Friday A/V Club: Welcome to Oscar Season

This is what Academy voters actually believe.


Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released that annual guide to Hollywood backscratching and middlebrow taste that we call the Oscar nominations. In response, I give you a classic Kids in the Hall sketch from 1991:

Here, by the way, is a list of all the Best Picture winners since the awards began. Take a look, then head down to the comment thread and answer these two questions:

1. Which ones, if any, really are the best movies of their respective years? (Not the best of the nominees—the best, period.)

2. What's the worst film on the list?

My answer to number one: The Apartment and The Godfather, definitely; Annie Hall and No Country for Old Men, probably; It Happened One Night and Unforgiven, maybe. And that's pretty much it. (N.B.: I've only watched one of the last six winners. I've seen all the older ones, though.)

My answer to number two: You can make a case for Crash, but I vote for an earlier ham-handed picture about prejudice, Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement. As I wrote a few years back, the 1947 film

Points for the pulp-fiction art, though.
20th Century Fox

stars Gregory Peck, dripping with even more sanctimony than usual, as a gentile journalist who goes undercover as a Jew so he can describe how anti-Semitism feels first-hand. (Presumably no actual Jews were available to write the article.) It's a sign of how careless the screenwriters are that so much of the anti-Semitism he encounters isn't first-hand; he just hears about it from other people. Still more of it consists of someone not realizing that Peck is supposed to be Jewish and saying something bigoted in his presence, an experience he had surely already endured before he started his research. The only difference is that now he can respond by claiming to be Jewish himself, and then everyone feels a little awkward, and then it's on to another adventure.

Peck's character has a young son who disappears for long stretches of the narrative, appearing only when the story requires it. His absences may be hard to explain but his constant presence would be worse, since the boy turns in one of the most grating child-actor performances in Hollywood history. The reporter himself is supposed to be a brilliant wordsmith, but for most of the picture we never actually hear any of his work—a wise choice, since the filmmakers obviously didn't have any good writers on hand to produce it. When we finally do hear a passage, it's completely banal, though it's supposed to be searing and heartfelt.

The sad thing is that there really was an effective indictment of anti-Jewish prejudice in theaters that year: Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire, a solid film noir about an anti-Semitic murder.

Crossfire was nominated for several Oscars. Naturally, it didn't win any of them.

(For previous editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)