The Academy Award for Most Popular Film Goes to… A Revisionist List of Winners of Oscar Winners

Yesterday, the Motion Picture Academy, in an effort to reach out to more of the country, has decided to create a category for “Most Popular Film.”  The ramifications as to what that means to even holding an awards show are certainly significant. But the curious decision left me to wonder, who would have won the award for Most Popular Film in the past.

To determine the list, the first decision was where to start.  Do we go back to the first Oscars ceremony in 1929? Or do we stick to modern day films.  In thinking about this, I realized that in my lifetime I saw the moment in film history when a film’s popularity overshadowed a film’s quality.  It was the year 1975.

In 1975, Hollywood and the film industry had been seeing fewer and fewer profits. While memorable films of the late 1960s and early 1970s such as Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, The Godfather, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Last Picture Show and M*A*S*H, to name a few, were probably some of history’s most important and culturally significant films, the truth was that movie companies like MGM or Columbia Pictures that had long been making films were suddenly finding themselves either going bankrupt or were being bought up by outside corporations. Movie theatres across the country were closing at a record pace, having faded from their glory days of the past. Many of the old, grand movie palaces built in the 1930s and 1940s were now falling into a state of disrepair. At the height of this financial turmoil in the summer of 1975, a new film from Universal Pictures opened which was directed by a then unknown director. That film? Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg. The movie business would never be the same.

Jaws captured the United States like no film had done since the days of Gone With the Wind. Jaws single handedly lead Universal Pictures to have a profitable year, something that hadn’t happened in decades. Millions of Americans filled movie theatres that summer and forever altered the film industry in terms of what films were made and who would star in them. 1975 was the year that critical acclaim gave way to profits and the bottom line.

So we will start our list at this critical point in time.  The list below takes into account box office sales, in addition to a film’s cultural impact. Also up for consideration is a film’s lasting power; how the film has held up over time. Finally, the year represented is the year the film came out, not the year it was actually in the academy awards.

1975:  Jaws – This was the first summer blockbuster and changed the marketing of films forever. The stories of Spielberg’s problems with the shark and the contentious shoot between Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider are legendary. It is a testament to the artistry of Steven Spielberg that the film became what it was.

1976:  Rocky – 1976 was a hallmark year for films. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would win the the award for Best Film, with heavy hitters like All the President’s Men, The Omen, Carrie, Taxi Driver and The Outlaw Josey Wales all up for consideration. But let’s be honest. Rocky was an event movie. By the end of the fight in the film, audiences behaved like they were at a prize fight by standing up and shouting at the screen. Exaggeration? I was there. It happened. Rocky captured the nation’s attention in a year when the other films were all illustrating what was wrong with America and the human condition.

1977: Star Wars. Duh. But I want to throw this out there. By the late summer of 1977, as audiences who had seen Star Wars over 20 times got tired of the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was incredibly popular and was a worthy contender in this absolute no-brainer selection.  

1978: Superman: The Movie would be an easy winner were it not for the musical Grease, which rode the wave of 1950s nostalgia started by American Graffiti and Happy Days as well as John Carpenter’s classic Halloween. But seeing Christopher Reeves fly as the Man of Steel and do battle with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor confirmed that summer would be the time to release the biggest films of the year.

1979 is a tough one. Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted and what it lacked in writing gained in fandom. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now stunned audiences who were still trying to process what happened in Vietnam. Dudley Moore’s comedy 10 gave the world Bo Derek running on a beach, and the cult classic The Warriors let thousands of teenage boys run around and say “Warriors…come out to playyayay!” But the film which would win the Oscar for Most Popular film would be Ridley Scott’s scary-as-hell Alien, which made space more like what it truly is – a terrifying vacuum of potential evil. Consider Alien the anti-Star Wars.  

1980:  The Empire Strikes Back – No contest. Hands down the greatest sequel of all time. Empire came out before the 24 hour news cycle, the entertainment media and social media were born. NO ONE KNEW THE ENDING. When Luke hears the truth about Darth Vader being his father (what, did I really spoil the ending 38 years later??) audiences had an audible gasp like I’ve never heard before. The real crime was that The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t even NOMINATED for Best Film that year.    

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Again. No contest.  

1982:  E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Spielberg does it again and makes us warm and fuzzy over an alien and his little boy. Also spawned the birth of Reese’s Pieces. The story goes that M&Ms were offered the opportunity to be the go to candy and the Mars Candy company refused. The only film even remotely to be considered that year as Most Popular would be Dustin Hoffman’s hilarious take as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie. But who is kidding who? E.T. takes the prize.

1983: Return of the Jedi. The final film of the trilogy. Despite the Ewoks, Return of the Jedi would win the award by a long shot.  

1984: Beverly Hills Cop or Ghostbusters.  Now here is an interesting competition. Tough choice. Axel Foley versus Dr. Venkman. Old school SNL versus Eddie Murphy and new school SNL. And this was a year which also had the third Indiana Jones film, The Natural and Ron Howard figuring out how to make Tom Hanks into a star in Splash.  

1985:  While The Goonies was establishing itself as a cult classic for kids and Cocoon was leading senior citizens to look for sea pods to put in their retirement village pools, Back to the Future stomps on the competition this year.

1986: America started falling for Tom Cruise in Risky Business in 1983, but in ‘86 he became a superstar in Top Gun which would clearly win the award for this year.  The only film that might challenge guys in naval uniforms singing The Righteous Brothers would be the film that led us all to start working on our Australian accent – Crocodile Dundee.

1987: This could be the year of no winners.  Three Men & A Baby, Fatal Attraction and Beverly Hills Cop II are your contenders.  Fatal Attraction was culturally significant but more of a cautionary tale than a giant box office film.  Axel Foley again? Not so much. Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson as surrogate dads?  Meh. But then that summer gave us forbidden love in the Catskills and the immortal line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”  Dirty Dancing wins in a very weak year.

1988: One of the most competitive years on the list.  Tom Cruise flexing his acting skills with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.  Groundbreaking integration of live action and animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Tom Hanks beginning to become America’s favorite actor in Big.  Tim Burton introducing us to the afterlife and Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice.  A Fish Called Wanda.  Coming to America.  All possible contenders.  But only one film had someone yell, “Yipee ki yay, mother %*#@er!”  Bruce Willis surviving a team of terrorists at the top of the Nakatomi Tower in Die Hard upped the ante for all action films to follow from that point on.

1989: Tim Burton and Michael Keaton follow up Beetlejuice with the world’s most popular film that year in Batman.  Jack Nicholson defines for us all why villains are always better characters to play than heroes.  

1990 is the year Kevin Costner won an Oscar for Dances With Wolves, an incredibly epic film about Kevin Costner trying to learn to speak the native language of the Sioux under a mmgglrgmghpghs…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Okay. You’ve got Home Alone, Ghost and Pretty Woman.  All good films.  But let’s face it.  1990 is the year of the Full Peschi.  Goodfellas for the win.

1991: Silence of the Lambs rightly won the Oscar for Best Film that year.  And while City Slickers was a great comedy, 1991 was the year where Arnold kicked ass in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

1992: Another relatively weak year.  Contenders include Basic Instinct, Unforgiven, Sister Act and Wayne’s World.  But I would give it to Aladdin based only on the idea that someone let Robin Williams improvise all of the lines of dialogue for an animated character

1993: Jurassic Park is the clear cut winner here with Spielberg at his absolute best.  But I have a soft spot for Tommy Lee Jones chasing Harrison Ford around Chicago in The Fugitive.  And in terms of cult status, The Nightmare Before Christmas captured many fans that year.  

1994: Disney’s last great ink and pen animation film The Lion King debuted in 1994 and would probably have won this award if weren’t for two classics who will forever be linked together.  The Shawshank Redemption is probably one of the best films made in the last thirty years, but the film lost to the nostalgia-charged Forrest Gump.  Let’s face it.  America loves Tom Hanks.  That’s why it won. It’s a great film.  But Shawshank is better and should have won Best Picture.  Forrest Gump could then have won a reputable Most Popular film award.  

1995: Toy Story.  They made the entire film on a computer.  Wow. Forgetting completely that the film starred Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, Annie Potts, John Ratzenberger and Don Rickles.  Toy Story marks the revolution of computer animation, the coming dominance of Pixar Films and wins the award in 1995.

1996: This year will forever be known as the year of the dueling disaster films.  Independence Day and Twister duke this one out and in my opinion ends in a dead heat tie.  Will Smith fighting aliens from blowing up the earth and joy riding with Jeff Goldblum?  Awesome! Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton spending two hours fighting with each other, falling in love with each other again and oh by the way, dodging some incredibly frighteningly realistic tornadoes?  Hell yeah. Dead heat all the way,

1997: Titanic ended up winning the Oscar for Best Film.  But I would argue that Titanic was the rare film that probably deserved to win both.  Men in Black was a great diversion, but who can deny watching Jack drop to the bottom of the Atlantic.  

1998: Saving Private Ryan was certainly given the short shrift this year, losing to eventual oscar winner Shakespeare in Love.  But in terms of out and out popularity, no film beats Armageddon for popcorn value and schlocky drama.  This film had it all. Bruce Willis? Check.  Power ballad by Aerosmith? Check. Band of crazy borderline criminals try to stop a comet from hitting the Earth by flying to it to detonate a nuke?  Check. Armageddon is the quintessential example of what a Most Popular film winner should be.

1999: By all rights and the history of film, this year should have been the year of Star Wars:  The Phantom Menace.  But…well, you know the rest.  Pod racing? Ouch. But Darth Maul was cool.  Just not enough to win. Toy Story II, The Sixth Sense, and Austin Powers:  The Spy Who Shagged Me were all great contenders for the award in 1999.  But no one will ever forget the mind bending journey of The Matrix.  As Neo would say, “Whoa!”

That concludes the first half of our list.  More to follow with the films from 2000 to this year.  Disagree?  Share your opinions in the comments!

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