By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2023)
Winning isn’t everything. Consider tonight’s Top 10 list, compiled in honor (or in spite) of Oscar weekend. Each of these films was up for Best Picture, but “lost”. So here’s a bunch of losers (in alphabetical order) that will always be winners in my book:
Apocalypse Now– “Are you an assassin, Willard?” This nightmarish walking tour through the darkest labyrinths of the human soul (disguised as a Vietnam War film) remains director Francis Ford Coppola’s most polarizing work. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness by Coppola and John Milius, it’s an unqualified masterpiece to some; bloated, self-important nonsense to others. I kind of like it. In the course of the grueling shoot, Coppola had a nervous breakdown, and star Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Now that’s what I call “suffering for your art”. And always remember-never get outta the boat.
Year nominated: 1979
Lost to: Kramer vs. Kramer
There are many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned over the years via repeated viewings of Roman Polanski’s 1974 “sunshine noir”.
Here are my top 3:
1. Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water.
2. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.
3. You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.
I’ve also learned that if you assemble a great director (Polanski), a master screenwriter (Robert Towne), lead actors at the top of their game (Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway), an ace cinematographer (John A. Alonzo) and top it with a perfect music score (Jerry Goldsmith), you create a film that deserves to be called a “classic”.
Year nominated: 1974
Lost to: The Godfather, Part II (A tough call, to be sure).
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece (co-scripted by Terry Southern and Peter George) about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that one wonders why the filmmakers bothered to make this up.
Year nominated: 1964
Lost to: My Fair Lady
La Grande Illusion-While it may be hard for some to fathom in this cynical age we live in, once upon a time there were these things called honor, loyalty, sacrifice, and basic human decency. Ostensibly an anti-war film, Jean Renoir’s classic (which he co-wrote with Charles Spaak) is at its heart a treatise about the aforementioned attributes. Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and Erich van Stroheim head up a fine cast.
Year nominated: 1938
Lost to: You Can’t Take It With You
The Maltese Falcon-This iconic noir, adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel by John Huston (his directing debut), is embedded in film buffs’ neurons-so suffice it to say that “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Humphrey Bogart truly became “Humphrey Bogart” with his performance as San Francisco gumshoe Sam Spade. Memorable support from Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Peter Lorre as ‘Joel Cairo’ (“Look what you did to my shirt!”).
Year nominated: 1941
Lost to: How Green Was My Valley
Network– Sidney Lumet’s brilliant 1976 satire about a fictional TV network that gets a ratings boost from a nightly newscast turned variety hour, anchored by a self-proclaimed “angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisy of our time” (Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Best Actor statue for his turn as Howard Beale).
47 years on, it plays like a documentary (denouncing the hypocrisy of our time). Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay not only foresees news-as-entertainment (and its evil spawn, “reality” TV)-it’s a blueprint for our age. Fantastic work from a cast that includes William Holden, Faye Dunaway (Best Actress win), Ned Beatty, Robert Duvall, and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress win). But alas…no ‘Best Picture’ statue.
Year nominated: 1976
Lost to: Rocky
Pulp Fiction-With the cottage industry of Pulp Fiction clones that spewed forth in its wake, it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film was. Depending on who you ask, what exactly was it? A film noir? A black comedy? A character study? A social satire? A self-referential, post-modern homage to every film ever made previously, jacked in to the collective unconscious of every living film geek?
The correct answer is, “yes”.
Year nominated: 1994
Lost to: Forrest Gump (Still difficult for me to accept.)
Reds– It’s a testament to Warren Beatty’s legendary powers of persuasion that he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to back a 3 ½ hour epic about a relatively obscure American Communist (who is buried in the Kremlin, no less!). Writer-director Beatty plays writer-activist Jack Reed, and Diane Keaton gives one of her best performances as writer and feminist Louise Bryant. Maureen Stapleton (as Emma Goldman) and Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O’Neill) are fabulous. And Beatty deserves special kudos for assembling an impressive group of surviving participants; their interwoven recollections provide a Greek Chorus of living history. The film is at once a sweeping epic and intimate drama.
Year nominated: 1981
Lost to: Chariots of Fire
Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.
Year nominated: 1950
Lost to: All About Eve
The Thin Man-A delightful mix of screwball comedy and murder mystery (based on the Dashiell Hammett novel) that never gets old (I just took it for an umpteenth spin the other night, and laughed as if I was watching it for the first time). The story takes a backseat to the onscreen spark between New York City P.I./perpetually tipsy socialite Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wisecracking wife Nora (sexy Myrna Loy). Top it off with a scene-stealing wire fox terrier (Asta!) and you’ve got a winning formula that has spawned countless imitators through the years; particularly a bevy of sleuthing TV couples (Hart to Hart, McMillan and Wife, Moonlighting, Remington Steele, et.al.).
Year nominated: 1934
Lost to: It Happened One Night