It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
What makes a “wrong” choice when rating an Academy Award-winning film? Is it Monday morning quarterbacking; turning a telescope on a distant past in which tastes and social mores were less sophisticated than today’s standards?
Some selections made between the first Best Picture winner, 1927’s Wings and last year’s choice, Green Book, make you scratch your head in wonderment — especially when compared to movies that were nominated the same year.
The best picture of 1941 was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Among the other nominees were debut films by two directors now considered mavericks and ahead of their time — Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.
The best picture of 1952 was Cecil B. DeMille’s overblown colorful circus extravaganza, The Greatest Show on Earth. Much more enduring are two of the other nominees — The Quiet Man and High Noon.
And that brings us to 1997 in which James Cameron’s overblown Titanic — a 194-minute compendium of romantic clichés interrupted by an iceberg — beat out the much better acted and written L.A. Confidential.
So, let’s look at the nominations for the best film of 1982. The winner was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a controversial choice considering its competition.
Before mounting a defense for Gandhi, let’s examine the other movies nominated that year. I will stipulate that three of them — Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie and Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict — are today considered classics, having received more recognition and evoking stronger emotional responses than Gandhi: E.T. because of its heartwarming concept about family; Tootsie because of its perspective on gender and Dustin Hoffman’s performance; and The Verdict because of Paul Newman’s dynamic and compelling talent, which carried the movie.
This, finally, brings us to Gandhi. The movie is a reverent look at the life of a remarkable man — Mahatma Gandhi, who conquered the British Empire not through force of arms, but through compassion, reason and passive resistant non-violence. If the film focused only on Gandhi, it would not have been as powerful, nor would it have emotionally invested audiences as it did.
A contemporary comparison would be last year’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The movie was not a biopic about Fred Rogers; it was a movie depicting the impact and influence Rogers’ positive outlook and compassion had on others.
Gandhi also falls into that category. It is not a standard biopic; it is more about the evolution of an individual into not simply a leader, but a moral force for the nation he is trying to establish. His philosophy of and adherence to non-violence confounds his adversaries and, yes, the world.
Also elevating Gandhi is the performance of Ben Kingsley in the title role. Despite working years — mostly on British television and in the theater — Kingsley was a new face to the vast majority of moviegoers.
Kingsley’s performance, for which he won an Academy Award, is sublime. He transforms Gandhi from a young, idealistic lawyer to a pragmatic politician who — despite setbacks and violent reprisals by India’s colonial overseers — never loses sight of his main objective to gain India’s independence from Great Britain without resorting to armed conflict.
The key to Kingsley’s portrayal is his quiet determination — which almost seems to border on arrogance — that his path is the correct, and only, one that will succeed.
The movie also is an indictment of colonialism, as British officials use various methods — many of which would be considered draconian — to stifle India’s attempts for self-rule.
Attenborough is not afraid to show the unwarranted brutality used by the British; the most harrowing sequence of the movie is one in which a high-ranking British officer, played by Edward Fox, orders his troops to open fire on a defenseless gathering of Indians, who have come together to protest an indict banning mass meetings.
Hundreds, including women and children, are gunned down. It is a sickening — but powerful — sight that emphasizes the cruelties of colonial rule.
Gandhi won six other Oscars beside Best Picture and Best Actor, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Director. The film’s only Oscar I consider odd is the one for costume design, since Kingsley’s Gandhi goes through about two-thirds of the film wearing a home-spun loincloth.
The movie was a pet project for Attenborough, a respected actor best known for such films as The Great Escape and, later, the Jurassic Park franchise, and his love and respect for Gandhi is evident in nearly every frame of the film.
Seen today, Gandhi may feel ponderous and old-fashioned. But the movie’s overall message and exploration of an individual’s laser-like convictions about freedom and non-violence make it as relevant today as when it was released.