Great Oscar Debates: Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and the 1994 Best Actor Category


Greetings, readers! The Academy Awards are this Sunday. In the lead-up to the Oscars I’ve been looking back at times the Oscar voters got it wrong. Often I’ve focused on them picked the wrong winner in a category. But in this week’s case, I’d like to shine a light on two of our best actors who were omitted from a stacked field in 1994.

1994 was the year that Schindler’s List was the major winner. Steven Spielberg finally won a Best Director Oscar, the film won Best Picture, and John Williams was awarded for his beautiful score. I have no problem with any of that. Schindler’s List remains to this day one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

My issue with the 1994 Oscars stems from the Best Actor category. Tom Hanks won for Philadelphia. It was definitely deserved. If that performance didn’t move you, you’re dead inside. And let’s look at who Tom Hanks beat that year: Daniel Day-Lewis for In The Name of the Father, Laurence Fishburne for Whats’s Love Got to Do with It, Anthony Hopkins for The Remains of the Day, and Liam Neeson for Schindler’s List. You could make a strong case for any of the nominees. But what’s stunning here are two omissions: Harrison Ford for The Fugitive and Clint Eastwood for In the Line of Fire.

I don’t know what prejudice the bias has against action movies. There are a few exceptions. Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Aliens and Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive. But then you have cases like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive and Clint Eastwood for In The Line of Fire, where the work goes unnoticed.

I thought for sure Harrison Ford had multiple Oscar nominations for his body of work. He has one. Let me repeat that. Harrison Ford has one Oscar nomination for his entire career. It was for Witness. Now, certainly that performance was worthy of recognition. But no nominations for Presumed Innocent, Working Girl, American Graffiti, or Blade Runner? That just isn’t right. I don’t think the Oscar voters appreciate the skill it takes to hold together an action picture. The Fugitive isn’t the same movie without Harrison Ford’s performance. He’s vulnerable, smart, and an absolutely compelling every man. We’re rooting for him to prove his character’s innocence and catch his wife’s killer. Ford brings out many of the same pathos that David Janssen did in the TV series. The Fugitive is not worth seeing just for the action and special effects (although they are great). But the cat and mouse chase between Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones makes it an exhilarating action film with believable human drama.

Another brilliant action performance that didn’t get enough love that year was Clint Eastwood’s in In The Line of Fire. Now, Clint Eastwood has four Oscars. But none of them have been for his acting. He won Best Director for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Both of those films also won Best Picture. And both of those films are still the only times he has been nominated for Best Actor. Eastwood’s career in front of and behind the camera has spanned decades, going back to his television acting roots on Rawhide. I think he’s become such a brilliant director that we’ve taken his acting skills for granted. In Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire, Eastwood gives one of the best performances of his career as Secret Service agent who wasn’t able to save JFK and is determined to not have the same fate befall the current president. Now, I think it’s worth noting that John Malkovich, the would be assassin taunting Eastwood was nominated. It’s the showier part. And the humanity in Eastwood’s performance got the shaft when the nominations came out. That’s really a shame. In the Line of Fire was one of the best thrillers of the 90s.

In the case of both Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood in 1994, the actors supporting them were nominated. But without their lead performances the supporting roles wouldn’t have been as captivating. Also in both cases. you have actors who have been giving great performances for so long that Oscar voters have taken their talents for granted. One day I hope the Oscar voters will finally recognize Eastwood for his skills as an actor and that Harrison Ford will receive recognition for being the glue that has anchored many of the best action films of the last several decades.

Great Oscar Debates: Martin Scorsese and Goodfellas vs. Dances With Wolves


It’s week three of a look back at the multiple times when the Oscars got it wrong. This week I’d like to take you all the way back to 1991. Why? It was one of the many times Martin Scorsese would get passed over for Best Director and one of his masterpieces would be passed over for Best Picture. Instead of bestowing Best Director on Scorsese for Goodfellas, not to mention awarding it Best Picture, the Oscar voters chose…Dances With Wolves. Now, is Dances With Wolves a bad movie? Certainly not. Kevin Costner’s Civil War film absolutely deserved awards recognition. It was gorgeously photographed, had a great score, wonderful costume design, a solid story…but it didn’t reach the cinematic heights of Goodfellas.

Up until 2007, Martin Scorsese had not won a Best Director Oscar. Let that just sink in a minute. A man whose body of work includes: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has one Oscar. That’s shameful. In 2007 he finally won his Best Director Oscar for The Departed. It continues a proud tradition the Oscars have of awarding the right people for the wrong movies. The Departed is high quality, but not his best film. That question is a debate for the ages. My vote goes to Raging Bull. But right behind it is Goodfellas.

What bugs me about the 1991 Oscars, is that the Oscar voters could have honored both a proven veteran and a promising up and comer. Why not award Goodfellas Best Picture and Dances With Wolves Best Director or the other way around? Then they could have honored talents old and new. Or they could have awarded Dances With Wolves in the technical categories and given the top awards to Goodfellas. Now, it should be mentioned that Joe Pesci’s scene-stealing supporting performance did win an Oscar. So the film wasn’t completely ignored on Oscar night.

Goodfellas for my money is the best mob movie ever made. It’s a film that belongs in the same breath with Little Caesar, Scarface, The Public Enemy, and The Godfather. It took me into the mafia culture in the way no film ever had before. You really get involved in the whole complex world of the mafia and the effect living in it has on people. It probably helps that it was based on a true story. The film was an adaptation of Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi. It’s a journalistic account of the life of Henry Hill, Ray Liotta’s character in the movie. The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese is sharp and never has a wasted word.

The film is also one of the best acted I have ever seen. In addition to Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci, you get Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Lorraine Bracco. Bracco of course would go on to star on the hit mafia series The Sopranos. She’s fascinating as Liotta’s wife, a character of unexpected complexity. She earned an Oscar nomination as well.

To me it’s just unconscionable that it took Scorsese so long to be recognized in the Best Director category. His body of work speaks for itself. I greatly admire what Kevin Costner achieved with Dances With Wolves. I don’t get the hatred he faces sometimes. Costner is a gifted actor and a talented director. But in 1991 the honors should have gone to Martin Scorsese, a man whose films continue to raise the bar decade after decade.


Great Oscar Debates: The Shut Out of Double Indemnity


Greetings, readers! This month I’m discussing times that Oscar got it wrong. This week I’m shining a light on one of the most inexplicable Oscar shutouts. It seems hard to believe today, but in 1945 Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It won zero. Let me repeat that. Double Indemnity, arguably the greatest film noir ever-made, won none of the seven Oscars it was nominated for. Let’s look at why this feels like an awards season injustice.

In the Best Picture category, there was some heavy hitters that year. You had: Gaslight, Laura (another film noir classic), Meet Me In St. Louis, and Going My Way. And the winner? Going My Way. If any other film had beat Double Indemnity it wouldn’t be such an outrage. Going My Way is a solid movie. But it is not Best Picture material and it’s not in the same league with any of the Best Picture nominees. Meet Me In St. Louis wasn’t groundbreaking  by any means. But it was a superbly crafted musical. Gaslight stands as one of the best psychological thrillers ever-made. And Laura remains one of the best examples of film noir. Double Indemnity losing to Laura I would have been okay with. But Going My Way? No…just…no. With due respect to Bing Crosby, who delivers a solid performance in that movie, it just doesn’t stand out like the other nominees.

Speaking of Bing Crosby, he won Best Actor. Fred MacMurray, playing against type and giving the performance of his career? Not even nominated. That is outrageous! What make it more baffling is that Charles Boyer was up for his performance in Gaslight, Barry Fitzgerald (who gives the best performance in Going My Way IMHO) was nominated, Cary Grant was up for None but the Lonely Heart, and Alexander Knox was nominated for Wilson. How the movie Wilson was nominated for anything is a complete mystery to me. I guess Oscar voters couldn’t see past the light roles MacMurray had played previously.

The next category Double Indemnity got shut out of is a little more contentious. That would be the Best Actress category. The winner was Ingrid Bergman for Gaslight. Now, my choice would have been Barbara Stanwyck for Double Indemnity. To this day I don’t think she gets her due as a versatile actress. That being said, Bergman was brilliant in Gaslight. I really believed everything was happening to her character. It’s one of the many great performances of her career. That year these were the rest of the nominees: Claudette Colbert for Since You Went Away, Bette Davis for Mr. Skeffington, and Greer Garson for Mrs. Parkington. You could make the case for any of those ladies. But Bergman and Stanwyck were the best for my money.

In the Best Director category, Billy Wilder lost out to Leo McCarey for Going My Way. What were the voters thinking? Also in contention were Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat, Otto Preminger for Laura, and Henry King (another inexplicable nomination for Wilson). All those heavy hitters, save for Henry King, and they go with the safest choice possible. But Billy Wilder went on to win the next year for The Lost Weekend. So that got rectified.

Here’s another inexplicable snub. Double Indemnity‘s endlessly quotable screenplay? It didn’t win either. Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (yes, THAT Raymond Chandler, crime writer extraordinaire), lost to Frank Butler, Frank Cavett for Going My Way. Laura, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis were the other nominees. This is another case where it should have come down to Double Indemnity and Laura. There isn’t a single wasted piece of dialogue in either movie. But the Oscar voters once again couldn’t see Double Indemnity‘s greatness. In fact, it has arguably the most film noir line ever.

Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?–Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity‘s cinematographer, John Seitz, lost out in the best black and white cinematography category as well. Now, in this case, the winner was worthy. It was Joseph LaShelle for Laura. That film has a gorgeous and haunted look too. So that loss doesn’t bother me quite as much. However, it should be noted that many a noir film copied Double Indemnity‘s visual style. As an example, almost every film noir that came out later had venetian blind lighting across the characters to symbolize prison bars. John Seitz paved the way.

In the Best Sound Recording category, Double Indemnity lost to…Wilson. Absolutely stupefying on every level. But that’s not the thing I remember the most about Double Indemnity, so I’ll move on.

In the score category, (back then it was called Music: Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), the winner was Max Steiner for Since You Went Away. Steiner was certainly one of the greatest composers ever. Buy Since You Went Away was nowhere near his best work. Miklos Rozsa’s score for Double Indemnity heightened the tension right from the opening credits. It deserved to be recognized.

To this day I can’t wrap my head around how Double Indemnity went unrecognized that awards season. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Edward G. Robinson wasn’t nominated for his brilliant supporting performance as MacMurray’s boss. And he was never nominated for an Oscar in his entire career. How is that possible given his body of work? Fortunately history knows better than the Oscars. Ask anyone who knows movies if they’ve seen Double Indemnity and there’s a 99.9% chance they say yes. Going My Way? You’ll likely get crickets. Double Indemnity is now thankfully recognized for being the classic that it is.

Great Oscar Debates: Annie Hall vs. Star Wars


It’s February, and before you know it, Oscar night will be here. Yes, March 4th is rapidly approaching. As some of us take the time to catch up on this year’s nominees, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at some Oscar history. It’s no secret that some winners over the years have left us scratching our heads. All month I’ll be covering what I think were times when the Oscar voters got it wrong. This week I’ll be kicking things off by going all the way back to 1977. That year, the now classic romantic comedy Annie Hall was released. But that same year, a little movie called Star Wars came out and changed movies forever.

At the 1978 Oscars, the following films were up for Best Picture: Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, and The Turning Point. It was certainly a strong crop of nominees. Annie Hall walked off with the award. Now, is it a great movie? Yes. But, for my money, it wasn’t the best out of that group of movies. If the winner had been The Turning Point, I could agree to disagree. If you haven’t seen that movie, stop everything and go find a copy. It’s amazing! But I digress.

Annie Hall winning Best Picture that year was at least a case of the Academy recognizing a comedy. The fact that that is such a rarity is downright shameful. Just because a movie isn’t a drama doesn’t mean it isn’t a great piece of art worthy of recognition. What Annie Hall does, it does very well. The writing is sharp, the performances are solid, it has some great insights about relationships between men and women.But while it is a great example of a well-done romantic comedy, it didn’t revolutionize the industry. Star Wars did.

Star Wars changed so much and I think we take it for granted today. For starters, it completely changed the special effects game. 20th Century Fox, the studio that released Star Wars, had no special effects department to speak of. This lead to the creation of Industrial Light & Magic, the effects studio that paved the way for the creation of great effects, but also birthed PIXAR. As noted in an article in Wired,

Eventually 20th Century Fox gave Lucas $25,000 to finish his screenplay—and then, after he garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination for American Graffiti, green-lit the production of Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. However, the studio no longer had a special effects department, so Lucas was on his own. He would adapt, and handily: He not only helped invent a new generation of special effects but launched a legendary company that would change the course of the movie business.

Industrial Light & Magic was born in a sweltering warehouse behind the Van Nuys airport in the summer of 1975. Its first employees were recent college graduates (and dropouts) with rich imaginations and nimble fingers. They were tasked with building Star Wars’ creatures, spaceships, circuit boards, and cameras. It didn’t go smoothly or even on schedule, but the masterful work of ILM’s fledgling artists, technicians, and engineers transported audiences into galaxies far, far away.

As it turns 40 this year, ILM can claim to have played a defining role making effects for 317 movies. But that’s only part of the story: Pixar began, essentially, as an ILM internal investigation. Photoshop was invented, in part, by an ILM employee tinkering with programming in his time away from work. Billions of lines of code have been formulated there. Along the way ILM has put tentacles into pirate beards, turned a man into mercury, and dominated box office charts with computer-generated dinosaurs and superheroes.–The Untold Story of ILM, a Titan That Forever Changed Film

No doubt you’ve seen the imprint of ILM in movies today. They did the groundbreaking liquid metal effects in Terminator 2, they brought dinosaurs back to life for Jurassic Park…the list goes on.

But Star Wars didn’t just deserve Best Picture because of its special effects. It brought back a sense of joy and wonder to cinema that was needed at the time. Look, a lot of great and gritty dramas came out in the 70s: Taxi Driver, Network, The Godfather, and The French Connection, just to name a few. But, occasionally, we all need escapism and a bucket of popcorn. Movies can take us to far off places (a galaxy far, far away in the case of Star Wars) and be a magical experience. Star Wars delivered that experience. Boy, did it ever! Yes, the characters were based on classic archetypes. You had the wise old man (Alec Guinness), a romantic rogue (Harrison Ford), a hero going on a quest (Mark Hamill), the comedic sidekicks (C-350 and R2D2)… We’d seen parts of this story before. But never before had it come together in such exhilarating way. Star Wars changed the lives of not just those who worked on it, but it sparked the imagination of those who saw it. This was a watershed moment in cinema.

Star Wars also changed how movies way movies were marketed. When the film became an overnight success, toy manufacturer Kenner couldn’t keep up with the demand.

After attempting to shop the license around to other toy makers, in 1976 it fell to Kenner, then a subsidiary of General Mills. Kenner President Bernie Loomis saw an opportunity to make good toys with the license (especially in the then relatively new space of 3.75” scaled action figures, cheaper to produce than the larger toys), but expected Star Wars to be a fleeting venture for the company.

Little did anyone involved know how wrong they would be.

Star Wars released in May 1977 to rapturous approval, becoming an overnight sensation — and kids didn’t just want to see the movie; they wanted toys. Kenner were caught flat-footed at the demand, finding that they wouldn’t even have figures out for the lucrative Christmas period of that year. To do nothing would have meant losing out on millions of dollars.

So they made a decision that was, by all accounts at the time, completely ludicrous: They sold people an empty box. The Early Bird Certificate was a box containing a cardboard display stand featuring the characters from the film, stickers, and a certificate for kids to mail away to Kenner to receive four figures in 1978: Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, Princess Leia and Chewbacca. The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public’s mind, ready for their 1978 release.–The Groundbreaking History of Star Wars Toys

Nowadays you see movie merchandise everywhere before a film’s release. Star Wars started that trend.

Decades later, I count myself among those unable to wrap my head over how Star Wars lost out to Annie Hall for Best Picture. It was an amazing film that brought escapism to an art level. But sadly, I’m not surprised it didn’t win. Science fiction films are usually relegated to awards for their effects rather than being recognized for their unique stories. If Stat Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey can’t win Best Picture, what science fiction movies can? Science fiction is a genre that deserves more respect. But The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did sweep the Oscars a few years ago, bringing recognition to the fantasy genre. Perhaps there is reason to hope that science fiction will finally be recognized in that category. If you want an entertaining romantic comedy, then Annie Hall is your movie. If you want to see a movie that will spark your imagination like nothing before it, then Star Wars is your movie. The Academy got it wrong.