Over at Grantland, they’ve been running down the “greatest Oscar travesties of all time”. Since no one at Grantland has a cultural memory that goes back further than Rocky, their “greatest” travesties of “all time” don’t include anything earlier than, well, Rocky — which wasn’t even a travesty because the original Rocky is a very good movie.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I wanted some kind of hobby to do together. We both love movies, so we decided to watch every Best Picture winner, in order. It took us over a year, and some of the earlier movies were quite difficult to find. (This was the late 1990s, before Netflix, Hulu, etc.) Believe me, it was terribly disappointing to search all over town for a copy of an older film to rent or borrow, just to discover it was awful. These terrible Best Picture winners are etched into my brain forever.
5. The Lost Weekend (1945)
Being an alcoholic is terrible. You have now seen The Lost Weekend.
Though there are a couple of great scenes with Doris Dowling as a fast-talking bar floozy who doesn’t finish the ends of words. “Go out with you? Don’t be ridic.”
4. The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
Hey kids! Do you like the circus? Oscars voters of 1952 did, giving the Best Picture award to Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. This, along with Around the World in 80 Days, was basically an award for a really expensive, visually stunning (for the time) film whose production values are now dwarfed by most network dramas. It was also a bit of a “lifetime achievement” award for the great filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, which means that the award was really given for how good all his earlier movies were, not for this one. If you’ve ever been to an actual circus, you don’t need to watch this.
3. Gigi (1958)
The movie begins with a creepy old man (Maurice Chevalier) singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and only gets creepier from there. The plot involves a girl/young woman being trained by her family to become a
prostitute courtesan, which is a woman who sleeps with men in exchange for money and gifts. This is all played as a romance between Gigi and the man to whom she is going to be sold given, who decides to marry her instead of taking her as his mistress. What a catch!
2. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
People in the late 70s liked being sad. Depression was the order of the day. If you’re feeling good about life, watch the three Best Picture winners from 1978 to 1980 — The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Ordinary People — and that won’t be a problem any more. Kramer vs. Kramer is one long, depressing journey through a couple’s divorce, with lots of sad shots of sad Dustin Hoffman and his sad little son walking around sadly. I think Chariots of Fire won in 1981 just to help everyone recover from the late 70s.
Until 1992’s Unforgiven, Cimarron, about the settlement of the Oklahoma territory, had the distinction of being the only Western to have won Best Picture. Two scenes capture how perfectly awful this movie is.
Early in the film, Cimarron (actually, his name is Yancy, but I always just call him Cimarron) is asked to preach the inaugural sermon of the town’s new church, despite being an outspoken skeptic who runs the town newspaper and has no training, ability, or apparent reason to deliver a sermon. Whatever. In his sermon, he denounces the town bad guy and proceeds to shoot him dead in the middle of the sermon. No one sees a problem with this.
Later in the film, because Cimarron is a restless kind of guy, he abandons his wife (Sabra), family, and the newspaper business and disappears into the frontier. His wife, however, takes over the newspaper and makes a pretty good go at things. The movie jumps across several decades, showing her building the tiny newspaper into a frontier media empire and becoming one of the most important people in Oklahoma. Pretty great ending, right? Not exactly. Cimarron is discovered as a washed-up, homeless drifter who has spent the ensuing years working odd jobs in the Oklahoma oil fields. He’s reunited with Sabra — who announces that she has been keeping the business safe for him and hands it all back over to his control. Yes — having built a publishing empire, she gives it all to the worthless bum who abandoned his young children and can’t keep a steady job. This is supposed to be a loving act. I’m sure her hundreds of employees were pretty excited about the prospect of the company being run by a hobo.
Hands down, Cimarron is the worst Best Picture of all time.