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Curious Oscar theory: Best picture equals best title?

January 3, 2010 | 12:51 pm
While discussing the possibility that "Inglourious Basterds" might win best picture, I mentioned a theory enthusiastically endorsed by both me and my Oscarologist pal Tariq Khan, who's recently been predicting the Academy Awards for That is: a great title often helps a movie to win the top prize. That caused Tariq to look back over Oscar history and write up a special article just for us that examines these 10 examples of when having a winning title probably made a difference. Thanks for another 24-karat contribution to Gold Derby, Tariq!

What's in a name? Well … almost everything if you have a film vying for the Academy Award for best picture. Although people don't realize it, an attractive film title can sometimes make all the difference in a competitive Oscar race. Here are 10 examples of the top prize going to a movie whose name probably looked the best on the big marquee – and on the Oscar ballot.

Oscars best picture best title

"The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952) — Hardly the greatest movie of the year, by most accounts. It won only one other award, for best motion picture story. Yet somehow it eclipsed the far superior "High Noon" and "The Quiet Man," films with quieter titles. If the film had simply been called "The Circus," it would never have made it across the tightrope on Oscar night.

"Million Dollar Baby" (2004) — "Million Dollar Title" is more like it. Despite a bleak look and a very non-Hollywood, less-than-happy ending, it suddenly soared past initial front-runner "The Aviator" to take the best-picture Oscar. Had it been released under its working title, "Rope Burns," a million dollars says it would have been defeated in the awards boxing ring.

"A Beautiful Mind" (2001) — An enjoyable film, but did it really have the same amount of support as "Moulin Rouge" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"? Maybe not, but it did have a beautiful title. Replace that with something like "John Nash's Story" or "The Crazy Mathematician," and a best-picture winner is the last thing that comes to mind.

"An American in Paris" (1951) — In one of the great upsets in Oscar history, the flashy Gene Kelly love-musical danced over "A Place in the Sun" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" to claim victory. I suspect that the "American" in the title was more significant in 1951 than it would have been today … and the "Paris" added a bit of European intrigue. Add the two together and you got not only rhythm, but also Oscar.

"Shakespeare in Love" (1998) — Another of the great Oscar upsets … the title here was key. The "Shakespeare" was prestigious and adding "Love" was vivacious. In hindsight, it almost seems logical that "Saving Private Ryan" could not have been saved. Interestingly enough, if it hadn't been "Shakespeare," another lovely name – "Life Is Beautiful" – might have prevailed.

"Grand Hotel" (1932) — Yes, it was a clever film with an all-star cast. Yet it had only a single nomination! Its rival "Bad Girl" earned both directing and writing honors, so wouldn't that have logically equaled the best movie? Unfortunately, when one film is called "Bad" and another called "Grand," you must know how the story will probably end.

"American Beauty" (1999) — It was proclaimed the film to beat from the moment it was released in the fall … never faltering despite a huge push for "The Cider House Rules" in the final weeks of the Oscar derby. Just be sure to look closer at the title. Now replace that with "Lester" or "The Burnham Family Blues." Enough said, I think.

"The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) — Great it was … no question. Still, it prevailed in a 10-way race that included other terrific works such as "Anthony Adverse," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "The Story of Louis Pasteur." As Oscar voters looked at their ballots, "The Great Ziegfeld" probably jumped right off the page – and then onto the podium on the great awards night.

"Slumdog Millionaire" (2008) — We all knew that it would win almost right from the start, despite its subtitles and lack of Hollywood stars. But let's just say that it retained the title "Q & A," from the novel on which it was based. Would it have won best picture? Possibly … but you would have to think long and hard before giving your final answer to that one.

"Braveheart" (1995) — Late in the Oscar season, it experienced an incredible surge in one of the strangest awards seasons ever. Other contenders included the unlucky "Apollo 13" and Oscar Mayer-ed "Babe." Did its strong title help it to slay the competition? It definitely wasn't the May release, the load of historical inaccuracies or the absence of acting nominations. Had it been titled "The First War of Scotland" or "William Wallace," Mel Gibson's face might have been red (and not blue) when the final envelope was opened.

Photos: "Greatest Show on Earth" (Paramount), "Million Dollar Baby" (Warner Bros.)


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