The time has come to have a conversation about the Oscars, but not the usual “Who Will Win” nonsense that we all eventually have to write about whether we like it or not.
Earlier today, film critics Mark Harris and Kyle Buchanan argued against the use of the expression “Oscar Bait” in the electronic pages of Vulture, suggesting that the term unfairly accuses filmmakers of producing films with an ulterior motive – to win awards – as opposed to making, or at least trying to make excellent films regardless of what voting bodies like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences eventually think of them.
The article is a reasonable exchange of ideas from two individuals who clearly feel very strongly about the subject, and who are making a very real effort to defend filmmakers from the accusation that they make so-called “Oscar Bait” movies – like The Danish Girl, for example, or The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Dallas Buyers Club, The King’s Speech, The Reader, etc. – just to win Academy Awards. Mark Harris in particular claims that “Oscar Bait,” as a term, “tells you nothing about the movie, the motives or choices that went into its making, or the Academy; all it tells you about is the tastes of the users of the term, which can tend to be pretty uniform.”
I disagree with that. As much as I respect the sentiment behind this article, I think there is a very important interpretation of the words “Oscar Bait” that is being completely ignored. Yes, some people use the words “Oscar Bait” as an insult, but some people also use the words “Comic Book Movie” or “Slasher Movie” or “Porno Movie” as an insult. It’s vitally important that we, as film critics, take issue with the snideness of those remarks and not the genres at which that snideness is being targeted. Because yes, “Oscar Bait” is simply another genre, with its own, easily catalogued, defining tropes.
To be clear, Merriam-Webster defines the word “genre” as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content,” so all we have to do in order to define one is to highlight consistent styles, forms and content. To that end let’s take a very short look at some of the qualities that have come to define the so-called “Oscar Bait” genre. (An important side note: Just as not every “Slasher Movie” technically has a slashing in it, not every one of these qualities will apply to every entry in the Oscar Bait genre, but you’ll find at least a smattering in all of the more obvious examples.)
Qualities typical of the “Oscar Bait” genre include: a fundamentally dramatic storyline (as opposed to a comedic one), a historical setting that typically results in a production with elaborate costume design and art direction, a based-on-a-true story, socially-conscious themes, heroic sacrifices, doomed love stories, melodramatic speeches, tragic death scenes, orchestral scores that highlight the heaviest emotions in already dramatically heavy scenes, scenery-chewing supporting performances, depictions of war, downplaying the more conventionally attractive qualities of the actors, a white character sticking up for underprivileged non-cisgender and/or non-white people, and I’m sure that there are plenty more examples that you can name for yourselves.
Don’t take it from me, take it from Mark Harris, who says in the article, “I humbly suggest this exercise: Look at the slate of fourth-quarter releases still ahead, and you can already tell what’s in danger of being labeled Oscar bait and what isn’t.”
He’s right. Of course, Harris obviously meant that you can easily predict which of those films will be targeted for derision, but if that’s accurate then his suggestion also has a simple, alternative interpretation. Yes, “you can already tell what’s in danger of being labeled Oscar bait,” just as you can already tell which ones are in danger of being labeled horror movies, or comedies, or fantasy epics. It’s a genre, and being able to easily identify a genre isn’t necessarily synonymous with “throwing shade.” It’s just being observant.
But one quality that cannot be factored into the “Oscar Bait” genre is whether or not the films actually win any Oscars. The eventual recognition of one’s peers is not an element of style, it’s a byproduct of quality (however subjective that may be). The problem here, perhaps, is that the term “Oscar Bait” is simply a misleading title for a genre, but there’s not a lot we can do about that. Just like in real life, you can’t pick your own nickname, even if it doesn’t accurately describe you anymore. The footage in “Found Footage” movies doesn’t necessarily have to be “found” in order to belong in that particular genre, just as the words “torture porn” misrepresent actual pornographers everywhere, whose artistic purpose is to create aesthetically appealing erotica instead of aesthetically disturbing nightmare fuel.
And of course, many films win Oscars that don’t traditionally fit the “Oscar Bait” genre. Mark Harris notes that both The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, at least one of which doesn’t even remotely fit the “Oscar Bait” genre, both won multiple Academy Awards last year. Again, I’m not arguing that “Oscar Bait” is a very accurate name, but for the moment at least we seem to be stuck with it.
The most valid argument brought up is that those who use the expression “Oscar Bait” as an insult are looking down on an aesthetic that is merely displeasing to them, and that’s fair. Anyone who denigrates an entire genre because they don’t personally enjoy it is entitled to their opinion, but they’re not speaking for everybody. A genre becomes successful because audiences like it and pay good money to see multiple examples of that genre over time, creating a genuine demand that studios and filmmakers feel compelled to meet.
But let’s work backwards from that. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is, in itself, a demographic, and what’s more it’s a demographic whose tastes are easily catalogued because they give little gold statues to movies that they like, every year, in front of millions of people. If specific genres are made for specific audiences, and one specific audience is very famous for liking a specific type of film that has specific conventions, then that only supports the idea that those films constitute a genre, if not necessarily by the filmmaker’s design then at least categorically after the fact, much like the makers of the original “Film Noir” movies didn’t set out with an agenda to make a “Film Noir,” because that term was only invented years later by outside observers who noticed key similarities within a group of films’ style and content.
It’s true that, as near as we can tell, no filmmaker ever sets out to make a bad movie. But in their pursuit of making a “great” movie, many filmmakers understandably indulge in similar dramatic contrivances. That these contrivances are easily catalogued and identifiable to the outside observer doesn’t necessarily have to be taken as an insult. Genres become genres because the elements of those genres are proven effective. Indeed there are many genuinely excellent movies that easily fall into the “Oscar Bait” genre – like Steve Jobs, Lincoln, Selma, The Fighter, Milk, and The Aviator to name a few – and sure enough, the idea of denigrating these great films by their association with a genre that has negative baggage attached to it would be frustrating to any lover of cinema.
Which is why I argue that we should not worry quite so much about the words “Oscar Bait,” and worry more about the genre itself. If we simply omit the words “Oscar Bait” from our vocabulary, then we run the risk of omitting the quantifiable genre they have come to represent from the history books as well, and I think that would be a disservice to our collective discourse. Perhaps the solution might be to change those words, to try calling “Oscar Bait” movies something else, but I rather doubt that would work. (Remember when comic book fans tried to change the name of the medium to “graphic novels?” It didn’t replace the original term, it just generated mild confusion.)
In other words, call it whatever you want, and complain about whatever it’s called: but “Oscar Bait” is a genre, and that’s only an insult if you want it to be.
Top Photos: The Weinstein Company / Focus Features / Universal Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.