Tom Jolliffe looks back at the Oscars in 1996, when Heat was criminally overlooked by the Academy…
The year was 1996, which looked back over the films of the previous year. It was a fairly strong year, and like a lot of the nomination lists throughout that decade there are some oddities. There are also glaring omissions. When I look back at a great year of films, my three favourites from 1995 would have to be Se7en, The Usual Suspects and Heat. Not one of these was nominated for Best Picture.
Two still got some recognition from the board. The Usual Suspects was nominated for two awards and won both, for Kevin Spacey (Best supporting actor) and Christopher McQuarrie (Best Original Screenplay). Se7en was nominated for best editing. Heat on the other hand was completely ignored. Not even a token nod for best catering or something. In a film about cops and robbers, this omission was the most criminal thing.
Who knows what happened. Did the studio forget to do enough hobnobbing, or did they forgo all the marketing required to boost your films Oscar potential. Indie films can’t ordinarily do that but Heat was a big studio picture. It had the clout. The film didn’t flop. It wasn’t a huge box office success but it did solid enough numbers not to get the ‘bomb’ blackball. It was a success with critics and with audiences alike. When you’re dealing in the crime genre did it take on the burden of expectation that comes with casting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro? You’re in a genre including their masterworks like The Godfather or Goodfellas. Look, savage me if you must but for me, Heat is in the ballpark playing with those fellas. It’s right up there. It’s easily the finest crime drama since Goodfellas and it hasn’t been topped since. Note that The Departed which was also a fantastic crime film, actually did garner plenty of Oscar love in 2007’s awards. It’s a great film but it’s no Heat.
I can see as an example the difficulty when it comes to picking a best leading performance. Pacino and De Niro, the two heavyweight titans of the time, were still in good fettle and they both get complex and interesting roles here. They step into the ring, toe to toe and fight each other to stand still. So if you have to pick one for Best Lead Actor you can’t, and you can’t really pick two. So they almost null and void each other.
However Heat almost certainly should have been nominated for Best Picture, Cinematography (Should have won, never mind lacking a nomination when Batman Forever received one), Editing, Sound (every department), Screenplay and Director. One thing that some cynics often labelled some of Mann’s crime films, was style over substance which has always bugged me because despite the gorgeous stylistic visuals and impeccable framing and cinematography of Heat (Manhunter and Thief too) there’s always a deep character study of the cop or robber (or in the case of Heat, both). Not only that but his attention to realism and detail is second to none in this genre. He wrote these films intelligently. Did he write great female characters? Not particularly, although Heat features some of his most interesting and lets face it, look through the Oscars, year upon year and best picture categories, particularly last century wouldn’t exactly pass much muster in the Bechdel test. Lets not get snowflakey here though, or all millennial. Heat is what it is and it does the cops and robbers thing with absolute aplomb and cinema is all about variety. This came out the same year as Sense And Sensibility (which was nominated for best picture).
Heat would not be the first or last time the Academy got things wrong. Babe was a sort of decent family film with a nice message but a Best Picture nominee? Seriously? Babe?? Pass the bacon. Apollo 13 was decent but it wasn’t great. I can also see why Braveheart won and Sense And Sensibility was nominated. They’re absolute Oscar candy. Good films certainly. You’d have put your house on both being nodded at the time.
Go back through the years however and look at every best picture and compare to the other nominees or some of the overlooked. How many of those best pics are ‘classics’? Or have become iconic? How many could you honestly call the best film of the year? To put it into more context, Shakespeare In Love, Crash and Forrest Gump are all best picture winners. In 1999, when Shakespeare In Love won for example. It’s the weakest of the nominees and then you’ve got films like American History X or The Big Lebowski that still capture new audiences and are iconic. Both overlooked. I could name more, probably dozens more. It’s not to say Shakespeare In Love was bad, but it sort of wasn’t particularly great. It was pure frilly Academy bait. It’s a standard rom-com under the guise of high brow because it has Shakespeare in the title.
Maybe another element that worked against Heat was the lineage. After all it’s a remake of Mann’s TV movie, LA Takedown. It also covers ground from Mann’s previous crime dramas like Thief (Caan’s titular thief has a similar personality to De Niro) or Manhunter (with a cop as obsessive as Pacino’s). So even as far as Michael Mann’s CV, Heat isn’t new and traditionally the cops and robbers thing isn’t one of the Oscar’s favoured genres (unless it’s backed by biographical reality because they love a good bio pic).
However, lets look at the year itself and look at the film as a whole. Was there a more thrillingly tense action sequence than the heist shootout? As a set piece, from it’s sound (recorded live from the set) to its gritty execution, it’s exceptionally conceived and delivered. It’s an absolutely brutal sequence. There’s not a sideways dive, an inconveniently tilted gun, or a dove in sight. It’s all meticulously conceived to look like a set of highly trained officers are up against a team of highly trained criminals (some with military backgrounds). Reality doesn’t always make the most exciting on-screen but you watch this, or the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan for example and when done so well it’s gut wrenchingly savage. Heat’s big action scene in the grand pantheon of film shootouts is one of the best and hasn’t been bettered since. Not even close.
Was there a scene as brilliantly simple and just downright electrifying as De Niro and Pacino’s now infamous diner scene. It’s a simple scene. Mann doesn’t go overly dramatic or make a big thing of it. It’s two guys talking quite politely, whilst giving just enough away to form some kind of connection but not making a song and dance of the scene. It’s just powerful. It’s shot simply, mostly on two cameras with as delicately handled an edit as you can imagine. Pacino’s character from being wild and gesticulating a lot during the rest of the film is calmer, more reigned in and respectful. De Niro’s character likewise listens intently and remains calm and cool. It’s a master class in writing, directing, editing and acting. Simplicity done to perfection. It’s one of the best scenes in film history.
So yes, Heat was most certainly criminally overlooked. Let us know your thoughts below. Was Heat unfairly overlooked? Which other films have been overlooked unfairly over the years?