Entertainment Movies The Oscars’ lost decade: The Academy knows how to pick ’em … sometimes, but not often

The Oscars’ lost decade: The Academy knows how to pick ’em … sometimes, but not often

oscars worst decade
Out of Africa: a film no one has watched since Ronald Reagan was president. Photo: Getty
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The empty Cristal bottles from last year’s Oscars parties had scarcely been tossed when buyer’s remorse set in. How had The Shape of Water, a sci-fi about a lonely woman getting nasty with a fish, beaten such gems as Get Out, Three Billboards and Dunkirk?

As a product of 1980s popular culture, I endured an entire decade of such modern bewilderment.

The 1970s Oscars were littered with masterpieces from emerging auteurs (The French Connection, The Godfather, Annie Hall). The 1980s served up Rob Lowe waltzing with Snow White, Sally Field trilling “you really like me!” and a bland diet of forgettable epics and domestic dramas, year after disappointing year.

Indeed, the ’70s closure provided an unpalatable appetiser when the electrifying Apocalypse Now lost to the mawkish divorce saga, Kramer vs Kramer. Worse was to come.

Won: Ordinary People
Robbed: Raging Bull
One of the greatest heists in history saw Scorsese’s Raging Bull, widely recognised now as the decade’s greatest film, losing to a sombre family drama. Bri De Niro’s decision to gain 27 kilograms to play Jake La Motta still echoes this Oscar season, with Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen expanding their waistlines to secure best actor nominations for Vice and Green Book. (De Niro did, however, win the Oscar for Best Actor.)

1980s Oscars winners
Robert de Niro as Jake LaMotta. Photo: Getty

Won: Chariots of Fire
Robbed: Raiders of the Lost Ark
A period drama about slow-motion running beats the adventure that singlehandedly defined ’80s escapism. It wasn’t obvious to all what a mega-franchise Raiders would become, but it outpaces Chariots on its own merits. If you really need a fix of Vangelis’s moody synthesisers, try the following year.

1980s Oscars winner
A scene from Chariots of Fire. Photo: Getty

Won: Gandhi
Robbed: Tootsie
British epics scored again with a relentlessly worthy biopic centred on Ben Kingsley’s career-defining performance. But Tootsie recaptured Some Like it Hot’s comic brilliance, anchored by Dustin Hoffman’s hilarious star turn. Meanwhile, another rough diamond emerged: Blade Runner, with the Vangelis score, which clearly would have earned film of the year were it the 1992 director’s cut and not the original ‘happy ending’ release.

1980s Oscars winners
Ben Kingsley and Martin Sheen in Gandhi. Photo: Getty

Won: Terms of Endearment
Robbed: The Right Stuff
A weak field saw a lachrymose dramedy edge out a muscular chronicle of the dawn of the space age.

Won: Amadeus
The Academy probably got this year right. Not that Amadeus’s stature has grown over time, but it attracted fond reappraisal through being sent up brilliantly in 30 Rock, where Tracy Jordan proves his Mozart-level genius by designing a porn video game (‘He does it in one day! ONE DAY!’).

Won: Out of Africa
Robbed: Back to the Future
“I had a fahm in Ahfrica.” Please return there, Meryl, and watch out for hyenas. No one has watched this turgid melodrama since Reagan’s presidency. Meanwhile Back to the Future, not even nominated for best picture, encapsulates completely the exuberant inventiveness of 1980s teen-comedy. Not to mention that its sequel more or less predicted Donald Trump’s presidency.

Won: Platoon
Another year the Academy was on the money. Incredibly, a Vietnam epic (and Christ parable) where almost everybody dies is one of Oliver Stone’s least bombastic movies. Charlie Sheen was widely tipped to go onto bigger things. Winning!

1980s Oscars winners
Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger during a break in shooting. Photo: Getty

Won: The Last Emperor
Robbed: The Untouchables
Another year, another plodding historical epic. Yet Brian De Palma’s kinetic crime saga went virtually unrewarded, despite De Niro method-acting his way through another buffet table. Perhaps the Academy sensed what would follow once Kevin Costner was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

1980s Oscars winners
Kevin Costner as Elliott Ness in The Untouchables. Photo: Getty

Won: Rain Man
Robbed: Dangerous Liaisons
Both films achieved the near impossible: one convinced people that Tom Cruise could act, the other made John Malkovich sexy and Michelle Pfeiffer dowdy. But Dangerous Liaisons also gave Buffy the Vampire Slayer an opportunity to vamp shamelessly in the remake, Cruel Intentions, so it takes the chocolates.

1980s Oscars winners
Glenn Close, John Malkovich, And Michelle Pfeiffer. Photo: Getty

Won: Driving Miss Daisy
Robbed: Crimes and Misdemeanours/Do the Right Thing
The decade’s close saw its biggest head-scratcher: a feel-good film about how road trips can help black and white people understand each other (a theme replicated this year in Green Book).

1980s Oscars winners
Driving Miss Daisy … boooorrrrring. Photo: Getty

But an alarmingly weak field saw two of the year’s best, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing overlooked as best picture nominees (and Lee for best director). The Academy might make partial amends this month with BlacKkKlansman nominated for best picture and director. But methinks Allen has seen his last nomination. A pity, because 1989’s dark masterpiece saw him at the height of his powers, which included depicting Alan Alda, convincingly, as a conceited piece of work.

The Oscars’ most perplexing decade ended not a moment too soon. Fortunately, 1990 saw order restored when Scorsese’s brilliant Goodfellas … um, no. Dances with Wolves stampeded over superior opposition like an environmentally aware buffalo. And thus Costner’s reign of terror began.

Dr Paul Salmond has lectured and published on popular film.

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