Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Style or substance

At the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night, Tom Hanks presented the first two awards: art direction and cinematography. He mentioned the fact that Gone With the Wind, which swept the Oscars in 1939, was the first movie to complete the Academy Awards "trifecta" - Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Picture. The last movie to accomplish this was Titanic in 1997. He said, this is what it takes to make a good movie. I was a bit bugged by this statement. What about the story and screenplay? What about directing and acting?

I gave myself a little exercise: go through the Academy Awards database and list all the 83 Best Pictures to see what other awards they got. Here are the stats:

All 83 Best Pictures in other categories

The numbers are telling. It turns out that directing and writing are the two top elements of a Best Picture. 62 out of all 83 Best Pictures (74.7%) also got directing awards, and 54 (65.1%) got recognition for writing. In the last five straight years, all Best Pictures got the statuettes in both categories. In the entire Academy Awards history, there have been only 15 Best Pictures that got both art direction and cinematography, but 43 got both directing and writing. (Hey, that's more than half!) 47 (56.6%) movies got some sort of acting nods. 42 (50.6%) got awarded for some of the technical aspects (editing, sound, make-up, etc.), and film editing ranks at the third most important place - more than any art aspects.

If art direction, cinematography, and costume design represent "style" (how it looks), screenplay, directing, and editing are on the "substance" side (the story and how it's told). For 83 years, the Academy has certainly proved its position: substance over style. Or maybe, style and substance is not a question of either/or - we can, or should, have both. In fact, many Best Pictures excelled on both ends. In addition to art direction and cinematography, Gone With the Wind won awards for writing, directing, and editing as well. So was other all time favorites like Gigi, The Last Emperor, and Schindler's List.

Gigi and The Last Emperor scored every single award they were nominated for. Same was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which took home 10 awards, tied only Ben-Hur and Titanic for the biggest winner of all.

Of course, awards are just awards. Winning doesn't make it the absolute best. As Steven Spielberg said at the ceremony, 9 of the 10 Best Picture nominees this year would "join the list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull."


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