Best Picture #58: Out of Africa

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Out of Africa (1985).

After a decade of genuinely groundbreaking Best Picture winners and a handful that still managed to be profound in their own ways, it was inevitable that the Academy would eventually turn towards the classic “Oscar bait” dramas that have won every so often for the past few decades. Out of Africa is perhaps the first true example of the term in its modern sense. With an epic romance, immaculately crafted costumes, a slow and beautiful score, a period setting (achieving extra points with the Academy, no doubt, for its exoticism in an Africa only concerned with Europeans), and Meryl Streep with a strange accent, it feels specifically engineered to appeal to a certain type of voter and clearly it succeeded. The romance at the film’s core, between Robert Redford and Meryl Streep, is just like the photography throughout the film—an idealization that looks pretty in doses but feels engineered to be glanced at and never dissected. Moments like Redford washing Streep’s hair or flying in his plane may stand out but even they, given context, feel like a plastic evocation of what someone who only watches Hallmark movies would think of romance. Perhaps years of seeing new spins on this same thing have me jaded but it feels so uninspired and flat, especially as Sydney Pollack made it immediately after the hilarious and still potent Tootsie, that I could hardly stand it for large stretches. 

The Real Best Picture:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took, but what I do know is Witness is a great film and it should’ve won Best Picture.

Best Picture Winners

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