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.
The Day Forrest Ran Away With the Oscar
Be honest: The minute you saw the word “Forrest” in the headline, you immediately knew that this essay, one of a series of Midwest Film Journal Oscar-week essays defending the most controversial winners of the Best Picture Academy Award, is about the 1994 Best Picture winner Forrest Gump.
You may have cringed. You may have laughed. You may have smiled.
But you knew.
You knew because, love it or hate it, Forrest Gump is more than a Hollywood classic. Forrest Gump is more than a film that garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and picked up six awards. Forrest Gump is a motion picture that crept its way into the wounded conscience of a global village increasingly divided and provided something resembling a salve for the soul of a planet and its people.
Pulp Fiction? It was a wildly entertaining and loud announcement that Quentin Tarantino, who was nominated for Best Director and picked up the film’s only Academy Award win for Best Original Screenplay, was a cinematic force to be reckoned with for years to come.
The Shawshank Redemption? It was an emotionally riveting film that never found its audience, with seven Academy Award nominations and a $28 million box office its only reward until years later when folks would begin to realize its greatness.
Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral? They mostly attended the awards ceremony for the free drinks.
Forrest Gump? Forrest Gump changed lives in ways big and small. In a world that was increasingly divided, Forrest Gump tells a story of seemingly impossible reconciliation and dares to imagine a world where shared life experiences can bridge vast differences. Forrest Gump is a remarkably intimate film telling a universal story. When Forrest finds himself caught up in myriad sweeping historical experiences from our nation’s history, he’s not just stumbling into a larger-than-life existence. He’s reminding us, each of us, that our lives matter and that we, too, can live lives beyond our definitions, beyond our labels and beyond our wildest dreams.
It’s ironic, really, that Forrest Gump turned out this way at all, as Eric Roth’s Academy Award-winning script for the film is vastly different from the Winston Groom novel upon which it is based. Groom’s novel is darker — more cynical and satirical, and really not that particularly hopeful. Roth saw something in Groom’s words that some would say wasn’t even there, choosing to focus more on the novel’s relational elements and steering its story right into the heart of America and the world at large.
If Roth had gone the route of maintaining the tone from Groom’s novel, I’d dare say that I’d not be writing this essay as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction pulled off a similar tone far more convincingly and certainly far more entertainingly. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption would have duked it out for Oscar glory, and Forrest Gump would have been just another Hollywood footnote.
Instead, Roth chose to emphasize a story about love and hope and the impossible becoming possible. Forrest Gump told the story we needed to hear in almost precisely the way that we needed to hear it. Director Robert Zemeckis brought the story’s vision beautifully to life alongside a cast that captured all the pain and glory, division and reconciliation, and insurmountable conflicts overcome with the simplicity of love.
Tom Hanks? He created one of Hollywood’s most memorable and enduring characters and, in the process, created a man with whom we all could and still can identify. Oh sure, there are moments now, in this age of political correctness gone amok, that we look at this “simple man” and cringe uncomfortably at the stereotypes. However, more than a quarter-century after Forrest Gump arrived on the big screen, we still remember the words he spoke, those awkward facial expressions and the almost magical way that Hanks made us fall in love with him.
Over 25 years later, even the most casual Forrest Gump fan can quote Forrest and Lieutenant Dan almost verbatim. We can quote Mama. We can even quote Jenny, the troubled soul we all know isn’t right for Forrest. We can remember scenes and moments and lines. We can laugh. We can cry. We can cringe. We can love.
We can look down the list of Forrest Gump’s 13 Oscar nominations and each one still feels right. In fact, if there’s any argument to be had, it’s lamenting Gary Sinise’s loss to Martin Landau in Ed Wood for Best Supporting Actor.
But still, the naysayers are loud. “Pulp Fiction has held up better,” the film’s fans shout, determined to somehow see justice for a film they’ve spent 25 years believing to have been unjustifiably denied its Tinseltown glory.
Pulp Fiction entertained the world. Forrest Gump changed it.
The truth is that haters gonna hate. It was almost inevitable that a film with a message that doesn’t quite resonate as much now as it did 25 years ago would eventually face backlash for becoming a Best Picture winner and a worldwide phenomenon.
It’s understandable. It is truly understandable. Pulp Fiction actually is an outstanding film that has endured for 25 years and continues to be regarded as one of Tarantino’s best. The Shawshank Redemption has become almost universally regarded as an underrated classic and one of the best movies ever made. Both of these observations are true.
But then, there’s Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump told a simple story that touched the world in a way that is rare and precious and enduring. Forrest Gump reached across generations and made us laugh and cry and remember and heal. Forrest Gump made us believe in love and made us believe that it could change the world in ways big and small. Forrest Gump wasn’t a perfect film and still isn’t a perfect film. That’s what we loved about it and that’s what we still love about it. Forrest Gump invited us into a world where life really is like a box of chocolates, each chocolate filled with unpredictability yet sweet in its own special way.
It’s a simple film about a simple man who lived a simple message that changed his world and ours. It transcended the act of filmmaking to become a cinematic experience that washed over the world and changed it for the better. Sometimes, a movie comes along that makes the world a better place. In 1994, that movie was Forrest Gump.