When Kris asked me to contribute a piece to our mini-series on all-time favorite Oscar wins, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. However often they get it wrong, over 83 years, the Academy has made more than enough good decisions, and honored more than enough good movies — even handing Best Picture to my favorite film of all time — to make selecting just one a tortuous process.
How to judge the value of Robert De Niro’s Best Actor win for “Raging Bull” against, say, Sven Nykvist’s Best Cinematography win for “Cries and Whispers?” I’m glad both came to pass, but we’re not comparing apples and oranges so much as apples and hotdogs.
I decided to limit my search to winners from 1990, the year I actually started watching the Oscars, onwards: as satisfying as it is the learn of deserved wins in the history books, nothing compares to the in-the-moment thrill of watching your favorite nominee triumph before your own eyes.
The first time I actively punched the air in response to a win was during the 1996 ceremony, when Juliette Binoche, one of my favorite actors even then, beat Lauren Bacall to the Supporting Actress trophy; it remains one of my favorite wins for that moment of euphoria, even if I can now admit that Barbara Hershey was better than either nominee. And even if it wasn’t remotely a surprise, I’ll always treasure the memory of Charlize Theron’s Best Actress win eight years ago — partly because it was so richly deserved, and partly because I was then still living in South Africa, where national excitement for the homegirl’s success reached an infectious fever pitch.
Still, if I have to pick one win from my Oscar-watching lifetime that shocked me for being so emphatically, improbably, beautifully right, I’d have to go with Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his exquisitely warped love story “Talk to Her” — my #3 film of the last decade, and what I suspect will remain the best film of his career.
Honestly, the win still shocks me to this day: there is nothing in the Academy’s regular makeup or voting routine to suggest that they’d respond to this strange, sad, sporadically surreal tale of two men bonding over the comatose women they love and abuse. A richly poetic study of the compromises and transgressions we make to stave off loneliness, it’s messier, more poetic and more brazenly eccentric than any character-oriented drama voters tend to celebrate in the writing races — and that’s before we factor in that the film is in Spanish.
This was, of course, Almodóvar’s second Oscar: he’s won three years previously in the Best Foreign Language Film category for “All About My Mother,” the film that kick-started the former enfant terrible‘s crossover to global arthouse darling status. The lavishly acclaimed “Talk to Her” smoothly aided this transition with American audiences: it scandalously wasn’t submitted by Spain for the foreign-language Oscar, spurring the Academy to pointedly nominate it instead for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, the latter citation coming rather stunningly at Peter Jackson’s expense.
Even if Almodóvar had a measure of sentiment and momentum on his side, then, a win still seemed a stretch of the imagination: no foreign-language film had won a screenplay award since “A Man and a Woman” in 1966, and that was an infinitely less avant garde proposition than this stylized, morally ambiguous auteur work.
The Academy’s writers’ branch, however, did their bit by fielding a truly odd quintet of Best Original Screenplay nominees, the two most mainstream of which weren’t really original screenplays at all: summer comedy sleeper “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was openly adapted from writer-star Nia Vardalos’s one-woman stage show, while the lone Best Picture nominee in the lineup, “Gangs of New York,” was a much-rewritten patchwork screenplay inspired by Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book of the same title. Another nominee, Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven,” was so heavily informed by the 1950s domestic melodramas of Douglas Sirk as to seem a virtual adaptation; a second Spanish-language nominee, Alfonso Cuaron’s sharp, sexy, wise coming-of-age road movie “Y tu Mama Tambien,” was an undeniable original, but an even more out-of-character choice for the Academy than “Talk to Her.”
It was a lineup rife with mixed signals. It may have been the top contender, but “Gangs of New York” was widely disliked, and no writing showcase to boot. There was much goodwill in the industry for Vardalos, but was the Academy really going to hand the prize to an overgrown sitcom pilot from a talent many (correctly) assumed would be a one-film wonder? Haynes’s film had more gravitas, plus a glossy American pedigree, but was it too archly academic for voters? The WGA didn’t help us out at all, handing their Original Screenplay prize to Michael Moore for the documentary “Bowling for Columbine” — as sure a sign as any that something weird was up in the category.
I remember finally placing my chips on Vardalos, dismayed in advance for Almodóvar. My older brother, whose interest in the awards extends no further than the amount of money he can win in an Oscar pool, told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was dead wrong: “It’ll be ‘Talk to Her,'” he said, with maddening assurance. “It’s too good not to win.”
My explanation of the various statistics and Academy biases standing in the way of this outcome fell rightly on deaf ears: in that splintered lineup, at least, “Talk to Her” was too good not to win, and as the chubby-faced Spaniard scrambled onto stage to accept his second statuette from, of all oddly matched presenters, Ben Affleck, I remember wondering if this indicated a progression in the Academy’s acceptance of foreign-language cinema: if, two years after “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” landed 10 nods and four years after Roberto Benigni scooped the Best Actor prize, subtitles were becoming less a barrier to voters, and more a key to a wider pool of worthy films.
Any such fantasies, of course, were premature: no foreign-language screenplay has won the Oscar since, just as no non-American foreign-language film has even cracked the Best Picture lineup. But if the win for “Talk to Her” was a fluke, it remains a glorious one: a rare moment where the Academy stepped outside their comfort zone, rejected the compromise options, and instead identified the film with the most to say, and the most extraordinary way of saying it.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!