Amongst filmgoers, there seems to be one general consensus towards to the Academy Awards; they get a lot wrong.

By the same token, they also get their fair share right. Well, when it’s a complete no-brainer at least.

But what happens when you have two films equally worthy of Best Picture recognition? The answer is Ordinary People.

Back at the 53rd Academy awards in 1981, Robert Redford’s good-but-not-great drama about a family falling apart after a fatal accident managed to walk away with the big one, despite heavy competition from two films that have gone onto be regarded as timeless classics: Raging Bull and The Elephant Man.

Despite both leading the way with eight nominations each, the joint most that year, Raging Bull only won two (Best Actor and Best Editing) while The Elephant Man was completely shutout.

Just for the record, Ordinary People ended up winning four of the six awards it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor.

At the time all three received positive reviews, although Raging Bull was not without its critics, but whereas Ordinary People has failed to live up to its appointed billing, the other two have demonstrated true staying power and have had a genuine cultural influence.

Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a cinematic tour de force that throws us into the world of Jake LaMotta, a former World Middleweight Champion boxer who fought throughout the 1940s and early 50s.

Although there’s plenty of boxing, it’s simply a by-product or cause (depending on your potential reading of things) of what this film is truly about.

A hard-hitting (no pun intended) character piece that has become a mise-en-scène/editing playbook for any aspiring filmmaker, as well as giving us Robert De Niro’s terrifying portrayal of The Bronx Bull; one of the greatest performances ever to grace the silver screen.

I would go on, but let’s be honest, what hasn’t already been said about De Niro in Raging Bull?

Aided by an excellent supporting cast, notably Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, a massively underappreciated sound mix that adds to the tension, horror and overall emotion of the piece and a tight warts-and-all script, Raging Bull is visceral experience that is nothing less than essential viewing.

The Elephant Man is more of an understated film, following the latter part of Joseph Merrick’s (changed to John Merrick in the film out of respect) life; a severely deformed man from the Victorian period who is discovered in a freakshow by Doctor Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and brought to his hospital to live.

Treaves wishes to study John, but ends up and helping him, allowing John the dignity he has been deprived all of his life.

Although simply shot for the most part, this works in The Elephant Man’s favour; showing restraint, consideration and allowing us to share the respect David Lynch’s direction gives the story and its characters.

Watching the film now, the recent passing of John Hurt does add some extra poignancy to his portrayal of John Merrick, giving us a low-key performance that still manages to give the character heart, soul, dignity, compassion and fear when called upon.

Hurt’s performance was Oscar worthy, especially considering he was acting through masses of make-up, and he would have easily walked away with the award any other year; for the most part at least.

Despite it’s strong emotional ups and downs, at its heart this is as tender a film you will see.

Oscar-wise, the best thing to come out of the Elephant Man was the lack of acknowledgment from the Academy towards Christopher Tucker’s make-up effects.

Despite calls for an honorary Oscar to recognise his work, the Academy declined.

Due to the unmitigated criticism for their decision, the Academy introduced the Best Make-Up award at the following ceremony.

In hindsight at the very least, either film was worthier winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year, but considering the final outcome, did two somewhat similar masterpieces cancel each other out of the running?

It’s not an uncommon occurrence, especially in the acting categories; two or more actors from one film (Platoon, All About Eve, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Rocky, etc.) end up splitting the vote of the members who side with that particular picture and the Oscar ends up elsewhere.

Yes, there are always exceptions; ironically enough, this included Timothy Hutton beating Judd Hirsch to the Best Supporting Actor gong for their work in Ordinary People.

Looking at both films, some may initially struggle to see the similarities between them, but we have two tragic biopics focused on the human condition, both beautifully photographed in black and white to evoke the period, both carried by stellar central performances and although undeniably engrossing, neither is far from being the easiest of watches; something that may have also been off-putting to academy members when it came time to cast that final vote.

Even easily overlooked similarities such as symbolic/interpretative imagery and the importance mirrors play in both central characters psyche are there for comparison.

One way or another, they’re both films about animals with Raging Bull acting as the portrait of the internal animal hidden behind a publically lauded prizefighter and The Elephant Man being the portrait of the gentleman beneath a publically perceived external animal.

Which, while on the subject, gives us yet another similarity; the exact same “I’m not a animal” line of dialogue coming from lead characters at times they’re both arguably at their lowest points.

In a way, they’re vice versa films; two sides of the same coin.

Neither Jake LaMotta nor Joseph Merrick were animals; just two men at polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

As for their films, unlike their real lives, both were ignored in favour of Ordinary People.


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