Academy in Review: The 1990s

Yes, I’ve returned! The coronavirus couldn’t kill me; I’m too persnickety and tough for that to happen. After a rough bout with the disease and a rocky recovery period, I’ve returned to share more Oscars trivia and rankings. This time, we’re going back to the 1990s. 

Ah, the 1990s. The decade when the most notable hosts were Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg (and David Letterman’s infamous “Uma! Oprah!” bit) – in fact, those three were the only hosts hired. The monologue jokes ranged from EuroDisney to Whitewater to Ovid-CAA to Lorena Bobbit to Bob Dole to Alec Baldwin beating up a paparazzo to the Miramax awards campaigns. It was during the 90s that the conservative depiction of Hollywood crystallized and hasn’t been updated since (though I think they got it from Animaniacs). It was peak film celebrity culture, and the decade was stuffed with now-proven classics. 

Let’s take a look at the best of the best, and the worst of the worst:

Top 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1990s

  1. The Piano (1993) – Jane Campion’s third feature film shook the world upon its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where Campion became the first (and so far only) woman to win the Palme d’Or. This windswept tale of a mute woman and her young daughter as they learn to readjust to an isolated life in a backwater New Zealand town with the woman’s new husband  won Oscars for Best Actress (Holly Hunter), Best Supporting Actress (11 year old Anna Paquin), and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. 
  1. Fargo (1996) – The Coen Brothers’ break out moment was this electrifying black comedy thriller about a Minnesota police chief (Frances McDormand) investigating a used car salesman (William H. Macy) for paying two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to stage his wife’s kidnapping to steal money from his father-in-law. Also starring an infamous wood chipper, the film became a massive success and won Oscars for Best Actress for McDormand and Best Original Screenplay for Joel and Ethan Coen. 
  1. Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood shattered all illusions about the Wild West with this grim revisionist story about an elderly former outlaw (Eastwood) who takes up one last job to kill a sadistic sheriff (Gene Hackman) and two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute. The film’s dark vision of the past was praised by critics and swept the 65th Academy Awards, winning Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor for Hackman, Best Director for Eastwood, and Best Picture.
  1. Schindler’s List (1993) – Steven Spielberg had an amazing 1993: first, he terrorized audiences and made buckets of money with Jurassic Park, and then he moved them to tears with this heartbreaking story of redemption of Oskar Schindler, a German business owner who learned to abandon the Nazi Party and saved more than a thousand Polish Jews by hiring them to work in his factories during the Holocaust. Hailed as a masterpiece, the film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. 
  1. The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick’s 20 year break from filmmaking ended when he returned with this emotional war epic about destruction and creation in the Pacific Front during the Second World War with an all-star cast (Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, and Adrien Brody, just to name a few). A mystical, naturalistic story from cinema’s king of connecting with nature, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but was shut out due to Saving Private Ryan – the other Second World War picture from that year. 

Honorable Mentions: Babe (1995), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Goodfellas (1990), Howard’s End (1992), The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999)

Bottom 5 Best Picture Nominees of the 1990s

  1. American Beauty (1999) – Few Best Picture winners have aged more poorly than Sam Mendes’ sob story about a middle-class suburbanite (played by pedophile Kevin Spacey) who has an affair with his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari) while neglecting his harpy housewife (Annette Bening) and his child (Thora Birch). Despite winning five Oscars including the top prize, this shallow pseudo-intellectual film has become a joke and a punchline in the twenty years since its debut. Hell, the backlash started mere months after its unearned Oscars sweep. What a piece of trash. 
  1. Forrest Gump (1994) – One of the most Boomeriffic movies in existence, Forrest Gump extolled the virtues of the ignorant who follow what they’re told and punishes those who seek their own path in life and step out of line. It’s Fox News style bullshit that says “obey your country, fall in line, be a good American, and you will be rewarded.” The Soviets couldn’t have been prouder of such propaganda. The film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Tom Hanks, and Best Director for Robert Zemeckis. We should just be lucky they didn’t make the damn sequel. 
  1. Life is Beautiful (1998) – The Academy had a brief fling with Italian films in the 1990s thanks to Miramax, nominating Il Postino (1995) and this film for Best Picture. Lots of people love this film, considering it a deeply moving story of man who will do anything to save his wife and son from certain death in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I am not among those people. This feel-good weepie that is essentially the anti-Schindler’s List, the anti-Shoah, that makes light out of what really happened, won three Academy Awards including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor for Roberto Benigni, whose walking on the back of the seats during the ceremony made him a sad, annoying punchline.
  1. The Cider House Rules (1999) – Perhaps the most forgettable film nominated this decade, this treacly sappy mess tells the lifeless story of a young man (Tobey Maguire) who was raised by a doctor (Michael Caine) in an orphange, but he doesn’t want to perform illegal abortions and so he goes off into the real world where he learns that he needs to get his head out of his ass and listen to peoples’ problems. The film, one of the many Miramax productions to hog Oscar nominations, won Best Supporting Actor for Caine and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was promptly forgotten once the ceremony was over. 
  1. Scent of a Woman (1992) – In a legendary career, Al Pacino’s only Oscar win for Best Actor came from this thoroughly mediocre, over bloated (seriously, why the hell was this two and a half hours long) story of a crabby blind retired army officer and his friendship with a college prep school student (Chris O’Donnell) who takes up a job as his caretaker. Too many finales, paper-thin emotions, and an underdeveloped concept lead to a mediocre film that only has a place in history as a piece of Oscar trivia. 

Dishonorable Mentions: As Good As It Gets (1997), The Green Mile (1999), Jerry Maguire (1996), Il Postino (1995), Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Liam Neeson in Schindler's List (1993)

Oscars Trivia: 90s Edition

  1. The decade’s most nominated directors were Steven Spielberg, James Ivory, and Robert Altman, who were all nominated twice. Spielberg won both of his nominations for Schindler’s List (1993)  and Saving Private Ryan (1998), while Ivory (who was nominated for 1992’s Howard’s End and 1993’s The Remains of the Day) and Altman (who was nominated for 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts) did not win either of their nominations.
  1. The decade’s most nominated Best Actresses were Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, who were both nominated four times. While Streep did not win an Oscar in this decade, Sarandon ultimately won for her performance in Dead Man Walking (1995).
  1. The decade’s most nominated Best Actors were Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hanks, who were both nominated three times. Hanks won back-to-back Oscars for his performances in Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), while Hopkins won once for his memorable and horrifying turn as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). 
  1. The host with the most was Billy Crystal, who hosted four times. Every year, in addition to a monologue, he would do a cute little song medley honoring the five films nominated to be nominated for Best Picture. He also had some memorable entrances to the stage, including riding in on a horse in honor of City Slickers (1991) and being wheeled in while wearing a straight jacket like Hannibal Lecter. 
  1. This decade also saw the only hand-drawn animated film in history to receive a nomination for Best Picture: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), which ultimately won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for “Beauty and the Beast”). It is also one of only three animated films overall in history to be nominated for the top prize, alongside Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010).
  1. Speaking of Disney, the Academy had a little problem with them. They ruled the decade in the Oscar’s musical categories, with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Pocahontas (1995) all winning the package combo of Best Original Score and Best Original Song. The Academy eventually made the move to split Best Original Score into two separate categories: Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, which lasted for four years. Ultimately, Disney received two more Best Original Score nominations for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Mulan (1998), and one more Best Original Song win for Tarzan (1999).
  1. However, when it comes to Best Original Song winners, none may be more iconic than the one attached to the decade’s most awarded film: “My Heart Will Go On”, from the massive, billion-dollar smash hit Titanic (1997). It won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for James Cameron. This record is only shared by Ben Hur (1959) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Titanic was also both the highest grossing nominee and the highest grossing winner of the decade, making over $1.84 billion upon its original release. 
  1. The 1990s also saw the rise of Miramax, and its nefarious owner, Harvey Weinstein. The production company racked up 34 wins over the decade with aggressive campaign tactics that would make the 2016 presidential election look like a cake walk. Whisper campaigns, under-handed mudslinging, personally calling up voters (even though it is illegal to do so) to influence them, et cetera. Miramax and Weinstein single handedly changed the face of Oscar campaigning – and arguably not for the better. 
Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994)

They Didn’t Win? They Weren’t Nominated?

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Yes, it won Best Original Screenplay, but given the film’s massive influence on independent filmmaking over the past two decades, it seems wild that the film lost Best Picture to the sappy Forrest Gump
  1. The Thin Red Line (1998) – Despite seven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film went home empty-handed due to the massive battle between Miramax and Dreamworks over their competing films Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan sucking up all the attention in Hollywood. 
  1. The Ice Storm (1997) – Yes, it was a rough time for any film not named Titanic that year, but Ang Lee’s masterpiece about American suburbia and middle class ennui (which frankly kicks the crap out of the films it influenced, such as American Beauty) deserved at least nominations for its production design, costumes, cinematography, and performances from Joan Allen and Sigourney Weaver.
  1. Angela Bassett (1993) – Had it been any other year, Bassett’s stunning performance as rock-n-roll legend Tina Turner would’ve made her the first black woman to win Best Actress. However, Holly Hunter’s performance in The Piano was just too much to overcome. It would be another 8 years before the all-white streak of Best Actress winners would finally be broken by Halle Berry
  1. Ralph Fiennes (1993) – Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the antagonistic FBI agent in The Fugitive, but Ralph Fiennes’ turn as SS officer Amon Göth in Schindler’s List is one of the finest portrayals of a psychopath in any film. Despite being toned down because Spielberg thought Göth was too unbelievably evil in real life to be realistically threatening on the screen, Fiennes still gave one of the most unnerving, terrifying, and wicked performances ever. He’s a nightmare to watch. As a matter of fact, when Fiennes was introduced on a Holocaust survivor (who was depicted in the film) while on set and in full costume, she began shaking uncontrollably out of fear. She didn’t see Fiennes. She saw one of Nazi Germany’s most horrible tormentors. 

So, the main thing to take away from the Academy Award ceremonies of the 1990s was that they started to take the form of the Academy that we know and love/hate today. Certain trends were established with prestige pictures and particular topics to cover, campaigns shifted from lowkey affairs to presidential election level messes (and trust me, whenever we get to the 2000s, we’ll talk more about the negative effects of Weinstein). Join me next time as we bounce back to the 1960s, when the studio system collapsed and every nominee was at least 45 minutes too long. See you soon!


coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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