The Searchers: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it's a matter of "How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?" Sometimes it's disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards—giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)
Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different—some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There's a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.
Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time—in many instances, outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.
What movie most influenced the "American renaissance" filmmakers of the '70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.
And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch—none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn't expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, "That'll be the day!"
And the 1956 Oscar went to ... Around the World in Eighty Days
More than one film buff with excellent taste has proposed Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest as the most entertaining movie ever made. It's the archetypal Hitchcock—Hitch in his lighter vein, anyway—the epic summation of all the wonderful comedy-suspense chases the director had led us on … The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cary Grant, the epitome of glamour under pressure, is perfectly cast as an authentic '50s Mad Man, who raises his hand in a posh Manhattan watering-hole at an ill-timed moment and thereby becomes the Wrong Man, the clueless quarry in a transcontinental spy pursuit.
In 1959, everyone enjoyed North by Northwest as classy entertainment, and that was that. Then, several years later, the late Robin Wood lucidly laid out how the film operated as a well-nigh metaphysical meditation on Hitchcock's deepest concerns as a modern artist. Wood was right—which means, among other things, that there's even more to be engrossed with in this sublime movie. Would a seminar with Wood have nudged Hollywood to nominate NbyNW for more than Art Direction, Editing, and Writing (Ernest Lehman, brilliant)—none of which it won? Don't bet on it. But do sit down and watch the movie again; no moment is ill-timed for that.
And the 1959 Oscar went to ... Ben-Hur
The gallery continues at http://movies.msn.com/academy-awards/oscar-oversights/photo-gallery/feature/?ocid=mohfpS5L