A careful look at the Best Picture winners from the 1980s reveals that this was the decade that established what we now think of as Oscar movies: middle of the road, sentimental traps that carry their importance proudly above their heads. A sharp detour from the frenetic, vital works of the ‘70s American New Wave, these films seem to exist simply for their entertainment value, a vacuous virtue shared by many of the releases from the Reagan era.
The excesses of the more-is-more and neon-is-more era can be felt in the large production values of its films. Apart from the usual Oscar bait, the ‘80s saw the mega popular Star Wars, Star Trek and Indiana Jones series take off with astronomical budgets, appealing to the masses’ desire for spectacle. American audiences wanted more: more violence, laughs, explosions, tears, fears and motion – and nothing to do with subtlety or smallness.
Though Amadeus (1984) and The Last Emperor (1987), with their extravagant period costumes, opulent sets and two-and-a-half-hour-plus running times, stand today as prime examples of large-scale moviemaking done well, their magnitude points to the materialistic line of thought American filmmakers were following. Whatever one wished for in a movie was delivered tenfold without many surprises or interruptions – a giant leap towards instant-gratification cinema from which U.S. audiences have not yet recovered.
It wasn’t just gilded luxury that people wanted to see in the ‘80s, it was anything that would oversatisfy any particular craving. Those who enjoyed the sharp familial drama of Ordinary People (1980) – a film that, despite its tearjerker qualities, remains an intelligent observation of a decaying family – would be rewarded by the saccharine nonsense of Terms of Endearment (1983), the ultimate in thinly-conceived suburban melodrama.
Bloodthirsty audiences enraptured by the rise of action-thrillers like Die Hard, Predator, Rambo and Terminator provided momentum for Platoon (1986), with its foul-mouthed young soldiers shooting away at Vietnam, to win Best Picture against quieter releases like Hannah and Her Sisters or Blue Velvet. Interestingly enough, Scarface’s constant stream of blood and cocaine was neither critically or commercially successful at the time of its release, marking a unique case of neon ultraviolence flopping in what should’ve been its ‘80s heyday. (In true Hollywood fashion, it is widely speculated that the manipulative narcissism of the film was felt by industry insiders to be too harsh and realistic.)
The ‘80s, more so than previous decades, reaped the inherent sentimentality found in history, which provided the backbone for back-to-back historical winners Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982), neither of which held any contemporary relevance. Chariots, about two British athletes training for Olympic glory, and Gandhi, a comprehensive history of the icon’s life, exploited the facile themes of struggle, victory and nostalgia to win Academy members over. Both are solid films, and while there is obviously much to explore within those aforementioned themes, these works, like many others of the decade, simply brandished the signs without diving into their deeper complexities.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) fit in nicely with that year’s equally sappy nominee pool, which included Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society, and surely provided the pat on the back white Academy members wanted for awarding an ostensibly progressive film. However, that film’s portrayal of an aging Southern woman slowly embracing her black chauffeur’s humanity cannot match the shrewd social analysis of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which skilfully depicts the country’s more nuanced, less commercial issues with race. Lee’s movie, presenting moral shades of grey in bright Brooklyn hues, was a challenging narrative, daring in its refusal to points fingers and innovative in its hip-hop sensibilities.
After the creative boom of the ‘70s, the Hollywood pendulum swung away from the cinematic achievements it had produced at its auteur zenith and towards the lowest common denominator, which could be banked upon to go wild for sensory overstimulation. The years that followed would mostly continue this trend of rewarding obvious entertainments, effectively installing “Oscar movies” as its own genre associated with second-rate moralizing and a glossing over of any real issues. Later Best Picture winners like Forrest Gump, Titanic and Slumdog Millionaire would come to be widely cherished and praised, but merely as filmic entertainments instead of thought-provoking works. Now that culture, politics, society and identity visibly intersect at every turn in the current climate, one can hope American filmmakers will be galvanized into making cinema great again, bringing the Academy Award to its intended capacity for recognizing art in cinema, and cinema in America.