Etched in Stone

CJ Priebe


The Academy Awards can make it feel like the movie industry is mired in political swank.

It’s inevitable: Great art has always been used to market something, be it a brand, a culture or an entire industry. And when an award can turn a film into more of a bona fide money-making machine, various entities are willing to go the extra mile to ensure an even larger profit.

Production companies shell out the big bucks to campaign for their film or performer knowing that the seal of approval the Oscars gives will extend the shelf life of that film’s earning potential.

As it turns out, the creation of Mount Rushmore was also mired in the politics of its time.

An Aside On Mount Rushmore

The ‘Rushmore of Best Actresses’ featuring (left-right) Vivian Leigh, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Elizabeth Taylor. Photo Collage: Elizabeth Joyce Kreutzer

Almost everybody knows what Mount Rushmore is: that cliff in South Dakota with heads carved into it. It’s got four former U.S. presidents’ heads on it, and those four presidents chosen were thought to be the best four to represent America (but mostly to promote tourism).

The Black Hills have existed for literally billions of years in that part of the state, while the name for the specific mountain, “Rushmore,” comes from a late 19th-century New York lawyer who convinced people to name it after him.

Upon the monument’s initial unveiling in 1934 — which at the time included only the depiction of George Washington — President Franklin D. Roosevelt was moved to speak, remarking upon its beauty and declaring that it would be around “10,000 years from now.” I bet that’s what the dinosaurs thought.

This helped spark an industry that, according to the National Park Service, has brought in over 1 million people every year for 60 years.

Art For Money

At the Oscars, commercialism aids the craft. The viewing numbers for this year’s ceremony went up by 12 percent, partially because of the inclusion and success of highly profitable films like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also known as the Oscars, exists to make money itself (according to its 2016 Annual Report, it netted a profit of over 43 million) and for the movie world at large.

For the Oscars — like with voting in a democracy — it doesn’t matter what will end up being better 25 or 50 years from now: A group of people vote at a given moment and the overall preference wins out. Sometimes the choice is great, sometimes the choice is questionable and sometimes the choice is downright befuddling.

Awarding movies that have big stars increases the star’s fame and is part of the pageantry.

Often times a filmmaker or performer will get recognized for a work that isn’t their best, but is a make-up for past Academy transgressions.

The Motion Picture Academy is far from perfect: You regularly witness occasions where the best performance doesn’t win or isn’t even nominated. The award commonly goes to a performance that will not be the most memorable as the years unfold.

Naturally, this can delegitimize the awards in critics’ eyes, as the Academy’s preference doesn’t reflect the best art made during that cycle.

What I’ve Done

I’m conceptualizing a Mount Rushmore for some of the biggest Oscar categories, each with the best four wins in that category forever etched in stone — or at least for the next 10,000 years. Like the original carving, the selections are meant to represent various eras in some form or another.

I haven’t seen every film, but the following is what I would construct if given millions of dollars of the Academy’s money to build some kind of shrine.

Considering they threw Teddy Roosevelt on the real Mount Rushmore within a few years of his death — and mistakes are much easier without proper perspective — I’m going to give myself a 10-year waiting period and refrain from choosing any contender from the 2009 ceremony onwards as to avoid recency bias. But in doing so, the Academy’s bias towards selecting white men becomes even more evident.

What follows can hopefully help guide you through the spotty judgement of an Academy that doesn’t always get the real picture.

The following years reflects the year the movie was released, not the year that it won the Oscar.

Best Director

David Lean — “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

Mike Nichols — “The Graduate” (1967)

Francis Ford Coppola — “The Godfather Pt. II” (1974)

Steven Spielberg — “Schindler’s List” (1993)

Honorable Mentions: Victor Fleming — “Gone With The Wind,” Michael Curtiz — Casablanca,” William Friedkin — “The French Connection,” Joel and Ethan Coen — “No Country For Old Men”

Best Actress

Vivien Leigh — “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

Elizabeth Taylor — “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)

Diane Keaton — “Annie Hall” (1977)

Meryl Streep — “Sophie’s Choice” (1982)

Honorable Mentions: Bette Davis — “Jezebel,” Joan Crawford — “Mildred Pierce,” Louise Fletcher — “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kathy Bates — “Misery”

Best Actor

Gregory Peck — “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

Jack Nicholson — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)

Robert De Niro — “Raging Bull” (1980)

Daniel Day-Lewis — “There Will Be Blood” (2007)

Honorable Mentions: Laurence Olivier — “Hamlet,” Gary Cooper — “High Noon,” Charlton Heston — “Ben-Hur,” Marlon Brando — “The Godfather”

Best Original Screenplay

Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz — “Citizen Kane” (1941)

William Goldman — “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

Robert Towne — “Chinatown” (1974)

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon — “Good Will Hunting” (1997)

Honorable Mentions: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr. — Sunset Boulevard, Mel Brooks — “The Producers,” Quentin Tarantino — “Pulp Fiction,” Joel and Ethan Coen — “Fargo”

Best Adapted Screenplay

Howard Koch, Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Casey Robinson — “Casablanca” (1942)

Horton Foote — “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962)

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola — “The Godfather” (1972)

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana — “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

Honorable Mentions: John Huston — “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz — “All About Eve,” William Goldman — “All The President’s Men,” Billy Bob Thornton — “Sling Blade”