Award Tour travels through the yesteryears of pop culture to revisit both the highlights and the curiosities of award season.
As the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations approaches (FYI: they’re coming up tomorrow morning), I continue my look back at past recipients of the four major film critics groups end-of-year awards. In my previous post, I highlighted a half dozen times the critics’ picks were spot-on. This time, I take a look at six instances where they opted to be truly idiosyncratic, in either an innovative, surprising, or (sometimes) baffling way. These former honorees prove that there is no ironclad way to predict what the critics will do come award season.
1969 – National Board of Review (NBR), Best Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Topaz
This was only the second time in his career that Hitchcock won an award for directing, and it was a puzzling choice for so many reasons. 1969 was a year chock full of notable films, but the NBR thought that Hitchcock prevailed with a film that is now largely forgotten. Really? They couldn’t have honored him sooner for any of the legendary movies he’d made before then? The late film director Francois Truffaut said it best in what may be the definitive book on Hitchcock: “It is obvious that despite a few scattered beautiful scenes…Topaz is not a good picture. The studio didn’t like it, and neither did the public, the critics, nor even the Hitcockians. The director himself wanted to forget it, and felt an imperative need to make up for it.”
1977 – Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), Best Picture: Star Wars
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a world in which the Star Wars franchise doesn’t exist. But, back in 1977, the original installment of the Skywalker saga was a shock to the moviegoing public’s system, a movie so revolutionary that it changed both the parameters of filmmaking possibilites and the business practices of the movie industry. Let me put it this way: Star Wars was such a big deal when it came out that it shattered the show business bias against so-called “genre films,” and scored 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The LAFCA Best Picture win for Best Picture was one of the first steps in Star Wars‘ long march towards arguably becoming the all-time heavyweight champion of movie blockbusters.
1981 – National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Best Supporting Actor: Robert Preston, S.O.B.
Best remembered as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man (or Centauri in The Last Starfighter, depending upon which generation you hail from), Preston has some mischievous fun playing against type in S.O.B., Blake Edwards’ rowdy, savage takedown of the movie industry. Playing a private physician to the Hollywood elite with the kind of low-key, flexible morals that suit his clientele just fine, Preston gets to display some dry comic wit, and position himself as a comedic supporting actor par excellence. His performance didn’t get much more traction on the 1981 awards trail beyond his NSFC win, but it probably helped his longer-term case the following year when he nabbed his first (and only) Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing turn in Victor/Victoria.
1984 – New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), Best Actor: Steve Martin, All of Me
This was the performance that took Martin’s film career up a notch or two, and he knew it. In the biography Steve Martin: The Magic Years, the comedian admitted, “My mature film career started with All of Me…” 1984 was a heavyweight year for movies, featuring a crowded field of iconic, award-worthy performances – including Martin’s. As an everyday attorney who accidentally ends up having to share his body with the soul of an eccentric millionaire (played by the fantastic Lily Tomlin), Martin’s bravura performance is a master class in physical comedy, and it brought him a newfound level of professional respect: he also won the NSFC’s Best Actor Award, received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, and proved once and all that there was more to him than just “King Tut” and The Jerk.
1984 – NSFC, Best Supporting Actress: Melanie Griffith, Body Double
In hindsight, this one seems a little random, especially considering that 1984 was such a powerhouse year for movie performances. Still, Griffith shines in her breakout role as a porn star caught up in an amateur sleuth’s cock-eyed murder investigation. As former New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said in his review of Body Double, “Miss Griffith gives a perfectly controlled comic performance that successfully neutralizes all questions relating to plausibility. She’s not exactly new to films… What is new is the self- assured screen presence she demonstrates here…” Griffith went on to score a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work here, and it wasn’t long before she was starring in the films that cemented her reputation: Something Wild and Working Girl.
1998 – NYFCC, Best Actress: Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary
Historically speaking, film critics have been more willing to consider comedy as artistically legitimate than the movie industry guilds have. By that metric alone, this pick by the NYFCC should not have been all that surprising – and yet, it totally was. Diaz had not been in the awards conversation at all that year, despite starring in one of the highest-grossing films of 1998. Perhaps it was easy to overlook her performance because she basically played the comic straight man to her flashier co-stars, Ben Stiller and Matt Dillon. But, what Diaz brings to There’s Something About Mary is an old-fashioned dose of high-wattage movie star charisma. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that Diaz plays the title character “with a blithe comic style that makes her as funny as she is dazzling.” Maslin was not alone in that opinion: Diaz scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress later that year, and her career went next level after Mary.