By the time you read this, the Oscar nominations will be out and I’m sure the hot takes will be in full swing. It’s simultaneously the most wonderful time of the year and the most dreaded for Film Twitter. Never fear. Because by the time it’s over, we’ll all be grumbling about how none of it matters in an attempt to conceal the months of heightened emotions and over-investment we’ve put into this charade! I know I will. Hey, I don’t do sports, so this is my silly thing to care too much about, okay? This year, there’s real potential for the Academy to eschew the more traditional stories in favor of the unexpected, but there’s a reason Oscar bait endures.
Everyone knows Oscar bait when they see it, or at the very least, they have an understanding of the cinematic tenets that are culturally coded as prestigious in this vein. Certain characteristics or storytelling intentions are tossed carelessly under this label, whether it is accurate or not. It’s not something you can scientifically quantify, but that didn’t stop two researchers from trying!
A 2014 study by Gabriel Rossman and Oliver Schilke, two sociologists at UCLA, put together a list of identifying tropes for so-called Oscar bait to determine what films are the most and least likely to be labeled as deliberate attempts by a director or studio to garner awards praise. The research drew from data on IMDb, such as genres and plot keywords, for 3,000 movies released between 1985 and 2009 to see what elements were likeliest to draw Oscar nominations. The third highest-scoring title according to their figures was Milos Forman’s biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt, which received two Oscar nominations. Number two was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, one of the biggest Oscar winners ever but not necessarily accurate to the label of awards bait since high fantasy is almost entirely ignored by the Academy. The number one film in this study was an almost entirely forgotten drama that received zero Oscar nominations: 1990’s Come See the Paradise.
Directed by Alan Parker, best known for films like Fame, Evita, and Angela’s Ashes, Come See the Paradise stars Dennis Quaid and Tamlyn Tomita and tells the story of an interracial couple who fight to be together to the backdrop of the Second World War and the government-mandated internment of Japanese American citizens. On paper, it certainly has all the markers of something that could easily be categorized as awards bait: A romantic drama set during the Second World War; a story of social issues and race that takes on a dark and oft-ignored part of American history; the presence of a two-time Oscar-nominated director and an A-Lister in the lead role (playing a projectionist working in Los Angeles, to add an extra goodie); all that soaring trailer music; the late December release date. It’s the personalizing of a grander moment in history that the Academy tends to love, especially if it’s a period of strife for people of color where a white dude can be shoehorned into the narrative.
Come See the Paradise was entered into competition at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed against auteur-driven titles like Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague, and David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, the eventual controversial winner of the Palme d’Or. That’s really the only awards-adjacent attention the movie gained during its brief moment in the spotlight. It’s not as though critics hated it. Roger Ebert, for one, called it ‘a fable to remind us of how easily we can surrender our liberties, and how much we need them’ in his three-star review. The New York Times were also positive, even as they critique some of its more overtly-sentimental moments. Parker certainly came with a lot of clout as a director of social and political realism. At the time, its lack of nominations wouldn’t have been a surprise since its premiere at Cannes dropped with little enthusiasm, but now it has this strange ‘in hindsight’ status thanks to a very peculiar study. So, of course, I had to watch it!
Like many movies of this type made by and for white people, Come See the Paradise is dripping in good intentions and occasionally hits its intended mark. It’s handsomely made in a familiar manner and full of those period drama details that consistently draw the eye’s attention, even when the central narrative does not. Quaid is fine but the real star of the film is Tamlyn Tomita, who you may recognize from The Karate Kid Part II and The Joy Luck Club. The main issue with the film is that it’s clearly more interested in being a tragic and noble romance than in offering an insight into one of the most disgusting periods of 20th century American history. Doing so means that Quaid is given more narrative focus and thematic importance than Tomita and the rest of the Japanese-American characters. Kent A. Ono wrote that the film ‘neither takes seriously nor complicates the representation or discourse about mixed-race […] tell[ing] the story of the Japanese American incarceration as a history of benevolent white antiracism and does so through the generic framework of the heterosexual romantic narrative.’ In that aspect, it’s perfect for the Academy. So why didn’t it catch on?
The 63rd Academy Awards was a heavy mix of the expected and the surprising. Kevin Costner beat Martin Scorsese and the now-iconic Goodfellas with his historical epic Dances with Wolves, a movie that still has its fans but hasn’t necessarily aged all that well. Villains dominated the acting winners thanks to Jeremy Irons, Kathy Bates, and Joe Pesci, while Whoopi Goldberg made history by becoming the first black actress to take home an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel. There’s a solid mixture of the kind of movies we instantly shelf as Oscar bait (Dances with Wolves, The Godfather Part III and the kinds that, while part of genres or styles often recognized by the Academy, are kind of too good for such labels (The Grifters.)
All things considered, Come See the Paradise would fit in quite well with these nominations. Of course, it may have been tough to squeeze in a historical drama about race with one white hero at its center when Kevin Costner was already hogging up all the air in the room with his eventual victor. The film was good but not good enough, appealing to the Academy’s standards and cinematic fetishes but not interesting enough independent of them. Plenty of mediocre films have been Oscar darlings but they need to have good narrative in their corner, which Parker and his movie didn’t. He wasn’t a beloved industry darling with a distinct style, nobody thought he was overdue for a win, and he seemed rather dull compared to the one fellow Brit who did land a Best Director nomination that year, Stephen Frears, whose noir drama The Grifters is gloriously seedy and messed up. Sometimes, despite having plenty of good qualities in your corner, you just slip through the cracks.
So, why bother writing over a thousand words on a movie that nobody cares about or even remembers, based on a very suspect study that uses sweeping generalizations to make concrete assumptions? For me, it’s always worth trying to understand why Hollywood makes the movies that it does, what it hopes to achieve from doing so, and how such stories are categorized by audiences. It says something about how we’ve been trained as viewers when we see a story about Japanese-American internment and immediately assume it was made to win awards (especially since we haven’t exactly been inundated with films about the Japanese-American experience made by and for that audience over the decades.) Would a film like Come See the Paradise do better with Academy voters now or would we be more aware of the optics of celebrating a film that prizes a white guy over the people of color who were impacted by this period in history? Perhaps this is what that strange study exposes the most: Oscar bait is whiteness. Want more proof? The study found that one of the IMDb keywords that had one of the most negative correlations with Oscar nominations was ‘black independent film.’
Header Image Source: IMDb // 20th Century Fox