Movie: Forrest Gump
Year it won the Oscar: 1995
Movies it beat out: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption
The argument: Now, I want to make it clear that I'm a big fan of both Pulp Fiction (a big fan of Quentin Tarantino in general) and Shawshank (other than critics, who isn't?). But I unabashedly love Forrest Gump. A huge popular hit when it was released in 1994, this adaptation of the Winston Groom book gave Tom Hanks his second Best Actor honor in as many years following Philadelphia. Yet over time, its reputation has dimmed. It became known as the movie that sees a character randomly weave his way through U.S. history, less "Life is like a box of choc-lates" and more..."Will you stop with the shrimp recipes already???" For me, the more I've thought about it, the more Forrest Gump is so obviously more than just about the title character or his experiences. I always loved Gary Sinise's Lieutenant Dan. Probably more than Gump. I loved Robin Wright's haunted Jenny. I loved Mykelti Williamson's Bubba (the dead partner in Bubba Gump). Sally Field is in there as Gump's momma. Haley Joel Osment's first major role was at the end of the movie as Forrest Gump, Jr.
And you know what? I think there's a secret message behind the whole thing. Maybe I'm an idiot and am just now figuring this out for myself, but Forrest Gump isn't just a mentally challenged guy running (something literally) around the country and across the decades. He is the country. He's our idea of ourselves, something pure that manages to remain even in the midst of bitter tragedy. Jenny and Lieutenant Dan are the characters who face the worst and are sometimes the worse for it, but Gump keeps intersecting in their lives even as they keep fighting to push him away. The country grows darker, but Gump remains the same, the lives of those who cherishes grow darker, and for a moment, even Gump wonders if it's all worth it. But then his resumes his life. "You never know what you're gonna get."
The Academy typically awards its Best Picture honors to a movie it thinks represents a snapshot of the world, either as it is now or as it was or even sometimes as the movies themselves have viewed it. Is there a better movie in that group of nominees to fit that model? I think not. There are two incredibly strong contenders, but when it comes down to it, Forrest Gump is a more profound statement, and in fact understatement. This selection was definitely right.
The movie: Shakespeare in Love
Year it won the Oscar: 1999
Movies it beat out: Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
The argument: Out of those alternate possibilities, I've only ever not seen Life Is Beautiful, the Holocaust movie that propelled a joyous Best Actor winner Roberto Benigni to literally dance over the seats at the ceremony. And I love the rest of them. Love them. The big argument and indeed outrage was that Saving Private Ryan deserved the win that year. It was another WWII movie, highlighted by the stunning depiction of D-Day in its opening act. Shakespeare in Love seemed so incredibly weightless in comparison. So why even consider taking its win seriously?
Because in the end, it is a love letter to the man in the title, the Bard, William Shakespeare. Modern letters practically owe their existence to Shakespeare. Even if you're one of the legions of former students who considered it torture to sit through one of his plays while in school, you have to acknowledge his mastery of the English language. There was never anyone else and there hasn't been anyone since who has even come close. And this says nothing of his perfect grasp of the human condition, from all angles. So what does Shakespeare in Love have to say about it? Does it even breach the question of authorship, whether Shakespeare even exists? Of course not. It doesn't have to. It tackles the idea of a young man of the theater trying to come up with a masterpiece and apparently failing miserably.
I love the scene where Ben Affleck as a pompous leading actor demands, "Where is the play and what is my part?" It's such a minor role, but it was the first time I loved Affleck. I took that moment through the times even I questioned Affleck, the same as everyone else. Gwyneth Paltrow won her Best Actress award as the woman who pretends to be a man, and inspires the young Shakespeare. Sometimes it seems easy to despise how easy Paltrow has it, how much she takes her charmed life for granted, how she spins everything so annoyingly positive. But then there are things like her effortless performance in this movie. And poor Joseph Fiennes, forever in the shadow of his big brother Ralph, except this one perfect moment.
A love letter to Shakespeare. Perhaps too bold an undertaking. But it's something we owe him as a culture. And when it happens, and happens so sweetly, it's worth acknowledging, I think.
The movie: Gladiator
Year it won the Oscar: 2001
Movies it beat out: Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brokovich; Traffic
The argument: I'll admit, I love both director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe. I think the whole argument against Gladiator rests on the fact that it's another historical epic, just a few years after Braveheart, to win Best Picture, and by comparison, or at least at the time, it just seemed to have less to love. I think that distinction has muddled over the years, the less people love Mel Gibson. Crowe himself engendered a lot of negative press following Gladiator (interestingly, the movie he starred in next, A Beautiful Mind, also won Best Picture; the dude was on a roll!), and has struggled to overcome that reputation for years. I think he's turning the corner finally. Maybe people will acknowledge Gladiator next?
Because it's brainy stuff. I happen to favor that myself, so I never really got how people generally dismissed it as mindless entertainment. Mostly, I guess, because the eponymous games back in ancient Rome were exactly that, and it became easy to reduce the movie only to those aspects. Crowe' Maximus was a man driven by principle. The later 300, and Gerard Butler's transformation into a near-parody of Maximus, might be said to represent everything that Gladiator became dismissed as.
Yet it's the discussions between Crowe and Richard Harris that I cherish, or the chilling menace Joaquin Phoenix brings to Commodus. Interestingly, even the movie's use of computer wizardry came to be seen as one of its drawbacks, how Oliver Reed was digitally resurrected. We marvel at modern technology while we secretly abhor it. I don't know. It's a wonder of the age.
I liked its competition, too, by the way. Haven't seen Chocolat, but there others I vouch for, the same as the contenders for the other films. But Gladiator soars on its simple ambition and indeed spectacle, which comes from all corners of its film-making.
No, these are movies I love, and will always defend. They're worth defending, championing. They won the Oscars, so other people thought so, too, at least at one point. But their appeal endures. They echo, in fact, in eternity. I heard that somewhere...