What Shoulda Won? 1998 Academy Awards

For movie geeks, 1998 is still remembered as the year that Harvey Weinstein’s lobbying and schmoozing led to the underdog “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan.” In writing this series, I’ve realized how much Oscar snubs, wins, and losses affect the consensus perception of certain movies.

In other words, had Weinstein’s movie been snubbed altogether, I think people would remember it more fondly than they do. If I recall correctly, no one was complaining much that the movie was nominated, but the win immediately changed the perception of the movie.

I loved a lot of movies released in 1998, but only one of them was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a very tough year for me to pick a favorite. The nominees:

“Shakespeare in Love” – Only saw it once, and I liked it. Costume dramas really ain’t my thing, but costume comedies? Well, that’s…wait, I don’t like them much either. But I guess this one’s alright.

“Elizabeth” – See above. Never seen it.

“Life is Beautiful” – Roberto Benigni winning Best Actor for this remains one of the great whiffs in Academy history.

“Saving Private Ryan” – The invasion sequence alone remains worth the price of admission.

“The Thin Red Line” – For my money, this is a pretentious mess. I’ve got a buddy who says it’s his favorite movie. I say he’ s trying to seem smart. But what do I know? I’m the guy who would have nominated…

“There’s Something About Mary” Stalker? Big time.

“The Big Lebowski” – Am I wrong? Am I wrong? No, you’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an assh*le.

“Out of Sight” – You don’t have an extra clip I can use, do you?

“Rushmore” – Never in my wildest imagination did I ever dream I would have sons like this.

“Saving Private Ryan” – The Statue of Liberty is kaput. That’s disconcerting.

This is really an absolute squeaker. Why? Partially, it’s because I love all of these movies so much. But mostly, it’s because I’m stupid.

Peter and Bobby Farrelly established themselves with “Dumb & Dumber,” then made the box office bust “Kingpin,” which deservedly found an audience on video. No one expected much from their third movie. Leading man Ben Stiller was not yet a star or a box office draw, but he had honed the nervous stammering act of his in pretty solid comedies like “Flirting With Disaster” and turned in hilarious supporting work in “Happy Gilmore.” In 1998, he had a breakout year, appearing in the underrated “Zero Effect” and the misanthropic “Your Friends & Neighbors.”

Released in the middle of July, less than a week after “Lethal Weapon 4” and just before “The Mask of Zorro,” the Farrelly’s comedy was a genuine word-of-mouth sleeper hit. It hovered in the lower half of the top five until the end of August, when it finally crept up to number 2 at the box office. First week of September, it claimed the number one spot — a full seven weeks after it debuted at number 4.

Its performance is part of the reason I pick it over the more obvious choices on the Academy’s list and my own list. I worked in a theatre at the time, and I witnessed the slow build. By September, older couples were coming to see the movie — and were loving it. The Farrellys had done something amazing; they had made a vulgar comedy that crossed over to people who would never see a vulgar comedy, much less embrace it.

The key to their success is the unconventional screenplay, and the cast.

Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz have been more than overexposed by now, but in 1998, they seemed like a breath of fresh air. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a dude to get the girl more than I did in “There’s Something About Mary.” No one has ever deserved a girl who was so out of his league in the history of movies.

This is set up from the very beginning and then pounded into our heads, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes with the force of a sledgehammer to the nuts. The Farrellys make Ted (Stiller) go through hell to land dreamgirl Mary (Diaz); it’s a journey during which no good deed goes unpunished for Ted, and our heart sinks with his about a dozen times over the course of the movie. Consider:

– He comes to the aid of her mentally challenged baseball loving brother Warren (W. Earl Brown – fantastic performance) and almost gets his ass kicked for his trouble. He later gives the gargantuan Warren a piggy back ride.

– He shows up to pick up Mary for the prom and is told by her father Charlie (Keith David? Genius casting.) that Mary already went to prom with Woogie — a Mr. Everybody’s All American type from a different high school. Ted slumps, frowns, but what makes it UNBEARABLE is that he not only pretends that he’s not hurt by the jilting, but that he seems to think he deserves to be jilted. Of course, Mary’s dad is “just f*cking with” Ted, and Mary is home the whole time ready to go to prom with Ted.

– Ted offers Warren a baseball but inadvertently touches the big man’s ear; Warren goes psycho, tears the room apart and delivers a belly to belly suplex on Ted atop a coffee table. I love the tension in the aftermath of this moment. Ted’s freaked out, Mary goes upstairs with Sheila, her hot mom (Markie Post), to fix her dress, and Charlie consoles Warren and barks at Ted. Ted defends himself, Charlie responds: “Are you yelling at me? Are you yelling at me in my own damn house?” Ted insists he’s not. Awesome. But the capper is when Ted asks where the bathroom is and Charlie answers, “Grrrrrrrrrrr!”

– The bathroom scene. One of the two most talked about scenes in the movie. “Franks & Beans!” Once again, a misconstrued situation — this time only a look, a glance, a harmless peek! — leads Ted into an uncomfortable situation. Perhaps the most uncomfortable situation in movie history. Sheila sprays Bactene on his nuts, a cop shows up (“What? The f*ck?” he exclaims), a fireman — pretty soon the bathroom’s packed with people and Warren is in the hallway screaming, “Franks & Beans.” If you don’t exit this scene with pee-stained pants from laughing yourself wet, there’s something wrong with you. More importantly, if you don’t exit this scene hoping Ted gets Mary, there’s something wrong with your soul.

– On Ted’s day off, he helps his boss’s brother move. Not his boss. Not his brother. His boss’s brother, who happens to be a crusty, mean, profane man in a wheelchair. Genius line: when Ted complains that a gigantic armoire is heavy, the guy in the wheelchair seethes, “Heavy?! What I wouldn’t give to know what heavy feels like, you insensitive prick!”

– He also, out of the goodness of his heart, offers a serial killer a ride, takes a fish hook to the mouth, and is made to dress up in a superhero costume. Nothing in the movie would have been as funny without our empathy for Ted. In “Mary,” the Farrelly Brothers dodge a landmine. She likes golf. She likes to drink beer and watch football. She likes to talk about football. In essence, she’s too perfect, and women should have rooted against her. But, using subtlety and a sledgehammer, the Farrellys make her vulnerable… to stalkers. She’s got so many stalkers she had to change her name. The only reason that Ted ever got a chance to go to the prom with her is because her high school boyfriend Woogie “got weird.” Like a stalker.

Ultimately, it’s my pick because from a pure story standpoint, it’s the most difficult of any of nominees (actual and in Cam-Land) to pull off — a comedy about stalkers that’s actually really sweet despite relentless vulgarity. Its unconventional-but-still-mainstream-and-not-weird structure (the romantic leads are apart for a good chunk of the movie — ask Gore Verbinski how hard it is to pull that off) makes it an even more difficult movie to pull off. But ultimately, it’s the constant barrage of jokes both verbal and visual, great characters and strong performances that make it my favorite movie of 1998.

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