Looking back on Oscar’s Old Left leanings

Posted by · 4:59 pm · October 11th, 2010

Its installments come all too infrequently these days, but Best Pictures From The Outside In — a collaborative project between The Film Experience’s Nathaniel Rogers and his learned pals — is one of the best sources of Oscar discussion and analysis on the web.

That’s not only because it provides ample opportunity for kvetching over the Academy’s past mistakes (our favorite sport, let’s face it), but because its system of pairing up Best Picture champs from opposite ends of history often reveals unexpected patterns of progression (or not, in some cases) among the voters.

Their latest episode is a doozy on both counts, covering as it does one of the most roundly jeered winners in the category’s history, 1989’s thoroughly vanilla race-relations drama “Driving Miss Daisy.” (By contrast, the other featured champ, 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” holds up to this day.)

I love participant Mike Phillips’s still-simmering fury over the semi-surprise 1989 result (remember, “Daisy” is the last film to take Best Picture without even a Best Director nomination), which incorporates an unexpected defense of a similarly ill-received winner.

[Driving Miss Daisy’s] ending–“You’re my best friend, Hoke”–is one of the few times you’ll ever see me moved to praise the recent Best Picture winner Crash, because I sort of think Crash knew how ridiculous it was when Sandra Bullock says the same thing to her beleaguered housekeeper. But here in Miss Daisyland, there’s no such thing as self-examination. Meanwhile, out in the world, while the Academy was praising carefully crafted, Old Left films about gradual social change, Spike Lee was tossing garbage cans through windows trying to get people’s attention. The Academy noticed, of course –the white dude in Do the Right Thing got a Supporting Actor nomination. This film, and this window into the Academy’s soul, both make me sick.

As I wrote in a Long Shot column last year, that pointed sidelining of “Do the Right Thing” was a major issue at the 1989 awards, prompting a vocal onstage protest from none other than Kim Basinger. (It’s funny how the real upset victim of the night, Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” scarcely gets mentioned in the discussion anymore.) Given that it’s been exactly two decades since that Oscar ceremony — during which time the template for a Best Picture winner has shifted somewhat, and the number of black Oscar winners has more than trebled — it does make me wonder how much the Academy has changed.

Would “Precious” have been a Best Picture nominee in 1989? Is “The Blind Side” just the 21st-century answer to “Driving Miss Daisy?” And if “Daisy” and “Do the Right Thing” were released today, would the blander film still be the only one nominated? And am I dating myself terribly when I say that’s the first Oscar race I remember being aware of?

Enjoy the rest (and don’t worry, “Daisy” fans, it’s not all slings and arrows for the film) here.

→ 30 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

30 responses so far

  • 1 10-11-2010 at 5:11 pm

    Mike said...

    Yes, Mr. Lodge, you are dating yourself terribly — you’re so-o-o-o-o young. Let me tell you about my indignation, at age 11, about “The Muppet Movie”‘s “Rainbow Connection” not winning Best Original Song in 1980… .

    You’re an outstanding writer and critic, sir. Keep up the great work… and providing us with the great links!

  • 2 10-11-2010 at 5:14 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Agreed, “The Rainbow Connection” wuz robbed. Hell, “The Muppet Movie” wuz robbed.

  • 3 10-11-2010 at 5:16 pm

    Drew said...

    Yeah they’re so hung up on progression that they voted Brokeback Mountain best picture of 2005…oh wait I forgot, they didn’t. But I guess that’s the point of them missing the mark so much.

  • 4 10-11-2010 at 6:32 pm

    Corran Horn said...

    To tell the truth, I personally think Born on the 4th of July should have won that year. Driving Miss Daisy has never impressed me, and I don’t care at all for Spike Lee (though I do think Do The Right Thing was one of his few good efforts, along with 25th Hour).

  • 5 10-11-2010 at 7:25 pm

    Gustavo said...

    “Vanilla”… Pfeh. To each his own. Maybe DMD wasn’t the best of its year (DEAD POETS SOCIETY was, IMO), but it’s a tender, well-crafted and well-meaning movie anyway.

  • 6 10-11-2010 at 7:35 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    I like Do the Right Thing, but some people way overrate the film. It’s a good film, but if the subject matter wasn’t race, and the director wasn’t black, I don’t think people would be so upset that it lost. I also have to agree with Corran that Spike Lee has not lived up to the potential of Do the Right Thing.

    As for Driving Miss Daisy, I like the movie and I think some of the criticism of the film is over the top, but in terms of cinematic flair, it is a pretty bland film and I do understand anybody who does not like the film. It is far from the worst tragedy in Oscar history though. I find it much more upsetting that films like The 400 Blows, 8 and Half, The Seven Samurai, and The Battle for Algiers never even had a chance to be nominated for Best Picture (much less win).

  • 7 10-11-2010 at 7:40 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    thank you for showing me this.

  • 8 10-11-2010 at 7:42 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “The Best Years of Our Lives” does not hold up to this day, and remains one of my two or three absolute LEAST favorite Best Picture winners. Boring, overlong, and flat-out unconvincing. Its characters feel as though they’ve just returned from a picnic and we’re supposed to believe they’re damaged from war. If it wasn’t for Harold Russell, it simply wouldn’t work at all.

  • 9 10-11-2010 at 8:44 pm

    Glenn said...

    “It’s a good film, but if the subject matter wasn’t race, and the director wasn’t black, I don’t think people would be so upset that it lost.”

    But “Do The Right Thing” wouldn’t even EXIST if it weren’t about race or the director wasn’t black. It’s like saying “Saving Private Ryan wouldn’t have been nominated if WWII hadn’t have happened”.

  • 10 10-11-2010 at 9:27 pm

    Casey Fiore said...

    I disagree Glenn, I think Patriotsfan’s statement makes plenty of sense; if, perhaps, not carefully worded. His point seems to be that Do the Right Thing hasn’t been lauded for it’s merit so much as it’s intention and the identity of the man behind (and in front of) the camera. It has received the attention and praise it has because of its point, not the style and skill in which it presents its point. Now, the film attempted to convey may be a powerful one, but that can be said of many many films.

    IMO, and in concurrence with what I believe Patriotsfan was trying to say, the film simply isn’t as good as its meaning. It isn’t as skillfully crafted as it’s cracked up to be. I think Do the Right Thing is a good film that has benefited greatly from a desire to praise a film that says what DtRT was trying to say and an outspoken, “controversial” filmmaker who represents that desired image.

  • 11 10-11-2010 at 9:29 pm

    Casey Fiore said...

    the message the film attempted to convey***


  • 12 10-11-2010 at 9:31 pm

    A.J said...

    Brokeback Mountain isn’t a landmark film. It’s practically forgotten. Okay maybe not practically forgotten but I’m not seeing any other “instant modern classics” in bargain bins for 2.99 . No offense and this is in now way supporting Crash.

  • 13 10-11-2010 at 9:32 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    What I really like about these discussions is how little they focus on the politics of the Oscar race (“So and so wuz robbed!”) and mostly talk about the merits of the film and the context of its release year. It’s been a nice trip down memory lane.

    My only complaint is that they go all Blizzard on the time it takes to get one of these things out!

  • 14 10-11-2010 at 10:09 pm

    Patriotsfan said...

    My first commit was worded poorly, but Casey Fiore made the point that I was attempting to make. Thank you Casey for clarifying my position.

  • 15 10-11-2010 at 10:14 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Not true at all, though. Whoever made “Do the Right Thing,” whether black, white, Asian, whatever, clearly had a masterful control over his craft. You can’t tell me that film isn’t tremendously well put together, from use of color to dialogue to the increasing fervency of its spontaneous vignette structure, not only does it pack a wallop thematically, but stylistically all the same.

  • 16 10-12-2010 at 1:20 am

    Drew said...

    A.J. I hate to bring up the whole generational argument, since I obviously don’t know you personally, but you are clearly not one of the many in my age bracket who admire Brokeback tremendously. Most of my friends, even the more conservative individuals, could quote iconic lines from that film and be quick to point out moments that moved them in a way that Paul Haggis’s feature failed to do. And yes, I do think that the academy got it very wrong that year awarding a film that had less of an impact on me (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone) then an episode of Six feet Under did. In other words, Crash could’ve been more effective as a Starz series, which it was, as opposed to a theatrical release. Crash was horribly dated in terms of subject and commentary and did not deserve a best picture that year. Not that it was a bad film, but there were more significant and superior works at the time.

  • 17 10-12-2010 at 6:18 am

    M.Harris said...

    “Do The Right Thing” was a well-crafted film. Regardless of the race of the person directing.

    The movie dealt with race; like no other film; before or after it. The scene between John Turturro’s charecther and Spike Lee’s charecther; in the pizza parlor was priceless.

    Have whatever opinion you want about the movie; but! To say it recieved a large amout of it’s praise because of the race of the director?

  • 18 10-12-2010 at 6:19 am

    JJ1 said...

    On Brokeback’s legacy. I feel that people (huge movie fans, cinephiles) like us will never forget it and consider it a classic. It will always be on tv alot (Heath, Jake, Williams, Hathaway, Oscar winner). It will be remembered.

    But I think it will always be remembered in passive movie-watching circles as ‘oh, that gay cowboy movie with Heath Ledger that happened to be pretty good’. I, too, doubt it’s cross-cultural classic status. We’ll see.

  • 19 10-12-2010 at 10:13 am

    Patriotsfan said...

    I would like to point out that I said that Do the Right Thing was a good film. I think it is a decently crafted film, although some of Spike Lee’s decisions are a little too self-conscious for my taste. I also think some of the characters in the film (Radio Raheem in particular) are somewhat larger-than-life, but with that said, I must point out again that I think Do the Right Thing is a good film.

    My point was that I believe some people (not anyone here necessarily) overrate the film and exaggerate how much they like the film just because they are eager to be seen praising a film with a black director about race. That doesn’t mean they didn’t like the film, and it doesn’t mean the film is bad, all it means is that they exaggerate what a crime it was that Do the Right Thing didn’t win Best Picture.

    I can not believe that Driving Miss Daisy beating Do the Right Thing is a worse offense to cinema than say Ben-Hur beating The 400 Blows, but much more people complain about the former than the latter. Why is that? In fact, the biggest problem I have with the Academy’s choices, and the one that has been most consistent from 1927 to 2010, is its almost outright refusal to nominate foreign films and actors in foreign films. All things being equal, there is no way American and British films should make up 90-something percent of the nominated films, because I find it hard to believe that Americans and British are that much better at making films than everyone else.

  • 20 10-12-2010 at 10:54 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Do The Right Thing’s critical support is warranted. Nobody cared that Spike Lee was black. His identity was established in his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It.

    Race is a thematic through-line in all of Lee’s work because his perspective is that of a black minority in America. Obviously the subject of race will be handled differently because the perspective will be radically different for other racial groups – American history dictates this.

  • 21 10-12-2010 at 12:47 pm

    A.J said...

    Drew, I must ask what age group you are a part of and what age group you think I am a part of.

  • 22 10-12-2010 at 1:37 pm

    Joe said...

    “Blind Side” (and perhaps even “Precious”) would not have been nominated in a 5 field. And indeed, “Do The Right Thing” would probably be nominated in a 10 field.
    I actually rather like “Driving Miss Daisy”; some people just like vanilla, I guess. But I must see this “Do The Right Thing”.

  • 23 10-12-2010 at 1:51 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Precious” would absolutely have been nominated in a field of five — no doubt about it. That editing nomination spoke volumes, and that surprise screenplay win points to deeper support for the film than many of us realised at the time.

  • 24 10-12-2010 at 2:40 pm

    Drew said...

    I’m in my early twenties. I was assuming you were at least ten years older because whenever the converstaion comes up about Brokeback and Crash with friends of mine there always seemed to be this sort of generational divide between the two. Maybe I’m just reading it wrong or I just have the “generation” thought on my mind frequently given that 2010 seems to be the year of films for my generation. Kick-Ass, Inception, Scott Pilgrim, and now The Social Network. Maybe an end of the year article about the latter wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  • 25 10-12-2010 at 3:08 pm

    Dan said...

    I’m 23, and I still consider Brokeback to be one of the great films of the last decade. I believe I ranked it #2, behind The Lord of the Rings.

  • 26 10-12-2010 at 4:10 pm

    Rashad said...

    Precious was one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.

  • 27 10-12-2010 at 8:08 pm

    Ligaya said...

    Maybe people are kicking up more of a fuss about Driving Miss Daisy winning over Do The Right Thing, instead of Ben Hur over 400 Blows because it’s a more recent example to general moviegoers vs. cinephiles – just as more people are upset about Denzel Washington not winning Best Actor for Malcolm X over some older similar snub.

    My generation came of age in the 1970s, and my friends & I loved the everything Cary Grant was in, Hitchcock, Neo-Realists, Born on the 4th of July, Pontecorvo, Spike Lee’s & Oliver Stone’s movies, 1970s movies in general, world cinema, documentaries, genre movies, Brokeback Mountain *and* Crash, movies based on graphic novels – we love movies period.

    I think merging all films – including foreign – in one category for best picture would be great, but there’s BAFTA, Cesars, etc.

    Driving Miss Daisy was fine, I love Jessica Tandy, and Morgan Freeman (“The Loooom of Fate,” bwahaha, and I’m a die-hard Angelina Jolie fan), but it was no Do the Right Thing.

  • 28 10-13-2010 at 2:17 am

    Angry Shark said...

    I haven’t seen Driving Miss Daisy, but I have to assume a lot of the furor is because it’s a rather bland film with mediocre craftsmanship. Am I right about that?

  • 29 10-13-2010 at 6:27 am

    A.J said...

    Drew, I’m actually 20. Just turned 20 in fact. I’m also gay and I would not have voted for Brokeback Mountain. I personally would’ve liked to see Good Night, and Good Luck win Best Picture but Crash wins, for me, in a landslide in a vote just between Crash and Brokeback Mountain.

  • 30 10-13-2010 at 9:39 am

    Ligaya said...

    Forgot about Goodnight, and Good Luck. That was a good year for movies for me.