The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1998
1998 is, as we all know, one of those Oscar years that is brought up as an example of all the bad the Academy represents; “The Academy being the Academy.” And, just like 2010, it’s one of those decisions that makes sense considering who they are and what they like, isn’t as bad as some other decisions because at least they choose a good film (it just might not have been the best film), and at least here (unlike 2010) they gave the other film Best Director. So it’s not that terrible a decision. It’s just not most people’s preferred decision.
As for the rest of the year — it’s filled with other not-so-good decisions, which makes the Best Picture decision feel worse. Shakespeare in Love, outside of this category, won Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow (talked about here), which is historically a terrible decision, but honestly, I don’t really know what woud have been a better one. (Yes, I know Cate Blanchett, but that film is just way too on-the-nose to give her an Oscar. It was a terrible category, is what it was.) It also won Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench (talked about here), which despite all the shit it catches for being so short on screen time, is a good decision.
Best Actor this year was Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (talked about here), which I think we can all agree is one of, if not the single worst Best Actor decision in the history of the category. (But despite everyone’s opinion, Edward Norton was not the better choice, Ian McKellen was.) Best Supporting Actor was James Coburn for Affliction (talked about here), which is good in the sense that James Coburn is awesome, but terrible in every other way (Billy Bob really should have won this). And Steven Spielberg winning Best Director for Saving Private Ryan (talked about here) is one of the best decisions in that category.
Now, let me just say, before I talk about the films — this is really not that bad. Looking at it historically, there were much, much worse decisions. It’s only bad in context.
BEST PICTURE – 1998
And the nominees were…
Elizabeth (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)
Life is Beautiful (Miramax)
Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks, Paramount)
Shakespeare in Love (Miramax/Universal)
The Thin Red Line (20th Century Fox)
Elizabeth – The film is about Queen Elizabeth 1, the so-called “virgin queen.” Elizabeth was originally imprisoned for a false conspiracy against her half-sister Mary (who was queen and died), but is now freed so she can take over. And the film is basically about her coming into her own, first starting out under immense pressure from Parliament to take a husband, and unable to be a commanding queen. And we see, over the course of the film, how she (along with Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush) grows into the strong ruler we know her as. And we see her be courted by every suitor in the land, while also secretly having an affair with a childhood friend. But she realizes he’s married and banishes him from the court. And this experience helps make her stronger, and soon she becomes a cold, ruthless leader, and gives up ever having sex ever again, just because it gives man too much power over her.
It’s a pretty strong film. I liked it. I also like how all of these costume dramas — Becket, The Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots and this — are all related. The Lion in Winter is a sequel of sorts to Becket, and Mary Queen of Scots and this are very closely related, as both Elizabeth and Mary feature heavily in both, but from each other’s perspective, and then Mary and Elizabeth were also related to Henry VIII. So it’s like this own inter-connected universe (that just happens to have happened).
The thing with this film, though, in this category, is — the film is way too on-the-nose to vote for. None of those other ones won, and some of those are American classics. This is just a nice little prestige picture nominee. I don’t think anyone would vote for this.
Life is Beautiful — This is a tightrope of a film. It has to be, given its subject matter. The first half is totally comic and slapstick. Roberto Benigni shows up to a town and start working at his uncle’s hotel. He starts romancing a woman and stealing her away from her fiancé. They marry and have a son. Then, in the second half of the film, World War II breaks out. The family is sent to a concentration camp. Benigni, wanting to shield his son from the horrors of the situation, tells him it’s all a game. He tells him that he has to not cry or complain, and that following the “rules” that he establishes, he’ll get points. And whoever gets to a certain number of points first wins a tank. (He does this to hide his son from the guards, so he’s not taken away and killed.) Each time the kid says he wants to stop the game and go home, Benigni convinces him they’re in the lead and will win the tank. And he continues this “game” until the very end, when, as Americans advance upon the camp, the place erupts in chaos. Benigni goes off to search for his wife, but is shot by a guard. And the kid ends up finding his mother and getting to ride out of the camp in an American tank.
It’s actually a very sweet film, and needs to use the first half to balance out the second half. It’s a trick that another great Italian film, Seven Beauties, uses. It somehow manages to not be completely offensive, despite the Minesweeper of possibilities that it would. So that’s nice. It really shouldn’t have won this category, though. It’s one of those films that got on because it popped and made a lot of money. There’s always one of these. So it’s fine that it got on, but no way should it have won.
Saving Private Ryan — Does anyone not know what this movie is about? The first 30 minutes are the D-Day invasion and the rest of the movie is Tom Hanks and the squad of soldiers being sent to find James Francis Ryan, the last of the Ryan brothers, all of whom were in the war, and all of whom except him died. So in order to prevent a family from losing all its children, they are sent to find him and send him home. And they don’t understand why he gets to go home when they don’t. It’s a brilliant film, and probably should have won this award.
Shakespeare in Love — This is a wonderful film, whose probable only flaw is the fact that it beat Saving Private Ryan. Otherwise, this is a great film.
William Shakespeare is a ne’er-do-well playwright, deep in debt. He’s writing plays such as “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” which is going to be his new one. And we see, over the course of the film, how that play becomes “Romeo and Juliet.” What’s great about it is how fun it is, but also how entertaining and romantic and — everything you expect great drama to be — that’s what this is. Of course it’s on the nose as a winner, that’s not going to be denied, but the film is really great. It’s a great film. Wonderfully constructed. That said, I’m still voting for Saving Private Ryan here. But this film winning is not as bad as people would have you believe.
The Thin Red Line — The Thin Red Line is a film about Guadalcanal during World War II. I’d go over the plot, but for anyone who has seen a Terrence Malick movie, the plot is the last thing that matters. Days of Heaven, The New World, The Tree of Life – these films don’t have plots. They’re slow, meditative, gorgeous, and also have what appears to be a plot around it.
Though, I will say, this is definitely one of the more story-heavy of Malick’s films. It’s a huge parade of stars, ranging from George Clooney, to Nick Nolte, to John Travolta, Jim Caviezel, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Jared Leto, Elias Koteas, Tim Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly, Thomas Jane — lots of people. And what’s more, even Billy Bob Thornton, Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and Viggo Mortensen all shot scenes for the film, which were eventually cut. There’s a story that Adrien Brody, when he shot the film, was supposed to be the main character, and when Malick edited the movie, he cut Brody out almost entirely, and made Jim Caviezel the focal point. And nobody told Brody this, so he went to the premiere and was doing press for it, meanwhile no one told him he only had a handful of lines in the picture!
It’s a really great film. I’d call it one of Malick’s best, but let’s face it — the man’s made only five movies and they’re all great. But, this totally deserved to be here. I wouldn’t vote for it, but it definitely should have been here. What a great movie. Malick is a national treasure.
My Thoughts: It’s pretty obvious which way I’m leaning here, and that’s toward Saving Private Ryan. Even though some people have problems with the third act, I think it’s jut fine, and definitely was the film that should have won this award. And I’d also say that Shakespeare in Love was a second choice for me, which again, makes it an acceptable (lesser, but acceptable) choice. Still, I’m voting for Saving Private Ryan.
My Vote: Saving Private Ryan
Should Have Won: Honestly, I’d have been happy with either of the two favorites winning. So either Saving Private Ryan or Shakespeare in Love. I mean, the preference is for Ryan, but Shakespeare‘s really not that bad.
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. And the reason it’s okay is because Spielberg won Best Director. It’s not a great decision, but it’s an acceptable one. The Academy has done worse before this decision and certainly after it.
Ones I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, you’re dead to the world. Seriously, what kind of movies do you even watch?
Shakespeare in Love is a film you should see just to dispel any ideas that it’s not a good film. It’s a great film. And, also, a Best Picture winner. And, if you want to complain about it having won, you need to see it.
The Thin Red Line is a Terrence Malick movie, and is a really good one. Not my favorite of his, but a very good movie nonetheless. Everything Malick does is worth seeing.
Life is Beautiful is also a really good movie. It does a good job of somehow now making a potentially horrible subject matter okay. I don’t know how he pulls it off, but he does. The film’s only real flaw is that he won for it. It’s a good film, and is pretty essential. I’d imagine most people will really love this movie. It’s one of those films that’s sentimental and tends to get overrated (look no further than its IMDB ranking for proof). But it’s a good film. Worth a watch.
Elizabeth – good film, but not for most people. I love the 60s versions of these films, the costume dramas shot on what are clearly sets, like Becket, The Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days. I love those movies. This one — not so much. It just feels out of place. And if you can’t deal with films like this — the costume dramas (especially ones without the romance angle, since this one’s about the “virgin queen”), you might not enjoy this one. But it’s good. Didn’t love it, but it’s fair film. (The Best Picture nomination might have been a bit much, but what are you gonna do?)
4) Life is Beautiful
3) The Thin Red Line
2) Shakespeare in Love
1) Saving Private Ryan