Director Tim Burton’s beautiful Big Fish was shut out of all Oscar nominations in 2004 but for original score (which it didn’t win). The director’s work is often dismissed as creative, but too weird, or lovely, but lacking in feeling. The same critiques, by the way, the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson hear often. Yet in Big Fish, Burton vividly renders the elusive, big-hearted whimsy of Daniel Wallace’s book, telling a father-son story that is sad, wise, and funny all at once.
Let’s discuss the many nominations it should have received, starting with the most egregious omission:
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Billy Crudup, not Albert Finney, is the star of the film. Will (Crudup) resents his father, Edward (Finney), for always traveling away from home while he was a kid, even suspects he had a second family. The yarn-telling skills that endear others to Edward annoy his son, who considers his father a liar. “You’re like Santa Claus and the Easter bunny combined,” Will says, “just as charming and just as fake.” The two haven’t spoken in several years, until Edward’s final illness draws his son home to resolve their issues. Edward prickles at his son’s anger: “I’ve been nothing but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that, it’s your failing, not mine.”
Finney’s performance is magical. There’s no other word for it. How much personality and spirit he’s able to convey, even though he spends most of the film in bed! And Ewan McGregor exudes his usual charm, as he captures Edward as a youth, full of outsized ambition and enthusiasm. Burton lets us see Edward’s young adulthood not through the actual events, but through the imaginative way he recounts them: the boy spits out of his mother’s body like a cannonball when born, he sees his death in a witch’s eye, saves his town from a giant. When Edward leaves home and travels down a forsaken road, he spots a sign: Warning: Jumping Spiders. Edward’s description of this obstacle illustrates both the amusing cadence of his language, and his indomitable spirit: “Now there comes a point when a reasonable man will swallow his pride and admit that he’s made a terrible mistake,” narrates McGregor. “The truth is, I was never a reasonable man.”
In 2004’s Academy Awards, the supporting actors were Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams), Alec Baldwin (The Cooler), Djimon Hounsou (In America), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), and Tim Robbins (Mystic River). I admire all of these actors, and have seen all but 21 Grams. I’d put Finney over them all, and Ewan McGregor (also supporting) over most. Baldwin was very good, but it’s not his most nuanced performance. Hounsou played a very one-dimensional role (as he typically does despite his skills), and I barely recall either Ken Watanabe’s or Tim Robbins’ performances.
But Finney’s? I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. As Edward, he is haunting and lovable, resentful and stubborn and inexpressibly sweet.
Had he been mistakenly chosen for a Best Actor nomination, Finney still should have been in the list, which included Sean Penn (Mystic River), Jude Law (Cold Mountain), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean). I would have been torn between him and Murray as deserving of the win.
By the way, Jessica Lange plays Edward’s wife. She wasn’t in the film enough to earn a nomination, I suspect, but what an impact she makes in her few lovely moments, capturing the endurance of the love affair that is at the root of 90 percent of his stories. (No wonder she doesn’t share her son’s anger.) Here are the sweethearts in a tub together, fully clothed:
Best Director, Best Picture
Nominees, Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (winner), Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit.
Nominees, Best Director: Winner Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Peter Weir (Master and Commander), and Clint Eastwood (Mystic River)
Jackson and his film probably deserved the win among those nominees, as the weight of translating Tolkien to film was so daunting that the man deserved a medal simply for attempting it, much less succeeding. And Meirelles created one of the most riveting and best edited films I’ve ever seen. It must be the foreign language that knocked it out of best-pic contention, to the Academy’s shame (as it definitely deserved the win).
But I do quibble with the other best picture and director nominees. Lost in Translation was a creative film, but without Bill Murray at the helm, would have been forgettable. The unspeakably dull Master and Commander proved to me once and for all that male voters dominate the Academy. If “chick flicks” can’t be nominated, why do I have to put up with something that’s one step up from a video game? Seabiscuit was a winning story, but a bit too saccharine, and Mystic River, like everything Eastwood does, was overwrought and completely lacking in subtlety.
It’s hard to imagine many of the voters bothered to watch Big Fish, as surely it outranks Seabiscuit in sentiment, and manages to say something meaningful about the power of story, its capacity to help us not only overcome obstacles, but survive loss. Surely storytellers—i.e., those involved in film—would have gravitated to such a theme?
Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, winners), American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini), City of God (Bráulio Mantovani), Mystic River (Brian Helgeland), and Seabiscuit (Gary Ross)
This category was tough in 2004, but it’s clear that few voters read the novel, understood the challenge of translating it to film. Unlike Seabiscuit, for example, this was not a traditional narrative. It’s a recursive, poetic recounting of moments. It’s even divided into fragments rather than chapters. The book intentionally circles, the author explaining in interviews that myth does as well. And in truth, so do our lives: so many moments in our existence recall others. Our bodies may decline in a chronological fashion, but our minds, our experiences, don’t work that way at all. As the film’s script explains, “Fate has a way of circling back on a man, and taking him by surprise.”
The scene of Edward’s death, for example, is repeated multiple times throughout the book, each version telling readers something different. John August distilled the story, threaded enough of the moments together to form a comprehensible narrative, and yet retained the recursive, fanciful spirit of the original. His achievement, quite simply, is a triumph. And though I would leave those first three films on the list, I think Mystic River or Seabiscuit should have been bumped to include August’s work.
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Cinematography
I’ll confess that I feel in deepest water when I discuss the visuals of a film. I don’t think, however, that many would dispute that the enchantment of Big Fish is largely a result of its execution of Burton’s vision; it’s rare that I am so enthralled by what I see that I long to take a snapshot of every moment. I’m curious why this film wasn’t considered worthy of awards based on artistic merit, if nothing else for the images’ perfect cohesiveness with the storytelling. Edward complains that his son doesn’t tell stories well, that he gives “all of the facts, none of the flavor.” That certainly cannot be said of the art direction of this film. In parting, I’ll just leave you with a few of my favorite visuals:
This post is part of The 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen (@CitizenScreen), Kellee (@IrishJayHawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club. Visit their sites for all of the wonderful entries. Kellee is hosting the snubs.