What If... Martin Scorsese & Raging Bull beat Robert Redford & Ordinary People?
Welcome to the first edition of What If…Oscars Edition. In this ongoing series, I’ll take a look at several Oscar races throughout history and try to answer the unknowable question of “what if things turned out differently?” Using best judgment and a bit of hopeful fun, we’ll look at the possible ripple effects one result can have on the course of Oscar history.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
There are two frontrunners who are neck-and-neck for Best Picture going into Oscar night. One of them is the more audience-friendly film backed by high box office returns and strong word-of-mouth. The other is a more prestigious and technically brilliant work from a revered auteur that has strong critical support.
If you follow Oscar history as much as I do, you’ll know the former wins over the latter in the majority of instances. CODA took down The Power of the Dog just last year, and so did Spotlight over The Revenant in 2015. And it happened at the 1981 Oscars when Ordinary People beat Raging Bull. It was the homecoming for Robert Redford as he cemented his status as one of Hollywood's greatest figures with wins in both Best Director and Best Picture.
But if the fates had been reversed? What if Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull took the top honors that night? In this edition What If…Oscars Edition, we’ll go down that alternative timeline and investigate how future Oscar races would be changed because of this.
Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull claim victory
After missing the boat with Taxi Driver (for which Scorsese was shockingly snubbed for Best Director), the Academy immediately writes an IOU to this rising star of the New Hollywood movement. So, when 1980 comes around and Scorsese is up against another crowd-pleaser in Ordinary People, similar to 1976’s Rocky, the voters don’t let history repeat itself so quickly. Along with Robert De Niro’s lead performance and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, the film also walks away with wins for Scorsese’s direction and Best Picture. While producer Irwin Winkler accepts the Best Picture Oscar, Scorsese stands next to presenter Lillian Gish, which creates a picture-perfect moment symbolizing Hollywood’s past and future.
Redford and Quiz Show beat Forrest Gump
For the next decade and a half, the Academy tries its best to give Redford some sort of recognition, but they just can’t quite seem to do it. Out of Africa’s win for Best Picture doesn’t fully satisfy their hunger, and A River Runs Through It doesn’t have the might to best Clint Eastwood’s homecoming with Unforgiven. When word gets out in the early ‘90s about Redford tackling the 1950s game show scandals, specifically the one on Twenty-one, all eyes are on the film.
When Quiz Show releases in September 1994, its highly positive critical reception makes it a box office hit, shooting it towards the front of the Oscar race. In what becomes one of the tightest races in Oscar history, Redford is doubly rewarded with Best Director and Best Picture, narrowly beating the audience-favorite Robert Zemeckis and Forrest Gump.
Tom Hanks gets his Best Picture win as Saving Private Ryan beats Shakespeare in Love
But by closing one overdue door with Redford, the Academy opens another in Tom Hanks. Sure, he has two Best Lead Actor Oscars, but he still hasn’t appeared in a Best Picture-winner, being defeated now in two consecutive years with Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 (beaten by Braveheart). The Academy makes sure the third time's the charm as they defy Harvey Weinstein’s super campaign for Shakespeare in Love and instead reward Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan with top honors. Spielberg and Hanks climb the stage together in a glorious moment that’ll define their lasting partnership.
Iñárritu and Babel take the 2007 Oscars by storm
Since Scorsese has already won both Best Director and Best Picture for Raging Bull, the bar for rewarding him again has been set so high. The Departed is released in October 2006 with positive reviews and box office returns. But Academy voters aren’t exactly wowed by the film and don’t feel the need to reward Scorsese again for material he’s consistently covered throughout his career. Instead, they embrace Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s global melodrama, Babel, which started its Oscar journey with a splashy premiere (and Best Director prize for Iñárritu) at the Cannes Film Festival. The film ends up being quite dominant, winning a total of five Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Supporting Actress for Adriana Barraza, Best Director for Iñárritu, and Best Picture.
Richard Linklater and Boyhood go on a historic sweep
Now that Iñárritu has already conquered the Oscars once before, the 2015 Oscar battle between Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Iñárritu’s Birdman becomes a lot simpler for voters. Boyhood sweeps the season from the moment it premieres to universal praise at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Iñárritu and Birdman play the bridesmaids that season, finishing in second place at seemingly every awards show. Linklater joins the coveted list of filmmakers that have won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (Original/Adapted) for the same film. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Patricia Arquette wins nearly every Best Supporting Actress award under the sun that year. And, in an insane upset, Ethan Hawke wins Best Supporting Actor over predicted winner J.K. Simmons. Oscar pundits theorize afterward that voters felt that Hawke needed to be rewarded alongside Linklater because of their long-term working relationship.
George Miller wins Best Director for Mad Max: Fury Road
The story of Iñárritu playing second-fiddle happens again the next year as The Revenant finishes runner-up to Spotlight for Best Picture. But, unlike Linklater, Spotlight director Tom McCarthy doesn’t take home Best Director. Instead, voters intensely rally behind the degree-of-difficulty narrative for George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road. Iñárritu tries all season to mount a similar campaign about how hard it was to shoot The Revenant in the freezing cold, but on-set reports about his temperamental behavior erase any goodwill from voters. In the end, Miller and his production team emulate the path of Alfonso Cuarón and Gravity by dominating the below-the-line categories, making Mad Max: Fury Road one of the most awarded films in recent history.