The Academy Awards largely represent a vast disconnect between voting members and general audiences. While the nominated films are championed by various award bodies and critics alike, box office success rarely correlates with movies deemed as being “best picture” worthy. In an effort to create something resembling a middle ground, the field of nominees was expanded from five to a maximum of ten in 2009. This decision was somewhat inspired by The Dark Knight, which appeared on more top 10 lists than any other film but was shut out of major categories. Since then, there have been some outlier genre nominees but none have walked away with the biggest award of the night. While steps have been made to make the Oscars more inclusive in all areas, an argument can be made that genre bias is still evident in the minds of voters.
Since their inception, the Oscars have rarely deviated from snubbing a multitude of genres throughout their history. Westerns, which were the predominant backbone of American cinema for many years, only won Best Picture twice between 1930 and 1992 (thrice if you consider Dances with Wolves a Western). The Silence of the Lambs still remains the only horror film to win Best Picture. No animated or science-fiction film has yet to win Best Picture with only a handful of nominations to their names. Until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Oscars, no fantasy film was recognized. Genre cinema has frequently won awards in the past, but they’ve been limited to smaller technical categories. It’s as if The Academy has had an adhesion to studio moneymakers or a grudge against mainstream popularity and as a result, genre recognition is an anomaly rather than a constant norm.
Oscar campaigning by its very nature can be simplified as a financial act. Studios put forward the funds necessary to allow their prestige pictures to take center stage. Oftentimes, a nomination can bring about additional revenue for a particular film made on a smaller budget. It is perhaps this mindset that handicaps blockbusters and genre cinema because they dominate at the box office. Critical and commercial success are not symbiotic, especially when it comes to awards. Titanic is the only one of the top 50 highest grossing films of all time to win with only four receiving nominations. Adjusted for inflation, four of the top 10 have won Best Picture while nine were nominated. All nine of those nominees were released no later than 1997. These statistics give credence to the notion that modern box office juggernauts are not given a fair chance come Oscar season.
This year in particular has a variety of box office champions competing for major awards. Dunkirk, ironically directed by The Dark Knight helmer Christopher Nolan, broke out amidst a very crowded summer. Superhero films, which are seen by many as the modern counterpart (which brings both naysayers and supporters) to Westerns, were some of the biggest money makers of the year. While that’s been an occurrence for several years, movies like Wonder Woman and Logan are two of the biggest critical successes as well. In fact, both were recognized by groups like The Producers Guild of America and The American Film Institute as some of the best films of 2017. Both movies are based on comic book properties but they’re elevated by their approaches. Wonder Woman is as gritty a war film as Dunkirk, but it also seamlessly blends grand mythology with a Bogart/Bacall esque romance. Logan is a Western in almost every sense, the story of the prodigal final gunslinger looking back on his life and questioning the very notion of heroism. It’s beautifully tragic and accompanied by a sense of finality not yet seen in the genre. Detractors argue that superhero films are formulaic crowd pleasers. Both of these films contain familiar elements, but overcome them through expert subversion.
Genre cinema, particularly science-fiction and horror, work best when they are reactionary allegories for society. Jordan Peele’s Get Out points a finger at America, questioning if we’ve truly come as far with race relations as we believe we have. It’s a film that is both brutally relevant and counteractive to the claims of unoriginality in cinema. Much like Wonder Woman, it’s makes a poignant statement without coming across as cynical. Comparatively, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is topical but in a less calibrated manner. The validity of journalism in the face of executive authority is timely albeit broad. The film makes plenty of parallels but offers less beneath its surface values than a film such as Get Out. Given the talent behind the camera and accompanying name recognition, it’s the kind of movie that Oscar voters will nominate without hesitation.
Questions of bias can also be examined through the acting field. Best Actor favorite Gary Oldman is practically a shoe in for a multitude of reasons beyond performance. Actors who play historical figures have a longstanding history of winning. As an example, eight of the last twelve Best Actor winners have won for playing real life people. Does this mean that his work should be given preference over someone like Daniel Kaluuya or Hugh Jackman? Precedent seems to point in that direction, as it will be a shock if someone other than Oldman wins. Probable nominee Timothee Chalamet has a viable case for winning, delivering a far more nuanced performance than the overbearing theatrics of Oldman in Darkest Hour. However, the subject matter of Call Me By Your Name could be a deterrent for the older voting base, especially following last years surprise Moonlight win with the “honest ballot articles” citing voters who say it’s too much of the same thing (it isn’t and shameful to think so).
It’s time for an increase in genre recognition. Luckily, the quality is there to retaliate against those who feel the opportunity is solely a political move. The question is if movies like Blade Runner 2049, Get Out or Logan have an ample opportunity to win or even garner the nominations necessary for genre cinema to become viable Oscar contenders in the future.