As the slow-and-steady march toward March 4, 2019, gets into full swing, it’s worth taking a look back at Oscars past to help make sense of Oscars present. The Academy Awards’ rich 90-year history of surprises and snubs, coronations and curiosities provides a lens through which we can see with 20/20 hindsight that the best picture doesn’t always win Best Picture — although on rare occasions they do get it right.
In our weekly column Oscar Flashback, EW’s film critics Chris Nashawaty and Leah Greenblatt will explore and debate the movies that won and the movies that should have won the coveted statuette — as well as the ones that weren’t even nominated, but in a just world would have been.
In this, our second installment, we’ll look back at the Academy’s ongoing and seemingly unquenchable love affair with onscreen royalty — the lusty, eccentric, power-mad kings and queens whose awards-show supremacy remain one of Hollywood’s rare sure things.
LEAH GREENBLATT: Chris, there’s a great episode of Extras where Kate Winslet, as a fantastically obnoxious version of herself, explains to Ricky Gervais and Ashley Jensen’s background-actor characters why she’s playing a nun in a fictitious WWII concentration-camp drama — not because she wants to bring attention to the genocide (“We get it, it was grim, move on”) but because “I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, guaranteed an Oscar.”
Even better, her monologue actually came true: After five nominations, real-life Winslet finally won for her role as a Nazi guard in The Reader. But I would argue that playing royal is the next best thing — and to really bring home the gold, eccentric royal; i.e. mildly quirky, but still entirely inside the Academy wheelhouse. Think The King’s Speech (Colin Firth stutters! Twelve nominations, four wins); The Queen (Helen Mirren mourns a deer! Six nods, one win); The Madness of King George (Nigel Hawthorne tears around in a nightgown! Four nods, one win).
And of course Elizabeth, for which Cate Blanchett was robbed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s chest-binding and extensive hair-ography in Shakespeare in Love — though Shakespeare still got Dame Judi Dench a Best Supporting Actress win as an older Elizabeth, for roughly eight minutes of screen time. Such is the power of the crown.
But you tell me, am I being too cynical about all this? You and I both chose The Favourite as our favo(u)rite movie of 2018, but mostly because Yorgos Lanthimos did something so incredibly fresh with all the gilded tropes of powdered wigs and palace intrigue. And I really enjoyed Mary Queen of Scots, which is a much more standard and old-fashioned kind of biopic but also has some great performances, especially Saoirse Ronan in the title role. What can’t that lady bird do?
CHRIS NASHAWATY: Leah, I not only agree 100 percent, I think you nailed exactly why Saoirse Ronan is a lot less likely to take home a statuette than any of the three female leads (and yes, they are all leads) from The Favourite. Royals trump all when it comes time for Academy members to fill out their Oscar ballots.
And the reason, I think, is that there seems to be a built-in guarantee of safety and perceived good taste in that choice — the sort of inherent conservatism that the Academy has always, rightly, been labeled with as much as they whip themselves into a tizzy denying it. If the noble nominee is “eccentric,” well, that just makes them feel that their conservative choice is more radical than it is.
There’s something about onscreen portrayals of royals that make Academy members (and a lot of moviegoers) positively lose their minds. Even middling royals films somehow seem classier and smarter than they often are because of those proper manners, those bespoke and bejeweled costumes, and all of those quirky, inbred, Hapsburg-chin eccentricities (so many Corgis!).
It’s like meeting someone new at a party and they open their mouths and a British accent comes out. Suddenly, they seem a lot more attractive and smarter, don’t they? This is all about Americans’ inferiority complex when it comes to matters of class and manners.
Voting for a movie about royals is just another cog in the machine of that inferiority complex. We’ve been free of the British yoke for 275 years give or take now, when will the madness end? I mean, are you really going to tell me that anyone really thinks that Shakespeare in Love was more deserving of Best Picture than Saving Private Ryan?
Yes, there have been some deserving Oscar winners who sat on the cinematic throne, but when you dig deeper into the history of the awards, you’ll see that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all. Just look back at 1966, when A Man for All Seasons (the calcified embodiment of a certain kind of mid-‘60s prestige picture) beat out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while Paul Scofield (fine) topped Richard Burton (amazing) in the Best Actor category. Come on! I’d argue that The Favourite is the rare royals movie that’s actually better than its genre — and the rest of the competition.
LEAH: Absolutely. What I love about The Favourite (or one of the many things I love, I should say) is that way that Lanthimos so brilliantly tweaks that sort of self-satisfied pomp and propriety we’ve come to expect from a royal biopic; there’s sex and intrigue and enormous underskirts, yes, but also mud and vomit and blue cake and one of the wildest dance scenes I’ve ever seen.
Also, I can’t think of a movie with three lead roles — I completely agree with you that they’re all leads — that allows the women playing them to be so smart and complicated and uncategorizable as villain or victim; they’re just wonderfully, outrageously human. Though I guess that’s what we think we’re looking for in most movies like this, but maybe don’t actually want too much of — that peek behind the curtain of the one percent’s one percent.
I mean, why else did we all go so crazy for The Crown? What they lack in defined jawlines, they make up for in sheer rarified mystery; the kind the average citizen will never get a glimpse of beyond the chintz curtains of a Buckingham Palace tour. But when you think about it as a mere accident of birth (and rampant inbreeding, at that), it’s pretty ridiculous. That’s why I think the element of meritocracy is so great in The Favourite; bloodlines matter, but so does natural intelligence and pure venal scheming.
The best of these movies, give or take a Corgi, are usually the ones that peel back the pageantry; not a film like The King’s Speech, which I think is really just hagiography masquerading as truth telling — though it was also enormously successful, and for understandable reasons.
Even if I personally prefer some of the Oscar outliers, like the Mads Mikkelson-Alicia Vikander Danish swoon A Royal Affair, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, or Amy Adams in Enchanted (that counts, right?), I’m still generally as susceptible to the whole genre as the next hopelessly inferior American. But you seem sort of immune, Chris, which I envy. Do you have an all-time favorite that’s not The Favourite?
CHRIS: Does The Princess Bride count? Because if it does, that’s a strong contender. To be honest, I’ve never been all that interested in the British royal family past or present. I mean, Will and Harry seem like decent-enough fellows, but I guess the American in me sort of chafes at the whole institution.
My taste when it comes to royals movies tends to skew a little darker and a little further afield. Yes, I can’t wait to see what The Favourite’s Olivia Colman does with The Crown in season 3, but I’m more partial to the viper-pit pageantry of epics like Cleopatra and the martial Shakespearean themes of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (or both combined in Gladiator).
Still, if I had to pick just one royals film to watch over and over again — and it’s a bit of a cheat because it’s actually a TV miniseries — I’ll go with the BBC’s 1976 production of I, Claudius every time. Sex, murder, smarts, back-stabbing intrigue, poisonous lines of succession, master-class acting, and more sex and murder — it makes the British royals look as exciting as a sleepy weekend at Balmoral.