Oscar’s Crimes – Part 1: Best Picture of 1941

Best Picture of 1941

Citizen Kane did not win Best Picture. The film that is largely credited by film scholars as the greatest movie of all time did not win Best Picture. In fact, the only award it did win was Original Screenplay. Most of the time when I tell people that, they are genuinely surprised. It’s always one of those movies people assume got all the accolades it possibly could.

The film that did win that year was How Green Was My Valley. I don’t think a great many people watch this movie anymore. It is a heartstring-pulling drama about an Irish family’s tragedies and travails in a coal mining town. Roddy McDowell plays the youngest son, and we watch his family struggle through his eyes. Directed by John Ford, it is touching and a solidly decent drama. However, it is nowhere near Ford’s best movie, nor is it so incredible that it should have won Best Picture.

However, the real crime here is the fact that Kane lost to it. Wunderkind Orson Welles’s first feature film was controversial at the time. Playing Charles Foster Kane as a fictional version of William Randolph Hearst, he tells the story of a powerful man’s entire life, and gets to the core of what that man is inside. This trope of playing a fictional parallel of someone famous has been used many times since (John Travolta in Primary Colors and most of the cast in Dr. Strangelove are the first to come to mind). Bolstered by fabulous supporting performances from Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, and Ray Collins, groundbreaking deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland, revolutionary editing by Robert Wise, and a hellaciously entertaining script by Welles himself that uses out of sequence storytelling, this movie advanced the art of film itself. I know there seems to have been a backlash in recent years about all of the accolades this movie has heaped upon it. I know there is a certain feeling of “No movie could be as good as all that” or “It’s not that good” or some other kind of petulance.

Let me bring up two small examples in defense of Kane‘s greatness. First, and I had to have this pointed out to me in an article to be amazed by this, Toland used the ceilings in various rooms like no one had before. For the most part at the time, movies were filmed on a sound stage, and you never even saw a ceiling in an entire movie. But in one of the famous scenes, where Kane throws a tantrum and breaks everything in a bedroom, they made the room just slightly shorter, and the ceiling slightly closer to Kane’s head, to make it look more menacing. Simple and brilliant. Also, think of the famous sequence where they depict the downward spiral of Kane’s first marriage through a montage of breakfasts at the same table. That is a genius example of a compact way to show a story through editing.

Anyway, while I could go on and on extolling the virtues of this picture, even the haters have to grudgingly admit that Citizen Kane has earned its place in film history. Just by being such an influence on movies, it should have deserved its Oscar. But, at the time, William Randolph Hearst was violently angry about the film. He considered it a personal smear job and exerted whatever pressure he could to keep it from succeeding. There were certain parts of Hollywood that buckled to this pressure, and Welles paid the price for it. There is a terrific documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane, that details how Hearst and Welles battled in the public forum. It is one of the best documentaries about filmmaking ever, well worth watching on its own.

This was the best example of how economics and politics overrode what should have been a purely artistic vote on Oscar night. There were others, and we’ll get to some of them, but none sting quite as harshly as this one.

The Academy Award Nominations for 2010 are to be announced on January 25th, 2011, 8:30am (Eastern)/5:30am (Pacific)

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I'm a family man who got his Drama degree back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and now works at a desk. I love movies of all kinds, and I am still working my way through the list of 1001 movies you must see before you die.

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