As we approach the finish line of this year’s Oscar race, we might ask: does anyone ever remember these things? Well, people are still talking about one from 20 years ago; America’s leading podcaster, Bill Simmons, is, according to the L.A. Times, “still worked up about [the] Oscar race that saw The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction lose the best picture award to Forrest Gump.” Mark Harris recently called the contest the first “Balls Argument” of the Internet era, writing that because Oscar voters supposedly lacked balls to support Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump “served as the official What’s Wrong With Hollywood whipping boy for a full decade.”
Yet is it possible we’ve misunderstood this race for 20 years? One lingering irony about the Battle Royale (with cheese?) between Forrest and Pulp is that those two era-defining films have a lot more in common than either of their fiercest partisans would like to admit. What if that legendary Oscar race, instead of representing studios versus indies or old guys versus young guys or nationalism versus nihilism, represented two different takes on the same story?
Did we say two? Too easy. Three of 1994’s Best Picture nominees have more in common than any trio of frontrunners in the twenty years since…and they remain three of America’s favorite films. There is no larger collection of film-lovers than the 500,000-odd people who have voted on imdb.com’s Top 250, and only one year accounts for three films in the Top 15, that being 1994 and those being Forrest, Pulp, and The Shawshank Redemption, the latter sitting at #1. These three relatively weighty films seem to be the only ones that mark frequent imdb users as anything other than action-adventure fanboys. What would it say about them and the Oscars and Hollywood history, then, if these three films were really three variations on the same themes?
Here are eight pieces of evidence, prefaced by this question: why is 1994 the only year that accounts for three films in imdb’s Top 40? Because 1994 was bound by historical influences that are unlikely to happen quite the same way again. Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption were released in 1994, but greenlit in 1992, the first full year after the Soviet implosion ended the Cold War. It was a time to say goodbye to all that, but also to compartmentalize the postwar period, decide what it was and what it meant that we’d lived through it. The early 1990s also saw a dramatic new forcefulness in African-American culture, symbolized by Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and eventually the Los Angeles riots of 1992. These early 90s marked the rise and ubiquity of grunge and hip-hop, the first time in decades that non-boomers had dominated the music scene (the top acts of the 80s, Michael, Prince, Madonna, and Bruce, were all late baby boomers). As Kurt Cobain and Ice Cube, among many others, shoved boomers off the stage, you could hardly blame the postwar generation for saying, “wait, we still need to explain what we meant.” Yet until now, it was assumed that these three beloved films represented three entirely different explanations.
As you read the reasons, then, ask yourself if Americans are really so fiercely conflicted in their tastes…or if we’re in fact fighting over different recipes for the same dish.
1. Black casting of roles written for whites
Forrest Gump: In Winston Groom’s 1986 novel (loosely based on Salman Rushdie’s idea for Midnight’s Children), the Bubba character is white
Pulp Fiction: not true and not applicable, BUT Reservoir Dogs was all-white, allowing the impression that Tarantino went from all-white to black-and-white, like the other two
The Shawshank Redemption: In Stephen King’s 1982 novella (loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s God Sees the Truth, But Waits), the Red character is white
The 1980s was the last decade in which major filmmakers – say, John Hughes, Tim Burton, Woody Allen – could cast all-white ensembles and pretend that they represented a microcosm of society. Spike Lee helped to break down the door; Denzel Washington’s obvious volcanic talent, along with his 1990 Oscar, helped show Hollywood that its movies would be better if they weren’t quite as monochromatic. All three of these 1994 films were greenlit in the months after the 1992 riots, which were perceived as an existential threat to Los Angelenos; perhaps Rodney King’s statement “Can’t we all get along?” was a bit of a challenge. Which leads directly to:
2. Black man and white man as best friends, representing racial reconciliation
Forrest Gump: Forrest calls Bubba “my best good friend” and keeps his promise to open a shrimp business in Bubba’s memory
Pulp Fiction: Jules and Vincent “present” as besties even though they may not be (see below)
The Shawshank Redemption: Andy and Red represent perhaps the deepest male-male (straight) relationship ever seen on film; tvtropes.org notes that their relationship inverts the “Magical Negro” stereotype
The “Magical Negro” figure predates cinema; it’s a gentle, advice-giving, unblinkingly supportive black man utterly disassociated with African-American culture. Prior to 1994, most black-white male-male relationships onscreen had been either “Magical Negro”-based or genre-based – the latter having begun 20 years before with Blazing Saddles and proceeded through hit genre films like Stir Crazy, 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, and The Last Boy Scout. Compared to the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor and Mel Gibson-Danny Glover romps, they were more sober ways to answer Rodney King’s question in the affirmative.
While Forrest’s relationship was almost a token gesture and Shawshank remains something of an exceptional case, Pulp Fiction was a little more complicated: watched closely, it’s obvious that Jules and Vincent aren’t exactly BFF. But we remember them that way, partly because they’re holding guns together in those famous promotional images, and partly because in the rest of Pulp Fiction, two characters chatting signifies flirting and intimacy – Pumpkin/Honey Bunny, Vincent/Mia, Butch/Fabienne. (When a character is alone, or in a group of 3 or more, disaster strikes.) If you can talk about Dutch idiosyncracies, foot massages, TV shows, and miracles with a guy, he’s probably close to a best good friend.
3. A certain kind of magical realism
Forrest Gump: Forrest’s sloughing off his braces; his ability to outrun cars and wide receivers; his ping-pong talent; his hurricane survival; his appearance in moments of American history
Pulp Fiction: Mia’s “square”; the basement scene; the background behind Butch’s cab; the much, much-considered bullets that miss Vincent and Jules
The Shawshank Redemption: Generally, a Christ parable; also, writer-director Frank Darabont told the BBC, “I’ve always described The Shawshank Redemption not as a prison movie but as a ‘tall tale’”
None of these films are as realistic as most Best Picture winners (say, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, Argo, and 12 Years a Slave), but none of them are exactly fantasies either. Shawshank has the fewest obviously fake moments, even as close inspection reveals nothing less than a Jesus narrative (not unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and E.T.; the stations of the cross are there if you know what to look for). All three films push the envelope on realism while disproving seminar organizers paid to tell us to “write what you know.” Forrest Gump‘s novelist Winston Groom did not know a savant Zelig; Stephen King, author of the Shawshank novella, has not spent time in a prison; Quentin Tarantino is not well-acquainted with real gangsters.
The only based-on-real-events film in imdb’s Top 40 is Schindler’s List, revealing a general disconnect between fans and the Academy, which almost always anoints some kind of biopic or supposed “true story” as a top contender. Imdb voters may see these Bravehearts and A Beautiful Minds and Argos the way that Oscar voters saw Quiz Show in 1994: polite, well-meaning, interesting, but not reaching for flights of fancy and depths of pathos. That’s one reason that this Oscar race has retained our interest for 20 years: if this made-up story, why not that made-up story?
It would be nice, but inaccurate, to claim that all three films are the kind of middle-budget melodramas that Hollywood no longer makes…only two of them are. Pulp Fiction is its own sort of throwback that can no longer be made, partly because, compared with today’s films and Tarantino’s later work, it lacks genre imperatives (e.g. get revenge, beat the bad guy, land the girl, get the people their money back, etc.).
4. Running time
Forrest Gump: 2 hours 22 minutes
Pulp Fiction: 2 hours 30 minutes
The Shawshank Redemption: 2 hours 22 minutes
5. Amount of deaths
Forrest Gump (6): John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, Bubba, Momma, Jenny
Pulp Fiction (6): Roger, Brett, the boxer Butch kills, Maynard, 4th man, Marvin
The Shawshank Redemption (6): Wife, golf pro, Fat Ass, Brooks, Tommy, Norton
It is true that JFK, RFK, and Lennon’s death aren’t organically part of Forrest Gump’s story – but that’s all the more reason to add them to the body count. Gump goes out of his way to mention them, as he fails to do for Martin Luther King or anyone else he doesn’t know. Technically, Zed from the basement might belong on this list, particularly based on Butch’s categorical statement (“Zed’s dead”), but we don’t actually see Zed die, and if sorted chronologically, the narrative conspicuously ends before Marcellus has had much of a chance to gather his “pipe-hitting niggas.”
20 years ago, many critics chastised Pulp Fiction for needless, gratuitous deaths, but it’s now obvious that such complaints were really about a pop-comic nihilist perspective, not the deaths per se. Deaths are used the same way in all of these made-up stories, the way deaths are used in all films: to refocus the characters and the viewers on what’s really important.
6. Anal/bathroom issues
Forrest Gump: Only two, but big ones – meeting President Kennedy, where he says “I gotta pee!”, and meeting President Johnson, where he moons him, showing him his war wound in the buttocks
Pulp Fiction: Everyone goes to the bathroom – Jules, Jules w/Vincent, Mia, Butch/Fabienne, Honey Bunny (wants to). Vincent’s 3 solo trips end in disaster. Also Koons’ gold watch story, and Marcellus is raped and then says he’s “gonna get medieval on your ass”
The Shawshank Redemption: Andy is repeatedly raped, and some consider his entire escape a sort of evacuation through a long cavity, or as Red puts it, “through 500 feet of the foulest smelling shit”
You really have to work to find one other Best Picture nominee, ever, with half the anal issues of Pulp or Shawshank. Psychoanalysis still uses Freud when describing the anal stage: a period of childhood, really toddlerhood, where the kid learns to control his sphincter, and thus becomes either over-controlling (anal-retentive) or over-giving (anal-expulsive). In the case of Forrest and Pulp, our heroes are kids in a candy store, children in a big world, and with the exception of Vince, who took one bathroom trip too many, these kids get forgiven for all of their questionable judgments and childish impulses. They are Peter Pans, and their Neverland is a modern America of arrested developments, where our Pans learn that adults don’t know better than children. In the case of Shawshank, Andy and Red are not exactly anti-maturity pixies, yet there are few films where we see our leads prevented from reaching their potential for decades…and when they do reach it, they turn into beach bums, not unlike the way that Vince and Jules are dressed in the final shot of Pulp Fiction.
You really have to work to find I-don’t-have-to-grow-up narratives in Oscar races or the imdb list; much more often, films follow something like Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, a hero’s journey that includes a new maturity naturally associated with aforementioned genre imperatives: saving the town, landing the lead female, reconciling with their kids. (Even Wendy, the lead of Peter Pan, follows this narrative.) In fairness, Andy Dufresne does follow the hero’s journey even as he also appears to squander most of his good years. Perhaps all three films appeal to squanderers and man-cave-dwellers waiting for their 20-year payoff.
7. State of grace
Forrest Gump: bus-stop emphasis is on graceful acceptance of all that has happened to him; he spins a web of forgiveness, compassion, and surrender (his higher power may be America)
Pulp Fiction: Vince doesn’t get it; Butch gets on a bike, ahem, chopper clearly labeled GRACE which he rides into Sunset (boulevard); Jules is trying real hard to be that shepherd
The Shawshank Redemption: after hitting all the notes in a Jesus narrative, Andy and Red meet on that Mexican beach as the camera ascends heavenward
A state of grace is sometimes dismissed as a youth’s “state” before losing their virginity, but any Christian will tell you that anyone can come to a state of grace…and should, before they die. Forrest Gump uses the least literal Christian scripture of these three, but it would hardly be surprising to learn it’s the most embraced by the actual faithful, considering Forrest’s central, essential characteristic of letting everything fall off of him like water off a duck’s back. (For all we know, except for one night with Jenny, Forrest’s life is in the narrowly defined state of grace.) Pulp Fiction and Shawshank each have their own somewhat jaunty takes on Christianity, but in the final scene, it sounds like Jules is using the Bible to exhibit new levels of forgiveness, compassion, and even the surrender of a materialist life. Andy provides for his 12 followers on the tar roof while refusing to drink of alcohol himself; Andy splays his arms like Jesus three times in Shawshank (the final and most famous one is on the poster), each time seen with a God’s-eye-view, each time while a righteous, yet evil man thinks he is defeating Andy, when in fact Andy is defeating him. (First Hadley, then Boggs, then Norton.) Andy is ready for a state of grace.
and finally…8. Mashing up 3 decades of post-World War II American history into something usable
Forrest Gump: Roughly 1952 to 1982; in the novel, it’s clearer that Forrest Gump was born in 1945, a symbol of victorious America and his baby boom generation
Pulp Fiction: Roughly 1954 to 1984; the entire soundtrack (there’s no orchestrated “score”) and all of the cultural references (see below)
The Shawshank Redemption: The novella’s timeline runs from 1947 to 1975, though the film compresses these years even as it turns Warden Norton into a full-blown Richard Nixon figure
Explaining three sets of three decades is going to take a minute. Forrest Gump is obviously about recontextualizing American history; it presents seminal American events from 1952 to 1982 as something no one could have ever helped. Forrest is both echo and enabler of history, both forgiver and he who is forgiven. The soundtrack is almost exclusively songs that were already played to death in good 1980s and 90s films by Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone and bad retro films by others from the same time; here, they’re a layer on a layer as well as post-ironic Mickey Mousing (e.g., “Running on Empty” as Forrest is running on empty). At best they make you wonder if you should laugh or cry at our shared history and mistakes. No matter how much you love it or hate it, Forrest Gump clearly takes an extended bath in American nostalgia and comes out squeaky clean. It’s probably best compared to Groom’s obvious inspiration, Salman Rushdie’s 1981 book Midnight’s Children, where the lead character, representing India, struggles to contain India’s diversity within himself, and even cracks and fragments from the strain. Comparatively, our Forrest guilelessly floats from major event to major event, less like the feather that opens and closes the film and more like an unsteered boat that somehow manages to avoid reefs and shoals (like Gump’s boat during Hurricane Carmen). Stupid is as stupid does, but stupid does pretty well, well enough to send off a smart, healthy white boy to school in the concluding scene.
Pulp Fiction clearly doesn’t take place over decades; the story is over within a week. Far more than most films (including other Tarantino films), Pulp Fiction is a postmodern recovery, reusing, and pastiche of cultural artifacts from about 1954 to 1984. Just to name some of the more obvious ones: the entire soundtrack (which stands out more because the film has no “score”), the title, everything at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, spaghetti westerns in general (Tarantino called the film “a rock and roll spaghetti western”), the briefcase MacGuffin, many 1960s Truffaut and Godard films featuring chatty guys in jazz suits, many, many films and shows from the 1970s (a partial list: The Aristocats, The Godfather, Deliverance, Kung Fu, Happy Days, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Karate Kiba, The Deer Hunter, Halloween, and anything with dancing Travolta), and 1980s musicians including A Flock of Seagulls and “Madonna in Lucky Star.” As Fredric Jameson explains, one of the main effects of postmodern pastiche is to reassure us that we know as much as we need to know about the past, and to reaffirm or resituate the past as something that for us is now pure spectacle, pure entertainment, freed from whatever ideological baggage it once had. While Vincent is hardly forgiven in the same sense as Forrest or Andy – in fact, he’s killed – the overall mood of Pulp Fiction is absolute absolution, a coolness that says that adults are just kids like the rest of us.
Why does Shawshank take place in the past at all? Why not simply update King’s story so that Andy escapes in the 1990s? Why does the film bother with the apparently superfluous information that Kennedy has become president, and then later, that he was killed? Thanks for asking! In the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Andy arrives in prison in 1947 and escapes in 1975, a period which, according to Mark Kermode, “eerily matches the political career of Richard Nixon.” For Kermode, Warden Norton personifies Nixon down to the smallest details – his talk, his walk, his arrogance, his blatant hypocrisy. Certainly the film compresses King’s timeline, releasing Andy in 1966, and situating Jack Kennedy’s Presidency notably after the death of Brooks Hatlen. If Brooks couldn’t survive in a pre-JFK, pre-MLK America, Andy and Red can and do, Red unlocking Andy’s potential just as the civil rights movement unlocked hyphenate-American movements. The film is saying to baby boomers: you were right all along, back in the late 1960s. You were free and full of hope, and now that you’ve accepted yourself, you can be the person you always were. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” yes, but being busy living can mean being free on a beach, as we were in the Summer of Love. Zihautanejo is where heaven meets earth, where Christian forgiveness and redemption meets Andy and Red’s earthly happiness. Boomers, and the rest of us, need to believe that graceful place can exist after all our wandering and squandering, as we saw in Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction.
In the end, what does it all mean? So what if these three films were similar; weren’t Deep Impact and Armageddon? And No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits? Sure. But Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption have been accepted into the must-see canon as few others have, and it’s jarring to realize the canon isn’t as expansive as it might be. Further, we may have been seeing this Oscar race all wrong for twenty years now. Instead of studio versus indie, sentimentality versus sarcasm, geezers versus geeks, perhaps we should see this 20-year argument as a fight over variations on a theme, less like Beethoven vs. Beatles and more like Beatles vs. Stones (vs. The Who, since we’ve made it a three-way race). Though no one really knew it at the time, in 1994, we needed a pair of black and white best male friends starring in a Cold War-era-summarizing film to assure us we didn’t have to change much to achieve a state of grace. We just disagreed on the nuances. The 20 years since have brought us other cinematic reconciliations of more recent events, but if the imdb list is any guide, these are the reconciliations we still find most useful, perhaps (perhaps) because we like to flatter ourselves that we “solved” race relations and the Cold War during the 20th century. Forrest Gump didn’t really beat Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. They all won.