‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Everything Everywhere’: Sometimes the Oscar Season Game Changer Is Beaten by the Game

There’s a film in the Oscar best picture race that has younger Academy voters and a new generation of film critics excited, while their older peers in both camps appear more what one might call agitated.

It’s a fairly neat generational split. The film’s anarchic spirit and unorthodox mix of genre filmmaking and biting social commentary is seen as daring and refreshing by its young fans, while its older detractors are scratching their heads over weird tonal shifts, from comic and rollicking one minute, serious and reflective in the next, shifting from spoofing genre tropes to questioning of societal norms.

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The year is 1968 and the film is Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde.”

But you’d be forgiven if you found the paragraphs above an apt description of this year’s Producers Guild Awards best feature winner, “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Just as “Bonnie” was a landmark film in Academy history, causing massive gnashing of teeth over its real value and meaning as a watershed in both its graphic ultra-violence and its unconventional take on the standard-issue cops-and-robbers pictures that Hollywood had been routinely manufacturing for decades, “Everything” has skeptics tut-tutting about how magic bagel portals and hot dog fingers got into the Oscar race in the first place.

With “Clyde,” it was an off-kilter mix of antic banjo-orchestrated car chases that the film’s lovers saw as meta before meta was a thing. The haters saw this as cornpone cartoon buffoonery befitting TV’s low-brow comedy hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

That dismissal turned out to cost the New York Times longtime chief film critic, Bosley Crowther, his perch at the top of the critical pecking order.

For the record, Variety was just as doubtful, if not more, and our critic wrote a pretty hard pan, noting “Conceptually, the film leaves much to be desired, because killings and the backdrop of the Depression are scarcely subjects for a bundle of laughs… The David Newman-Robert Benton screenplay depicts the Parker-Barrow gang as clowns and good-natured oafs most of the time, even during some of their holdups. Characterizations are, in the main, inconsistent and confusing.”

Which brings us to the present moment.

There were no PGA Awards in 1968, and “Everything’s” victory with that group could signal a sunnier fate than “Clyde’s” on Oscar night. Up for 10 Oscars, including best picture, director, screenplay and no less than five acting noms, “Clyde” settled for best cinematography and supporting actress nods and a place in the pantheon of modern Hollywood entertainments that were box office hits and made critics swoon.

With over $100 million at the global box office, “Everything” ticks the hit pic box nicely. But will a newer, younger, bigger, more international Academy bestow its top prize on so divisive and unorthodox a proposition?

The road to Oscar is littered with pictures that the critics embraced, and the Oscar voters passed over for less critically celebrated fare. Think “Social Network” vs “The King’s Speech” and “Brokeback Mountain” vs “Crash” and you have two vivid examples from this century.

So, if “Everything” turns out to be a little too out there for a few too many voters, which film may become the 2023 equivalent of the solid, well-meaning, well-made “In the Heat of the Night,” which triumphed over Arthur Penn’s success d’estime on that Oscar night 55 years ago.

First, let’s look at the five nominated pictures, with the understanding that today’s competitive set of 10 makes any comparison to 1968 an inexact exercise. But it’s too much fun to resist.

To continue the analogy, “Bonnie and Clyde” is “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Everyone knows it’s a gamechanger, but the Academy tends to vote for features that make the Academy look serious and smart. In other words, this might be a case of a hot dog finger too far.

I can see the big colorful Hollywood spectacle of 1967, “Dr. Doolittle,” in James Cameron’s big colorful Hollywood spectacle “Avatar: The Way of Water.” The list of fantasy films that have taken the best picture prize over nearly a century is short indeed. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” however, proved it was not impossible.

The Academy loves its smart, snappy, sophisticated, urbane, highbrow entries and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve” triumphed over 70 years ago. But in 1968, the witty hipster Mike NIchols’ social satire “The Graduate,” like the Warren Beatty film “Clyde,” changed the course of Hollywood filmmaking but failed to take best picture. This year’s Straight Outta New Yorker entry, “Tár” will have a hard time converting its critics group plaudits into a best picture victory.

In 1968, Hollywood needed a social parable that was perhaps overly obvious and a bit heavy-handed, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” served the purpose of putting the town on the right side of the Civil Rights revolution. Unfortunately, “Heat of the Night” did all of that and shared the same Black superstar of the era, Sidney Poitier, but it was dramatic and hard-hitting where “Guess” treated the subject of race relations with a gentler touch.

There’s nothing gentle about “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but with the war in Ukraine reaching its grim one-year anniversary, the film has a bounty of noms in appreciation for its plaintive anti-war sentiments disguised as a tale of two Irishmen who can’t get along.

Of course, this year, the anti-war film that just swept the BAFTA Awards, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” has the benefit of being a real war film and a powerful update of material that already scored a best picture Oscar.

Which may mean that the most likely films to cause that statuette to slip from “Everything’s” hands are the big, noble, classically wrought war epic and the personal ode to Hollywood artistry from an old Academy favorite, Steven Spielberg, with his “The Fabelmans.”

It’s an old joke now, the Academy’s love for movies about the movies. But just as that valentine to Hollywood moviemaking, “The Artist,” came out of left field to capture the gold in 2012, “Fabelmans” has the added benefit of being a domestic drama and a coming-of-age of story, with the central figure perhaps the central figure of modern Hollywood.

The contenders for the 1979 top prize included “All That Jazz,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Breaking Away” and “Norma Rae.” They were, respectively, a dazzling creative backstage tour de force, a breathtakingly ambitious anti-war allegory, a moving and effective sports story and a modern classic about labor relations in America. But what film won best picture? It was the drama about a family getting through divorce and the effect of family traumas on the young boy caught between warring parents, “Kramer vs Kramer.”

Even the young thesp who played that boy, Justin Henry, made history by being Oscar’s youngest-ever nominee. He didn’t win, but the picture took five Oscars: Aside from best picture, it nabbed director, screenplay, actor and supporting actress.

Can any Oscar history lesson prepare us for the awards night that is ahead of us? There’s always one surprise on Oscar night — and usually only one surprise on Oscar night. As the “Moonlight” vs. “La La Land” mixup at the 2017 ceremony and last year’s Will Smith-Chris Rock moment should remind us, one is sometimes enough.

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