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Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the Great Oscar Race of '94

"Mama, Everybody's after me!"

The 1994 Oscars was one of the most memorable in its history as it was riding high on an incredible year in film. It seems that everybody decided in 1993/94 that they were coming out with their best stuff and laying it all on the line and head-to-head with the other heavyweights. For me, it was the one year where I liked every film in the Best Picture Category and in fact, was probably the only year I watched all five nominated films and not feel like it was a chore. For a moviegoer, it would probably feel like every time he came out of the theater, he would be thinking, “That was the best movie I’ve seen this year!”

The five movies lucky enough to be included in the Best Picture Category are- Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, Robert Redford’s Quiz Show and Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. I’m saying that they are lucky even though they seem like a lock because of how good the other movies that have been left out which includes Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, and Gillian Anderson’s Little Women and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, which was based on a story by Tarantino. Those four films shut out from the race could all very well get in the first five and nobody would have been surprised.

It would be surprising for some now to find out that when Forrest Gump won, not a few people thought it was a win because Gump was a safe choice. They thought then, and still do now, that Tarantino’s blood and guts opus with the compartmentalized story lines was superior to the movie about the less than average minded overachiever.

This was Tarantino’s second effort won him the Golden Palm in the Cannes Film Festival and it was blessed with great performances from John Travolta (who got paid an estimated 200K for the film; to put this in perspective, Jim Carrey was paid 7 Million for The Mask in the same year) and Samuel L. Jackson as his bible-spouting, gun-waving partner. The exceptional cast included Bruce Willis, Rosanna Arquette, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth and the ultra-sexy Uma Thurman. Tarantino’s greatest asset at that time was that it was fresh. In fact he was fresh. The movie blended violence and story telling like never before in the Western world and for most Americans, it hit them either as refreshing and bold or too violent and sending a wrong message.

For a lot of people who thought that Pulp Fiction was definitely wronged in the Oscars, they believe that the latter view slightly prevailed. There is perhaps some truth behind this argument. The Oscars of course is not purely about cinematic mastery and a lot of it involves some campaigning and a little politicking. It could be that the Academy is afraid that they would be sending the wrong message if the violent Pulp Fiction won. This was, after all, a time when parents have begun blaming media and all its forms but especially television and the movies as the reason why their children have grown disrespectful, indignant to authority and yes, violent. Cruelly enough, the same was the subject of Stone and Tarantino’s shut-out, door-slammed Natural Born Killers which starred Woody Harrelson (who turned in an impressive performance) and Juliette Lewis. The film about media focusing on a couple on a killing spree had the tagline: “The Media Made Them Superstars”. The film came out under great scrutiny from the beginning. It was a movie about the ills of a finger-pointing society and it got buried under a ton of bad press as well as society groups who didn’t want a movie to act like a mirror and show them pointing right back. Natural Born Killers had no chance when it came out in early1994 but years after, everybody looked back at it and saw their reflection.

Stone’s Killers was stylishly shot, almost MTV-like and was perhaps the flashiest film coming from the director with Any Given Sunday being a distant second. On the flip side Tim Burton’s ode to the worst director in history was shot in a much more traditional manner and was in black and white. Ed Wood is about the unlikely friendship between a slightly forgotten screen legend Bela Lugosi played masterfully by Best Supporting Actor Martin Landau and D-List director Wood, charmingly portrayed by Johnny Depp (one of the bigger Oscar snubs that year in terms of nomnations).

I have often been critical of biopics as filmmakers seem to have been able to create a template for such films when in fact they should be unique stories but in Ed Wood, Burton was able to do an interesting story about a character that most people do not really know about. Burton’s filmmaking in this movie is twice an ode to Wood as one could argue that he directed it the way Ed Wood would have made a movie. The term "Worst Director Ever" is completely untrue and it is more like an honor for Wood than anything else. Wood, as effectively portrayed by Depp, is simply a creative mind who did not have the money and equipment to pull off most, if not all, of his ideas. Burton knows this and you can see where Wood was going with his plans despite his limited arsenal. Ed Wood is a great story and if it won Best Picture that year, I wouldn’t have complained.

If there was one film that did not really deserve a spot in the top five it would be Four Weddings and a Funeral. Newell’s quirky love story starring Hugh Grant was probably the best comedy of that year not named Forrest Gump but it should not have slipped through with the likes of Ed Wood, Bulllets over Broadway and Natural Born Killers waiting in the wings. However, riding high on a BAFTA Best Picture and the immensely charming Hugh Grant, Four Weddings got through with two noms but thankfully, no wins.

While Four Weddings and a Funeral should not have been nominated for an Oscar Best Picture, Quiz Show on the other hand is firmly and rightfully where it was, a contender and nothing more. Robert Redford’s take on a real life game show controversy was based on the book Twenty One and written for the screen by Paul Attanasio. Attanasio would then make a career at adapting great books into movies with the likes of Disclosure, Donnie Brasco and The Sum of All Fears. The movie was an interesting take on game shows and I would be surprised if such things did not happen much more often. Herbie Stempel was the long-time winner of the game show 21 when he was challenged by Charles Van Doren, a gentleman of relative fame as the son of a Nobel Prize winner. As it turns out, the game show producers gave the answers to the winner a few days before the taping for them to study. Everything falls apart in the scheme when the producers chose Van Doren to be the next winner replacing Stempel who felt like a used prostitute being shown the door. In a movie that really requires strong performances from the actors to make the story more interesting and exciting, Redford was able to get such from his leads, John Turturro as the uncharismatic Herbie Stempel and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren. Turturro’s capability of being in Adam Sandler movies without losing his credibility as a dramatic actor can be traced to his astounding performance in this movie. You feel sad for him at times but at the same time you somehow feel that it is just about right that he’s replaced by Van Doren who was played impressively by Fiennes who was just hitting his stride as a big time actor in Hollywood after his supporting role in Schindler’s List. I would imagine that in those days, it would be like replacing a ratings downer with the new stud. Even if you knew what happened, you would ultimately be asked, “Well, who would you rather see? Charles Van Doren, the handsome son with the great lineage or Herbie Stempel, the outcast nerd who you would try to avoid when you’re inviting people to a party?” Redford’s movie was wonderful and yes, it had great performances, but it was simply that kind of year.

If Pulp Fiction fans thought that their movie was snubbed out of an Oscar, then so should the fans of The Shawshank Redemption. Unfortunately, at that time, Shawshank was a box office flop and there were not many fans who knew about it. In Charles Barkley’s book Who's Afraid of a Big Black Man, Morgan Freeman said that The Shawshank Redemption was probably the best movie he did with the worst title ever. He said that some people couldn’t even pronounce it and that basically kills the word of mouth momentum that drives up the box-office. The film was based on Stephen King’s novel Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and perhaps they cut off the wrong end of the title on that one. Still it was an unbelievable film helmed by first time director Frank Darabont. Darabont’s film about a wrongfully convicted man (Tim Robbins) and his friendship with a longtime prisoner (Morgan Freeman) and his influence over the entire prison was a true work of art and is an incredible achievement for a first-time director. It’s like building an F1 right after you graduate from mechanical engineering. In the Special Features section of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Darabont said that he watched Goodfellas everyday that they shot Shawshank. For him it was the continuity and the fluidity of the shots that impressed him the most about the movie and the same could be said with his own film. It is unforgivable that the film which had seven nominations was not given a single win by the Academy. Freeman was nominated but Robbins was snubbed as well as Bob Gunton who portrayed the power-driven Warden Norton.

Robbins was great in the role of Andy Dufresne, a banker who got convicted of killing his cheating wife. With his goofy grin and innocent demeanor, Robbins’ portrayal was effective and showed to the viewer that even if he did kill his wife, such act should at least be forgivable. The best thing about the movie is the chemistry between Andy and Red, portrayed brilliantly by Morgan Freeman. Freeman, in an Oscar-nominated performance, played off of Robbins’ Andy and it was like watching one of the best screen duos ever. I often wish there were more scenes that showcased their friendship as it was that good a combo. Shawshank would go on to have a cult following and would be influential to a lot of movies and TV shows and Darabont would be hailed as a genius after only one feature. If you check out imdb.com right now, it registers at No. 1 in their ratings. Just like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, his work is looked upon by many aspiring filmmakers for inspiration.

The case against Forrest Gump for Best Picture would have been more legitimate had it not been for the fact that Robert Zemeckis’ film was also a masterpiece. Indeed, Zemeckis’ opus was brilliant in all aspects of filmmaking. It had a wonderful script written by Eric Roth (The Insider, Horse Whisperer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) which he adapted from the popular book by Winston Groom. It had Zemeckis’ deft directing touch which I believe he perfected in the Back to the Future trilogy. It had highlight after highlight of scenes and the performances of the actors were nothing less than extraordinary. Tom Hanks was just a year off of his Oscar win in Philadelphia and was on fire as a performer. Hanks has always been extremely likeable and the role was perfect for his character. People need a leading man that they can relate to and in Hanks, people seem to relate to him no matter what he does. He’s the everyman of this generation. He’s not overly handsome that people sometimes find annoying as if it is a fault. He doesn’t have great physique nor is he the most talented of actors. Yet in every movie you can watch him and think that you can be in that role and in that situation and do exactly what he does. If there was a connectivity meter for actors, out of a hundred, Hanks would register a solid 95. (Other actors? Cruise would be a 60 and Ford would be an 85).

The great acting affected negatively the other supporting actors however when it came to awards. While everybody did a splendid job, all it meant was the votes would be split when it comes to nominations and most especially, wins. Sally Field and Robin Wright-Penn did not have leading role status and both did not get nominated for Best Supporting which went to Diane Weist. Gary Sinise was able to edge out Mykelti Williamson for the supporting actor nomination but lost out to Landau.

Zemeckis had great material to begin with and had great actors to bring it to life. The whole movie connected with the movie going public and became, at that time, the highest-grossing comedy of all time.

So in 1994 we had these great films coming out which were all likeable for a lot of reasons. People would always remember it as Gump vs. Fiction but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some, like The Shawshank Redemption, were unfortunate to be nominated in a category where others are extremely strong, such as the Adapted Screenplay category or the Best Actor category as it lost out to Forrest Gump. Others may have affected a lot of people the wrong way such as Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers. (One more thing about why Fiction lost: ask anyone on the street what the plot was all about and I guarantee you 8 out of 10 would not remember. That’s not good.) Some movies just weren’t seen by enough people to have any momentum going (Quiz Show, Shawshank Redemption). Ultimately, the movies of 1994 brought so much to the table that anyone who was hungry for a great movie experience will definitely have something to satisfy them.

Looking back, if it were up to me to choose the winners, I would not have changed anything but I’ll probably lose my mind while thinking about the Best Supporting Actor category which should be a three-way tie between Jackson, Sinise and Landau. I would also think of a way to recognize Shawshank Redemption.

1994 should be remembered for all of these movies and all the actors who were elevated up a notch or two due to their performances. The year brought to a new level Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Sinise, Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant, Morgan Freeman and Woody Harrelson, all of which are familiar superstar names today but weren’t at that time. For that, we have 1994 to thank for. It was an incredible year in film, not just two films, and that’s what it should be remembered for.

Forrest Gump 10/10
The Shawshank Redemption 10/10
Ed Wood 10/10
Natural Born Killers 8/10
Four Weddings and A Funeral 9/10
Quiz Show 9/10
Pulp Fiction 9/10


Thanks. It's like Film 101. Really appreciate your insights. :) Made a mental note to watch shawshank redemption :)

You haven't seen Shawshank?
In a way, I pity you yet, I'm excited for you at the same time.

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