How to Win a Best Picture Oscar!
Fanboy talk of Inception‘s fast track to a Best Picture Oscar made me reflect on films that have actually earn the honor in order to isolate elements they have in common. I’ve noticed even puzzling choices – Shakespeare in Love – look much better with some distance from the victory. And other choices – Around the World in 80s Days beating The King and I seem down right visionary. Who knew audiences would eventually find white actors playing Asian characters so distasteful! I also noticed a lot of the films that went home empty handed haven’t exactly aged gracefully. I see you, Love Story! Other nominated films, like Z, were just entirely too trailblazing for the sensibilities of the voting populace.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggestion I like or agree with the way the Oscars dole out their praise. And there are plenty of films on the list – Braveheart, My Fair Lady, Platoon, Crash, Forrest Gump – I didn’t think were Oscar worthy pictures when compared to other nominees. Yet I understand why they won. For better or worse, the films seems to share these key elements:
The story should be easily summarized in six words or less.
If it takes two hours to explain what your film is about, nobody’s gonna give that sucker an Oscar. People are freaking busy and have no time for chow chow.
- Underdog takes his best shot – Rocky
- The Kang comes back – Return of the Kang
- Daddy issues threaten family business – The Godfather
- Detective unravels drug smuggling plot – French Connection
- Tragedy shatters wealthy family – Ordinary People
- Suburbs suffocate bored white guy – American Beauty
The story should adhere to classic narrative structure, which includes a clearly defined antagonist or conflict.
Now is not the time for an intergalactic sex orgy heist saga told in reverse chronological order by multiple unreliable narrators. Examples of timeless story frameworks include:
- Person vs. The System – Network (nominated, but notable), The Departed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, In the Heat of the Night
- Person vs. Person – Kramer vs. Kramer, Amadeus, No Country for Old Men, Crash
- Person vs. Self – Hamlet, Patton, The Deer Hunter, A Beautiful Mind
The ending can be uncomfortable, but it can’t be ambiguous.
Chinatown, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Midnight Cowboy and The English Patient aren’t exactly buoyant films. While audiences might grapple with the “why”, they should be pretty clear on the “what”.
It has to stand the test of time
Clothing, topical references or hairstyles can be dated, but the material needs to be timeless. While screening Best Picture winners I was quite shocked at how well MANY of them held up. I thought for sure something like How Green Was My Valley would seem silly and out of step, but actually it was a decent film. Some films – like Network – have more relevance today than they did when released. Currently, my favorite Best Picture winner is The Apartment and unless executives have stopped commandeering anonymous apartments in order to conduct adulterous affairs, even a half century later The Apartment still has a few interesting things to say.