Welcome to the third installment of this year’s Oscar countdown series. We’re going to try to make an annual tradition of having a series of posts looking back on past Oscar winners in specific categories. To kick this off, this year we are starting with Best Picture winners. Each week between now and the Oscars, one or both of us will look back on a Best Picture winner and discuss some things we like about it, some things we don’t, and whether, now that time has passed, the film has really held up as the best of the year it was released. Our third Best Picture winner, randomly selected, is Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump, just in case you somehow haven’t seen it since it was released in 1994, stars Tom Hanks as the title character, a likable man with a below average I.Q. who recounts his life story to various people waiting at a bus stop. The story he tells is sad, funny, loaded with historical events and figures, and is at times highly improbable. The script isn’t exactly subtle about the fact that this story is all about destiny. It’s a flawed film, and an often crapped upon winner of six Oscars, including Best Picture, but it’s also charming, beautifully acted and an impressive technical feat.
This is one of the first Best Picture winners I saw, though it wasn’t until 9 years after its initial release. After my first viewing, I was in love with this film, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-watched it. Of course, I eventually developed a more critical eye and began to see some problems with the script. Some plot points are too convenient, and other messages are a bit questionable (pro-establishment), which can be uncomfortable for viewers with my political beliefs. But I don’t want to spend as much time on the politics of the film as I do the experience of it and what made so many people love it.
The plot of Forrest Gump unfolds over three decades, beginning with our protagonist’s childhood in Greenbow, Alabama in the 1950s and concluding in the 1980s. Few films can pull off an arc that long without becoming unfocused, overstuffed and messy. Forrest Gump always feels like it is dangerously close to trying to fit too much in, yet never takes on too much. That said, the ability to enjoy it does rely on suspension of significant disbelief, and if you are someone lacking in that skill, then you’re probably a never-Gumper. This film beat Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption and Quiz Show for Best Picture. Yeah, I know, Four Weddings and A Funeral was nominated too, but I’ve never heard anyone complain that it was robbed.
As a result of the 1994 Oscars, Forrest Gump will forever be derided by many as the film that beat Pulp Fiction. I‘ve even given in at times and conceded that in terms of impact on the industry and future writers/directors, Pulp Fiction was the more important film. That doesn’t make Forrest Gump terrible in its own right. As for The Shawshank Redemption, nobody saw that film when it came out. I know, I’m normally the one saying that box office shouldn’t dictate Oscar winners, and it absolutely shouldn’t. I’m just arguing that most of the people saying The Shawshank Redemption should have won are arguing that in hindsight, after they discovered the film via rental or cable TV years later. The lesson here is go see more movies when they come out. Unfortunately, the academy does take box office into account more than is often believed, and Forrest Gump made lots of money in addition to being generally well received by critics. Why do you think Ford v Ferrari managed to get four Oscar nominations while the equally good Rush was completely shutout six years earlier? Box office matters, and when critical acclaim is met with asses in seats, glory often awaits.
Forrest Gump is certainly gimmicky and more of a nostalgia trip than a narrative. The plot and theme mainly exist so that Zemeckis and his team can wow us with technical tricks, which include putting fictional characters into old newsreel footage. It’s a time machine to the past rather than the future, and that’s why people love it. At the end, Forrest is able to look back and know there was meaning to his life, he just can’t define it. In that way, each viewer can identify with Forrest. We can’t make sense of war or assassinations and disease. There’s comfort in watching someone else live through all those confusing events and be just as confounded as we are. That’s why Forrest Gump resonated with the public and with academy voters. You may not like it, and I may have liked Quiz Show better, but if you think Forrest Gump wouldn’t win Best Picture in 2020, think again. It managed to win the top award in 1994, 15 years before the academy reintroduced the preferential ballot system now in place. That system generally favors crowd pleasing films or those with broad appeal, not risky, edgy and divisive ones. For every Birdman or Moonlight that pulls off a win, there will be always be more Green Books and Forrest Gumps accepting the gold. Personally, I’d rather watch the latter.