Oscars Combat Legendary: Gump v. Pulp v. Shawshank for 1994 Best Picture

Movie glory is Bruce Willis moving slowly down the steps of Zed’s pawn shop with a samurai sword, his face and tight white T-shirt drenched in blood. And Winston Wolf arriving in under 10 minutes to coolly rectify The Bonnie Situation. Jules quoting Ezekiel 25:17. Jody, face pierced all over, smiling as Lance says “Three!” and Vincent stabs the adrenaline shot through Mia Wallace’s breastplate.

Pulp-Fiction

“Pulp Fiction” is a classic for so many reasons, but the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994 went to “Forrest Gump.” The nominees that year were “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Forrest Gump,” “Quiz Show,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

It’s the first three we remember. Especially and empirically, it’s the first two we remember—”Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank.” The ones that didn’t win.

With “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” staring Academy Awards voters right in their faces, why did they give “Gump” the award?

Ease is why. Ease explains “Dances With Wolves” over “Goodfellas.” Some movies are simply built to win Best Picture.

Let’s start with Quentin Tarantino’s gritty masterpiece. It’s as advertised: pulp. The characters are all bad guys.

But it’s pulp rendered as astonishing cinema. Tarantino’s film studio is called A Band Apart, after the Jean-Luc Godard film “Bande à part” (“Band of Outsiders”). Like Godard’s movies, “Pulp Fiction” will be studied in classrooms forever. It’s self-referential past the point of post-modernism—a movie that knows it’s a movie. It jumps time, beginning and ending the same place, killing its most prominent character halfway through and then bringing him back. When Mia Wallace traces a box in the air to call Vincent a square, the box appears and then vanishes.

In the film’s first scene, Honey Bunny screams at customers in the diner “I’ll execute every mother fucking last one of you!” When we relive that same moment at the end of the movie, the line has changed to “I’ll execute every one of you mother fuckers!” Tarantino didn’t mistakenly let the line change; he was reveling in the freedom to play. He even inserts a supernatural MacGuffin in that briefcase. Movie!

John Travolta has a dance scene! And that whole date with Mia takes place in a restaurant that’s entirely an ode to old movies.

“Pulp Fiction” is funner than dodgeball, its dialogue and cleverness and giddy violence all mixing into a blast of a movie. But it’s also a precise work of smart art. Again: It will be in liberal arts curricula forever.

And yet it lost. “Pulp Fiction” is a masterpiece now and it was a masterpiece then. In 1994 critics like Siskel and Ebert were beside themselves over how great “Pulp Fiction” was, devoting an entire show to it. And yet it lost. It lost Best Picture to “Forrest Gump.”

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This is the last installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series, since I’ll be snowboarding all weekend. We’ve already debated Best Supporting Actress, Best Documentary (that one’s rough), and Best Supporting Actor. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture. This one’s supposed to be about Best Actor, but it’s really an excuse to talk Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.”

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Let’s recall that “The Shawshank Redemption” set an all-time record for most rentals in 1995. When TNT started airing it, they couldn’t stop because the movie’s cable ratings, likewise, set records. A lot of us missed it in the theater, but we’ve caught up. (“The Big Lebowski” is similar that way.)

There are no truer indicators of how much we like a movie than how often it is rented and watched on TV, and “Shawshank” kicks the ass of both “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction.” When the American Film Institute listed its Top 100 movies of all time in 1998, “Shawshank” wasn’t on it. Nine years later AFI released the list again, and “Shawshank” was No. 72, above “Forrest Gump” (76) and “Pulp Fiction” (94).

Craziest of all is this link. IMDB.com keeps an ongoing ranking of the movies reviewed most favorably by its users. “Shawshank” is No. 1 on that list. Today. Has been for years. No. 2 is “The Godfather.”

“Shawshank” is inspiring. Andy Dufresne didn’t kill his wife, he was just mad at her. And for that the universe saw fit to put him in prison. It’s the epitome of unfairness. We watch Andy find glimmers of humanity when he could just fold and wither into someone like Brooks. He gets beers for men working outside. He plays opera over the loudspeaker. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” he tells Red. And we think he might be killing himself. Instead he sets himself free, unveiling a brilliant plan cooked over decades, unbeknownst to anyone. This story is narrated by Red, who takes us right with him through that incredible ending—from sad to confused to shocked to delighted.

When Red’s finally out, they meet on a beach.

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BOOM! That’s a movie. For grownups, though. And its focus is friendship, which doesn’t have quite the manipulative tug of a movie where two pretty people fall in love and marry so one of them can die.

Not that “Forrest Gump” isn’t full of friendship. Forrest’s best friend dies in his arms.

Of course he does. To win Best Picture the same year “Pulp Fiction” and “Shawshank” came out, you had to pull out all the stops. Bubba dying by that river in Vietnam was just one ingredient in a sappy souffle of Oscar treaties.

It’s a perfect Best Picture nominee. “Forrest Gump” is, first of all, rated PG-13 while the other two contenders are both R. It was a movie families could go see together.

Yet it also juggled sex and violence. It’s a comedy, aiming for laughs at times, but it also portrays bravery in war and tragic love, which Oscar gobbles up.

forrest-gump

“Forrest Gump” is titled after its main character because it’s a movie about just this one guy. A “village idiot” turned hero. He’s strong and fast. He’s extremely honorable, willing to fight any man who’s bad to Jenny. “College went by real fast because I played so much football,” he says of getting his degree at Alabama. He makes the football All-America team and meets JFK. Then he goes to war and saves several wounded soldiers. He becomes a national celebrity and a shrimp tycoon, marries the love of his life and then loses her to AIDS.

That’s a hell of a story, and the man experiencing it has an actual, literal brain condition that uncomplicates him. He doesn’t understand meanness. He’s nice to everyone and eager to do anything. He can’t lie unless his mom says it’s OK. His goodness takes him on adventures through which he is, by design, impossible to root against.

Is he autistic? Asbergers? He graduates college and is his drill sergeant’s favorite soldier, so he’s not stupid.

Remember Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.’s amazing black-faced Oscar-nominated performance) in “Tropic Thunder,” explaining how to play “retarded”? “You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping pong competition. That ain’t retarded.”

No it’s not. It’s this made-up version of an ideal person. It’s Oscar bait. The dark side of his personality was removed by writers. He never complains. He hears everything, but doesn’t understand stupid jokes. The goofy things he does are more charming than dumb.

It was easy to give “Forrest Gump” Best Picture because it was the easiest movie to feel good about. The score is sweeping in the most manipulative way, always deciding for us how to feel. There’s great rock from the ’60s and ’70 in “Forrest Gump,” but its ever-present orchestral score is pure, delicious sap. It fits right in. (Click here. You’ll recognize it.)

Therein lies the lesson of 1994. The Best Picture wasn’t the most artistic film, “Pulp Fiction,” nor the most watchable movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” The Best Picture was the one built to push the right buttons. It was the easiest to like.

Does that mean they got it wrong? They just did what they do.

The Oscars are awesome because of the nominations, not the actual awarding of the prize. Even when there are multiple right answers, rube voters will still get it wrong.

If I’m right, “Gravity” is gonna win Best Picture on Sunday.

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