What We Talk About When We Talk About Oscar Bait
It’s that time of year again, when Harvey Weinstein dusts off his hyponosis ray and rises from the depths to throw money at any organization that might have something to do with determining who wins come Oscar night. The highfalutin biopics are out, and they are ready to tell you how ~important~ they are.
That’s right, rubber ducks. The season of Oscar bait approacheth.
The short, generally agreed upon definition of Oscar bait is a film that appears to have been designed with the sole intention of winning awards. Practical use of the label, though—as in, applying it to specific films—is a subjective endeavor fraught with bias. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” type things. Two films from this month, in particular, seem to fit the bill: The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. Both are biopics of famous scientists with dramatic, tragedy-tinted lives. Both star up-and-coming British actors who have won the war of Internet buzz and are on the cusp of finally getting validation from the only organization that really matters when it comes to movies (note the sarcasm, please): The Academy. And let’s toss in Unbroken, which looks like the most Oscar bait-y Oscar bait to ever Oscar bait. Based on a true story? Check. World War II? Check. A tale of stirring courage and the triumph of the human spirit in a time of diversity? Check, check, check. The first trailer looks like a personal exercise in just how high one could ramp up the ’90s-era Spielberg.
These types of films put my teeth on edge. But am I, in the words of the great Billy Joel, being a snoot? What’s even wrong with Oscar bait? Clear some room in your chest of drawers, because we are going to unpack.
Let’s take as a case study a movie that, if the title is said in a ten-mile radius, makes steam start to rise from my head: Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a biopic about King George VI overcoming his stuttering problem so he rally his countrymen and embody ~*~true English spirit~*~ and win the war and sock Hitler in his jaw. Oh, and about walls, because Tom Hooper fucking loves walls:
It is, essentially, Masterpiece Theater. The story and script are serviceable, the acting is great, but there’s nothing particularly spectacular or innovative about it. It’s… good. That its reviews and box office reflected that is fine. It’s great! No problems there. But then it had to go win four Oscars, including Best Picture, like it’s not the milquetoast blandness it is. In an excellent essay on Grantland, Mark Harris examines the perception that “the best picture never wins” and posits that the reason we hate films like The King’s Speech has less to do with the films themselves and more to do with the way they “stole” Oscar success from films we, the snooty cinephile intelligentsia, think should have won, like The Social Network. (My vote would’ve gone to Toy Story 3, but that’s because I’m a snooty cinephile intelligentsia with a bias towards animated movies.) Forrest Gump might be goopy treacle, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say people wouldn’t be nearly so vociferous about hating it if it hadn’t beat out Pulp Fiction for Best Picture.
The problem many people, myself included, have with Oscar bait is that it feels disingenuous: It’s all about the surface, the shininess, the gold, and not about true originality and creativity. “A simple story told well is fine,” we tell ourselves, adjusting our glasses reorganizing our Stanley Kubrick DVD collection by mood, “but they shouldn’t get Oscars. Oscars are a step above.”
But here’s the problem: Nah, bro. Nah. The Oscars are really not.
Oscar bait movies are what the Oscars deserve, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way. (Well, maybe a little.) The Oscars are about shininess, about solid movies that—and this is important—appeal to a vast swath of the population. The Oscars take place in Los Angeles, in a ceremony watched by millions of people, not in some 2 cool 4 school hole in the wall video rental place in Austin. “But the Oscars are supposed to be about the best film of the year,” you proclaim, “about art!” Who told you that? Did the Oscars tell you that? Because they’re lying to you. You are drinking their Kool-Aid. They’re not about the best film of the year, and they shouldn’t be, because the very idea of determining, definitively, the best film of the year is fucking ridiculous. The Oscars are America’s Next Top Model, and the Oscar bait movie is the model who’s maybe not as good as her fellow contestants, but damn, the producers love her because she stirs shit up and has a boyfriend back home who’s cheating on her with her twin sister. The whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable, as long as you can turn your brain off and not take it as seriously as it takes itself. Otherwise, you get increased blood pressure and a tendency to whine about “waaah, waaaaah, Oscar bait!”
Believe me, I know. Every year I say I’m not going to give a shit about the Oscars, about noms and snubs and Weinsten scandals. That this year, it will be fun, and I won’t get righteously indignant over some stupid thing I won’t even remember next year. But here I am, sideeying The Imitation Game and getting indignant on behalf of films and directors that should’ve gotten more Academy recognition than they did. Do you think Hitchcock cared that he never won a Best Directing Oscar? But does Pulp Fiction not winning Best Picture make it somehow less important to the filmic landscape? Please.
Say you do recognize the Oscars for the occasionally enjoyable tripe it is. You don’t take them too seriously. Then “Oscar bait” films because even worse, in a way, because they’re compromising their integrity for something that doesn’t matter. But… is that worse, really? Every movie’s made for an audience. Why is J. Edgar trying and failing to pander to to an audience of 50-something Academy voters somehow more worthy of scorn than After Earth trying and failing to pander to 20-something sci-fi nerds? If a movie’s bad, that sucks because it’s bad, not because it’s Oscar bait. People often slap the “Oscar bait” label on movies before they even come out, after all, based on its marketing campaign, which often the people who actually made the film have nothing to do with.
I still hate Oscar bait. I know it’s a little irrational, I know it’s a little snobby, but there ya go. I do. The Oscar-industrial complex only has as much power as we give it, which, unfortunately, is still a hell of a lot. Much like my article on reboots, I basically want to get some discussion going. Is Oscar bait inherently a bad thing? What are Oscar bait films that you’ve liked/hated? How many goats have Harvey Weinsten and Meryl Streep sacrificed to each other over the course of their careers? Why do we still give a fuck about the Oscars, even though we know better? How many statues will the LEGO Batman movie walk away with when it finally comes out?
Rebecca’s on that Twitter thing. You should follow her.
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