Everyone knows that with the right film at the right time, such as Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscars have an immediate impact on box-office take. But what influence do the Oscars have on movie history, or even on keeping titles prominent in people's minds?
Best pictures always have a spot in the record books. They also figure into the comparisons that emerge from the endless award-season handicapping, even if they're dissed the way the delightful Shakespeare in Love (1998) usually is for besting Saving Private Ryan.
Still, too many also-rans or winners in "minor" categories go forgotten, except in trivia games.
Is this a fault of the Oscars or of reporters and commentators, who rewrite history to reflect current conventional wisdom?
I thought of this during the publicity push that landed Kate Winslet on the cover of Time with the headline "Best Actress" days before the Oscars made it official.
After reminding us that Winslet broke through commercially in Ang Lee's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Time article stated that "a darker, richer phase of her career began to bloom after 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." But her career was plenty rich and dark even before Sense and Sensibility. Her artistic breakthrough came in Peter Jackson's 1994 fact-based horror film Heavenly Creatures, in which she played one of two teenage New Zealand girls who murdered the mother of one of them after tea and a stroll through a park.
Winslet was superb as the imperious and glamorous Juliet, who based her bond with the doughy, literary and bone-disease-scarred Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) on a shared love for Mario Lanza, James Mason and collaborative art projects. You can't get much darker than that, or much richer, either. The triumph of Jackson's script and direction was that he made us feel part of the girls' swoon into perilous escapism without overblowing the oppressiveness of their homes or school. He was rewarded: Heavenly Creatures was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar. It was Jackson's artistic predecessor to Lord of the Rings.
Another Winslet high point, Quills (2000), was mentioned in Time only because the playwright-screenwriter, Doug Wright, credited Kate with teaching him that an actor's eyes could make dialogue unnecessary. But what Winslet played in Quills was far more fascinating than her incursion into Screenwriting 101 and, again, was also "darker, richer." As a laundress in the Charenton insane asylum, which housed the Marquis de Sade, Winslet was an unsentimental heartbreaker, fascinated by de Sade and in cahoots with the open-minded Abbe de Coulmier, who ran Charenton as a forward-looking, innovative institution.
Another talent in the news, Joaquin Phoenix, was amazing as the abbe. He displayed more masculine vigor as a priest than he did as a Sadean emperor in Gladiator. He gave the film a presence at once sensitive, harrowing and manly. Quills, an early front-runner in the 2000 awards seasons (it won best picture from the National Board of Review), wound up with several Oscar nominations, including best actor (Geoffrey Rush). But you never see it referred to at length or included in those endless montages that grow more prevalent with every Oscar telecast.
Look over the Oscar nominees from just the past 15 years (or from Heavenly Creatures to now), and you'll be amazed to see how many notable movies recognized for their craft and talent have drifted into obscurity or been consigned to early-morning showings on TV.
Spider-Man guru Sam Raimi proved himself an actor's director with his chilling A Simple Plan (1998) and helped win Billy Bob Thornton a best supporting actor nomination. Julianne Moore was never more vibrantly emotional than in The End of the Affair (1999), which made her a best actress contender. In 1999, Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves got back into moviemaking after a six-year absence with his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, for director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential).
Critics periodically complain about the blandness of many Oscar choices. Some of the best movies - for example, Three Kings (1999) - don't get recognized for anything. But Oscar often does a better job than the entertainment press of honoring films for their quality rather than for how they fit into publicity or puffery.