It’s that time of year again, friends, to talk of things award and nomination. Yes, the ever-churning onslaught of Oscar season, which has expanded outwardly towards dozens of regional and national institutions just dying to give another award to the same old batch of majority-pleasing movies, is in full swing. And with that comes the opposing contingent, those who are automatically skeptical of anything of which an institution like the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would approve. They’ll whine about how it ends up being predictable, self-congratulatory, and fairly bland, and maybe they’ll be right, but in the process, they’ll do themselves and the cinema a great disservice by trotting out a term that means nothing – “Oscar bait.”
So what do we mean when we say “Oscar bait”? This TV Tropes article does a pretty good job of laying out the case as I’ve come to understand it, noting that specific types of movies tend to win awards, and thus studios release (they rarely make them any more) those kinds of movies to win awards. Fair enough. But where does it end? Who decides? Let’s break it down.
1) Know Your History, and Your Present
Since they give out the awards after which the term is based, let’s talk about The Academy. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927 with a dual purpose – to mediate labor disputes (in the favor of big studios), and to improve the image of the motion picture industry. In 1915, the United States Supreme Court unanimously declared that movies were pure commerce, and had no artistic or journalistic merit, as part of a determination as to whether any sort of censorship would be warranted. So the idea of forming a major institution for the cinema that expressly mentioned it as an art is a pretty major act, and the concept of giving out awards was, from the beginning, purely a way of publicly demonstrating that movies were Important, too, usually by highlighting accessible films with obvious social or moral import.
Over the years, the Academy has taken on a multifaceted purpose, and today they sponsor the restoration and maintenance of thousands of classics films, on celluloid, and rent their prints out to exhibitors all over the world. They regularly host events at their various theaters in Los Angeles (as well as programs in the Bay Area, New York, and Washington, D.C.) showing off new restorations of classic films for a mere $5. On December 13th of last year, they hosted a program and lecture on the films of 1912, exhibited on a hand-cranked projector that was made in 1909. If you’re going to insist that the Academy is terribly self-congratulatory and insular, one must also recognize the good that the endeavor has nonetheless produced.
2) It’s Not a New Idea
I’m always kind of impressed with how brazenly proud people are about talking about awards season in a disparaging manner, as if identifying the types of movies that win was particularly insightful (or incisive). But almost from the start, the Academy itself recognized that there would be a certain type of “Oscar Movie,” and that there would also be a higher realm of cinema that it would admire, but never fully embrace. In its first award show, it gave out two “Best Picture” statues, one to Wings with the designation “Most Outstanding Production,” and one to Sunrise, with the designation “Most Artistic Quality of Production.” Unsurprisingly, Wings has gone down in history as THE first winner of the Best Picture trophy. It has all the hallmarks of an Oscar Movie, from its all-important subject matter – WAR – to its love story across the ages, ending with the assertion that you can travel to the ends of the Earth, but the heart will always belong at home. And it’s just a great movie, but that’s besides the point for our purposes.
Since then, the Oscar Movie has always been a known quantity, and one can look to Looney Tunes shorts and Crosby & Hope films from Hollywood’s golden age to see how quickly and thoroughly this idea had become embedded in the public conscious.
3) Using it To Your Advantage
Since it’s a subject ripe for parody, why not one for profit? All right, this is where things get a little sticky – yes, indeed, some films are made, and some decisions on many more films are made, in an effort to get some notice at the Oscars. Sounds groundbreaking, right? And I suppose it is, from a very limited viewpoint of the cinema. Yes, film is an art form, and I think my recent top ten list shows a great deal of respect for film as art. But film is also entertainment, and in some small pockets of this grand industry, there are still people with a sense of showmanship. And I love that there are still filmmakers who know precisely which buttons to press to get precisely which reaction out of whoever. I go to the movies specifically to be manipulated; if I didn’t want to, I’d just stay home. I admire and warm to filmmakers who can do it well, whatever their ends are.
But just because one recognizes that such a decision might end in an Oscar doesn’t invalidate the decision artistically, and it certainly doesn’t invalidate it in an entertainment sense. Nobody questions Joss Whedon’s motivations when, in The Avengers, he has Hulk jump in from offscreen and catch Iron Man as he falls from the sky – he’s doing it to get our applause, and he’s earned it. The same goes for when Han Solo comes flying in to save Luke Skywalker, or when Brody blows up the shark, or anything else for that matter. These are moments intended to rouse you. So, too, is Abraham Lincoln’s “we’re stepped out on the world’s stage” speech near the climax of Lincoln from this year. And, to a different end, so too is that final scene in Brokeback Mountain when Ennis is holding Jack’s shirts and weeping, or Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” number. I love that, every time I watch Casablanca, I can feel everyone knowing exactly what they’ve got when the French out-sing the Germans with “La Marseillaise,” because if they didn’t know how powerful it was, it wouldn’t be in the picture. Effective manipulation is still effective, and recognizing the intention behind the scene does not invalidate that intention.
4) Who Are We Angry At?
You could say that if the intention is purely to win awards, then that IS invalid because it’s crass and vain and whatever else, and…okay? But all films are ultimately financed to make money. All of them. And appealing to the awards circuit is a very good way for films geared towards adults to make a little money while they’re at it. Megan Ellison, who heads Annapurna Pictures, might be a big believer in the arts, but she’s still hoping The Master will make a return on her investment. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s a real disconnect with the way I hear these things discussed, as if the naked commercialism of The Avengers is okay (“It’s a popcorn film!” nom nom), but the idea that Les Miserables might want to turn a profit is unthinkable.
The Oscars create a market for the type of films that Hollywood would otherwise be unable to market, because like it or not, there’s a huge segment of the population that turns out for movies that they think will win awards. And because of the films we get from this process, I am more than happy with this. That’s meant The Queen and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, yes, but it’s also meant everything from The Social Network to True Grit to Argo to Lincoln to Moonrise Kingdom to There Will Be Blood to An Education and Black Swan and anything that’s ever run a “For Your Consideration” ad in Variety over the last hundred-plus years. Even the ones that have tried and failed to be part of the conversation owe a debt to to this – you can bet Warner Brothers was hoping for an Oscar Movie when they financed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Fountain. The cinema is better for the market the Oscars created and have nurtured.
So, okay, maybe we’re only damning the films for which the creative types are in it to win awards! Fine, let’s get…who? Who can you definitively say is making movies purely to win awards, and who are you to say so? Sure, I think Tom Hooper can’t direct his way out of a box, and his films tend to reflect a desire to fulfill audience desires that he has no capacity to achieve, but I would never say he’s just in it for awards, because I’ve never heard him say anything of the kind, and I’ve never met the man myself. Who am I to say? I prefer to think that every filmmaker is genuinely trying to make a good film, and whether than mean working in the apparatus of the summer blockbuster or the January sleeper or the August who-gives-a-shit or the height of the Oscar season, I want to see what you’ve got. Move me! Make me laugh, make me cry, make me explode with everlasting joy! Make me a freaking movie, and if you do that, and you do it well, hell, be as crass as you’d like in the process, because, in the words of that immortal Oscar-baiter Clark Gable – frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.