Maybe I’m an outlier, but I actually love the Academy Awards. I love movies, and since I’m not naturally competitive I like watching producers mount those “For Your Consideration” ad campaigns to jockey for the top prize: Best Picture. In the spirit of the season, I have made this list of five Best Picture winners you probably haven’t seen. You should probably get on it before there’s a new crop of winners to catch up on. (All are available on YouTube and Amazon Prime.)
1. Wings (1927)
The first ever Best Picture winner, and the only silent winner, stars famous It-Girl Clara Bow as Mary, a woman who follows the man she loves overseas during World War I. He and his best friend are in the Air Service, back when pilots had an average life expectancy of about six weeks. Mary signs up to drive an ambulance but gets sent home due to a misunderstanding, leaving the two men to try and defy death in the sky over France. Three hundred pilots were brought in to film the battle scenes. The statuette wasn’t even known as Oscar yet when Douglas Fairbanks handed it to Clara Bow.
2. It Happened One Night (1934)
The first winner of the Oscar Grand Slam – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, and Best Screenplay – It Happened One Night was one of the last movies released before the crackdown of the MPAA and the Hays Code. Thank God they managed to squeak this one through, because I can’t imagine that a version of It Happened One Night chopped up by morality czars would have the same impact. If you’ve ever seen a cartoon where a character shows their leg on the side of the road to hitch a ride, this is where the joke comes from. It Happened One Night follows Ellie Andrews, an heiress traveling from Florida to New York to see her husband, and Peter Warne, a reporter down on his luck. They agree to travel together on the condition that Peter gets to write Ellie’s story. Of course they end up falling for each other. It’s a prime example of a romantic comedy and a screwball comedy. You’ll fall in love.
3. Marty (1955)
The most recognition that Marty has had in the last twenty-five years was as a plot point in the movie Quiz Show (which you probably also have not seen), when the game show contestant played by John Turturro is told to take a dive by giving the wrong answer to the question “Which movie won Best Picture for 1955?” He’s offended by the idea that he, a schlub from the Bronx, wouldn’t know that a movie about a schlub from the Bronx won that year. But he takes the dive anyway. I digress. Marty is a gem of a romance, and one that really deserves more attention. The movie follows the title character, an unmarried man in his thirties, and his search for love. He lives with his mother; all his siblings are married. The little old ladies who come to his shop tell him that he should be ashamed of himself for not being married already. Marty spends his nights with his unmarried friends, going to diners and dance halls, trying to find dates. He’s stuck in this rut until he meets Clara, a teacher who lives with her parents, after she’s been ditched by a date for another woman. The performances feel so real. We feel how nervous Marty is, how much he yearns for what his brothers and sisters have: a partner, a family. And we feel the tension he feels: is he going to stick with things the way they are, or is he going to make a leap of faith?
4. The Apartment (1960)
Another romantic comedy? Maybe I have a type. Anyway, Billy Wilder made many great movies in his long career, but maybe none better than The Apartment. C.C. Baxter is a low man on the totem pole at his company, but he lets the bosses use his Upper West Side apartment to rendezvous with their mistresses in the hopes that they’ll pick him for a promotion. It works out for him until he finds out that the man who gave him the promotion is using the apartment with Fran, the elevator attendant at Baxter’s company, whom he has a crush on. Jack Lemmon didn’t win an Oscar for this role, but he probably should have. The Apartment was one of the last movies made before Hollywood switched largely to color.
5. Ordinary People (1980)
Think Hereditary but without the demon possession. A family is irrevocably changed by the accidental drowning death of one son and the suicide attempt of the other, driven to it by his guilt. Robert Redford pulled no punches in his directorial debut, which follows the Jarrett family as they splinter while desperately trying to cling to a semblance of normalcy. The performances from Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton, as the brittle mother and traumatized son, and Judd Hirsch as the therapist, are particularly gripping. How do you find meaning in a completely random tragedy? “It’s got to be somebody’s fault,” Hutton sobs. But sometimes it’s no one’s fault, and that can be the hardest thing to cope with.
Of course this list is by no means exhaustive, and I’m recommending the ones I personally enjoy. There’s ninety years of winners to go through. Consider this a primer if you’re interested in making a deeper drive.