldn’t we be grateful that such drek as “Camelot,” “Star!” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” didn’t get to join them? The thoughtful analysis that accompanies each year’s projections makes it all too plausible, however, that they’d have made it. As intriguing as the thought of “Alien” or “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” coloring up the race is, you have to wonder if it’s worth the inevitable concessions to studio manipulation.

In other words, to bring the argument up to date, I’m not sure whether the critical and commercial cache of having “WALL-E” on this year’s list would have compensated for the all-out terror (for me, anyway) of seeing “Gran Torino” beside it. As Thompson herself says of her source’s projections, “adding five sometimes improves the choices, but often does not.” As for which side of this equation the Academy falls on, 30 or 40 years on, we must wait and see.

Read the rest of this fascinating exercise here.

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23 responses so far

  • 1 7-02-2009 at 10:00 am

    Zac said...

    If the 10 picture rule had been in effect back in 1975, that lineup would have been diluted the most.

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Barry Lyndon,
    Dog Day Afternoon

    IMHO, the best Best Picture lineup ever.

  • 2 7-02-2009 at 10:10 am

    James D. said...

    Best Picture nominee Gran Torino would have been hard on me, but it wasn’t any more ridiculous than the dreadful The Reader or, dare I say it, Best Picture Winner Slumdog Millionaire. Getting The Wrestler, and perhaps Rachel Getting Married, onto the list would have been worth it.

  • 3 7-02-2009 at 10:12 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    ’75 was a great lineup. Also, perhaps shamefully, it’s one of only two years pre-1994 that I’ve seen all of the nominees.

  • 4 7-02-2009 at 10:17 am

    McGuff said...

    /jumps out window thinking of Rachel Getting Married as Best Picture material.

  • 5 7-02-2009 at 10:22 am

    The Dude said...

    I think we need to sort of break away from the “what would the 10 have been?” arguments. I think we need to focus more on “if there were 10, would the winner that year have been different?” While in most years, no, I think last year would not have been as much of a slam dunk for Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog won all those awards because none of the other entries had an enthusiastic following, and so it was an easy frontrunner. But I think both The Dark Knight and Wall-E would have taken a few votes from it (from the populist crowd), and I think The Wrestler would have taken a few votes as well (from the “indie-loving” crowd). Hell, even the Guy-maligned (haha) Gran Torino may have stolen a few. I’m not saying any of those 3 films would have taken the top prize…what I’m wondering (and I hope someone does a piece on this soon) is that, with 5 more nominees, would the voting have become scattered enough last year to crown another film? Or would a film like Slumdog have kept all its votes, and the other movies in the original top 5 lose them? Who knows. Maybe. It needs more analysis from people who are smarter and more film-savvy than me :P

  • 6 7-02-2009 at 10:32 am

    red_wine said...

    I still cant seem to place the 10 Best Pic line-up thing. Is at an acknowledgment of the fact the Academy hit absolute rock-bottom with last year’s line-up (save Milk), it couldn’t possibly be any worse. And yep, last year as well, if Wall-E or Happy-Go-Lucky had been included, the average quality of the line-up might have gone up. But just-miss drek like Doubt and Revolutionary Road, would have got in as well. It all boils down to their taste. It would really be embarrassing if even a single foreign language film fails to get in.

  • 7 7-02-2009 at 10:37 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ten Oscar nominees wouldn’t have altered the fact that “Slumdog” won every crucial precursor, including a clean sweep of the Guild awards. It would have handily taken Best Picture in any event.

    And yeah, that 1975 lineup is impeccable, though I’d venture that 1972 is no less impressive.

  • 8 7-02-2009 at 12:10 pm

    Troy said...

    I’m with you, McGuff. Definitely the worst movie of last year that I’ve seen.

  • 9 7-02-2009 at 12:27 pm

    Georgie said...

    I am constantly amazed at the people who call movies like Rachel Getting Married and Revolutionary Road the worst movie they saw last year. Honestly, much much worse movies came out last year.

    I expect the same to be said of Shutter Island and The Lovely Bones this year, even though Wolverine, Transformers, and G.I. Joe are also 2009 releases.

  • 10 7-02-2009 at 12:29 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    To be fair, Troy did say it was the worst film THAT HE’D SEEN, not the all-out worst of the year.

  • 11 7-02-2009 at 12:31 pm

    James D. said...

    Georgie, it is more hyperbole than anything. I would imagine that most of us don’t even bother with the likes of Transformers, so we only judge worst to best based on “critically acclaimed” movies. I would call Revolutionary Road the worst film I saw last year as well, because I only see art and critical films.

  • 12 7-02-2009 at 1:39 pm

    red_wine said...

    Georgie, there was scattered support for Rachel Getting Married, a very respectable movie, and even though it baffles me as to why, Rev Road had a sizable chunk of people think it was this shimmering masterpiece.

    But Shutter Island and The Lovely Bones(come to think of it, what a weird title) are gonna be different. Shutter Island’s gonna have a massive fanboy following, not TDK level but considerable and The Lovely Bones will be 1 of those rare dramas that catch people’s fancy like Rev Road and to a certain extent Atonement before that.

  • 13 7-02-2009 at 2:03 pm

    John said...

    I believe last yrs. 5 based on Multiple noms/Critical acclaim/Guilds/BAFTAS would have been ….. ‘TDK’, ‘Wall-E’, ‘Wrestler’, ‘Doubt’, & ‘Rev. Road’.

    2007 – I think ‘Into the Wild’, ‘American Gangster’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘Sweeney Todd’, & ‘Diving Bell of the Butterfly’ would have made it.

    2006 – ‘Blood Diamond’, ‘Little Children’, ‘United 93’, ‘Dreamgirls’, ‘Pans Labyrinth’.

    2005 – ‘Cinderella Man’, ‘Harry Potter 4’, ‘Pride & Prejudice’, ‘Match Point’, ‘Batman Begins’.

    2004 – ‘Manchurian Candidate’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’, ‘Incredibles’, ‘Closer’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.

    2003 – ‘Cold Mountain’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘City of God’, ‘Last Samurai’, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.

    That’s all I’m doing for now. That’s how I think it could have been. Possibly.

  • 14 7-02-2009 at 2:16 pm

    Troy said...

    Ok, now that I’ve thought about some more movies I’ve seen from last year, The Incredible Hulk was worse. As for RR, while I didn’t like the movie much, I still strongly appreciated certain things about the film, such as the score, some of the acting, and cinematography. Far from a horrible film, imo.

  • 15 7-02-2009 at 2:16 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Harry Potter 4” over “The Constant Gardener?” Incredibly unlikely, I’d say. “Batman Begins” is a major stretch too.

    I also don’t share many people’s conviction that “Revolutionary Road” would have made a Top 10, given how minimally the Academy responded to it.

  • 16 7-02-2009 at 2:46 pm

    John said...

    Guy Lodge, true.

    I totally forgot about the ‘Constant Gardener’. That def. would have been in.

    I still think one of ‘Harry 4’ or ‘Batman Begins’ may have slipped in. Curious, what would your 10th be?

    The only reason I consider ‘Rev. Road’ as the outside shot for #10 was the Mendes/Kate/Leo/Shannon/Bates factor combined with it’s GUILD love for the technicals.

  • 17 7-02-2009 at 4:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Off the top of my head, I’d say “Walk the Line” would have got in ahead any of the extra five you propose. I was actually surprised at the time that it didn’t get nominated.

    I also think MAYBE “A History of Violence” had enough passionate niche support to scrape in. But it’s all guesswork.

  • 18 7-02-2009 at 5:00 pm

    RichardA said...

    Well, if the top 10 nominees were to be filled in by the usual nominees with more of the usual nominees–like the ones that no one in general public has ever heard of–what is the point? That would be just 10 nominees, probably with 7 movies that are critical darlings and 3 for movies like “The Matrix”, a critical success as well as a box office monster.

    Wow…looking back, The Matrix would have been a better choice than “American Beauty.”

  • 19 7-02-2009 at 5:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’ve never sympathised with the complaint that the Academy nominates movies “the public hasn’t heard of.”

    Whether or not they’ve seen it, anybody who hasn’t HEARD of, say, “The Reader” is clearly so culturally removed, one has to wonder why the Academy should bother taking such an audience into account.

  • 20 7-02-2009 at 9:05 pm

    Ben M. said...

    While there is a chance some lousy films will sneak in, that can still happen with 5 nominees and I’m cautiously optimistic that the 10 slots will also some more daring and untraditional contenders in, look at some of the interesting films that wind up with one of the 10 screenplay slots.

    And while it may have its detractors, I actually think nominating Gran Torino would’ve helped the academy’s public cred since it made more than any of the nominees domestically and had better reviews than Benjamin Button and Reader.

  • 21 7-03-2009 at 4:33 am

    Pico Yelpat said...

    People continue to think by adding 5 BP slots, that more commercial fare with enter the fray.

    I do think we’ll 1 or 2 commercial films added. But we’ll also see an additional 3-4 sub $30 Million grossing films added as well.

    More Capotes, Frost/Nixons, Letters from Iwo Jima…

    I think it’ll be brill that 7 of the 10 nominees will be widely unseen by the American public. Maybe we’ll get a People’s Choice category next year where fans can text in their picks. Or perhaps 20 nominees!

  • 22 7-03-2009 at 4:58 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “I do think we’ll 1 or 2 commercial films added. But we’ll also see an additional 3-4 sub $30 Million grossing films added as well.”

    I tend to agree. It mystifies me that people are talking about “Star Trek” as a serious contender — the Academy has changed the number, not their own taste.

  • 23 7-03-2009 at 5:53 am

    PJ said...

    Mmhmm, a populist film would have to make a very high figure at the box office, be nearly universally acclaimed and be some sort of cultural phenomenon to have a decent chance with the Academy. “Star Trek” would only (arguably) meet some of the said criteria, unlike “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E”, and I have a feeling that even those two appear as locks amongst 10 nominees only in retrospect.