Did They Make the Correct Choice? — Revisiting The 1995 Oscars Best Picture Race
Forrest Gump vs Pulp Fiction vs The Shawshank Redemption
With the Oscar nominations out and the Oscars themselves just a few short weeks away, I thought it would be fun to look back at one of the most intriguing Best Picture races of all time, 1995’s battle between Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.
As Malcolm Gladwell has so effectively showcased with his popular podcast Revisionist History, looking back at timely events can help put the past into perspective as it gives us a chance to reexamine whether the choices we have made were the correct ones.
Therefore, with a light tone and a web of curiosity, I’d like to go back to 1994 and assess the history of these three films, as each has come to gain legendary status among the pop culture collective.
When the Oscar nominations came out on February 14th, 1995, one obvious choice stood above the masses as the debate as to who would win Best Picture started to materialize. Studio darling Forrest Gump had garnered 13 nominations, the highest amount in over 28 years.
With big name player Tom Hanks spearheading the film, it wasn’t hard to see why. It had all the bait. A strong cast. A leading man in his prime. A unique story. It was presented with a flair of American patriotism one rarely finds on the big screen. It’s emotional, reverent and an immediate “I’ll sit and watch” whenever it’s on TV type of movie.
Put simply, Forrest Gump was the kind of film a majority of the public could root for. It also grossed over $660 million in ticket sales worldwide which means plenty of people saw it.
Meanwhile a rebel of the group, one which many felt deserved the most praise, came from up and coming auteur Quentin Tarantino, a man who’s literary style was fast becoming legend. Iconic scenes such as this one below fully captured the breadth of Tarantino’s talent as a writer.
Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would never be heard the same again.
This clip helped pushed the film and its appeal to the next level as it received the coveted Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. Public opinion was high. Whether the Academy would listen was another story. 1991’s Best Picture winner, Silence of the Lambs proved that gritty films could make their way into the Academy’s good graces. In a normal year, Pulp Fiction should win the Best Picture Oscar. This however, was no ordinary year.
Rounding out the group of five were Four Weddings and a Funeral, Quiz Show and an early 20th century prison movie, The Shawshank Redemption.
Based off of the Stephen King novella Different Seasons, The Shawshank Redemption suffered immediately from a poorly chosen name and a downer story. (The film brought in a modest $28 million at the box office.)
Its central thesis is based around two main characters, Andy and Red, and how both come to view the word hope. The eventual tag line of the film would end up being, “get busy living or get busy dying” as the movies core narrative causes you to challenge this very phrase. It forces you to understand, with deliberate character development, how life behind bars, whether warranted or not, can lead many to struggle with the notion of a prisoners acceptance of their reality. The moral centre of The Shawshank Redemption lies with its main character’s discovery — that hope is a powerful thing.
Fun Fact: Stephen King never cashed his $1,000 check for rights to the film. Several years after the movie came out, King got the check framed, and mailed it back to Frank Darabont with a note inscribed, “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.”
MAY 1993 LAST DRAFT
This was when Quentin Tarantino finally finished writing Pulp Fiction. It was to be his follow up to his meagrely successful, yet critically praised 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino was a film buff of the highest regard, one who, when asked by Harvey Keitel how he came to write a script about tough guys, he simply responded by saying, “I watch movies.”
Pulp Fiction would become the third year in a row in which a film with Quentin’s DNA (Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and True Romance in 1993) would be all over the big screen, and it was fast becoming apparent that audiences really enjoyed his outlandish style.
Pulp Fiction was an event. The music it employed became just as integral as the actors in the film. When you were finished watching the movie, it was inevitable that you’d come away with a better understanding that conversations about how to eat a girl out or the taste of a $5 dollar shake could be ones which would elicit some form of meaning — this film spent time on these subjects, which was unusual, as these were the types of regular ordinary conversations we all have. The dialogue felt natural but then it didn’t. This was and still is Tarantino’s gift as a filmmaker.
Fun Fact: The word “fuck” is used two hundred sixty-five times.
Tom Hanks’ impressive turn as a gay lawyer on trial in 1993’s poignant period piece Philadelphia had given the once boyishly young actor known mostly for his comedic charm in films such as BIG and Turner and Hooch a heavy platform to flex his talent. His best actor win solidified his ascension to the big leagues. Playing Forrest Gump would take him to the next level.
Forrest Gump was a unique brand of film. Tom Hanks portrayal of Forrest is legendary. It’s the only role he’s ever done to date where you don’t see Tom but only Forrest. He inhabits the character so mightily you can’t help but go along for the ride. Straight as an arrow, Forrest sits at the bus stop and recounts the events of his life to total strangers. We fall for his charm because what he’s doing is something we all hope our own humanity would do to others. He’s a character which embodies the best in all of us. His love of Jenny, the only friend he grows up with, is emblematic of how simple he views the world. Most of us would have given up on her and the troubles she struggles with throughout her life, but Forrest never wavers and thinks only of her.
Rooting for the good guy is as old a trope as Hollywood can give you. Forrest Gump has all the trappings of such a tale, even if its storyline and protagonist don’t necessarily fit the archetypical mould of a classic root for the good guy plot.
The central thesis for the movie is about one thing, love. That in itself is why I assume voters cast their ballots in favour of this movie. The kitschiness can cause one to miss the underlying message the film is built upon, Forrest and Jenny’s love for each other.
Fun Fact: Bill Murray, John Travolta, and Chevy Chase turned down the role of Forrest Gump. Travolta later admitted that passing on the role was a mistake.
In comparing the three films, I’ve decided to break them down into four categories: lead protagonist, best scene, intangibles and resonance.
The battle here is between Forrest Gump and Andy Dufresne. John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, though highly acclaimed in its own right, isn’t the stuff with the kind of meat you’d look to lean on when carrying a movie. His role within Pulp Fiction is central to the whole framework of the film, yet, it isn’t outright based upon his narrative. Hence, this battle is between the two characters who come to epitomize Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption.
Tom Hanks won the Best Actor for this role. His turn as Forrest, as I’ve alluded to above, is highly acclaimed. He embodies the role like no other. From the sound of his Alabama accent to the way he moves and pontificates his expressions, Forrest Gump the character, has as much nuance as any one actor can hope to showcase when developing their role.
Here’s a quick clip of Hanks himself discussing how he garnered inspiration for how he was going to approach playing the role. Fast forward to the 1:45 mark.
Twenty five years later the motion is still there. As you can see, when Tom draws Forrest out, Tom the man soon disappears. Accents and the ability to charge a character with little quirks is a hallmark of excellent acting. It’s why character actors such as Daniel Day Lewis and Christian Bale have been lauded with so much acclaim throughout their careers — their ability to hide their identities within their characters gives them a quick leg up when it comes to showcasing who they’re trying to portray.
Throughout Hanks career his two signature Oscar wins came because of his ability to deliver poignant characters. As he illustrates in this clip, even to this day, his portrayal of Forrest still resonates with the pop culture collective — they remind him of Forrest wherever he goes. This in itself gives his character Forrest Gump a triumphant salute of endurance and staying power, not to mention, an enduring legacy. All of which cannot be ignored.
Simply put, some roles are forgotten. This however, isn’t one of them.
This then brings me to Tim Robbins portrayal of Andy Dufresne, which is the polar opposite of what I just described above. Tim Robbins hasn’t chosen to employ a distinct character feature. His accent is his own. Nonetheless, his character Andy is littered with plenty of peculiarities, even if they are less pronounced. Andy is shown to be bright, intelligent, aloof and not afraid to use the word obtuse. He’s thoughtful, yet brave, which is aptly showcased when he asks for beer as a return for a favour when others would not have.
His character is loyal to those he cares for, while daringly cunning when afforded. Part of the appeal of this character is how likeable he comes across. You root for his success at every turn and when he does succeed, you the viewer, feel redeemed for putting stock in cheering him on. His struggle is one many can relate to, even if jail time isn’t something you’ve experienced.
Justice is sought the minute he’s wrongfully convicted and as his story unfolds, Andy’s appeal grows with his mastery of the prison life. The popular beer scene below is the first time we witness his artistry and fearlessness. Robbins hides nothing here and as you see him wince when nearly thrown off the roof, you quickly realize the power he immediately gains the minute Captain Hadley listens to his advice.
In spite of Robbins strong portrayal here, Hanks turn as Forrest is outstanding and hard to ignore.
Advantage: Forrest Gump
With regards to Forrest Gump, the film’s best scene has to be the minute he finds out he has a son. So much emotion comes through as the entire thesis of the movie craters in. Whether it’s from the love of his life telling him he has a little boy, to his own life as someone who’s dealt with ridicule and disability, Hanks display here is strong and very powerful.
For The Shawshank Redemption, it has to be the reveal. I mean, the first time you watch that scene your mind is blown. From Norton’s face to Red’s surprise, all of it is wonderful to finally see. Everything you thought and hoped would happen does and it’s fucking grand to witness Red, Norton and Hadley see how Andy escaped. Justice has been served and sometimes it’s just great watching the good guy win.
As for Pulp Fiction, well that’s easy. It’s the first clip I posted above, Samuel L. Jackson’s triumphant speech laden monologue to poor Brett. I’ve never had a Big Kahuna burger, but I sure wanted one after seeing this scene. Jackson’s command of every intangible is impressive, his ferocity makes you wonder if this is what it would really be like to run into hitmen for hire. Vega’s merely and afterthought, which says a lot about the performance.
Each of these three scenes is illustrious in its own right, but Samuel L. Jackson’s is hard to top. It’s probably the most amazing scene to have come from any film of the 1990’s. The reveal in Shawshank is close though.
Advantage: Pulp Fiction
Aside from the main characters and the overall plots to each film, here are some of the little things which I believe set these three films apart.
- The Pulp Fiction soundtrack is one for the ages. It’s eclectic and a solid mix of old and new tracks, with each helping to convey the mood and the style of one of the most edgy films ever. I mean, you have Al Green and Urge Overkill on the same record. Where are you ever going to see that again? And it works.
**Side note: I’ve always wondered, had she not snorted his heroine, do you think they might have hooked up? I have a feeling they might have. Music, drinks, drugs…sex? Seems only logical. I guess we’ll never know.
- The art of excellent filmmaking. Sometimes simple is the best approach. Here’s one example…
- …and another.
- Morgan Freeman narrating. I don’t think I should have to explain this one too much. He’s the best at it.
- The wisdom of Momma and chocolates.
- Christopher Walken! Christopher Walken! Christopher Walken!
He took a short monologue about a guy who stuffs his watch up his ass into two minutes of pure cinematic gold. That’s an intangible right there. Like a sixth man in basketball coming in to hit a huge three to help win the game, this scene is such a big part of why this movie hit with so many people. Christopher Walken is Pulp Fiction’s version of Robert Horry. A guy who was never a leading man, but somehow came away with some big plays, in big movies, that won audiences over.
**Side note. Here’s Walken vs Hopper in True Romance. Another excellent display of the man’s talent.
Advantage: Pulp Fiction
When looking back at the films which matter most as time passes, it is those we still linger with that tell us they mean more than their peers. The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar in 2011. I’ve yet to speak to anyone who’s talked about it ever since — I honestly know very few people who’ve actually seen it. You can say the same for Crash in 2005 or The English Patient in 1996. Hell even Quiz Show could be thrown into this assumption as well. These movies spoke to the public at large during their run, but as time has passed, they have come to be forgotten.
What sets certain films apart from others, even those of which have come to gain adulation and awards, is how they connected with the overall community. Forrest Gump is a weird movie. It’s about a man who loves a girl and lives an unrealistic life. But it’s fun to watch, easy to root for and a great popcorn flick. Tom Hanks is masterful and the film is relatable for many. It’s understandable why it won the Best Picture Oscar. But as I’ve debated throughout this piece, just because it made sense for Forrest Gump to win, doesn’t mean that it should have.
Pulp Fiction is a tour de force. So much happens and with each sequence you’re left wanting more. Each character throughout the movie, minor or not, brings plenty to the table and Tarantino weaves his story like a master conductor. It’s still his best movie to date and the one which many will come to remember as one of the singular films of the 20th Century.
The Shawshank Redemption has in itself the most powerful message of the three, that hope is a powerful thing. Most of us have never seen the inside of a prison but Shawshank isn’t a prison movie, it’s one about friendship and the power that can wield, even in the toughest of times.
In fully assessing these three films, it isn’t shocking at all to realize they currently sit in the number 1 (Shawshank), 6 (Pulp Fiction) and 11(Forrest Gump) positions on the IMDB Top 250 list.
Overall, I kind of agree with the rankings. Shawshank packs the most weight of the three. I’ve probably seen it the most and it’s the one movie which I can’t help but still stew over after each rewatch.
Advantage: The Shawshank Redemption
So which film should have won the 1995 Best Oscar?
If you go by the four categories which I have just laid out, then Pulp Fiction should have won. It is the most artistic and unique of the three. You could say it’s a masterpiece. It isn’t my favourite of the three, but upon this reflection, it is the most deserving. Forrest Gump winning the Best Oscar back in 1995 probably had more to do with Tom Hanks and the feel good nature of the movie than it being the best of the lot, which ultimately, is fine. Forrest Gump is a great movie. It just so happens that The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction are even better.
You could stew over all three and try to decipher just as I have here as to who was really the most deserving of that Oscar. Regardless of what choice you would make or if you were to agree with mine here today, one thing is for certain, 1994 was a special year and these three movies make it so. It’s been 25 years since they came out and I’m certain in 25 years this debate will still rage on.