As the year nears its end we head towards what is perhaps the most magical time of the year – Oscar Season. This is when studios tend to release the films they want to be seen as Oscar contenders as apparently academy members have very short memories so being recent helps a lot.
The Oscars have been going on for decades, the first being held in 1929, and has been held every year since, not letting war, industry strikes and indifference get in the way. Importantly, the Academy, the people who vote for the Oscars are all in the filmmaking industry. This is in contrast, to say, the Golden Globes, which is voted on by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Membership to the Academy is by being nominated or winning an Oscar or being nominated by two existing members.
Being nominated or winning an Oscar is not simply about being the best. Studios, and sometimes individuals, campaign for an Oscar. There is a small industry in Hollywood around this with millions of dollars being spent on advertising and promotional events. There’s not only campaigning for your own but if you want to do a little to damage to another film’s campaign so be it. When Good Will Hunting was looking like a strong Oscar contender a rumour started that the film wasn’t written by the stars, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, but by their friend and filmmaker, Kevin Smith. The Oscar business can be pretty cut-throat.
The Right Sort Of Film
I do have a couple of axes to grind with the Academy in terms of who wins Oscars. And while I am still angry The King’s Speech beat The Social Network for Best Picture that’s not what I’m going to talk about. There are certain types of films that win Oscars. They tend to be dramas. They tend to be on weighty topics. They have tragedy in them. Films are often described as Oscar contenders before anyone has seen them simply by knowing what the film is about. And in my opinion, there are two genres that do not get the level of respect from the Academy they deserve: science-fiction and comedy.
To deal with the latter first, as I said, the Academy loves tragedy. Give them a sad story full of death, illness and struggle and you’re halfway to your Oscar. But if you make them laugh, they might enjoy it but you’ll probably not win any awards. Judging by my own criteria the last comedy to win Best Picture was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977 (films like The Artist or Argo may have comedic moments but are not comedies). So no nominations for The Man With Two Brains, This Is Spinal Tap or Shaun of the Dead, films far superior to some Oscar winners. I think comedy is far harder to do than drama, to paraphrase a famous quote that has been attributed to many people – Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Next up is science-fiction. I went back to 1950 and couldn’t find a Best Picture Oscar winner film that was science-fiction, in Best Director only Gravity comes close to that category. 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most iconic and influential movies ever made, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture and while I’m sure actual nominees Rachel, Rachel and The Lion In Winter are great films I feel the Academy made a mistake there. The categories that sci-fi films do traditionally get nominated in are technical awards. Only recently have superhero films managed to crack into Oscar awards territory, Logan was nominated for Best Screenplay and Black Panther for Best Picture. Many people think that The Dark Knight‘s omission from Best Picture nominee was what prompted the Academy to increase the number of nominees.
One of the most egregious Oscar snubs of recent years was the film The AV Club recently put top in their list of films of the decade – Mad Max: Fury Road. The film did win some Oscars, e.g. Costume Design, Sound Mixing and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director but I was stunned that there was no nomination for Charlize Theron. Not only was Theron brilliant (and already an Oscar winner) but the film ticked a lot of boxes for Oscar films – there was tragedy, there was suffering and there was drama. Theron’s character, Furiosa, even managed to upstage Max, whose name is in the title of the film.
The comedy equivalent is a bit further back but the truly brilliant Groundhog Day which got a grand total of zero Oscar nominations. What more do the Academy want? Groundhog Day is a hilarious comedy, with a unique premise, an amazing central performance from Murray, and is a film that somehow manages to tread a careful line of being funny whilst musing on the meaning of life. And has numerous suicides.
As I said, Oscar season is soon upon us and we shall see if this year bucks the trend.
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