How Three Completely Different Films All Swept The Oscars - VRGyani News and Media

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Friday, October 1, 2021

How Three Completely Different Films All Swept The Oscars

Getting nominated for an Academy Award is quite hard. Winning one is enormously difficult. Winning five is nigh impossible. So much needs to break in a film's favor for it to take home a handful of Oscars. The campaign by the studios needs to get all the right eyes on the film, contextualize its various components in a voter friendly manner, have the filmmakers shake every important hand in the business, and so much more. It helps if the film itself is pretty good too. Even so, there is no guarantee that doing all these things brings home the gold, which is why these campaigns tend to focus on one or two specific areas to put their weight behind. For instance, Roadside Attractions knew that directing every single bit of attention to Renée Zellweger's performance in the film Judy was their only viable avenue towards the Academy Award, positioning it as a transformative comeback performance for the actor. Their efforts paid off, and she took home her second Oscar for a film already faded from memory in 2021.

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Due to the myriad of challenges in the awards race, only three films in 93 years of the Academy Awards have performed a "clean sweep," winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Each of the three films still are highly respected works today, but they may not be the obvious titles one may think when it comes to the Oscars. The first to win all five major categories was It Happened One Night, the blueprint to every subsequent romantic comedy by director Frank Capra, at the 7th Academy Awards. The second came decades later at the 48th ceremony with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the mental hospital drama from Miloš Forman. Finally, the 64th Oscars awarded the most recent film to accomplish this feat, The Silence of the Lambs, the game-changing horror film from Jonathan Demme featuring everyone's favorite cannibal doctor. Why did these three films, which on the surface share very little in common, manage to emerge victorious?

For one, a major reason so many films fail to clean sweep the top five categories, or even be in a position to try, falls on the fact that very few films genuinely have male and female co-leads. Narrative filmmaking, more often than not, focus on one central protagonist, with every other character in the film there to serve the story of that protagonist. Because the Academy generally takes their cues from Hollywood, an industry with baked-in misogyny, most of these stories represented at the ceremony will be male-centered. Excluding the three clean sweep films, only 10 films out of the remaining 90 won both the Best Picture and Best Actress prizes. Compare that to the 25 crossovers on the male side. Getting down to nominee representation makes it all the more surprising that the women have actually won as much as they have. When a film actually does have proper co-leads of opposite genders, the chances of those two performers are seen on the same level of quality and stature can be a challenge, particularly if most of the films tend to slightly favor the male perspective than the female one.

What unifies It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs is that their two central characters are in opposition with one another. Yes, It Happened One Night is a romantic comedy, but the bulk of the film features Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert sniping at each other until they realize they actually love each other. The latter two films depict a hero/villain dynamic, with Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched and Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter being the obstacles for Jack Nicholson's R.P. McMurphy and Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, respectively. Because the characters butt heads rather than complement one another, seeing the performers as their own individuals becomes easier, and the aggressive back and forth with each other makes for more overtly dramatic material for voters to recognize and award. In terms of categories crossing over, the acting races clearly present the most trouble. Twenty films have taken home four of the top five categories, and in every single case, the award they missed out on was for acting. Only four of those twenty even snagged nominees in both acting races.

Best Picture and Best Director, more often than not, are awarded to the same film, with a whopping 63 out of 90 outside the clean sweeps. In an industry that embraces the classical auteur theory, which sees the director as the author of the film, the two awards aligning so often makes sense. Although, the last twenty years shows this corelation to be less and less true, as directorial prizes are perceived more for technical proficiency than for fully satisfying films. Best Screenplay, while not quite as consistent as Best Director, still crosses over with Best Picture 60/90 times. Because Best Screenplay is split between Original and Adapted, getting two bites at the apple provides ample opportunity for a success. Best Original Screenplay was not introduced to the Academy Award until 1940 for the 13th ceremony, where it ran alongside the already existing Best Story award for many years before eventually supplanting it entirely, and had that award been around since the beginning, perhaps the number would equal Best Director.

One would think quality of competition would play a major factor in preventing a clean sweep, but the quality of a film actually bears little on its awards outcome. Just think of all the times you watched the ceremony baffled by what titles were being pulled out of the envelope. If that doesn't sway your opinion on quality, here are the other four films nominated alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for Best Picture: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and Nashville, quite possibly the greatest slate of nominees in the history of the Academy. All four of those films continue to endure to this day, showing up on countless lists of the best films of all time. Cuckoo's Nest had some of the toughest competition in the ceremony's history and yet, it swept not just the Oscars but the Golden Globes as well. That kind of dominance points to a excellently calibrated campaign, a pinpoint perfect mid-November release date, an actor like Jack Nicholson primed to finally win his award in a showstopping breakout performance, and a box office success as the second highest-grossing film of 1975.

The Silence of the Lambs swept the top five in 1991, thirty years ago. Since then, three films have made it to four wins. Only The King's Speech managed to do that in the 21st Century, and even that is over a decade ago now. While the clean sweep historically always proved to be a difficult undertaking, the chance of it ever happening again continues to dwindle. As the Academy's efforts to expand and diversify its membership soldier on, a higher premium is placed upon the idea of "spreading the wealth." The more people you let in, the less consensus you will get, which is a good thing. While It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs are all tremendous films and pulled off impressive accomplishments at their respective awards ceremonies, their legacies as films would not be hindered if they won three or four instead of the full five. If anything, winning that many awards could place an undue burden on the film and alter a viewer's expecations on what they are about to see. In reality, these three films simply arrived at the exact right time to capture the moviegoing world for just a moment to win it all.

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