Once every decade or so, Oscar voters are faced with a choice: Align themselves with the zeitgeist, or march to their own drum.
Every now and then, a film becomes so successful and such a phenomenon, it just cannot be denied a place at the grown-ups table. It’s hardly a surprise, because usually along with all of the attention it garners from the masses, the film in question lands massive critical raves.
Think of nominees like E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, STAR WARS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, TITANIC, and AVATAR.
Whenever Oscar finds itself with a candidate like one of these, they face a precarious position. Do they align themselves with the masses, be seen as populist, and possibly get caught up in the mania? Or do they honour something less popular but with equal merit, something that could go down as the right choice later…or a complete fumble.
TITANIC still seems like a worthy enough winner…but would the world have imploded in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL had taken the top prize?
This week, my unofficial Best Picture Project took me to one of Oscar’s more curious moments of aligning itself with the zeitgeist: Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. I’d hard grumblings and mumblings through the years, but inkeeping with my recent post about awards reflecting the times, I felt it best to reserve judgement.
My patience should have earned me some sort of a merit badge.
The allure from the 1952 angle is easy to spot: It’s a collision of legends. You expect that a certain sector of the general public is going to be seduced by the collaboration of P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille, and to be fair, seldom have such legends of entertainment overlapped. DeMille didn’t spare a single frame, intent on capturing the wonder, the spectacle, and indeed the danger that happens nightly under the big top. He even goes one step further and hangs the whole project on a flimsy plot about the company’s viability, a doctor on the run, and enough personal melodrama to fill an entire afternoon worth of soap operas.
If all that didn’t get audiences in, there’s also a spectacular train crash that would have influence over many movies for decades to come.
However, time has not been kind to this trip to the circus.
Let’s put aside that in this age of entertainment options and reduced sense of wonder, the circus just ain’t what it used to be. Let us also put aside any question a circus sparks on the subject of animal cruelty. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH has not aged well. At all. Every scene seems to go on two minutes longer than it should, and there are more parades than a weekend spent at Walt Disney World. But it was popular for its day, and indeed was the highest grossing film of its year.
So there it was: a moments where Oscar was trying to walk in step with the zeitgeist – and a moment that would look brutal in hindsight.
The laud came at the cost of fellow BP nominees THE QUIET MAN (which would take Best Director – make what you will of that) and HIGH NOON. If that weren’t enough, there was also a tiny indie film left sitting unnominated on the sidelines: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.
What adds insult to injury is the way this win embodies Oscar’s other oft-repeated error: rewarding legacy instead of encapsulating the moment. Cecille B. DeMille is unquestionably a legend in Hollywood, a man whose influence is still evident today. This would be his only competitive Oscar. The Academy still does this, bestowing awards not just on merit but on who is “due”. Perhaps when and if they ever stop, they might be second-guessed a lot less.
Maybe the takeaway from this shouldn’t be “wtf was Oscar thinking?”, so much as it should be a case study in the can’t-win situation of zeitgeist films.
Go with the masses, you risk overlooking a more worthy gem whose greatness will only become more apparent with time.
Go against the grain, you risk seeming completely out-of-touch.
Seems rather no-win to me!