Tradition vs. artistry at the Oscars: On the legacy of the snubbed classic

Why the movies that have lost out for Best Picture supersede the winners, and why the ‘La La Land’ vs. ‘Moonlight’ battle is different

Focus Features/Courtesy, Warner Bros/Courtesy, Merrick Morton/Courtesy, David Bornfriend//Courtesy

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As the final announcement of the 2017 Academy Awards arrived, I watched as a smiling Faye Dunaway took the Best Picture envelope from Warren Beatty’s hands. I knew exactly what she was going to say. It was basically a lock at this point, right? Just another box to check off my Oscar ballot after an evening of relative predictability.

“La La Land.” As soon as the I heard the film’s sweeping score play over the audience’s instant applause, I sighed, exited out of the awards live stream and closed my laptop. Unsurprised, but mildly dejected, I started scrolling through Twitter on my phone to read through some general reactions to the show.  

The wave of headlines hit me like a brick. “Correction: ‘Moonlight’ wins the award for best picture.” I was immediately shocked and confused, but after taking a moment to process what had happened, I was simply overjoyed. Thoroughly satisfied, I pretended that the now infamous mix-up was somehow a moment of poetic justice.  

But later that night, I proceeded to listen to the “La La Land” soundtrack before going to bed, and I allowed myself to be swept up in its nostalgic beauty. (Cheesy, but how else can one describe it?) When did I start hating this perfectly harmless musical, which I was so in love with just over a month ago?  

Over the course of this year’s awards season, I found myself becoming increasingly exhausted by the frontrunner status of “La La Land,” and I distanced myself from it with every Best Picture prize it collected. My passionate raves about the brilliance of “Moonlight” were somehow always replaced with heated rants over white savior narratives. Even during the Oscars, I felt a mild pang of schadenfreude every time “La La Land” lost a category.  

In reality, my cynicism hardly had anything to do with “La La Land” at all.

For a while, I was sure “Moonlight” would join the ranks of incredible films that were snubbed at the Oscars: films that would go on to become instant classics and, in most cases, overshadow the Best Picture winners themselves. Had “Moonlight” not won Best Picture, it would have been poised to become another “snubbed classic,” especially as the most deserving, relevant and impactful film of the year. While I was pleasantly surprised by the result of the Oscars, it’s hard to deny that prior to Feb. 26, the awards season dichotomy between “La La Land” and “Moonlight” was indicative of the long-running battle between palatability and challenge, tradition and innovation, frontrunner and underdog. “Snubbed” films always fall into the latter categories, and they’re almost always the ones we root for. At the same time, we end up with hostile attitudes toward Best Picture winners that are “safe” options rather than the groundbreaking milestones they’re supposed to be.  

There’s a long history of Oscar snubs that went onto becoming iconic films in their own right.  Hell, “Citizen Kane” lost almost every award it was nominated for in 1942, winning only for Best Original Screenplay. The movie that beat it for Best Picture? “How Green Was My Valley.” Now, “Citizen Kane” is considered by the American Film Institute to be the greatest movie ever made. I wouldn’t have even known of “How Green Was My Valley” if I didn’t have to look it up to prove my point.

Of course, since then, there have been several controversial wins that don’t exactly paint the Academy in its best light. In 1990, “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s iconic and bold exploration of racial tensions in America, failed to receive a Best Picture nomination. The top prize went to “Driving Miss Daisy,” a far less intricate portrayal of racial dynamics which managed to keep Jessica Tandy’s Miss Daisy, a white woman, at the center of its narrative. In a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast, Spike Lee brought up the controversy surrounding the Academy’s decision: “Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like ‘Do the Right Thing’ is.” Lee’s comments reflect the lasting impact of “Do the Right Thing” as a film that is historically significant, both cinematically and socially. Meanwhile, “Driving Miss Daisy” has dwindled both in popularity and social relevance.  

The 1995 Oscars highlighted what is likely one of the most competitive Best Picture pools of all time, including “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” (Yes, really.) While all three of these classic films continue to be a part of our cultural narrative, it’s hard to deny that the Tarantino film’s dark humor, sharp dialogue and nonlinear structure, as well as Darabont’s inspiring story of finding hope in the American prison system, have cemented their status as cinematic masterpieces. Yet, the Academy opted for “Forrest Gump,” the infinitely-quotable Tom Hanks-starrer with a fairly traditional story, which walked away with several other awards that year. In 2014, The Hollywood Reporter named “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” among its top-five movies of all time, with “Gump” at a solid No. 14. This scenario still gives us noteworthy films that are worthy of comparison, but it’s interesting to think that the Academy favored the crowd-pleaser over films that are, perhaps, more significant in the long run. This fair comparison, however, isn’t always the case. Just a few years later in 1999, the Academy awarded Best Picture to “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan.” The Spielberg-directed war drama is nothing short of a cinematic triumph, a true juggernaut that should have been much more difficult to beat — especially by an painfully average period romance.  

The 21st century has had its fair share of Oscar snubs as well. “Brokeback Mountain” lost to “Crash” in 2006, and “The Social Network” to “The King’s Speech” in 2011. “Brokeback” was groundbreaking in terms of its subject matter, as one of the first mainstream sensitive portrayals of a same-sex love story on screen. “The Social Network” boasted a cutting-edge script penned by Aaron Sorkin and served as a timely twist on the classic coming-of-age narrative through the lens of the ever-expanding internet. Both of these films were deserving in their own right, but lost out to mediocre (“Crash”) or traditional (“The King’s Speech”) films. In 2009, “The Dark Knight,” one of the greatest films of the last decade and a milestone for the superhero genre, was robbed of a Best Picture nomination altogether, while “Slumdog Millionaire,” a feel-good film (ironically) centered around an unlikely game show champion who succeeds against the odds, swept the ceremony.

With the Academy’s seemingly constant self-congratulatory and old-fashioned nature, it’s easy to see why so many movie-goers — myself included — snark at its predictability. But ultimately, what we believe should be given Best Picture comes down to what we value in our cinema. This debate is never going to be something that can, or even should, be settled.    

Essentially, the “snubbed classic” narrative allows us to create false dichotomies, pitting “true artistry” against films we perceive as overrated, and thus, undeserving. While many of these “snubs” are indeed reflective of an out-of-touch Academy, such as “Do the Right Thing” or “Brokeback Mountain,” our habit of collectively and actively rooting against the “Forrest Gumps,” “The King’s Speeches” and even the “Slumdogs” of the world is far more reflective of our groupthink mentality than our own perceptions of the “overdog.” In theory, the Best Picture pool should be a mix of films from all genres, each with its own valid artistic intention. Yet, seeking out and rooting for the underdog allows us to feed our own egos and boast our superior cultural tastes, and in a strange sense, also allows us to resonate with artwork on a platform as distant as the Academy Awards, making us feel as though we ourselves are nominated. We see parts of ourselves in the underdog films that we so strongly connect with, and naturally, want them to be recognized. It is inevitable, but is it really fair?

In an interview on The Awards Show Show,” Barry Jenkins criticized the fictional battle between “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” explaining: “I wasn’t on set thinking, ‘I’m going to make a film that can take down the ‘white, fascist musical,’ just like I’m sure Damien (Chazelle) wasn’t on set thinking, ‘I’m going to make a movie that can take down the gay, black, hood love story told in an art-house way.’ ” The sad reality is that films as artistically impactful as “Moonlight” are few and far between. But their primary obstacle in the way of public recognition isn’t the brand of Oscar-friendly movies such as “La La Land,” but the system that forces all films to compete against each other in completely subjective terms. It’s the same system that pushes voters to pit the social or emotional impact of films such as “Moonlight” against the technical brilliance and craft of “La La Land.” It’s impossible to weigh these factors against each other as equivalent in value.  

While “Moonlight” pulled off a historic victory at the Oscars this year, its Best Picture win will always be shrouded in the optics of the envelope mix-up. Still, its status as the underdog of awards season remains. “Moonlight” will always be the little film that could, even though it escaped the “snubbed classic” label. And “La La Land” — hardly a “snub” of the ceremony — may have redeemed itself in the eyes of several people who, like me, grew critical of it because of its extended period of success. Now that 2016’s awards season has come to a close, it’s important to recognize that both these films are likely to become instant classics from this point on — sadly, in part, because of the Best Picture blunder, but more importantly, because of their ability to capture the ultimate potential and magic of movies in truly distinct and unforgettable ways. Thankfully, that is something no Best Picture title will ever be able to encompass.

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected].