🎬 #55 What is An Oscar Film?
This is news to me, but the Oscars was established by Louis B. Mayer in 1929. The man who would go on to on to become the second ‘M’ in MGM studios. His motivation was, in his own words:
“I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them ... If I got them cups and awards, they'd kill[ ]to produce what I wanted. That's why the Academy Award was created".
Less specifically and more nobly, he also wanted to unite the 5 facets of the industry - actors, directors, producers, technicians and writers. Definitely a nicer reason than selfishly thinking if he got people awards they’d work on the projects he wanted to get made.
What’s also interesting about the first ever awards ceremony is that Best Picture was split into two different categories. Best Picture, as it’s now known, was originally called ‘Outstanding Picture’ and there was a separate category alongside it called ‘Best Unique and Artistic Picture.’ The latter of which would only last one year.
But the original idea was that this category would honour more art house, ‘prestige’ pictures that were less widely seen. It’s an interesting foreshadowing of the various waves/trends that would run through the Oscars for the next 90 years. Going from celebrating more mainstream films that more movie goers would actually see in the cinema, to celebrating more niche, more prestige pictures that would traditionally be less widely seen.
And you can see a kind of see-saw, over the years, very broadly between these two genres - if we think of them as ‘Oscar film’ and ‘Not an Oscar Film.’ In fact the phrase Oscar Bait has been in circulation since around 1942 - and refers to the films released in Autumn through December that are a bit more obviously geared towards appealing to Oscar voters when it comes time to cast their vote.
In more recent years there has thankfully been more of a balance - more what you might call art house films nominated alongside more widely seen films. For example, you have the following films vying for Best Picture this year - Top Gun: Maverick, Tár, The Banshees of Inisherin, Avatar: The Way of Water and Everything Everywhere All At Once amongst others.
In the first year of the Academy Awards, Tár and The Banshees of Inisherin might have been in the category of Best Unique and Artistic Picture, but now they’re rubbing shoulders with the big box office smashes and that’s a nice thing to see. Because if we’re watching films, we should be able to mix it up, one super healthy diet without the odd sugary treat is no fun. And let’s not forget that a treat can also have a lot of nutrition to offer - I’d argue that a box office sensation that captures the imagination of millions of people that’s also honoured as a piece of storytelling art is arguably much, much harder to achieve.
So this week I’m revisiting the BIG Oscar winners.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: TITANIC
1997 Dir James Cameron
When I first saw this in the cinema I ran out in a flood of tears. The literal scale of the film plus the emotion was all a bit too much for a young Bryan to handle. I loved every second of it.
This was an ‘Oscar Film’ in the sense that it’s a historical film and a film based on the greatest maritime disaster ever known. But when I was a kid I didn’t want to see it because it was an ‘Oscar Film’ with 14 nominations. I wanted to see it because it had all the hallmarks of a James Cameron film that I loved and had grown up on. Huge scale in terms of the visual grandeur but also huge emotional stakes and with a nice dose of technological engineering mixed in - the modern day ‘dive’ framing device and the shear gigantic physicality of the Titanic as the metal marvel they all find themselves floating in.
There’s a brilliant broadness to Cameron’s films in a way that very few filmmakers can match. Because he manages to maintain this feeling while making a film that only he could make, without holding back any of his thematic concerns and interests. His films are unmistakably James Cameron, nuts and bolts of story and there’s not a drop of pretence, which is incredibly refreshing. When you sit down to watch one of his films you know he’s going to deliver action and take you on a journey you can’t help but get wrapped up in. And he does all this by being specific to his own interests, by looking deeper into what interests him as a human, he can be sure to appeal to at least a decent percentage of all us other humans out there. A big part of this and what unites his films, and is particularly clear with Titanic, is the theme of transformation.
We all want to believe we can change, that we can move up the social ladder, or be stronger and more resilient than we ever thought possible. And when we see big transformations happen on the big screen we are reminded, in an exaggerated larger than life way, that we can make changes too. And in Cameron’s films - as in all good drama, characters reveal their truest selves in the most intense situations - and Cameron is the master of putting characters in the most intense situations imaginable.
And like his characters, Cameron is no strange to intense situations. It’s hard to remember, now knowing how big of a mega success the film was financially, that most of the press around the film was that it was doomed to be a disaster. Journalists picked up on the ballooning budget and they were all but writing off Fox and Cameron’s big gamble. We also have to remember that DiCaprio was not a megastar at the time, he was successful, but not the leading man he is today and the same is true of Kate Winslet. In essence, the most expensive film at that point was resting on the shoulders of untried leads in a way. And Cameron, under the pressures of mounting budgets, waved his directing fee. But he had agreed to ‘back end points’ which are essentially royalties on the film if it performed well. So he sacrificed his $8 million director’s fee in exchange for the backend which would eventually net him a rumoured $650 million. And of course the film would go on to win 11 oscars, tied for the record with the second film this week - Ben-Hur.
TL;DR why should I spend 3 hrs 14 mins of my precious life watching this? Give Titanic another look as an exercise in dramatic character transformation and grand scale filmmaking that still captivates 26 years on.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple TV, Sky Store and YouTube.
Fact: Suzy Amis, who played Rose’s daughter in the present day scenes, is James Cameron’s wife.
Bonus: The runtime of the film minus the present days scenes is 2hrs 40 mins, which is the time it took the real Titanic to sink.
FILM TWO: BEN-HUR
1959 Dir William Wyler
Alongside Titanic and Lord of The Rings: Return of The King, Ben-Hur remains the film with the most Oscar wins, and Titanic to this day still holds the record for most nominations at 14 out of a possible 17 categories, [with La La Land and All About Eve equalling it].
And while Titanic was a huge film - Ben-Hur has the kind of old world filmmaking patina that makes it feel especially colossal. Cameron had the benefit of CGI extensions, Ben-Hur had to rely solely on practical builds and doing things for real, including the now iconic chariot race. William Wyler, a director on par with John Ford [the still record holder for most best directing Oscar wins at 4 trophies] is a much more tricky director to pin down. Mixing huge scale epics with much more controversial, smaller scale films. For example, within two films of Ben-Hur he was adapting John Fowles’ sinister novel, The Collector. That would be like Cameron suddenly directing a low budget single location horror film two years after Titanic.
Like most grand scale epics, that take in huge swaths of history, there is a solid, big and bold approach to the storytelling. Probably aided by the sheer scale of the cameras and the crews, there is a sense of a very methodical, rock solid camera placement - here is the shot, it might as well been etched into stone or knit into a tapestry. There is a sense of capturing something you couldn’t have another take at. Like a painter working on a huge canvas, there are broad, bold strokes, not ink-fine adjustments. This is a film so big that the story of Christ is the backdrop. Smart, because Wyler made a film about the famous figure without them dominating the action. The hero remains Ben-Hur.
Like the style of filmmaking, this is a simple, bold story of betrayal and revenge, the themes of which are broadly echoed in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The action, the plot, are the actions of the characters - they’re expressed through physicality not intimate conversations. Their character is revealed through battles with the elements, with other people and with themselves. You can see Wyler’s roots in silent filmmaking here at every turn. He’s relying on the images to tell us about the characters and their journeys. This is a film where everything from the performances to the setting, to the score are larger than life.
And that’s kind of what I love about big scale films that have mass appeal. They’re the kind of films that we can step into, that take us to bold new places but are also films where we can recognise our own humanity. The best of them have scale and heart.
TL;DR why should I spend 3 hrs 32 mins of my precious life watching this? William Wyler’s epic is the kind of film that reminds you how impressive huge scale filmmaking is.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple TV, Sky Store and YouTube.
Fact: William Wyler wanted David Lean to direct the chariot race but Lean declined, knowing that Wyler would do a great job himself.
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