Well, the Oscars are upon us again. It’s time to see which films will be deemed the greatest of the year just to be criticized for being overrated ten years from now. I could do a typical list of Oscar snubs, but instead I want to look at one filmmaker whose films were overlooked by the Academy time after time—Stanley Kubrick. Let’s look at seven instances where his films weren’t even nominated in worthy categories.
7. Best Supporting Actor for Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is actually my favorite Kubrick film. It’s only this low because the Academy did at least nominate it in a fair number of categories—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Peter Sellers), and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Sure, Peter Sellers is the stand-out in Strangelove, but he’s playing three important characters, while George C. Scott plays just one—the hilariously gung-ho General Buck Turgidson. His expressions, physical comedy, and patriotism lead to some of the film’s greatest moments. He is the epitome of someone who doesn’t think before he speaks, with classic lines such as “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed” in reference to 10-20 million civilian casualties, and at the very end not allowing for a “mine shaft gap.”
Scott didn’t want to play Turgidson so over-the-top, and Kubrick more or less tricked him into playing the character that way. It worked. Roger Ebert even called Scott’s performance “the funniest thing in the movie” and “a duet for voice and facial expression.” How hard would it have been to throw him into the Best Supporting Actor line-up for 1963? Scott probably wouldn’t have accepted if he had won, as he didn’t like the Oscars and rejected his own for Patton, but that didn’t stop them from nominating him other times.
6. Best Director for Paths of Glory (1957)
America wasn’t ready for a movie like Paths of Glory in 1957. It is unashamedly anti-war in every frame, dealing with themes that we were ready for thirty years later with Full Metal Jacket. The Best Picture winner in 1957 was The Bridge on the River Kwai, a World War II epic, while Paths of Glory is a World War I personal drama. It deals with a small faction of an army and *shudder* not the United States or British army.
I understand why Paths of Glory wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, especially in 1957, the year that also gave us 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. Why on earth was it not nominated for Best Director? What in 12 Angry Men justifies a Best Director nomination? 12 Angry Men is a fantastic film, with great acting and writing, but it’s essentially a play, with almost the entire movie set in one room.
In Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s direction captures the horrors of warfare, especially in contrast with the lavish homes of the higher-ups. Like Dr. Strangelove, it’s a punchy 90-minute affair that doesn’t waste a shot. The scene where the soldiers are let to their death at the hands of their own army captures the feelings of foreboding and doom perfectly.
5. Best Adapted Screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
1999 was a spectacular year for movies—American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, The Matrix, etc. It was also the year in which Kubrick put forth his last offering—the bizarre, slow-paced thriller Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise. The reception was lukewarm, and reports even seemed to vary as to the late Kubrick’s own thoughts on the picture.
The years have been good to basically all of Kubrick’s films, but this one unfortunately may still need a few years. There are those, myself included, who see it as an underrated masterpiece, but there are others who just find it boring. Eyes Wide Shut is based on the 1962 novel Traumnovelle (translated Dream Story) by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler, which is set in Vienna as opposed to New York City.
The story in Eyes Wide Shut is transcendental, strangely building on itself and then falling down upon itself. The changes Bill Harford goes through and the things he might or might not actually be experiencing are fascinating and weird. Then there’s that final line of dialogue. Is it funny? Is it uplifting? Depressing? Whatever it is, it’s pure Kubrick.
4. Best Supporting Actor for Full Metal Jacket (1987)
It’s not that the second half of Full Metal Jacket is bad, because it isn’t, but if someone mentions the movie, what do you think of? “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” You’re so ugly you could be a modern art masterpiece!” “Do you maggots understand that?” Almost every line people quote from Full Metal Jacket comes from Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played brilliantly by R. Lee Ermey.
So much had already been said about Vietnam by 1987 in films like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon. Showing the troops in training for half of the movie was a new and gutsy take on it, but it wouldn’t have worked without Ermey. He comes busting out of the gate right away and doesn’t let up until basic training is finished. If you’ve seen a drill sergeant parody or homage in film or television since 1987, chances are it’s based on Ermey or even played by him.
To add insult to injury, Best Supporting Actor for 1987 went to Sean Connery in The Untouchables. No one’s arguing Sean Connery is a bad actor, but this was a consolation award. Connery’s performance in The Untouchables is fine, but nothing screams “Oscar-worthy.”
3. Everything for The Shining (1980)
Here’s something you might not know—not only was The Shining not nominated for an Oscar, it was actually nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for Worst Director and Worst Actress (Shelley Duvall). My, how things have changed since then.
Contemporary thoughts on Duvall’s performance are mixed, but Jack Nicholson has said it’s the hardest part he’s ever seen an actor have to play and that she nailed it. Criticizing Kubrick’s direction on the other hand is mind-blowing. The Shining is so meticulous in its direction, letting us take in the isolation of the Overlook hotel through long takes and an endless parade of imagery.
Nicholson’s performance is over-the-top, yes, but he portrays a downward spiral into insanity better than practically anyone. Scatman Crothers also brings a brilliant supporting performance as Dick Halloran. The score is haunting, the cinematography is both beautiful and harrowing, and even seemingly smaller things like sound are used wonderfully. Honestly, the most egregious snub here is Best Art Direction (now Best Production Design), which takes into account set design. The Overlook Hotel is one of the most iconic sets in film, so much so that people have drawn out the floor plan to show that it is architecturally impossible. Obviously, Kubrick knew this and that adds to the horror. There’s also the hedge maze, the strange-looking bathroom, and the obsessive symmetry put into every shot. It really should have been nominated for something.
2. The acting in Lolita (1962)
Lolita isn’t talked about as much as other Kubrick films today, and that’s a shame. It’s an incredibly well-made film, highlighted by some stellar performances. Obviously, it was incredibly risky in 1962 to make a film out of a book like Lolita, and the film was still heavily censored. The casting was crucial for Lolita to be remembered as a great film, as opposed to just a big pile of controversy.
James Mason took a big chance by taking the part of pedophile Humbet Humbert, but his charm is absolutely necessary to playing the part effectively. In the book, Humbert tries to appeal to the audience through his prose, but the film needed to cast an actor who can appeal to an audience in other ways. Mason comes off as high-class, kind, and charming at first, making his true self all the more unsettling. The second half of the film is basically one long villainous breakdown on Humbert’s part, and Mason plays a man falling apart to perfection. He was nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Actor, making his lack of Oscar nomination even stranger. Granted, he would have been up against Peter O’ Toole for Lawrence of Arabia and Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird, but the man at least deserved to be in that mix.
Sue Lyon was just fourteen when she portrayed Dolores “Lolita” Haze, and hers is definitely the most challenging performance in the film. It’s not that one scene stands out, but rather her gradual transformation of a girl whose childhood is taken away from her. Peter Sellers is great as always as Claire Quilty, a playwright who assumes many hilarious identities while on the trail of Humbert. This was the film that got him his roles in Dr. Strangelove, but he deserved some recognition for this too.
1. Best Picture for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Is there really another choice for number one? 2001 is a film that reinvented an entire genre of film, pioneered visual effects that hold up marvelously today, and dealt with themes that critics and film goers will never stop discussing. Even viewers who may not find it entertaining can at least agree it is one of the most important films of all time… and yet in its day, it didn’t even get a nomination for Best Picture.
I’ll give credit where credit is due. 2001 did win one award for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It lost the screenplay award to The Producers, another film from the year that holds up wonderfully today, so that’s fine. It’s not only that 2001 wasn’t on the list for Best Picture, but rather the films that were. Does anyone even remember Rachel, Rachel? No, I’m not talking about the fictional movie Rochelle, Rochelle from Seinfeld. What won best picture in 1968? Oliver! (and no I’m not excited about it)
2001 is an experience as much as it is a film. It goes for extended periods without dialogue, so Kubrick can give his material immense room to breathe. It’s less-is-more in some ways, but it also covers millions of years of human history and the discovery of alien life. To not even nominate this ambitious and beautiful film for Best Picture is one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Academy Awards.