Two guys, a job to do, and an open road: that’s really all a buddy movie is and needs. It’s the kind of movie formula so foolproof and basic that it rarely gets awarded at the end of the year. (Think of all those Hope and Crosby Road movies.) And yet here we have Sideways, a remarkably straight-up buddy film, reaping the lion’s share of end-of-the-year plaudits — with a Best Picture nomination, for Pete’s sake, and good odds to win. It says a lot that a buddy movie this unadorned — two guys (check), open road (check), job to do (peer into the black soul of middle-aged male behavior, check) — has made it this far. Especially since the comparatively few Best Picture nominees in the genre have required a mighty gimmick or two to hoist them into contention.
Sometimes even that hasn’t helped. Take 1959’s Some Like It Hot, by general consensus only the funniest movie of all time. Costar Jack Lemmon got an acting nomination, Billy Wilder a directing nod, but the classic cross-dressing farce was shut out of the Best Picture competition by, uh, The Nun’s Story.
No, in the early days of Oscar, the Motion Picture Academy didn’t respect a buddy film unless it was already respectable, by being based on literature (1939’s Of Mice and Men) or set amid battle (1927’s Wings, 1935’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer). Audiences and Oscar seemed more interested in lone heroes until WWII came along, whereupon the platoon buddy-movie subgenre was established and ran all the way from 1942’s Wake Island to Oliver Stone’s Platoon and beyond.
Women, meanwhile, mostly fought each other for respect and for men — instead of female buddy Best Picture nominees, there were catfights like All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives. And by the late 1950s, with American movies breaking the old rules and displaying a new social conscience, the anti-buddy movie was in full swing: Marty (1955) and 12 Angry Men (1957), for example, both took a long, distrustful look at your friends and neighbors.
Some Like It Hot started the tables turning. Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, the comedy classic was recognized as such from the get-go and paved the way for lighter, larkier fare. It only took a decade. Until then, we had to content ourselves with 1964’s Becket, a period drama in which the buddies were King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and the doomed priest Thomas à Becket (Richard Burton). The real buddy movie in Becket took place off camera, as the two stars pub-crawled all night, delivered sterling performances all day, and occasionally got the two confused: O’Toole was as snockered as Henry reputedly was when he filmed the famous ”Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” scene. Both actors earned Best Actor nods for their pains but lost to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, prompting O’Toole to send his drinking companion a telegram reading ”Burton, old buddy, you can’t win ’em all.”
The first modern buddy movie as we know it — picaresque, funny, brushing against deeper matters — was 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And the first serious variation on that theme was also released in 1969: Midnight Cowboy. Both movies were nominated for Best Picture, Cowboy won, and between them they represented the light and dark sides of New Hollywood. They also laid down the buddy-flick rules we’re still living with.