Relitigating The Oscars: 20 Years Ago by Austin Shinn

Welcome to the first in a week long study of the Academy Awards. I’ve seen pathetically few movies this year so I can’t really write on the current year. (My daughter keeps me busy.) However, I can look back. When I wrote the now defunct Yearbook column I always had fun asking if the Oscars were an accurate reflection of the year or not. That was a lot of fun so I’m going to go full length and look at four separate instances, namely the ceremonies from 5, 10, 15, and 20 years ago. I’ll discuss who won and who I think should’ve won in the major categories. I’m also setting a restriction on myself: I can’t choose a winner who wasn’t nominated. I’m bound to working with the same 5 choices they had.

We’re starting big with the night Titanic dominated. Was that the right move? Let’s see.

Best Supporting Actor
The nominees were:

  • Robert Forster – Jackie Brown
  • Anthony Hopkins – Amistad
  • Greg Kinnear – As Good as It Gets
  • Burt Reynolds – Boogie Nights
  • Robin Williams – Good Will Hunting

Who won: Robin Williams.
Who should’ve won: Greg Kinnear
Analysis: I feel like I’m starting off on the worst foot by angering people with an argument against Robin Williams’ Oscar win. And look, he deserved one, no doubt. He’s great in Good Will Hunting. But look, Good Will Hunting ain’t aging as well as I’d like it to. It’s so sentimental and fluffy. By contrast there’s real darkness in Greg Kinnear’s work. Look, I’m no fan of rewarding straight actors for playing gay roles but what Kinnear pulled off was important here, namely a deconstruction of the gay best friend. Simon doesn’t have time to give pithy advice. He’s in genuine pain and in fact his situation drives the plot. Kinnear is a dynamite actor who rarely gets work this good, but this was thunderous.

Best Supporting Actress
The nominees were:

  • Kim Basinger – L.A. Confidential
  • Joan Cusack – In & Out
  • Minnie Driver – Good Will Hunting
  • Julianne Moore – Boogie Nights
  • Gloria Stuart – Titanic

Who won: Kim Basinger
Who should’ve won: Julianne Moore
Analysis: This one is really easy. Basinger is good but not great in L.A. Confidential. Moore is a force of unmatched devastation in the film. She conveys a woman who loses everything and feels nothing except loss. She’s haunting and profound. That said, this was one hell of a great category. Truly represents the best work done in support that year.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominees were:

  • As Good as It Gets – Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks
  • Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Deconstructing Harry – Woody Allen
  • The Full Monty – Simon Beaufoy
  • Good Will Hunting – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

What won: Good Will Hunting
What should’ve won: Boogie Nights
Analysis: The screenplay to Good Will Hunting stoked my already blooming desire to be a writer. It made me want to write something that good. Even with my gripe above, this is still great writing. It’s just not Boogie Nights, which I actually saw at the same time more or less. Boogie Nights is a multicharacter epic that utterly destroys you. It’s a novel. Not the worst category by any means though. Still a good choice. But the crowdpleaser shouldn’t have won.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees were:

  • Donnie Brasco – Paul Attanasio based on the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley
  • L.A. Confidential – Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson from the novel by James Ellroy
  • The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan adapted from the novel by Russell Banks
  • Wag the Dog – David Mamet and Hilary Henkin from the novel American Hero by Larry Beinhart
  • The Wings of the Dove – Hossein Amini adapted from the novel by Henry James

What won: L.A Confidential
What should’ve won: L.A. Confidential
Analysis: Hard to argue here. Ellroy’s epic novel had to stress Hanson and Helgeland as they whittled it into a film but they utterly nailed it. In fact, the film is about as faithful as it could get without being 4 hours long. There are other stellar choices in this category, particularly Wag the Dog which honestly is about as faithful as Adaptation was to The Orchid Thief.

Best Actress

The nominees were:

  • Helena Bonham Carter – The Wings of the Dove
  • Julie Christie – Afterglow
  • Judi Dench – Mrs Brown
  • Helen Hunt – As Good as It Gets
  • Kate Winslet – Titanic

Who won: Helen Hunt
Who should’ve won: Helen Hunt
Analysis: Hollywood wasted Helen Hunt, plain and simple. They never really figured out how to use someone so forcefully adult. She couldn’t play demure love interests and she wasn’t an action star, as Twister proved. About the only time she clicked on film was when the material met her and it did with As Good As It Gets. She’s a beast in the film as a woman who not for a second accepts the garbage thrown her way. Yes, she winds up with Jack Nicholson but it’s not because she gives in with him. She spends the whole film as potent as he is. In fact, let’s jump to Best Actor now.

Best Actor

The nominees were:

  • Matt Damon – Good Will Hunting
  • Robert Duvall – The Apostle
  • Peter Fonda – Ulee’s Gold
  • Dustin Hoffman – Wag the Dog
  • Jack Nicholson – As Good as It Gets

Who won: Jack Nicholson
Who should’ve won: Jack Nicholson
Analysis: Ok, if it wasn’t obvious above I really love As Good As It Gets. I saw it in the theater in 1998 and I’ve adored it ever since. Nicholson, the film’s sour, angry heart is the big reason why. There are a lot of cranks who have a change of heart in film but few are as plausible as Melvin Udall. His journey as he opens up is a genuinely believable one as he tries to grow because he realizes he has to. Nicholson sells it by underplaying almost every line, trusting the material to get a laugh. He knows the exact tone to hit and it works.

Best Director

The nominees were:

  • Peter Cattaneo – The Full Monty
  • Gus Van Sant – Good Will Hunting
  • Curtis Hanson – L.A. Confidential
  • Atom Egoyan – The Sweet Hereafter
  • James Cameron – Titanic

Who won: James Cameron
Who should’ve won: James Cameron
Analysis: It comes down to iconography. I remember so many shots from Titanic, and not just because I’ve seen it three times in the theater. The images in Titanic are certifiably iconic. That’s on Cameron and fellow winner/DP Russell Carpenter. This is a movie you remember seeing. Cameron should’ve won.

Best Picture

The nominees were:

  • As Good as It Gets
  • The Full Monty
  • Good Will Hunting
  • L.A. Confidential
  • Titanic

What won: Titanic
What should’ve won: As Good As It Gets
Analysis: Titanic was indisputably unstoppable this year. Biggest film of all time. A cultural landmark. Profoundly beloved. It’s endured hard. As I said above, Cameron earned his award. But the script was noticeably not nominated and that remains by far its soft spot. The Full Monty had no business being here. Good Will Hunting, look I’m going to say more below. So I’m left with L.A. Confidential, an achievement on all levels, and As Good As It Gets, which isn’t as ambitious but which I love and which in the end I have to choose. I can watch it any day without hesitation. While it’s not as good as Boogie Nights, it’s easily my second favorite film of the year. Enough said.

Final analysis:

The Academy Awards define safe. Sure you may get a fluke like a gay black love story winning Best Picture but by and large they are safe as it gets. Nowhere us that clearer than here. 1997 was a pretty ghastly year for movies, true, but there were interesting films. The brilliant Amistad, Donnie Brasco, Gattaca, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown, The Rainmaker, and Wag the Dog were either barely nominated or left out completely.

Good Will Hunting is the perfect example of what I mean when I say safe. It feels like there’s an edge there but there’s not. It’s a fluffy movie about how everything can be fixed with love and not really with changing anything about yourself. Shaun Lau of No Totally correctly called it the ultimate white privilege movie. And yes, it was revelatory to me at 14 and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. But it’s not a best of the year film.

Titanic won a record-tying 11 Oscars famously but that’s largely due to storming the technical categories. It’s honestly quite limp on character and story, though I do quite enjoy it. I go back and forth on if Kate Winslet is good or atrocious in it. Leonardo DiCaprio is strong, but it’s a day off for him compared to his other films. Whatever I think of the film though, I have to concede it does sum up the and the climate. It’s a highly entertaining but shallow film. That’s 1997: fun but shallow.

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