During the first 24 years of the Academy Awards, four musicals won Best Picture (The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, Going my Way, and An American in Paris), and the nominees reflected the growth and development of the film musical. However, as with the musicals themselves, their performance at the Oscars peaked in the 1950s and the Academy has struggled with them ever since.
The main problem with the Oscars in general has always been that, since they only reward films of the preceding year, they often miss their chance to honor films that are, in retrospect, superior. Citizen Kane‘s loss to How Green was my Valley in 1941 is the classic example, as well as, say, High Noon losing to The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, or Crash winning over any other film released in 2005. It seems that when they do get it right, it’s the exception rather than the rule, and even then they rarely know what they have until it’s too late.
It’s worth pointing out that none of these films won more than three Oscars.
The musical is no exception, as we’ve seen. Two of the most important musicals ever made, The Love Parade and The Gay Divorcee, were nominated but failed to win (though, admittedly, they lost to great and timeless films), and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s triumphant follow-up to An American in Paris, wasn’t even nominated. Musicals became less and less represented in the following years, with the exception of the nominations for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954 and The King and I in 1956.
But just after the Golden Age of musicals ended in the mid-50s–not coincidentally, around the time when the Hays Code finally faded into deserved irrelevance–the Academy suddenly caught the fever. For a brief but very weird time, between 1958 and 1968, musicals were the most potent Oscar bait on the market.
Similar to the brief and weird time we’re in now, when it’s Michael Keaton.
It was a time when American movies, and society, were changing fast, and the Academy held off acknowledging it for as long as they possibly could. Gigi kicked off the Musical Decade with a win in 1958, followed by West Side Story in 1961, My Fair Lady in 1964 (with 12 nominations, while another musical, Mary Poppins, received 13), The Sound of Music in 1965, and Oliver! in 1968.
With My Fair Lady, I get where they were coming from. They denied Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller back in 1938 when the story was called Pygmalion and saw a chance to make things right. It all makes sense, and damn it, I commend them for thinking of it.
He could break into song, if he wanted. He chooses not to.
But as I have often said, the road to hell is paved by George Cukor, and this otherwise noble gesture meant that the Academy had to ignore the likes of A Hard Day’s Night (the third Great Leap Forward in movie musicals, although this one didn’t have the lasting impact of the previous two) and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Even when they poked their heads out from under their comforters to look at the real world, it didn’t last long. Hell, 1967 scared them so bad–what with In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Cool Hand Luke, and many more iconoclastic films–that come 1968 they ignored 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Battle of Algiers in favor of lavishing 11 nominations and 5 Oscars on G-rated Oliver!
To be fair, though, they did renew their hip cred in one regard, awarding Best Original Screenplay to a wonderful satirical film I’m going to go ahead and call a musical so I can show a clip of it:
A musical in the pre-Love Parade style, sure, but still…it’s got something.
But the tide turned the very next year. Instead of establishing a pattern of determining the winner by exclamation points and giving Best Picture to Gene Kelly’s feel-good Hello, Dolly!, 1969 saw the only X-rated winner, Midnight Cowboy (although it’s been downgraded to an R in the years since). This time, there was no rebound musical the following year…the New Hollywood had arrived, and the Oscars were finally onboard. And with that, the musical fell from grace with astonishing speed.
The last gasp of the genre came in 1972, when Bob Fosse’s masterful Cabaret swept up eight Oscars–including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor–but was denied Best Picture by The Godfather. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and it manages to emotionally depict the slow and inexorable rise of Nazism while still entertaining with its beautiful choreography and catchy songs. Its eight awards without winning the top prize remains a record.
No film featuring a man making love to a gorilla has ever won, not counting that one deleted scene from The King’s Speech.
After that, musical nominees became few and far between. There was All That Jazz in 1979 (should have won), then nothing until Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (pretty sure Silence of the Lambs was the right call here), and Moulin Rouge! in 2001, desperately trying to recapture the exclamatory magic of Oliver! And finally, in 2002, the tenth and, to date, final musical film won Best Picture: Chicago.
Again, musicals dropped off the radar, with the exception of Les Misérables in 2012, which brings us to the 89th Awards on Sunday, where La La Land looks ready to become the eleventh musical to win Best Picture. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment too much on it, but unless it features a scene as awesome as this…
…I can’t imagine I’ll think it’s as amazing as everyone who has never seen Gene or Fred thinks it is.
Musicals are, in their best form, magical dreamscapes of pure, distilled joy, as the clips I’ve shared in this survey attest. I can’t watch Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling or Gene Kelly dancing on roller skates or Maurice Chevalier literally charming the pants off everyone he meets and feel anything but optimism and happiness that we’re all alive and able to experience such wonder. I wish someone would come along and revitalize the genre the way it deserves to be, even if we’ll never see the likes of the Golden Age again.
And that’s the musical at the Academy Awards! We’ll see if La La Land joins the pantheon of Best Picture winners on Sunday, and possibly even sets a new record for wins. Time, as it often does, will tell! Stay tuned as always for trivia on the night itself!