The Best Picture Project – Dances With Wolves (1990)

Directed by Kevin Costner

Written by Michael Blake

Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant

The Oscars were originally thought to be a promotional tool – the way for Hollywood to congratulate itself – but over time it’s not been without its share of controversy. Yes, there are little blips, such as Vanessa Redgrave and her ‘Zionist hoodlums’ speech, but really the most controversy is reserved for the Best Picture race and those years when it’s perceived the wrong film won.

Consider that, in the past 15 years, Chicago won Best Picture over The Pianist, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan, and Crash over Brokeback Mountain. Hell, depending on your point of view you could include A Beautiful Mind over Lord of the Rings, Gladiator over Traffic, and Titanic beat LA Confidential and The English Patient beat Fargo.

Even going back more than 15 years we see all kinds of mediocre films beating out superior films. Pulp Fiction lost to Forest Gump; Network, Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men were all bested by Rocky; Treasure of the Sierra Madre lost to Hamlet, and in probably the granddaddy of them all, Citizen Kane was overlooked for How Green Was My Valley. This is clearly not a new phenomenon and given its long history, it’s safe to assume it will continue indefinitely into the future.   Especially as controversy is good for the bottom line.

However, the bottom line isn’t always asthetically pleasing.  Many times in history the wrong film won, and in the last 35 years it’s arguablly happened to Martin Scorsese as many as four times (depending on your preferences): Taxi Driver lost to Rocky in 1976, Raging Bull to Ordinary People in 1980, Goodfellas to Dances With Wolves in 1990 and The Aviator to Million Dollar Baby in 2004. While we could spend an entire day arguing the merits of the last one – that the dreadful Million Dollar Baby won is as much a testament to Clint Eastwood losing to The Return of the King the year before than to the merits of the film itself – we are clearly going to confine this discussion to Dances With Wolves.

Unlike other films discussed in this series the best place isn’t to start with a recap of the plot – it’s a simple story of a Union soldier sent to man a frontier outpost only to befriend and blend in with Sioux Indian tribe – but rather the story of how a movie could so quickly go from punch line to juggernaut so powerful it defeats a clearly superior film for Best Picture.

The script for Dances With Wolves was originally written on spec by Michael Blake sometime in the 80s. Though Costner read the script and liked it, he was right to encourage Blake to publish it as a novel first, because as fine as the script might be the likelihood of it being made into a film was slim. Western’s weren’t exactly a powerful genre then and if not for Costner ascending to movie-star status and deciding to take the project on himself, it probably would never have been made.

Using his own money to acquire the rights to the script, Costner made Dances With Wolves as his maiden directorial effort and almost at once he was villified for his decision. Because he had the hubris to take on such a thing right of the gate it was called everything from Kevin’s Gate to Costner’s Folly.  When the film went over budget by several million and Costner wrote the production a $3 million check to cover the costs overruns, the insanity of his decision was confirmed.

Except, a strange thing happened after that.  Instead of dying at the box office, Dances With Wolves was a massive hit, of the sleeper variety. Despite never hitting #1 at the box office it was the third highest grossing film released in 1990 and has become such a cultural touchstone that on the night I watched the movie for this post I was also watching PBS and found the score for Dances With Wolves running over some promo for a nature program. If that doesn’t point to it’s significance, nothing will.

You can hear the passage for yourself here.  It starts at about 50 seconds in:

Given how the film pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, it’s tempting to think the film was given Best Picture for sheer audacity. Saying it is award-worthy because Costner gambled and won seems like a good story, and a good way to defame the film, especially after sending Goodfellas home practically empty-handed, but saying such shortchanges the film. After all, it’s not a big surprise the movie would win because it falls right into the Academy’s wheelhouse. How many times over the years has the Academy shown a preference for a sweeping, romantic epic over a more challenging film? It happens nearly every year and the fact is, when push comes to shove, the Academy prefers big, feel-good movies. How else to explain Rocky, Crash, Shakespeare in Love, etc., if not feel goodness? And Dances With Wolves is definitely a feel-good movie. Goodfellas? Hardly a gamble by Scorsese and certainly not a feel-good picture.

Even saying all that makes it seem like I’m slandering the film, but I’m really not. No matter its drawbacks – simplistic view of the Indians, overly romantic notions of the west and the Indians, the Jesus Christ pose Costner sports in the opening scenes, the overwrought score, the ridiculous and not-exactly-period-or-realistically-accurate hairdos on Costner and costar Mary McDonnel – Dances With Wolves is still an enjoyable film and very well-made. Costner might have been a first time director but from the finished product it doesn’t show, and this was hardly a fluke. The Postman might have been a big pile of dog-shit but Open Range was made with keen eye and in hindsight can easily stand side-by-side with Dances With Wolves. Whatever you can say about Goodfellas or any other film, it doesn’t take away from the quality of Dances with Wolves.


Dances With Wolves was the second western to win the Best Picture Oscar, though of the four – Cimarron, Unforgiven and, in my opinion, No Country For Old MenDances with Wolves is the least western. It does not have any of the usual trappings of the western genre – like the fact that there are no cowboys – and is really more of a romance than a western.

Graham Greene was the second Native American to be nominated for an Oscar – yes, I know he’s from Canada, not the US, but Native American’s can come from all of North America. The first was Chief Dan George, in a charming performance, in Little Big Man. To date, no Native American’s have won an Oscar.

To see the rest of the films to be scene and follow links to those that have, click here. 

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