At the 2014 Oscars, Alphonso Cuaron took home the Academy Award for Best Director for the sci-fi blockbuster Gravity, while Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave. Typically, if a filmmaker wins Best Director, the film in question will win Best Picture. It doesn’t always happen, but it is a pretty good indicator of which film could win. It’s not the first time this happened. Back in 1998 Steven Spielberg took home Best Director for Saving Private Ryan while Best Picture went to Shakespeare in Love.
However, the one thing that is different this time is that Cuaron won for directing a science fiction film. Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron , Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan were all nominated for Best Director the science fiction films for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Star Wars, Avatar, Hugo and Inception respectively and none of them took home the little golden man. There has been almost a historical precedence among the Academy voters for a bias against science fiction and fantasy.
Even Apollo 13, which was based on a true story, was nominated and lost Best Picture. If it’s set in space or in another world it’ll probably lose, no matter how good it is. If you want to win, look back at the past and show us the people we were, don’t look to the future to see the kind of people we can become. Don’t take us to other worlds real or imaginary. Show us our world.
That is until things changed in 2004. In a surprise move The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King had a clean sweep of the Oscars winning all eleven awards it was nominated for, tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic. While it was not the first time that a box-office hit would win Best Picture, it was the first time that a fantasy or science fiction film would win best picture, and the film’s director, Peter Jackson would be honored as Best Director. Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark were all nominated for Best Picture, but didn’t win.
Moviegoers certainly knew these were great films. In fact at the Oscars in 1981, when E.T. lost Best Picture and Best Director to the movie Gandhi and director Richard Attenborough, the director said in interviews that the academy chose wrong and that it should have gone to Spielberg and his lovable alien. Everyone who saw the movie knew it was more than just the story of a lost little alien but something so much more profound. People wanted to see the greatness of films of this nature honored for more than just a few technical awards and now at last that had happened.
In his autobiography, actors Sean Astin who portrayed Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings recounts the night they won best picture. After winning he and the rest of the cast and crew were back stage with presenter Steven Spielberg and as Steven was congratulating him, Sean stopped to ask about when they were doing a sequel to The Goonies. Steven told him,
“Do you know how big this is? Do you know how many kids wanted this for Star Wars? For E.T? For Raiders? Let’s not talk about The Goonies!”
History was made, though there are theories behind just why this big kids movie won Best Picture. Some say it was the fact that the Weinsteins were producers for the film. A valid point as everything they touch seems to spin Oscar gold. However, I think the most likely reason may be best summed up in the words of Captain Malcolm Reynolds in the pilot episode of the TV series Firefly,
“We have done the impossible. And that’s what makes us mighty.”
Let’s go back in time for a bit. It is the 1960’s. The Beetles were not the only wave of British mania to sweep the US. The other was a fantasy novel by an Oxford done named JRR Tolkien, and the book, was The Lord of the Rings. While first published stateside in the 1950s, it grew to popularity in the 1960’s striking a cord with the youth of the day.
With its success film rights were bought and everyone imaginable was interested. Forrest J Ackerman pursued the project and even corresponded with the author, only for it to fall through. The Beetles were interested in the project and even offered it to director Stanley Kubrick, only for Kubrick to turn it down as he felt the project was too immense. Jim Henson was interested in doing it in a style similar to The Dark Crystal, only to decide against it as he felt there was no way to do the book justice in just one film. Animator Ralph Bakshi did a decent attempt, and tried to cram it all in one movie, only for it to feel rushed, and cut off in the middle of Two Towers. Rankin and Bass finished up with Return of the King as an animated film and went on to do The Hobbit. Allegedly George Lucas and Ron Howard tried to get the rights for LOTR but when they couldn’t they did Willow.
As such, the book was deemed unfilmable. Then along came this unknown filmmaker named Peter Jackson from a country most people never heard of on the news and couldn’t even point to on a map. With nothing short of vision, creativity , enthusiasm, and persistence he decided to pursue the project. Not only was it a risk on his part, his producers were willing to do three movies ( since Lord of the Rings is split into three books) with no guarantee about how well they would do at the box office. Choosing a group of mostly unknown actors to fill these iconic rolls, he embarked on a journey that took roughly ten years to complete.
Each installment was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for top awards. In the end Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings was not just a matter of judging it by its artistic merits, but the merits of filming an unfilmable book. If titans Ackerman, Kubrick , Henson, Lucas, and Howard couldn’t do it, the simple fact that this unknown director from new Zealand could do it, and do it well was nothing short of amazing.
It also gave movie audiences something they needed. In three years that were consumed by terror attacks and dread, it allowed audiences to escape to another world for a few hours and get caught up in a struggle between an absolute good and an absolute evil. It was a movie that showcased bravery, heroism, trust, loyalty, leadership and friendship in a time when such things felt scarce. How could they not recognize this achievement?
Debate still may rage over the validity Return of the Kings win, and the point can be seen .With the Oscars looking like the pop-culture equivalent of a high school Prom, Return of the King’s win does come across as voting the nerdy kids the King and Queen of the Prom. But one fact still remains is that it has changed things. Movie goers wouldn’t have considered it a snub against James Cameron and Christopher Nolan didn’t win for Avatar or Inception without LOTR. The only reason the academy expanded the Best Picture category was because of back lash in 2009 when The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Wall-E were excluded from the category because the Academy showed that they could honor films of that nature.
And now a director of a science fiction film has won Best Director. Who knows where this will lead. Perhaps JJ Abrams will win for Star Wars VII. Maybe, just as they did after Disney’s Beauty and The Beast they’ll create a category for “Best Blockbuster” in order to acknowledge the overall merits of a Dark sci-fi or fantasy film while still maintaining their prestige as a serious organization that honors serious films. One things for sure, The Academy is starting to understand that just as much blood, sweat, tears, and work goes into make those “silly escapist movies” as it does to make the serious Oscar bait. And it was all because of a hobbit , a Ring and an unknown director from New Zealand.