And the Oscar Should Have Gone to…
The 1994 Contenders Ranked
It isn’t every year you can say the Oscars at least had an interesting selection of nominees, but 1994 managed not only that, but it also included two unassailable classics among the five Best Picture contenders. Also unlike most years, there isn’t an enormously misjudged dud in the ranks, and at least three of the pictures represented something different to the usual Academy fare.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Four Weddings’ success represented one of those periodic resurgences for British cinema (usually followed by a precipitous plummet), not that Merchant Ivory hadn’t been an art house fixture for about a decade. This was mainstream populist fare, though, coinciding with Britpop and (just) preceding Danny Boyle. A rare English comedy hit (the most recent previous champ being A Fish Called Wanda), it made a bona fide movie star out of Hugh Grant, despite his best subsequent attempts at self-sabotage, and put TV veteran Richard Curtis well and truly on the movie map. It was also either the making of several of the supporting cast (Kristin Scott Thomas, John Hannah) or gave them a shot in the arm (Simon Callow), even if their sudden demand often led to ill-advised parts in Hollywood hokum… And Wet Wet Wet.
Four Weddings isn’t, however, a romcom for the ages. It has a number of funny sequences and mostlyappealing characters, is well-observed in its insular Oxbridge way, but it problematically completely misses the boat in selecting Andie McDowell as the object of Hugh’s affections. The attempts to give her amusing material fall painfully flat, and there’s zero chemistry between the two; one’s left wondering why he was such an idiot to pass on Scott-Thomas’ unrequited allure. Like a wedding cake, or a drunken eulogy, it’s a bit of fun, but it’s no When Harry Met Sally.
Box Office: $52.7m (US, 21st), $245.7m (WW, 8th)
Recipient of equal parts scorn and adulation, Forrest Gump tends to scorn lukewarm responses, but it more accurately ought to receive them, as it’s neither fish nor fowl. As such, it represents something of the shape of his career to come for Zemeckis, who would find it increasingly difficult to regain the form of his hot ’80s streak, quality-wise. Is Eric Roth’s adaptation a satire of all-things Americana, where the best soldier, athlete, businessman, parent is an imbecile? Something we should see as a cautionary tale of a failure to reflect and consider, discern and just plain comprehend the world around us? Or is it a heart-warming tale of perseverance and indomitability, of standing steadfast in the face of all that life throws our way?
It’s both those things at various points, a movie serving two masters, without the courage of its more cynical convictions and thus much too crooked and warped in its outlook to be taken on face value as an aspirant tale. Undoubtedly, fuelled by that mawkishly uplifting, feather-light Alan Silvestri score, it was the heartfelt interpretation – with some good solid, light-relief broad-stroke comedy thrown in – that the Academy voted for and that audiences came away so sated by (and globally at that – only The Lion King beat Forrest at the box office that year). But Forrest Gump is a tonal mish-mash, too astute to be dismissed with lazy finger-pointing (reading it as a conservative text simply doesn’t work), but too manipulative to be embraced for its insights.
$329.7m (US, 1st), $677.4m (WW, 2nd)
There’s nothing very wrong with Robert Redford’s fourth directorial effort – aside from Rob Morrow’s Boston accent and Ralph Fiennes’ distancing iciness in place of charm – but for a feature that exhibits its share of dramatic licence in depicting the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals, it’s oddly staid and reverential towards the period. What was needed was a director passionate to tell the story, rather than one who saw it as his next batch of Oscar bait. Compare and contrast with JFK a couple of years previously. It could, of course, have been worse. Following in the line of nostalgic inertia for a television era past, Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck would be practically comatose, and just as irrelevant in its attempts to point out alleged halcyon values, as if the redundant lesson would have any effect or anyone would care about translating “it” to today.
Nevertheless, Quiz Show remains a fascinating story that commands the attention, no matter how leisurely Redford treats the telling. It also boasts a marvellous goofy turn from John Turturro as hapless winner Herb Stempel, destined to be usurped by Fiennes’ Harvard scholar but not to go down quietly. Redford arguably takes the easy option by mocking Stempel while venerating “honourable” Charles Van Doren, but Herb has the last laugh, as it’s Turturro who energises Quiz Show whenever he’s on screen. There’s usually at least one self-consciously worthy period drama slot among the Best Picture nominees, but more often they aren’t set in the relatively recent past (The Madness of King George was squeezed out). Quiz Show finds a director going through the motions with material that deserved better (see also, more recently, The Post).
$24.8m (US, 56th)
The Shawshank Redemption
If everyone else appears to love something enough, the only remaining available position is to tear it down, which is why, even though Shawshank remains atop IMDB’s chart, you won’t find many new articles claiming it deserves that position. Even I won’t, and I wouldn’t begin to think of decrying it. Shawshank actually fits the aspirational Oscar-winner mould more perfectly than probably any of the year’s other nominees, but the 1990s wasn’t much of a decade for the little movie no one saw causing an upset at the big awards (the lowest grosser was Unforgiven, and that still made $160m worldwide).
The criticisms Shawshank commonly receives aren’t groundless, of course – if you want a realistic portrait of prison life, or require a voiceover narration to offer information that can’t be gleaned from what’s patently obvious on screen, you’re going to become irked quite quickly – but for its adherents, it’s a picture that embraces the value of hope and perseverance without descending into gross sentimentality or indulgence. Frank Darabont successfully distils the essence of another Frank, Capra, into a picture for modern audiences, even if, like several of the best Stephen King adaptations, it’s firmly set in a bygone era.
$28.3m (US, 51st)
What caused more upset, Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction, or Sam Jackson being bested by Martin Landau? The latter for Jackson personally, obviously, but Pulp Fiction’s loss represented a missed opportunity for the Academy to respond to an increasingly rare nomination for a zeitgeist picture. And a zeitgeist picture that fully deserved the recognition to boot.
Pulp Fiction entirely holds up, even given its over-referencing in pop culture during the subsequent quarter of a century, and remains the best thing Tarantino has written, somehow allowing him to overcome the limitation of being a moviemaker who loves making movies that are entirely about riffing on the movies he loves; it’s a straightjacket that largely restricts him from saying anything really significant (which is fine, just don’t pretend he’s something he isn’t).
Yet Pulp Fiction creates its own transcendent iconography, and even manages to comment on its own artifice and veneration of the form in a creative way through its plays with chronology; dead characters are still living as the movie ends, in much the same way they are for the viewer who watches their favourite films time and again (Tarantino, basically). Tarantino’s undoubtedly become more technically accomplished as time has gone on, but he’s also become more indulgent and less self-disciplined; about the only area where his standards have been raised in the intervening period is his no longer feeling the need to inflict his acting self quite so wantonly on his audience.
$107.9m (US, 10th)/ $233.9m (WW, 12th)
And the rest…
Winner: Robert Zemeckis
Should have won: Quentin Tarantino
If Zemeckis was going to win, it should have been for Back to the Future (he wasn’t even nominated). Woody Allen and Robert Redford represented respectful filling out of numbers rather than anything special, but Krystof Kieslowski (Three Colours: Red) certainly merited consideration. It was Tarantino’s to lose, though, and lose he did.
Winner: Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
Should have won: Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George)
At the time I might have said Travolta, for an instantaneous career reinvention that miraculously erased nearly a decade and a half of lousy choices. Or Morgan Freeman, but his performance is so much soothing voiceover, he could deliver it in his sleep as a means to send you to sleep. Paul Newman (Nobody’s Fool) was good – as ever – but not so you seriously think an Oscar’s warranted. Hanks meanwhile gives a fine comic performance, no doubt, but he’s delivered much better comic performances, meaning voters were really taken by the maudlin backdrop to Forrest’s blithe indifference, rather than the performance itself. So I think, almost by default, Hawthorne would be my pick, even if the film as a whole is decent but unremarkable.
Winner: Jessica Lange (Blue Sky)
Should have won: Susan Sarandon (The Client)
We nearly had a Jessica Lange in Blue Sky win this year with Glenn Close and The Wife, another film no one saw yet voters had the feeling (only not enough for Glenn) that it was time to honour the actress (albeit, Lange had already won Best Supporting Actress). Even fewer saw Miranda Richardson in the unloved Tom & Viv. Winona Ryder in Little Women? Nah. Then there was Jodie Foster’s hilarious “Ah am a don-key” performance in Nell. Another by default is my pick, then; Sarandon is on authoritative form in a merely passable John Grisham thriller, but I don’t think any of the contenders this year were all that interesting.
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Martin Landau (Ed Wood)
Should have won: Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction)
Jackson has hitched his cart to entire wagon trains of shit since, but he’s undeniably great in Pulp Fiction. Landau’s turn is fine and affecting, but it isn’t in the same league (his greatest performance is still Crimes and Misdemeanours); I’d probably put Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump) ahead of him but have the Space: 1999 veteran on similar pegging to Chazz Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway) and Paul Scofield (Quiz Show).
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Dianne Wiest (Bullets over Broadway)
Should have won: Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction)
Still Thurman’s best role. Wiest is always good, of course (particularly with Allen, hence this being her second win). Also in contention were Rosemary “Aunt May” Harris (Tom & Viv), Helen Mirren (The Madness of King George) and Jennifer Tilly (Bullets over Broadway). Of the latter, being cast as irritating sometimes just means being cast to type.
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Pulp Fiction
Should have won: Pulp Fiction
At this point, Woody Allen was pretty much a fixture in this category, plaguing the ceremony in the manner of Meryl the accented peril (he was nominated five times during the decade). Richard Curtis (Four Weddings) received his only nomination to date, and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh their first (of three) for Heavenly Creatures. That and Three Colours: Red were both strong pieces of work, but nevertheless up against Tarantino and Roger Avary.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Forrest Gump (Eric Roth)
Should have won: The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)
Darabont’s is almost a text-book great adaptation, so easily eclipses other contenders, The Madness of King George, Nobody’s Fool and Quiz Show.
Best Original Song
Winner: Can You Feel the Love Tonight (The Lion King)
Should have won: Circle of Life (The Lion King)
I don’t know how the least of three Lion King noms won, but the real mercy is that Randy Newman (The Paper) was shut out.
Best Original Score
Winner: The Lion King (Hans Zimmer)
Should have won: The Shawshank Redemption (Thomas Newman)
I’m mostly unimpressed by the Disney Renaissance of the ’90s, scores included, so I’d have picked Thomas Newman’s work for Shawshank over Zimmer, Elliot Goldenthal (Interview with the Vampire), Alan Silvestri (Gump) and Newman again (Little Women).
Best Art Direction
Winner: The Madness of King George
Should have won: Interview with the Vampire
Winner: Legends of the Fall
Should have won: Legends of the Fall
It looks great, even if it’s far from a great movie.
Best Costume Design
Winner: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Should have won: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Winner: Ed Wood
Should have won: Ed Wood
Also nominated: Forrest Gump, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Best Visual Effects
Winner: Forrest Gump
Should have won: Forrest Gump
Also nominated: The Mask, True Lies.
My Top Five Films of the Year
Many would argue Tim Burton’s career has been on a creative nosedive ever since this, his least successful movie. A love letter to cinema’s “worst director”, it’s undoubtedly the case that there’s affection for the subject matter rarely evidenced elsewhere, and that this is by far the most fruitful of his (now defunct?) collaborations with Johnny Depp.
The Shawshank Redemption
There are two directors’ feature debuts on this list, and in both cases, their first two efforts would never quite attain the same level of quality again. Frank Darabont evidently needs to find another non-horror, validating Stephen King short story to adapt.
Wong Kar-wai’s third film is, like Pulp Fiction, composed of interweaving stories touching on the world of crime, although in this case only one actually features criminals. Wong Kar-wai’s are tales of love-sick cops, one (Takeshi Kaneshiro) stuck on the girlfriend who dumped him and the pineapples she had a penchant for, but engaging in a dalliance with Brigitte Lin’s drug dealer. Most winning, though, is the second story, as Faye Wong plays California Dreamin’ on a loop while breaking into the flat of Tony Leung Chui-Wai’s cop and tidying up for him. It’s an irresistible confection, romantic and melancholic, lacking obvious happy endings but leaving you floating on a cloud.
While Trainspotting is obviously the grander achievement, both in terms of distilling the source material and reconciling it into a movie audiences wanted to see – let alone turning that into a pop-cultural event – part of me still says Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle’s debut and Ewan McGregor’s real breakout role, is the superior work (notably, it won the BAFTA for outstanding British Film, while Trainspotting was trumped the following year by The Madness of King George). A pitch-black tale of opportunism and greed, as a grim plan to retain a suitcase full of cash spirals out of control, McGregor, Kerry Fox and (particularly) Christopher Eccleston are as impressive as Boyle’s focused, budget-strapped execution of John Hodge’s screenplay.
It isn’t too often that my favourites of the year are also up for the big awards, but the Academy was in the mood for both cool and classy in 1994. Even if the big winner was neither.