It’s February, which means the annual Oscar horse race is getting set for the giddyap. But after another year in which nags have seemed to outnumber thoroughbreds, it’s worth asking: Who, exactly, are these awards for? A look at the winners since 1927 reveals that Best Picture rarely means Most Successful (voted by the number of tickets sold) or Most Artistic (voted by us pointy-headed critics in year-end lists). No, since Oscar is a trophy visited upon the filmmaking community by itself — the Academy Awards were originally cooked up as a PR move, after all — what Best Picture usually means is Most Prestigious. And that means the Biggest Yawn.
True, the Academy Awards have overlapped both entertainment and art with surprising frequency: Rebecca, All About Eve, From Here to Eternity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are all Best Pictures in every sense. But for every Casablanca there’s a Marty or Mrs. Miniver or Amadeus — movies that were dutifully awarded the blue ribbon and have been growing mold ever since. Falling with a thud into this category are the three films that — alone of the 64 Best Pictures to date — have been unavailable on video but are at last coming to tape this week. How Green Was My Valley, from 1941; 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement; and 1933’s Cavalcade may make video buffs, who have to have it all, happy. But they’re worthwhile mostly as pointers to what was considered high pop culture in their day. As enduring works of mass-market art, they’re something less.
How Green Was My Valley holds up best of the three, not surprising since it was directed — heavy on the sentiment — by John Ford. Set in a turn-of-the-century Welsh coal-mining town, Valley follows the fortunes of the Morgan family as the industrial revolution grinds them down. The acting is strong (especially that of 13-year-old Roddy McDowall as the youngest son and Maureen O’Hara as the lovelorn daughter), and Arthur Miller’s Oscar-winning photography gives the images a spooky luster, but a little bit of Ford’s salt-of-the-earth piety goes an awfully long way. He serves Valley up as ennobling harsh reality, but in real reality the village was built on the Fox back lot, and the movie was ridiculed in Wales as being a hopelessly glossy Hollywoodization. Which is probably why Hollywood loved it, awarding it Best Picture over Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and The Little Foxes.
The 1947 winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, also reeks of good intentions, but in this case they were calculated to attract Oscar’s attention. Obsessed with winning a Best Picture after his lavish 1944 biopic Wilson (as in Woodrow) had met with failure, Twentieth Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck set out on a course of conquest. He bought Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling 1947 novel. He cast somber new heartthrob Gregory Peck as Schuyler Green, the WASP reporter who masquerades as a Jew named Phil Green to get the lowdown on anti-Semitism. Then the producer papered the trades with a heavier-than-average onslaught of promos and ads.
It worked: Zanuck got his Best Picture statuette (and groused about Wilson in his acceptance speech), as did director Elia Kazan. But Agreement was tame, cautious stuff even back then. The dialogue is blunt in its condemnation of racism, but Hitler or the death camps are never even mentioned in passing — pretty stunning for a 1947 movie. RKO’s Crossfire was also nominated that year, and it’s much nastier and to the point: Bigoted soldier Robert Ryan hates Jews so much he kills one he casually meets in a bar. The worst horror Phil Green faces, on the other hand, is that a few hotels won’t let him register.
If Agreement has lost its punch, it’s hard to imagine Cavalcade having any to begin with, especially since this 1933 Best Picture beat out now-classics like 42nd Street and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (King Kong and Dinner at Eight weren’t even nominated!). Based on Noel Coward’s stage spectacular, Cavalcade tells the story of a British family weathering the historic years , from 1899 to 1932: It’s rife with fey, unintentional camp like the scene in which a newlywed couple pledge eternal love on the deck of an ocean liner — only to move away and reveal a life preserver labeled Titanic. Cavalcade really won its Oscar because of Hollywood’s raging Anglophilia — the insecure sense that if a character says, ”Let’s all have a cup of tea!” the movie must be art. And since that attitude has changed little, this year you should probably put your money on Howards End. But that’s a good movie, you say? Okay, but I bet people said the same about Cavalcade 60 years ago. Oscar’s not nearly the judge that time is. How Green Was My Valley: B Gentleman’s Agreement: C+ Cavalcade: C-