You can argue, and many would, that Sidney Poitier’s role in “Lilies of the Field” was not necessarily his best. How about “The Defiant Ones” five years earlier?
But no one would suggest for a moment that it was not a significant moment in Oscar history when “Lilies of the Field” won Poitier the best actor Academy Award 50 years ago, making him the first black actor to receive it.
And it would be 36 years before another black actor would do the same: Denzel Washington in 2000 for “Training Day.”
And here we are in 2014 and “12 Years a Slave” is up for nine awards, including best picture, best director (Steve McQueen), best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender) — all except Fassbender being black nominees.
And if McQueen were to win, he’d be the first black director to earn an Oscar in that category. In fact, he is only the third black director to be nominated, the others being John Singleton for “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and Lee Daniels for “Precious.” (Surprisingly, Spike Lee has never been nominated as best director.)
Among Oscar prognosticators, “12 Years a Slave,” the true story of a free man kidnapped and put into servitude in 1841, is a front-runner to take home the top award Sunday when the 86th Academy Awards airs on ABC.
The other front-runner is “Gravity,” an intense lost-in-space tale that is wholly cinematic and which is nominated for 10 awards, including best picture, best director (Alfonso Cuaron) and best actress (Sandra Bullock) — as well as a slew of technical awards it is expected to sweep.
Talk about apples and oranges. How can we even compare “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity”?
And therein lies the conundrum that is the Academy Awards.
If you look at the other seven best picture nominees, each is very different from the others: “American Hustle” (also with 10 nominations), “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Actually, the fact that there are nine nominees this year also speaks to the problem. Nine? Why not 10? Or more to the point, why not five?
Perhaps, if there’s no room for Robert Redford (“All Is Lost”) and Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), the best actor nominations should also be stretched to nine!
But in truth, audiences are sophisticated enough to know these days that the Academy Awards — although they may be touted as the most prestigious and esteemed of all arts accolades — are really nothing more than a popularity contest.
It’s a bunch of rich moviemakers voting for their pals and patting each other on the back, stroking each other’s already outsized egos. And Oscar lore is filled with stories of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (yes, “arts” and “sciences”) who give their ballots to their maids or limo drivers or teenage kids to fill out. Because the actual members haven’t seen most of the movies.
Some of this lore is anecdotal, of course, and when it is validated in entertainment/trade publications, the sources are always anonymous. But it would certainly explain a few things.
So, which of the nine best picture nominees is the biggest financial success, the one that has sold the most tickets?
That’s easy: “Gravity.” It’s No. 6 on the 2013 box-office chart, having raked in $269 million (North American earnings, according to the Box Office Mojo website, which keeps track of movie profits).
But here’s the tricky part: Which is No. 2?
It’s “American Hustle,” at No. 18 ($144 million), followed by “The Wolf of Wall Street” (No. 29, $113 million), “Captain Phillips” (No. 32, $107 million), “12 Years a Slave” (No. 70, $49 million), “Philomena” (No. 86, $33 million) and “Dallas Buyers Club” (No. 100, $25 million).
The other two didn’t make the top 100: “Her” earned $24 million and “Nebraska” pulled in $17 million.
OK, I’m not going to suggest the top five box-office hits of 2013 — “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Iron Man 3,” “Frozen,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Man of Steel” — were the best films of the year and should be among the best picture Oscar nominees, but it will be interesting to see if the political choice, “12 Years a Slave,” will take the best picture honor over the populist choice, “Gravity.”
Or maybe it will be something else entirely.
How many friends among voters does the guy that made “Nebraska” have?
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com