THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The English Patient’ (1996)

In 1997, the 69th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1996, and December 31, 1996, the awards were held on March 24. For the fifth time, Billy Crystal hosted the ceremony, tying him with Johnny Carson for the second-most appearances as Oscars host.

With her win for Best Actress for Fargo, Frances McDormand became the first performer in Oscars history to win for a role directed by his or her spouse. McDormand’s husband, Joel Coen, lost Best Director but took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, making McDormand and Coen the eighth husband and wife duo to both win Academy Awards.

History was also made in the Best Original Score category, with Rachel Portman becoming the first female composer to win for an original composition. Portman won the now-defunct Musical or Comedy category for her work on Emma. To this day, no other female composer has won the Original Score category.

One of the night’s most memorable moments was a performance by pianist David Helfgott. Helfgott had been portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film Shine, which was up for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rush, which he would later win. When Helfgott appeared on-stage, he immediately received a rousing standing ovation from the audience before playing a rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which subsequently brought the house down.

Leading the way this year with an incredible 12 nominations this year was Anthony Minghella’s sweeping romance epic The English Patient. The film would sweep the awards, taking home nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Minghella, Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. With its nine victories, The English Patient tied with Gigi and The Last Emperor as the third-most awarded film in Oscars history.

The nominees:
The English Patient
Fargo
Jerry Maguire
Secrets & Lies
Shine

The winner:
The English Patient

Based on Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel of the same name, The English Patient is the grand and epic retelling of one man’s forbidden romance. A badly burned man, Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), is tended to by a nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), in an Italian monastery near the end of World War II. His past is revealed through flashbacks involving a married Englishwoman (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his work mapping the African landscape. Hana learns to heal her own scars as she helps the dying man.

Why did it win?
Two words can be used to explain the Best Picture victory of The English Patient – Harvey Weinstein. Now, I don’t enjoy talking about the successes of the newly-appointed most-hated man in Hollywood, but unfortunately, we have no choice. After bursting onto the awards circuit scene in 1990, with his bold and groundbreaking guerilla marketing campaign for My Left Foot, which resulted in Oscar wins for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker, Weinstein had become a mainstay of the Academy Awards.

In 1995, he launched a particularly aggressive campaign for his latest awards contender, Pulp Fiction. While the film was showered with nominations, it ultimately walked away with just the one Oscar. Weinstein was wounded, but not defeated. What he had done in the past would pale in comparison to the relentless and elaborate campaign Weinstein would launch for The English Patient.

During awards season, Weinstein orchestrated a multi-million dollar “For Your Consideration” campaign, unlike anything the industry had seen before. He launched a massive advertising blitz, covering all major trade publications and outlets, pushing the film and its Oscar chances. He held an exhaustive series of screenings of the film for Academy members, making sure every possible location across the United States was covered. And Weinstein’s company, Miramax, even called hundreds of Academy members, disguising the call as simply a “follow-up” to make sure they had received their VHS screener copy of the film. and encouraged voters to watch the film asap. I think we can all read between the lines to realise those calls were really an extension of Miramax’s advertising push for the film, and it clearly worked.

Such blatant and intrusive lobbying has since been outlawed by the Academy, but, at the time, Weinstein was simply playing within the rules. Miramax swamped Academy members in every way they possibly could. Weinstein flashed his power as the king of Oscar campaigning, and The English Patient became an unstoppable force. But campaigning is nothing without at least a somewhat decent film, and Miramax’s contender this year represented everything the Oscars loved. It was a period film, with an enormous scale and running time. It was British. It was a spectacle, filled with gorgeous cinematography capturing the beauty of Tunisia and Italy. And it was a crowd-pleaser which became an unexpected box-office smash.

On a modest budget of $31 million, The English Patient would earn $78 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year as the 19th highest-grossing film of 1996. The film was an even bigger success internationally, taking an additional $153 million overseas to bring its worldwide total to $231 million. This made it the 11th highest-grossing film worldwide of the year. For an independent British production, this result was truly astounding, and only bolstered its Oscar narrative.

Adding to the film’s surprise box-office success, The English Patient received widespread acclaim from critics, with many calling it one of the decade’s greatest films. The New York Times called the film a “stunning feat of literary adaptation as well as a purely cinematic triumph,” Entertainment Weekly hailed it as an “elegant, accomplished piece of high modernist filmmaking,” while the Seattle Times went a step further, declaring The English Patient could “possibly be the Casablanca of the late 20th century.”

For all its success at the tail-end of awards season, The English Patient was somewhat of a failure during most of the precursor season. It failed to pick up a single Best Picture award from any critics group, with Fargo, Shine and Secrets & Lies dominating these awards. This was likely due to the fact critics were not groups to be swayed by campaigning, and Weinstein’s influence meant nothing to these awards. It wasn’t until The English Patient received a record-equalling seven Golden Globe nominations that it became the new frontrunner. Weinstein had clearly dazzled the HFPA, who were known to be easily swayed by a flash campaign. From here, the film won Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Globes, the PGA award, and Minghella won the DGA award. When the nominations were announced, and The English Patient dominated with 12 nominations, the race was all but over. Harvey Weinstein’s exhaustive efforts had paid off, and nothing could stop his studio’s film from taking home Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
“Elaine, you don’t like the movie?”

“I HATE IT!”

Remember that episode of Seinfeld where everyone around Elaine is gushing over their love for The English Patient, and she’s utterly baffled as to why? And then feels like a social pariah for not agreeing with the phenomenon the movie had become? Yeah, that was me during the late 1990s, and still to this day. Judge me if you will, but I do not like The English Patient. There. I said it. For 22 years, I have held this in, and now the time has come to let it out. I, Doug Jamieson, hate The English Patient. I don’t care that it won nine Academy Awards. I don’t care it was nominated for 12 of them. I don’t care it grossed $200 million. I don’t care it became a true cultural phenomenon. I cannot stand this film. Sorry.

Now, I love a good romance film, especially a sweeping, epic one. Even the worst examples of this genre usually have a few redeeming qualities, here and there. It’s very, very difficult to find anything I like about The English Patient. The fact people actually dare to compare this film to Casablanca, one of the most entertaining and engaging films of all time, is utter nonsense. Casablanca moves with a gripping narrative so expertly crafted, you actually never want the film to end. Meanwhile, The English Patient drags far too much longer than it ever needs to, and I couldn’t wait for this film to hurry up and be done. At 162 minutes long, it makes for an exhaustive experience.

Just the fact The English Patient beat Fargo makes me want to scream. While it’s true the film, the Coen brothers, and Frances McDormand have experienced far more reverence in recent times, it’s such a baffling move by the Academy to avoid awarding such a brilliant piece of cinema. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s bleak. Yes, it’s violent. Yes, it has bad language and a whole gallon of fake blood. But so did Silence of the Lambs, and that didn’t stop its Best Picture chances. You could say this was an example of the Academy not wanting to repeat themselves with two similar films taking Best Picture so close together. That’s a nice argument, except grand, sweeping epics like The English Patient have been winning Best Picture since 19-bloody-28. Chalk this one up to the power and might of Harvey Weinstein’s bombastic and bullyish campaign tactics, which we’ll see again in two year’s time.

Look, I’m not an idiot. I understand why The English Patient received so much critical acclaim, and why it ultimately swept the Academy Awards. Even without Weinstein’s involvement, it’s likely it still would have gone on to win Best Picture. It’s a stone-cold, crowd-pleasing, Oscar-bait kind of film. Its sole purpose is to win over gushing audiences who love this kind of cinema, and then go on to win a whole swag of Oscars too. Even I can admit to it being a beautifully-crafted piece of cinema. It’s writing and directing are stellar. Its cinematography is stunning. It features a wonderful ensemble cast, led by Fiennes and Scott Thomas. And its score is iconic. It’s a technical marvel, and a brilliant piece of cinema.

The English Patient is not a bad film, by any means. Far from it, actually. It’s just not my kind of cinema, or my kind of Best Picture winner. You can love it all you like. That’s fine. Personally, I find it one of the most boring films to ever take out the Academy’s top prize. As far as I’m concerned, there were far “better” films this year. Even The Birdcage, which shamefully wasn’t even nominated, would have made a more bold choice. I think I’ve said enough, so I’ll leave the final word to Elaine Benes…