Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hot Sands, Hot Air

Watching George Stevens' Giant I suddenly pondered, "Didn't Around the World in Eighty Days win Best Picture in '56? Somewhere in my mind I knew that Giant hadn't won the big prize but it's almost unthinkable that the film should go away with a sole win for Stevens himself when so much of it has the mark of Oscar glory.

The ranchland epic is complete with a 200-minute running time, spans 25 years, features many births, marriages, and deaths, an Oscar-winning director, an Oscar-nominated Actor, an Oscar-winning Actress, is adapted from a novel, has a blatant racial message, and no long-lasting out-and-out villains. It also falls into a couple of traps like similar, successful films d
id (I'm thinking The Best Years of our Lives, The Greatest Show on Earth, Ben Hur) by introducing characters we're supposed to care about without fully investing in them and being too active in creating disruption through predictable binary oppositions. Giant is a much easier watch than the marginally less-lengthy Phileas Fogg outing, and offers much more up for consideration.

Is it too heavy? If There Will Be Blood were released a year later and up against the Slumdog machine then would it have suffered a similar fate? It's not the most obvious comparison; both of these films are perhaps more stilted towards light and dark than the 1956 competitors were, but then doesn't that make Giant's loss all the more puzzling? It may be about oil and greed (to a point) but the major themes throughout are domestic (family, race, society) and so even though the Texan landscape can seem very foreign it's surely closer to home than hot air balloons and bullfighting. Maybe that's the problem; had Around the World bothered to represent the many cultures it explores with more insight and honesty than the crass stereotypes it offers up, it certainly wouldn't be as easy to digest. The same could be said for this year's Oscar favourite.

The Academy has shown trends of epic-love, most notably the late eighties/early nineties wins of The Last Emperor, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven and Braveheart, but it can be argued that AMPAS was generally in its favour during the late fifties. Two won in the six years following Giant and De Mille's theatrical effort had won in '52. Maybe it's the Western element. Rio Grande, Shane, The Searchers and a whole host of lesser-known pictures landed in the years leading up to it, and so maybe the Academy just got tired of watching horses and dirt. Until Kevin Costner, anyway.

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