As Oscar-season hits a fever pitch, of course lots of people are also looking at the history of the Oscars and what’s won in previous years, and what maybe SHOULD have won in previous years. This is a fun pastime, one I’ve certainly indulged in it myself (as evidenced by this monster post over at Row Three), and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.
But it does bring to mind something that kind of bothers me about how Oscar-winning films are often seen on down the road, especially those that are popularly deemed unworthy of their Oscars.
The most egregious case in point is How Green Was My Valley. Poor How Green Was My Valley is best known today for being the film that stole the 1941 Best Picture Oscar from Citizen Kane, as if the film mounted a sneak attack on Xanadu and snatched the statuette from Charles Foster Kane’s dying fingertips. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you ask me straight up which film is better, yes, Citizen Kane wins in a heartbeat. But that doesn’t mean that a lovely and evocative film like How Green Was My Valley deserves for its reputation to hang on the fact that some group of people voted to give it an award over seventy years ago.
Bringing it closer to home, I was pretty pissed when The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign Film Oscar over my darling Pan’s Labyrinth. I hadn’t seen The Lives of Others at the time of the awards, but it was nonetheless a TRAVESTY that my #1 film of the year had been passed over. Then a few months later I begrudgingly watched The Lives of Others, just so I could feel justified in my anger. And you know what? It’s a damn good movie. Maybe it doesn’t hit my personal buttons as much as Pan’s did, but it certainly was just as excellent a choice to win the award. And even if it wasn’t, doesn’t it deserve to be watched and judged on its own terms, rather than in competition with another film that it’s only related to because they happened to be pitted against each other for an award?
There are lots of other examples – I happen to think Shakespeare in Love deserved its Oscar over Saving Private Ryan but there are many who don’t, Chariots of Fire (a favorite of mine) is most often remembered as a film that didn’t deserve its Oscar, The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the worst films to win Best Picture, and on and on. Sure, The Greatest Show on Earth is a weird choice for Oscar, but ignore the baggage that you think belongs with the words “Best Picture Academy Award Winner” and it’s a pretty rip-roaring good time at the movies.
I’m not saying you can’t consider which films should’ve won Oscars instead of those that did, or that you can’t compare two films based on their both being Oscar nominees (or winners). But ultimately, that’s a fun parlor game, and in the final analysis every film deserves to be taken on its own terms. It doesn’t matter how great a film Citizen Kane is – it doesn’t mean that How Green Was My Valley isn’t also a great film. And it deserves better than the short shrift it often gets as “the film that beat Citizen Kane.” Oscars don’t matter that much. The films are what matter.