More Than The Sum of Its Parts: The ‘Little’ Best Picture Winners

Whenever I talk to anybody about the Oscars it seems nobody is interested in who wins or loses, because there is some perception that one movie wins everything anyway.  If that’s the case, then where’s the suspense and why should they care?  In recent years this has seemed true, what with big winners like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King hogging up 11 awards each, and The English Patient, Dancers with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Shakespeare In Love and Slumdog Millionaire walking away with seven or more each .

However, while the perception of a dominating film is popular, it’s also something of a myth.  Looking at the years 1988 to 2009 that the Best Picture winner it was far more likely that the big winner of a night won next to nothing as it won nearly everything.  Consider that, in that time frame, the number of films that were a nights big winner with seven or more Oscars occured seven times, while the big winner taking four or less happened eight times.  Adding in the number of big winners that took just five or six – seven times – it’s obvious that it’s almost two-to-one against that a nights big winner will take everything, making the dominating film something of an anomaly.

Still, whether an anomaly or not, all the talk about ‘big winners’ got me thinking about what it is that America is so interested in superlatives, specifically, the most of anything.  When we talk about the Oscars we tend to focus on the films that had the most nominations, the most wins, the most this, the most that.  Rarely do we talk about the least, and when we do, it’s only in terms of most nominations with fewest wins – The Turning Point and Color Purple with 11 noms each, 0 wins.

By now, having ‘the most’ or being ‘the biggest’ is played out, leaving me with a curiosity as to which  movies were good enough to win Best Picture, but could barely muster a win anywhere else, if at all.  What follows is a quick rundown of the Little Winners.

As a note, the list will obviously be skewed towards older films, as in the first year of the Oscars there were 12 awards given out, making it a bit easier for the Best Picture to have a minor haul.  By comparison, today there are 21 Oscar’s awarded – irrespective of short films and such – a number similar to that of the Oscars awarded int he fifties and sixties, when there were separate categories for B&W films.  Still, while it was easier to have a small haul at the first Oscars, the stinginess of the awards is all the more eye-popping today than it was then.

The Pretenders:

The pretenders are that group of winners that wish they could achieve the ignominy of winning but a single Oscar, Best picture, but somehow failed in the noble goal. Some films couldn’t get there because the Academy found the direction too good, others the screenplay, or, in the case of Crash, the dream thwarted by film editing.

Here are the films that won Best Picture, yet only managed three:

Cimarron (1930-1931)

Cavalcade (1932-1933)

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947)

All The Kings Men (1949)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

The Godfather (1972)

Rocky (1976)

Crash (2005)

Close, But No Cigar:

It takes a special film to be the best in a given year and yet be good enough to win in only one additional category. Some films failed to reach notorious heights thanks to stellar direction or cinematography. But because they took two, they don’t have quite the same notoriety as another might.

Here are the films the only managed two, along with the second win that deprived it of the crown:

Wings (1927-28) (Best engineering effects, Roy Pomeroy)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (Best Director, Lewis Milestone)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) (Best Supporting Actor, Joseph Schildkraut)

You Can’t Take It With You (1938) (Best Director, Frank Capra)

Rebecca (1940) (B&W Cinematography, George Barnes)

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (Best Story) – Incidentally, Greatest Show was the winner of the top prize but The Bad and the Beautiful was the big winner of the night, with five awards. It is the answer to the trivia question: which film won the most awards in a given year without virtue of being nominated for Best Picture?

The Little Winners:

The Little Winners is an obvious category: the films that could only win Best Picture. There are three entries here, but even so, one stands out from the rest.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1936) was the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, losing in the other five categories it rated nominations. Curiously, in four of those five categories it lost out to John Ford’s The Informer, including Best Director, Screenplay and Actor. If any year looks like the Best Picture was given to the wrong film – based solely on the results in other categories, not the quality of the films – 1936 might be it.

The Broadway Melody (1929) was the winner of the second Best Picture Oscar – it was the first talkie to win the award – but lost its two other nominations, for director and actress. Having been privy to the film for my Best Picture Project, I can say it probably should have lost Best Picture too.

These two films truly are superb in their own way – Mutiny on the Bounty for how excellent it is, The Broadway Melody for how dull – but both films are mere pretenders to the throne of Grand Hotel (1932). Grand Hotel has the elite distinction of not only being one of three films to take Best Picture without the benefit of a director nomination – Wings and Driving Miss Daisy are the other two – but it also claims the elite status of winning without having also been nominated in any other category at all. If ever there was a film that was truly better than the sum of its parts, Grand Hotel must be it.

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