When winning an Oscar does a film no favours

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As the 96th Academy Awards loom large, might some films be better off campaigning for second place? A few Oscar thoughts…

“My mom has this saying,” Emma Stone told the Times a week or two backl. “At the start of a relationship we’re so in love we finish each other’s sentences. As time goes by, it becomes, ‘You’re always interrupting me.’”

While the elder Stone has a lot of wisdom to share about marital difficulties, her mantra was brought up in the context of her daughter’s latest film. Poor Things, after receiving near-universal acclaim on the festival circuit last year, has built up a small (but noticeable enough that it gets brought up in interviews) backlash as the awards season approaches its end.

It’s a sentiment plenty of filmmakers – awards contenders especially – will know well.

Before Everything Everywhere All At Once won Best Picture at the Oscars last year, it was difficult to find anyone with a bad word to say about it. Seven Academy Awards later, however, and some circles found the quirky action-comedy difficult to justify the hype. Everything Everywhere All At Once went from beloved cult underdog to the mainstream in record time; the g-force proved more than its delightfully heartfelt frame could take. Now the dust has settled, it’s almost as if the film’s reputation would have been better served by not winning any Oscars at all…

Every year, the awards circuit turns into a mash of stories told and untold. Everything Everywhere All At Once, narratively speaking, was a classic “film that should have won the Oscar but didn’t”. It would have suited its underdog status, appropriately vilified the Academy as having no taste, and cemented its reputation as a hidden gem. Instead, voters had to go and name one of the best films of the year as their best film of the year. In the ceremony’s 95-year history, that’s never really been the whole point.

Read more: British Film Editors reveal Cut Above Awards 2024 winners

Oscars don’t come cheap. In 2023, The New York Times put the cost of a studio awards campaign at anywhere between $5m and $25m. Money might buy you a billboard in the trendier bits of LA. It buys you press junkets and access to the reddest of red carpets – stars and directors boozing and schmoozing in the fancy parties Academy voters tend to congregate. Even a slot on the more-or-less essential Academy Screening Room online portal will set you back $20,000. There’s a reason A24 hasn’t been pushing Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw into consideration this year – it probably can’t afford to.

But it’s not hard to see why studios and streamers are still keen to splash the cash. “It’s an honour just to be nominated” might be a cliché, but it’s a lucrative one. Every year, the season’s highest-profile nominees experience a healthy “Oscars bump” on home video and at the box office as time-strapped cinephiles look to the Best Picture list for a handy guide to what’s worth watching. Working with a studio with the resources to earn creatives a gong or two is also catnip for creatives looking for a home for their next project – and prestige is still one of the most valuable currencies in Hollywood (only slightly behind, er, actual currency).

Despite the spending and the schmoozing, though, the PR from an Oscar win isn’t always as positive as its price tag might suggest. Each Oscars ceremony tells a story, and sometimes, that story is “that time the Academy got it wrong”.

1942’s ceremony is probably best known as “the year Citizen Kane didn’t win Best Picture”. Forrest Gump is the film that beat The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction and Four Weddings And A Funeral. Crash beat Brokeback Mountain in 2006, and in 2022 Will Smith slapped Chris Rock and made everyone forget who was even nominated. Each of these films would arguably have a better reputation now if they hadn’t won in their respective years than if they had.

Either that, or we’d have all forgotten they existed. But far fewer people would be quite so angry about them.

No film typifies this more than 2018’s vilified race relations drama, Green Book – the Best Picture winner that made Spike Lee storm out of the Dolby Theatre, and made everyone else say “Really? Green Book?” Now, the movie has become shorthand for Oscars unreliability just as “Dickensian” is shorthand for urban poverty, and not, for example, being nice to orphans.

That’s an unfortunate reputation for an otherwise (mostly) well-regarded movie to have. Had Green Book not won Best Picture, it might have gone down in history as a well-meaning, if politically old-fashioned, historical drama. As it is, the film has few defenders even amongst the cavalcade of Academy voters who, presumably, thrust it into the spotlight in the first place.

Read more: Oscars 2024 | Nominations announced

In recent years, awards voters have garnered a reputation for celebrating films “ordinary folk” have never heard of. While it’s true that the gap between box office and critical acclaim has tended towards the vast end of the canyon-measuring spectrum, the backlash received by the sort of film not considered typical Oscars fare doesn’t do much to change this state of affairs around.

It’s interesting to compare, for example, the Best Picture wins of Nomadland (in 2021) with CODA (2022). One is a sweeping, Academy Award winner-led Americana odyssey where Francis McDormand does unspeakable things to a bucket. The other is a sweet, heartwarming family drama, and while Nomadland’s victory at the time seemed to attract widespread grudging acknowledgement of its brilliance, CODA, again, traversed the underdog to Best Picture winner pipeline and wound up with whiplash.

If the Oscars are a soap opera, then each year will always need a bad guy. What was it Harvey Dent said? You either die a hero, or live long enough to win Best Picture.

Then again, The Dark Knight never won the Academy’s most illustrious prize. Its reputation’s done alright, hasn’t it?

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