The Academy Award for Best Picture is as coveted as it is disputed. For every Deer Hunter, there is a Crash, and while we can argue the merits and faults of each until we are blue in the face, once a movie is granted the title of Best Picture, it is forever a part of the cultural lexicon. Until the end of time, The Hurt Locker (booo) will be held to the same regard as No Country for Old Men (yay).
So what makes a movie Best Picture material? In the case of something like Slumdog Millionaire, cultural relevance was a huge factor. In a freshly post-9/11 world, we Americans were having a rough time wrapping our heads around Middle Eastern culture, and Slumdog put a human face on it. Also, it was just a damn solid flick. Same goes for something like The Hurt Locker which despite its faults, was a product of its time, through and through.
With a movie like The Departed, the reason for the award is a bit more political. With Scorsese entering his 70’s, it became important to give him a Best Picture Oscar as a way to say thank you for the litany of films for which he received no Academy acclaim as well as a way to preserve the reputation of the Academy itself. If he were to suddenly die sans a Best Picture Oscar, this would be a huge stain on the Academy’s legitimacy, and film in general. While it could be argued that this is a pretty weak reason for a win (and it really is), the world of film is better for it. I’d have saved it for Shutter Island, personally, but not being a psychic, I’d say The Departed is worthy enough.
Sometimes the winner is a gimmick film, like The Artist or Shakespeare in Love (two movies whose reputations were hurt by the win, and unfairly so, I’d say), and sometimes its just a result of a lackluster list of nominees (Driving Miss Daisy is nothing special, but neither is Field of Dreams. YEAH, I SAID IT!)
When I look back on all of the Best Picture wins, one stands out as my favorite. It’s easily one of the most disputed, considering it beat out the likes of Taxi Driver, Network, and All The President’s Men, but I think the Academy made the right choice. The movie I’m referring to is, of course, Rocky.
Rocky defines the Best Picture Oscar more so than many winners for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s a great movie. A GREAT movie. When Rocky and Adrian embrace at the end of his fight with Apollo Creed, it can move even the most stoic soul in the room. If you don’t feel something, you might be an android.
Secondly, the character of Rocky is universally relatable without being empty. We’ve all felt like we are achieving less than we’re capable of. We’ve all felt like an underdog standing at the end of a long line of misfortune and missed opportunities. There’s something so human about finding glory in failure, finding virtue in giving one’s all, and standing up to number one and saying “I may not be the best, but I’m not afraid of being the best I can be.” Rocky Balboa represents all of this, but he isn’t just a blank slate for audience projection. He is a complete character.
When we pull ourselves back from the narrative of the film and look at the production, we find another story that could be a movie in and of itself. Stallone sold his dog and lived on the streets just to stay alive while he was shopping his script around, refusing to sell it without the caveat that only he could play the titular character. He was eventually able to find a studio who would relent to his terms, and he managed to locate and repurchase his dog, and even put him in the movie. This is a story that does not exist in the Hollywood machine, and Stallone made it happen.
When we divorce ourselves from the cultural legacy of the Rocky franchise (6 entries and counting!), and view the film from a place where neither Rocky Balboa nor Sylvester Stallone existed, it’s easy to see why the original film resonated with audiences and critics. While not necessarily an entry into the realm of New Hollywood, Rocky was still a departure from the flavor of the time. It’s a sports movie with very little sports, a drama about people who are less than savory, and at the end of it all Rocky doesn’t even win the big fight. Naturally, viewers were challenged and moved, and when they found out that the seemingly dim-witted lead actor also wrote the thing, a legend was born.
Every ounce of Rocky is iconic. From the electrifying score down to the oft-referenced “Adriannnnn!”, its safe to say that none of the other nominees had any iconography on par with what Rocky had to offer, and even though the contenders were all incredible films, Rocky was unlike anything before it, which is why I believe it truly deserved to win Best Picture.