There’s a stand-by in Oscar season, if you’re one of us who obsesses on guessing below-the-line categories, that I learned never to forget last year: Don’t bet against a Tim Burton film in the Best Art Direction category.
Last year it was “Alice in Wonderland” that took the award, when I and a number of others thought “The King’s Speech” might grab it in a bit of a sweep scenario for the eventual Best Picture winner. Three years prior, it was this season’s expected victor, Dante Ferretti, winning the award for Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Eight years before that, the inarguable work of Rick Heinrichs and his team took it for “Sleepy Hollow.”
That run started, though, in 1989, when Anton Furst and Peter Young beat out James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” Best Picture winner “Driving Miss Daisy” and Edward Zwick’s “Glory” for their towering Gothic creations on the year’s (and, to that time, the industry’s) biggest hit: “Batman.”
The spring and summer of 1989 were dominated by a solitary image — the Batman logo — plastered on lunch boxes, hats, posters, anything marketable. It was a beautiful image, a painting by Furst, in fact, boldly stretched across the film’s one-sheets and cut off on the sides, indicating that, indeed, this film would be big, too big even for the poster.
That was the start of the film’s visual identity, but when we got a load of what Furst and his team had been busy cooking up on London sound stages, it was just awe-inspiring. I’ve written briefly about this before, but the design stemmed from one line in Sam Hamm’s script for the film, which read something like, “Gotham City: As if hell had erupted through the sidewalk and kept growing.” It was up to Furst and Burton to translate that, and the hard work paid off in the form of an Oscar win.
Benjamin Melniker, the film’s executive producer, was walking around the five-square-block set one day and said to fellow producer Michael E. Uslan that it was more impressive than the sets he’d seen on “Ben-Hur.” Being someone who had seen some lavish MGM productions in his time, from “Doctor Zhivago” to “Gigi” to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that was high praise indeed.
It wasn’t just the creativity and scale of the work, though. Furst and company came up with some specific art department elements that, to this day, are just, well, awesome. The Batmobile, anyone? The gadgetry and attention to detail? Yes, I’m a dork for the character, but this was some impressive commitment to bringing Batman to life on all levels, and that it received an Oscar still, to this day, surprises me. Not because it’s not deserving, of course, but because, well, the Academy is just never so cool.
They were pretty cool when they tapped Kevin Kilne for a win the year before, too (which Roth outlined yesterday). And again a few decades later on a new Batman franchise when they gave Heath Ledger an award, however expected.
Other Oscar wins that have always stuck out as personal favorites include Jeff Bridges finally getting his trophy for “Crazy Heart” in 2009, Kim Basinger getting some love for “L.A. Confidential” in 1997, both wins for “The Usual Suspects” (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, Kevin Spacey) in 1995, the Best Picture victories for “Unforgiven” (1992), “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” original screenplay win in 1976 and cinematography wins for films like “JFK” and “Apocalypse Now.” And nomination-wise, I love to look back and see that films like “Speed” were recognized for film editing. That just never happens anymore.
But I have to say, this is my favorite. Tragically, Furst threw himself from a parking garage in 1991 after breaking up with then girlfriend Beverly D’Angelo and amid prescription drug dependence and heavy drinking. He had never reached the success of “Batman” again and, indeed, never felt he had been properly paid for his contribution to such a global blockbuster. But his (Oscar-winning) work lives on nevertheless.
What’s your favorite Oscar win? Have your say in the comments section below!
For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.
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