People may think that in the director category, Ben Affleck got robbed by the Academy this year, but consider this: Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. Actor Peter O'Toole was nominated eight times but never took home the award. If that doesn't prove the Academy doesn't vote with posterity in mind, I don't know what could.
Members play the cards they are dealt, year by year, which leads to some questionable decisions when hindsight enters the picture. "Citizen Kane" may be widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, but that's not what the Academy thought in 1941. That year the Best Picture award went to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." The film that supplanted "Kane" in this year's Sight & Sound survey of international critics, Hitchcock's "Vertigo," wasn't even nominated in 1958; "Gigi" earned the top prize that year.
It's less likely that this year's crop of nominees will include such glaring oversights; there were barely any award-worthy films released until the end of 2012. Yet there is already at least one anomaly: Several critics' groups honored "Holy Motors," the bold, dreamlike French feature by Leos Carax, which didn't make Oscar's final cut. ("The Intouchables" was chosen to represent France in the Foreign Language Film category.)
One can debate the victories and losses year by year, and often they are simply a matter of opinion. I was not a particular fan of "A Beautiful Mind" or "Chicago," which earned trophies at the beginning of the last decade, and I've met many people who don't care for "Crash," the Best Picture winner of 2005. That was the year that most pundits predicted a win for "Brokeback Mountain," and in a rare instance of candor (and questionable sportsmanship), author Annie Proulx accused the Academy of not having the guts to honor a film about gay cowboys — even though the film did earn three major awards.
"We should have known conservative heffalump Academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture," she wrote in the Guardian. "Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good."
Neither we nor Ms. Proulx will ever know how close "Brokeback" came to winning the brass ring because the Academy never reveals details of its voting process. That year there were five Best Picture nominees, which means that any one of them could have won with just 21 percent of the tallies. Mere dozens of ballots among the then-6,000 counted could have changed the course of Oscar history. This year there are nine films in contention, so it's even more difficult to claim a consensus.
Looking back, one always has to weigh the possibilities and probabilities of any given year. It's easy to say, "How could they have ignored O'Toole's incredible performance in 'Lawrence of Arabia'?" until one checks the competition and sees that the Best Actor award went to Gregory Peck for his signature role as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," a film as beloved today as "Lawrence" after more than half a century.
Then there is the cumulative effect of having been nominated over and over again. No one's experience with Oscar offered more ironies than Paul Newman. Having been nominated seven times without a win (from 1958's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to 1982's "The Verdict"), the Academy decided to present him an honorary award in 1986. When he was nominated the following year for "The Color of Money," he finally took home his first competitive Oscar. Yet I doubt anyone would single out his work in that film as his finest hour. (He lost twice again, for "Nobody's Fool" and "Road to Perdition.")
Al Pacino followed a similar path, losing for his unforgettable performances in "The Godfather," "Serpico," "The Godfather: Part II," and "Dog Day Afternoon," among others, only to win for his over-the-top portrayal of a cantankerous blind man in the sentimental "Scent of a Woman" (1982). As the old saying goes, that's show business.
Times change, and so does popular taste. Most of the Academy's choices in the 1950s are considered conservative at best today, while the genre movies of that decade were mostly ignored. Arguably the most derided Best Picture winner of that period is Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), although I have a sentimental attachment to that circus movie — as does Steven Spielberg, who has paid tribute to it in his films, more than once. That is not the mainstream opinion, however, as DeMille's cornball extravaganza beat out "Ivanhoe," "Moulin Rouge," "The Quiet Man" and, most significantly, "High Noon." "Singin' in the Rain," which is often cited as the greatest movie musical of all time, didn't even get nominated that year in the top category, nor did "The Bad and the Beautiful," which did win five other Oscars.
Another box-office hit of the period, "Around the World in 80 Days," may have charmed moviegoers and Academy voters in 1956, but it hasn't held up particularly well, especially alongside John Ford's "The Searchers" and Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which came out that same year and got no Oscar recognition whatsoever.
Even so, scanning the Oscar votes year by year provides some indication of what Hollywood was thinking, and who was admired by his or her colleagues at any given moment in time. Where the Academy trips up is when it seeks to honor a film for its social significance rather than its entertainment value. It was exactly 30 years ago that the Oscar for Best Picture went to Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" — an excellent film in its own right — instead of a more popular (and critically acclaimed) choice from a younger director that I suspected would stand the test of time better than that noble biopic. Steven Spielberg may have lost the Best Picture Oscar for "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," but I hope he takes consolation in knowing that he's not the first, or last, director to have to lick his wounds after all the votes are counted. What matters most is staying in the game — and staying on top of your game, as he has.