Art Vs Commerce: Rise of Oscar Season (90s)

1994

Have you ever spent the day doing errands, being productive, and getting so much done that the next day you feel you can just laze about the house and binge watch Superstore? Or some show not quite as good as Superstore?

Well let me tell you the Oscars get that. They get it plenty. And after giving the king of blockbusters an Oscar for his deeply personal, profoundly moving exploration of a six-year crime against humanity, the Academy decided they could take it easy for a year.

Is this year a How Green Was My Valley situation? Not quite, but it’s close.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Okay. So. Forrest Gump. In which a mentally challenged man drifts randomly through the 50s through 80s, like the CG feather during the opening credits, having at least five “Marty McFly creates rock music” inspiration moments.

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room right off the bat. Is it the How Green Was My Valley of the 1990s?

Well… no and yes? On the one hand, I would definitely say it’s a much better movie than Valley. On the other hand, some would argue there were two Citizen Kanes at the Oscars that year, The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction. And they both lost to Gump.

(Quiz Show was fine and helped Ralph Fiennes move past Amon Goeth, and Four Weddings and a Funeral is probably still the definitive Hugh Grant British Romcom, but… eh. It’s really just the other two we’re mad about.)

Forrest Gump winning Best Picture made a clear statement that what the Oscars of the 90s valued was “safe and simple” over “bold and innovative,” and they are only now very barely digging out from under that.

As to “better movie.” I loved this movie the summer it came out, and I can still see why. It’s made by Robert Zemeckis, and even better Robert Zemeckis before he went crazy for stop-motion animation and kinda lost it, so it’s incredibly well shot. Did Robert Zemeckis deserve an Oscar? Absolutely. Was this the one he should have won it for? No, it was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but Martin Scorsese teaches us that not everyone wins for their Schindler’s List.

A lot of the humour still lands for me. Zemeckis and Hanks land some good laughs, and a couple of very gutting moments. Specifically the death of Bubba in Vietnam and Forrest’s panic that his son might be like him, a thought he can barely even bring himself to say. It definitely has its charms and will be higher in the rankings than maybe you expect.

That said.

I was never thrilled with what the story does to Forrest’s great love, Jenny, and I actually like it less now. In 1994, it wasn’t great, in 2021, it seems actively mean. While Forrest is wandering about, stumbling into improbable successes, the movie will occasionally check into how counter-culture life in the 60s/70s is treating Jenny, and it’s always bad. She’s stuck in a pattern of abuse, falls into addiction, and isn’t great to Forrest, and when she finally pulls herself out of it all, she gets AIDS. Because that’s the one 80s thing they felt Forrest’s life needed, someone dying of AIDS. Forrest lives a mostly charmed life with a few deep tragedies, Jenny’s life is a constant struggle out of the darkness, and the film spends less time on that than how many famous people Forrest met and how they all died. Jenny’s attempts to pull her life together get less screentime than having people shoot at presidents so we know what year it is.

Also Forrest It’s-Your-Cousin-Marvin-Berrying his way through history gets a little silly, the prototype Deep Fake technology they used to have Tom Hanks converse with famous people only works half the time (and definitely not with John Lennon), using the K-CAL Songs of the 60s soundtrack to mark the passage of time is often a little too on-the-nose with its accompaniments, playing the main song from Midnight Cowboy while Lieutenant Dan yells “I’m walking here!” at a taxi was a little silly (missed that the first time), and its depiction of history is so. Very. White. There were a few real struggles for societal progress happening during the course of this movie, and Forrest Gump has nothing to say about them.

And ultimately Forrest Gump is best described by its catchphrase, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Not what the phrase is trying to say, but what it is. Sweet, but meaningless. You always know what you’re gonna get, there’s a legend in the box, it’s a terrible metaphor. Forrest Gump, likewise, is pleasant and sweet and very well-made, but it’s empty. If it has a larger meaning, I don’t know what it is, and I’ve seen this movie like a half dozen times or something. The sequence where Forrest runs cross-country for three years is the best representative: people want it to have meaning, but Forrest just wanted to run. He has no statement. No larger purpose. He just thought it might be nice to do.

So no, it should not have been Best Picture. Yes it’s well directed, but so was Pulp Fiction. Yes it’s well acted, but so were The Shawshank Redemption and Ed Wood (which did snag Best Supporting Actor for Martin Landau, when I thought it was a footrace between Gary Sinise for Gump and Samuel L. Jackson for Pulp Fiction). That I think Forrest Gump is good but that you’re right to be angry it won are not contradictory. I love Tombstone even more than Forrest Gump, but I’m not saying it got snubbed at last year’s award shows. Both things can be true, just like the twin facts that I think Schindler’s List is excellent and had to talk myself into watching it a second time because I don’t enjoy it even a little.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s in the lower rungs of the “This one was probably a mistake” district at #86, right above Around the World in 80 Days and under the How Green Was My Valley of the 2000s.

What’s The Real Best Picture? Pulp Fiction. 100% Pulp Fiction. That movie excels in ways the Academy wasn’t ready for.

Forrest Gump was an immense hit. It was the Joint Champion domestically, and internationally beat the next film down by almost $300 million.

But there was one thing international audiences preferred. The Disney Renaissance’s apex predator.

The Box Office Champ (International)

The Lion King was the Disney Renaissance at the height of its power, a massive hit driven by songs from Elton John and Tim Rice. And in this viewer’s humble opinion, it shows off the beauty of Disney’s old-school hand-drawn animation (with, yes, some CG touches) even better than Aladdin did.

Remember when we talked about voice casts after Aladdin? Well, it’s two years later, and the cast includes Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, and Moira Kelly. Moira Kelly was more of a deal in the 90s. Might have stayed a bigger deal if Hollywood would get okay with the idea that women age. Even Jonathan Taylor Thomas was at peak fame in the mid-90s. So the celebrity takeover of animated movies was now in full swing.

It’s balanced different than I remembered. I thought the kid-Simba section would be at most a third, but it’s fully half the movie. Simba’s return to the Pride Lands and confrontation with Scar happens so fast in comparison to all it took to drive Simba out.

It’s an enjoyable flick. Firstly because of Jeremy Irons as Scar, he gives good villain and is putting his back into this one. Second, for the comic relief: Atkinson as Zazu the bird, and of course Timon and Pumbaa are fun. But mostly it’s the visuals. The colours of the Pride Lands, the shifts in tone and vibrancy as we move into danger territory, the sheer spectacle of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”

So I cannot, cannot imagine why anyone would instead choose a version of this exact same story with a muted colour palate and photo-realistic CG animals who can’t do precision choreography or have any sort of facial expression beyond “neutral lion face.” It baffles me that someone would make that, call it “live action” like words don’t mean things, and that it would be a massive success despite being like a half hour longer and demonstrably worse. Especially when this version is so very accessible.

If you’re picking between two animated movies of the same story, pick the one that’s trying to look good.

This was the Disney Renaissance’s peak. Meaning there’s nowhere to go but down.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A pair of 93%s, audience and critics are in agreement on this one.

What Should Have Won? It’s hard to say anything’s objectively better. The Lion King is that Disney magic, Forrest Gump was a massive crowd-pleaser… however I recall being more entertained by True Lies.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: An actual comic book, if an obscure one, gets adapted in The Mask, but Hollywood’s big bet was that audiences would flock to radio drama hero The Shadow. So confident were they that it opened opposite Forrest Gump. Didn’t work out. Nor did Damon Wayans’ superhero comedy Blankman. The X-Men had like six books at this point. If anyone was wondering.
  • Danny Boyle makes his directorial debut with Shallow Grave.
  • Kevin Smith releases Clerks. The View Askewniverse is upon us.
  • Francis Ford Coppola’s experiment in prestige pics based on classic Halloween monsters continues with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as Dr. Frankenstein, with Robert De Niro as the creature. It is less delightfully weird and less successful than Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
  • The Next Generation cast takes over the Star Trek franchise with Generations. It’s an odd-numbered Star Trek so we don’t expect much of it.
  • Wes Craven experiments with a blend of horror and meta-comedy in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, as Freddy Krueger stalks the cast and crew of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger bounces back from Last Action Hero by reteaming with James Cameron for True Lies, featuring the One Good Tom Arnold Character. It comes in third domestically and internationally. Never bet against James Cameron.
  • Jim Carrey conquers Hollywood, releasing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber all in one year. From non-Wayans In Living Color cast member to one of the top Hollywood stars in a matter of months.
  • Tim Burton solves the Great Man Biopic problem by saying “Why not make a biopic of someone who was not great, not at all, but dang it chased his dreams anyway” with Ed Wood.
  • Tom Cruise defies expectations and turns in a solid performance as Lestat in The Vampire Diaries. Really my only note here is that they clearly wanted a franchise out of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles so maybe they should have found a Lestat who didn’t seem so averse to sequels. It took three decades to talk Cruise into a second Top Gun.
  • The Naked Gun 33 1/3 ends the adventures of Lt. Frank Drebin. Sadly for Leslie Nielsen, he has been well and truly typecast, so there’s no escaping parody movies, even if they won’t be this good again, even with a Zucker attached. It also had the misfortune of coming out right around the time co-star OJ Simpson was being arrested for murder.
  • Backbeat is a biopic of OG Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe. It was not highly thought of.
  • Kevin Costner stars in Wyatt Earp, which had the misfortune to come out shortly after the leaner, meaner, more popular Tombstone.
  • Australian cinema makes a brief comeback in North America with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, introducing US audiences to Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, and Muriel’s Wedding, starring Toni Collette.
  • The Police Academy film series comes back after its longest-ever hiatus (as much time passed between the first and sixth movies as between the sixth and seventh), ending once and, it seems, for all with Mission to Moscow. I can’t imagine a reboot is being kicked around in the ACAB era.
  • Wagons East! is the final movie John Candy filmed. (Canadian Bacon was released the next year, but had filmed earlier.)
  • Double Dragon is our second video game movie, and somehow turns out worse than Super Mario Bros? Street Fighter also borrows little from the arcade game it’s based on, and the only good part of it is Raul Julia (who was actively dying at the time) as Bison.
  • Oliver Stone buys a screenplay from Quentin Tarantino and heavily rewrites it into Natural Born Killers. I hate it. I hate it so much.
  • Only You and It Could Happen to You are the two best known case studies of studios slapping the most generic, forgettable title they could on a movie. Cop Gives Waitress Million Dollar Tip isn’t a good title but at least it says something. It Could Happen to You is a lie, because no, no it couldn’t.

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