With La La Land opening tomorrow (go see it) we must discuss it's already combed over reception from film critics and awards pundits and the like. When La La Land took the Best Picture prize from the NYFCC last week, certain pockets of people were outraged. Suddenly it was a "safe" movie, middlebrow, something utterly and completely common. 'Boy meets girls. Boy loses girl. UGH Romantic Dramas, am I right?!' Awards season backlash and contrarianism is a real thing though people try to pretend it's not each and every year and consider their motives solely pure. I know I've been guilty of it myself. I trust exactly no one in the entire talking-about-movies ecosphere who claims they haven't. Awards season is like politics; It affects everyone, even or especially those who rage against it and claim it to be meaningless to them. File that type under "the lady doth protest too much".
Naturally I was quick to jump to La La Land's defense whenever this happened. This was not because I love it (which I do...but keeping it 100 it's not a Moulin Rouge! level masterwork or anything) or even because I am a die hard warrior for the musical form. No, I bristle solely because this stance is ridiculous. La La Land is absolutely the furthest thing from a "safe" or common movie. And how uncommon it is, after further research, was stunning even to me!
Some lists before the revelation...
Musicals That Have Been Nominated For Best Picture
WINNERS IN RED
☆ based on a stage musical
✪ non-traditional musical (i.e. no breaking out into song as reality, often biopics of musicians)
✹ jukebox musical (pre-existing showtunes)
2012 LES MISERABLES (8 nominations | 3 wins) ☆
2004 RAY (6 nominations | 2 wins) ✪
2002 CHICAGO (13 nominations | 6 wins) ☆
2001 MOULIN ROUGE! (8 nominations | 2 wins) ✹
1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (6 nominations | 2 wins)
1980 COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (7 nominations | 1 win) ✪
1979 ALL THAT JAZZ (9 nominations | 4 wins) ✹
1975 NASHVILLE (5 nominations | 1 win) ✪
1972 CABARET (10 nominations | 8 wins) ☆
1971 FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (8 nominations | 3 wins) ☆
1969 HELLO DOLLY! (7 nominations | 3 wins) ☆
1968 OLIVER! (11 nominations | 5 wins) ☆
1968 FUNNY GIRL (8 nominations | 1 win) ☆
1967 DOCTOR DOLITTLE (9 nominations | 2 wins)
1965 THE SOUND OF MUSIC (10 nominations | 5 wins) ☆
1964 MY FAIR LADY (12 nomiantions | 8 wins) ☆
1964 MARY POPPINS (13 nominations | 5 wins)
1962 THE MUSIC MAN (6 nominations | 1 win) ☆
1961 WEST SIDE STORY (11 nominations | 10 wins) ☆
1958 GIGI (9 nominations | 9 wins)
1956 THE KING AND I (9 nominations | 5 wins) ☆
1954 SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (5 nominations | 1 win)
1951 AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (8 nominations | 6 wins)
Not using the "keys" above on the early Best Picture nominees as I'm sure I'll get something wrong. Old musicals are often a hodgepodge of original songs, old songs, music as performance and music as reality but most feel like "traditional" musicals in spirit.
1948 THE RED SHOES (5 nominations | 2 wins)
1945 ANCHORS AWEIGH (5 nominations | 1 win)
1942 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (8 nominations | 3 wins)
1939 THE WIZARD OF OZ (5 nominations | 2 wins)
1938 ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND (6 nominations | 1 win)
1937 100 MEN AND A GIRL (6 nominations | 1 win)
1936 THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (7 nominations | 3 wins)
1935 BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 (3 nominations | 1 win)
1935 NAUGHTY MARIETTA (2 nominations | 1 win)
1935 TOP HAT (4 nominations | 0 wins)
1934 THE GAY DIVORCEE (5 nominations | 1 win)
1934 ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (6 nominations | 1 win)
1933 42ND STREET (2 nominations | 0 wins)
1930 THE LOVE PARADE (6 nominations | 0 wins)
1929 THE BROADWAY MELODY (3 nominations | 1 win)
Interesting trivia from that list:
• If you're a Musical and manage a Best Picture nomination you WILL win an Oscar, not necessarily best picture but something. Every film lucky enough to be in that position after 1935 has taken home at least one statue but usually more.
• Originals for the screen are uncommon. Most of the titles above are either jukebox musicals (i.e. built around previously existing songs) or adaptations of stage musicals. Among the originals written for the screen many are also actually adaptations like Mary Poppins and Doctor Dolittle albeit of non-musical sources like children's books.
• It's common knowledge that the 1960s were the most popular decade for musicals in Oscar history. But did you realize how enormous the peak was? With the 1-2-3 punch of My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music in the mid 60s the musical experienced not just its Oscar peak but its box office peak (all three were true phenomenons and still among the most successful movies of all time when adjusted for inflation)
Most-Nominated Musicals That Were NOT Nominated for Best Picture
top 23 due to lots of ties
- Dreamgirls (2008) - 8 nominations | 2 wins
- Victor / Victoria (1982) - 7 nominations | 1 win
Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) - 7 nominations | 1 win
- Star! (1968) - 7 nominations | 0 wins
Pepe (1960) - 7 nominations | 0 wins
- Fame (1980) - 6 nominations | 2 wins
The Jolson Story (1946) - 6 nominations | 2 wins
- Lili (1953) - 6 nominations | 1 win
- The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) - 6 nominations | 0 wins
Love Me or Leave Me (1955) - 6 nominations | 0 wins
A Star is Born (1954) - 6 nominations | 0 wins
Hans Christian Andersen (1952) - 6 nominations | 0 wins
- Camelot (1967) - 5 nominations | 3 wins
- Aladdin (1992) - 5 nominations | 2 wins
- Walk the Line (2005) - 5 nominations | 1 win
Evita (1996) - 5 nominations | 1 win
Yentl (1983) - 5 nominations | 1 win
Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971) - 5 nominations | 1 win
With a Song in My Heart (1952) - 5 nominations | 1 win
Cover Girl (1944) - 5 nominations | 1 win
- Funny Lady (1975) - 5 nominations | 0 wins
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) - 5 nominations | 0 wins
The Umbrellas of Cherbrough (1964) - 5 nominations | 0 wins
*special circumstance - nominated for Oscars in two separate years before Oscar fixed a foreign film rules glitch
Flower Drum Song (1961) - 5 nominations | 0 wins
• How many of those came close to a Best Picture nomination?
It's tough to say but its easy to imagine both A Star is Born and Victor/Victoria in particular as Best Picture nominees that probably just missed their year's list by an agonizing close margin. They would have certainly made it under the current system of "up to 10" nominees.
So how rare is La La Land?
Original musicals written for the screen almost never get made today unless they're animated. That's particularly true of the "traditional" musical. Occassionally we'll see original musicals that are non-traditional (i.e musicians at work) but they're all by John Carney: Sing Street, Begin Again or Once. We'll also occassionally get a new jukebox musical using pre-existing songs (like a Moulin Rouge! or an Across the Universe). But only very rarely a true original. Almost everything else is adapted from the stage where musicals are much safer bets.
In fact in the past 25 years the only live action originals that were also traditional musicals -- at least that we can think of -- have been Dancer in the Dark (2000 - 1 Oscar nomination), Newsies (1992 - zero Oscar nominations) and, you guessed it, La La Land.
You have to go all the way back to Nashville (1975) to find an original musical written for the screen that was nominated for Best Picture -- Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979), two of the greatest films of all time, were a mix of old and new material so they could sort of count but that's still a long way back!
And if Nashville isn't a "traditional" enough option for you (given that it's musicians at work and no breaking out into song or dance), you have to go all the way back to Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Mary Poppins (1964), a half century ago, to find live action original musicals for the screen that received Best Picture nominations.
So let's not pretend that La La Land and its potential Oscar success are something run of the mill. With the exception of possibly Moonlight (how many black queer films do we get?) there's not a less unicorn feature in the mix this awards year. It's not to be taken lightly and we pray that it's a big success. Original screen musicals outside of the Disney princess genre (currently represented by Moana) are arguably the absolute rarest of film creations.