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The 15 "Edgiest" Oscar Best Picture Nominees

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 19, 2014 at 3:39PM

“Ugh, the Academy, so conservative” goes the cliché, as bloggers and pundits the movie world over take a moment to roll their eyes and sigh before diving back in to beaver away on one of a million pieces about this year’s nominations, the pros and cons, the good picks, the bad picks, the odds, the ends (hey, we’ve done a few ourselves with more on the way!) But while that knee-jerk stance is an easy one to adopt (and also comfortable—setting the speaker above the choices in question by virtue of the fact that they’re not challenging enough, not cinephile-y enough, too MOR, too bland), it doesn’t take account of those times when we’ve been surprised by the august body. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which does absolutely skew older-white-male in its demographics (as does the film industry, folks) has, on occasion given us pause—nominating a film which, in content or execution, might seem to be light years away from its wheelhouse: explicit in its treatment of sexuality, or extreme in its violence or just wholly different to our idea of an “Oscar movie.”
29
Bonnie & Clyde

"Bonnie & Clyde" (1967)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? God, why wasn't it? With a handful of exceptions ("Dr. Strangelove," "Darling," "Alfie"), the Academy Awards were dominated in the 1960s by mega-budget musicals like "My Fair Lady," "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound Of Music," or all-star costume dramas like "A Man For All Seasons," "Ship Of Fools" or "Cleopatra." But 1967 was the year that New Hollywood crashed the party. "Bonnie & Clyde" was a firecracker up the behind of the establishment, with director Arthur Penn bringing Nouvelle Vague moves and rock 'n' roll energy to a period gangster tale, stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lending effortless cool and sex appeal, and with a sympathetic streak towards its murderous lovers that took advantage of the crumbling production code ("The Pawnbroker" and "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf" had helped weaken its foundation in the previous years). Even so, the establishment kicked against the film at first: reviewing the film's premiere at the Montreal Film Festival that August, influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the movie "a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,'" and specifically attacking the film's violence (inspired, in the closing moments, by the assassination of JFK) as being "as pointless as it is lacking in taste." Other critics followed: Time called it "a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap" and Newsweek's Joe Morgenstern initially declared it "a squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade." And damage was done. Warner Bros. had never been particularly enthusiastic about the movie, and while it performed well in big cities, confined it to a limited release. But following complaints, especially from Beatty, they eventually caved and gave a it a wide release which in some cases garnered a very different reaction. In a second piece Joe Morgenstern revised his opinion and issued a mea culpa "I am sorry to say I consider that [previous] review grossly unfair and regrettably inaccurate." More love letters followed, most notably a 7000-word essay by Pauline Kael in the New Yorker (along with attacks on Crowther that essentially finished his career) and the movie became a phenomenon, making the cover of Time under the headline "The New Cinema: Violence... Sex... Art," and earning a re-release that turned it into a mammoth box office hit. 
So Why Was It Nominated? Because the tide turned. Almost as soon as his review landed, Morgenstern had changed his mind, having rewatched awards and year-end top-ten lists, and "Bonnie & Clyde" eventually came to be seen as a vanguard for New Hollywood, pitted against the more old-fashioned nominees of "Doctor Dolittle" and "Guess Who's Coming For Dinner" (all this is documented beautifully in Mark Harris' "Scenes From A Revolution," by the way). Academy voters ultimately gave the top prize to something of a compromise candidate, in the shape of the less scary and formally-radical "In The Heat Of The Night" (though that was a break from tradition in a different way, seeing that it dealt with racial issues), but ignoring a pop cultural phenomenon like "Bonnie & Clyde" simply wasn't going to be an option for an institution wary of being labelled dinosaurs.
How Does It Hold Up? Obviously the film's power to shock has faded a little over the last 47 years—it's almost impossible to recapture that initial sledgehammer impact. But it remains a tremendous feat of filmmaking, probably Penn's best picture, and still something of a gold standard when it comes to examples of the Academy's capacity for nominating fare that's something other than beige.

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy(1969)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Famously the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture, John Schlesinger’s tragic story of two New York street hustlers was also the first film with that rating to be nominated. But what’s less well-known is that the nomination, and win, came during only a brief window where the picture was X-rated; it had been originally given an R (which then meant under-16s were prohibited from going unless accompanied by an adult) and it was only after consultation with a psychologist (!) that, due to the “homosexual frame of reference” and the “possible influence upon youngsters,” United Artists was persuaded to release it as an X (love the use of the word “youngsters” btw). Later changes to the rating code meant that the age limit for R movies was raised to 17, and the 1971 re-release of the movie carried an R instead. Today, the film’s nudity, depiction of prostitution and homosexual themes seem less shocking, largely because of the films that it spawned; the imprimatur of the Best Picture Oscar gave rise to a whole subgenre of Hubert Selby Jr.-esque stories of hooking and drugs and desperation that would soon outgun the original in terms of how explicit they could be.
Why Was It Nominated? While the “stigma” of the X-rating hadn’t really been ingrained at this stage, and we can’t suggest the film’s nomination was due to some sort of compensatory impulse because of the rating mess, we have to remember that at this point the film industry, and therefore the Academy too, was on the brink of a massive change, as the Golden Age of American Indie Cinema was just around the corner. And then, as now, the biggest voting block in the Academy was actors, and the performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were, and are, extraordinary. But the fact that Schlesinger also took Best Director and the film Best Screenplay points to more than just a fondness for the performances. In fact, “Midnight Cowboy” is much more a product of the sixties than we might remember it being, and it’s likely that, along with Schlesinger’s involvement (his “Darling” had been nominated in several categories, including Director just three years before) that led the Academy to favor the film, more than any right-on impulse toward championing an outsider.
How Does It Hold Up Now? Retrospectively, especially if you haven’t seen the movie recently, the nomination and win do seem to be something of a marker for U.S. film history—ushering in the Brave New cinematic decade of the 1970s with something edgy, off-mainstream, perhaps uncomfortably social realist in thrust. Yet a rewatch does the film’s rep in this arena no favors: its filmmaking style is definitely more sixties than seventies, with Schlesinger’s direction in some of the scenes (the far-out! trippy, man! Warhol party is a particular example) a great deal more tin-eared than one might recall. And that’s without mentioning the clear inference that Voight’s Joe Buck was “made” gay by his grandmother and other troubling, unenlightened stances. But the reason we still point to the film as a classic, and the way it truly does stand up to scrutiny and to claims of being at the vanguard of a new U.S. cinema, is in the performances by Voight and Hoffman which, while laden with the kind of tics and exaggerations that the film’s surprisingly loopy tone demands, transcend the material to become completely affecting. So while the film today is definitely “culturally historically or aesthetically important,” as the National Registry puts it, it is as an anthemic portrayal of two hapless lowlifes finding a sort of love, only for dumb fate to intervene that it really stands the test of time. Well, that and “I’m walking here!”

A Clockwork Orange

"A Clockwork Orange" (1971)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Given his legendary status, Stanley Kubrick was never embraced to the bosom of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences in the way that you might expect—he never won Best Director or Best Picture, and only three of his feature films were nominated in the latter category. So it's particularly odd that one of those three would be "A Clockwork Orange," perhaps the most shocking and button-pushing movie he ever made. An adaptation of Anthony Burgess' already-controversial novella, the film is set in a futuristic London where schoolboy Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his droogs get their kicks from sex and violence (the film was rated X on release, though later trimmed to an R). In the first half of the movie alone, they beat up a vagrant, fight a rival gang, steal a car, cripple a burglary victim, rape his wife and murder an old woman. It's not just a laundry list of terrible acts either—the film has an ambivalent stance on morality, indicting society at large, and questioning whether it's right to use psychological conditioning on kids like Alex. Unsurprisingly, some critics kicked against this, and not just the old guard: younger, hipper voices like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael came out against Kubrick's film. Ebert called it "an ideological mess, a paranoid right-wing fantasy" that "celebrates the nastiness of its hero," while Kael said it was "literal-minded in its sex and bruality, Teutonic in its humor," and called the director "a clean-minded pornographer." Even Kubrick came to suspect he'd gone too far: after so-called copycat crimes in the UK caused him and his family to get death threats, Kubrick asked that the film be withdrawn from distribution in Britain, and it remained unavailable until after his death in 1999.
Why Was It Nominated? The film was a box-office hit (especially for an X-rated film), and more importantly, had wide-ranging critical support: the New York Times' Vincent Canby called it "perversely moral, essentially Christian," added that it "dazzles the senses and the mind," and that it "makes real and important the kind of fears simply exploited by other, much lesser films." It's this defense of the film's morality that may have made voters happier to nominate the film, but more importantly, this was a different Academy to the one that had nominated "Dr. Strangelove" seven years earlier—it's the most adventurous period in the history of the body, with "Midnight Cowboy" (which won the Oscar), "Z," "Five Easy Pieces" and "MASH" having come in the years before, and "The French Connection" (which also won) and "The Last Picture Show" nominated alongside 'Orange.' Though Kubrick was always something of an outsider to the Hollywood establishment, he was still a major director, and it's possible that the nominations for "A Clockwork Orange" were a way to make up for the relative lack of love for "2001" two years earlier. One can't discount the topicality either—the year before the film's nomination had seen the conviction of Charles Manson, the Attica Prison Riots, the  headline-grabbing antics of the Weather Underground and anti-war militants.
How Does It Hold Up? Honestly, "A Clockwork Orange" has always numbered among this writer's least favorite Kubricks—dated in a way that "2001" stayed timeless, decidedly lacking in humanity, and somewhat reactionary in its politics. It's obviously beautifully crafted, and Malcolm McDowell is extraordinary, but it's always felt a little sour. Just us?

Deliverance

"Deliverance" (1972)
Why Was It A Surprising Nomination? Four words. Squeal. Like. A. Pig. Over forty years on, the scene in which a pair of hillbillies rape Ned Beatty's Bobby remains as disturbing and as potent as it ever did, so you can only imagine the impact it would have had on an AMPAS audience that might have been challenged in recent years ("Midnight Cowboy" and "A Clockwork Orange" having led the way), but would have been unlikely to see anything like it before. But even beyond the film's most memorable moment, it's hard to think of a movie that's less of an "Oscar" film. Putting aside the brutal violence of John Boorman's picture, it's the kind of stripped-down, faintly existential survival thriller that even today would struggle to get traction, even in a year where survival narratives have dominated (it's less awards-friendly, at least how we think of the term today, than "Gravity" or even "12 Years A Slave"). And the film resists becoming a good vs. evil narrative, with the harried heroes of masculinity making bad decisions, killing the wrong people, and being haunted by their actions. It was well-received on the whole, but proved controversial in some quarters: Vincent Canby in the Times called it "an action melodrama that doesn't trust its action to speak louder than words," Variety attacked it for "nihilistic, specious philosophising," and Ebert again found the violence unpleasant, saying that "The appeal to latent sadism is so crudely made that the audience is embarrassed," adding that it was "a fantasy about violence, not a realistic consideration of it."
Why Was It Nominated?  Those critics were very much in the minority, with most critics falling over themselves to praise Boorman's picture. It was also, crucially, a huge hit (the fifth biggest of 1972, beating fellow nominee "Cabaret," among others), so it stood in good stead, even if it didn't have much of a chance against mega-blockbuster "The Godfather," which won Best Picture. It's also worth noting that 1972 might have marked something of a peak in terms of adult cinema—the firmly R-rated "The Godfather" became the biggest hit in history, "Last Tango In Paris" packed arthouses, and three of the top ten grossers of the year, "Behind The Green Door," "Deep Throat" and "Fritz The Cat," were either borderline pornography, or actual pornography. With all of these events, plus Watergate underway and the feminist movement gathering steam (that year saw the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment and the founding of Ms. Magazine), the time may have been perfect for an ultraviolent, shocking look at bruised American masculinity, especially one as artful as "Deliverance."
How Does It Stand Up: Very well. We might be separated from some of the cultural context these days, but "Deliverance" remains John Boorman's finest hour, a terrifying and brutal thriller (virtually bordering on a horror film), with career-best performances from its cast, and some immaculate craft throughout. Unlike some of these films on the list, it seems to have hardly aged a day.

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Oscars, Academy Awards, Academy Awards, Awards, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Black Swan, Amour, The Wolf of Wall Street , The Silence Of The Lambs, Bully Pulpit, Pulp Fiction, The Exorcist, Deliverance, Bonnie & Clyde, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange


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