Best Picture Oscar Winners as Histories

Poster for 12 Years a Slave
I’ve previously blogged about the argument that this film — inspired by a slave narrative — can actually claim the status of “work of history”

You can tell I’ve resolved several big projects and am mentally entering Spring Break because I actually took half an hour Monday to answer a question that’s been nagging since the Academy Awards last weekend:

Do the Oscars tend to favor movies set in the past?

Of course, the antebellum historical drama 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar, beating out several competitors that were set in a period at least a decade removed from the immediate past (Philomena reached back to the 1950s, American Hustle to the late 1970s, Dallas Buyers Club the mid-Eighties, and The Wolf of Wall Street the Nineties). Though certainly constructed by imaginations not restricted by the rules accepted by professional historians, they were set in a time recognizably other than the present.

So is that a typical outcome of the Oscar race?

As best I can discern (I blame Wikipedia for all errors), 49 of the 86 Best Picture winners have been at least partly set in a period at least 10 years prior to their award. Here that same category is broken down by decade:

Oscars as Histories by decade
Only two Oscars were awarded in the Twenties, so I lumped them with the Thirties; likewise, the four from the current decade are included with the 2000s

What stands out most clearly is the popularity of contemporary settings in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, in the sixteen-year stretch from 1942 to 1957, there’s only one Best Picture winner that really seems like a historical drama, except that it’s a comedy: Around the World in 80 Days (1957, set in 1872). There are also two in that period that go back only as far as World War II — From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai (Casablanca and Mrs. Miniver were made about that war during that war) — and All the King’s Men, the 1949 winner set primarily during the Great Depression.

Conversely, we seem to be in the midst of a prolonged period in which Oscar voters prefer movies set relatively far back in the past. Out of the last thirty Best Picture winners, nineteen have been set at least a quarter-century before the year of their award. Thirteen go back at least seventy years: (in order of temporal distance)

  • Filming The King's Speech
    Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter filming a scene from The King’s Speech at Lancashire’s Queen Street Mill Textile Museum – Creative Commons

    Gladiator (awarded 2000, set late 2nd century AD)

  • Braveheart (1995, late 13th and early 14th centuries)
  • Shakespeare in Love (1998, 1593)
  • Amadeus (1984, late 18th century)
  • 12 Years a Slave (2014, 1841-1853)
  • Dances with Wolves (1990, mid-1860s)
  • Unforgiven (1992, 1880s)
  • Titanic (1997, 1912)
  • The Artist (2013, late 1920s)
  • Chicago (2002, mid-1920s)
  • The King’s Speech (2012, starts 1925, mostly late 1930s)
  • Out of Africa (1985, mostly 1910s)
  • The Last Emperor (1984, at least partly 1910s)

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