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March, 2006 : Feature:

Aliens at the Oscars

The Academy's Love/Hate/Love Relationship with Genre

It helps, when discussing the history of genre film in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people) to be, um, flexible. Does Robert Louis Stevenson count as "genre"? If so, then we can peg the first major Oscar nomination for a genre film: the Best Actor nod for Fredric March's performance in 1932's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein were also nominated for their adapted screenplay for that film.) He didn't win, and the stage for the general ignoring of genre film by the grandest body in Hollywood was set.

Even today, in the beginning of the 21st century, AMPAS doesn't typically seem to know what to do with science fiction, horror, and supernatural fantasy beyond oohing and aahing over its special effects—Joss Whedon's Serenity, his Firefly for the big screen, for example, is at least as laden with political and sociological import as all of the other film's nominated for Best Picture in 2005, but the Academy simply doesn't understand how to parse that importance in the face of spaceships and laser blasts. Academy members—and hence the Oscars—have expanded their horizons over the three-quarters of a century since the awards made their debut, particularly as pop culture as a whole has gotten geekified and science-fiction-ated. Still, no matter how genre transcends its B-movie roots, looking at the history of the Oscars makes obvious a general sense of neglect.

It would be little more than an exercise in frustration to list all the extraordinary genre films that AMPAS has ignored, but perhaps it's illustrative to point out that as early 1935, some Academy members seem to have observed the lack of quality popcorn on the Oscars' roster: that year, both director Michael Curtiz and screenwriter Casey Robinson were write-in nominees for their work on the now-classic adventure fantasy Captain Blood. In 1938 and 1939, The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Errol Flynn) and The Wizard of Oz, respectively, were both nominated for Outstanding Production (the Best Picture of its day). Unfortunately, each was one of 10 nominees—twice the number of nominees today—which may suggest a scraping of the barrel for quality contenders.

After the late 1930s, there's a stretch of decades in which only the loosest definition of "genre" will call up any films for SF/F fans to call their own. There's the 1940's ghost story Rebecca, with its multiple nominations, and a win for Outstanding Production. There are nods to supporting actress Angela Lansbury for the nominal fantasy The Picture of Dorian Gray (in 1945); and director Frank Capra for another nominal fantasy: It's a Wonderful Life (in 1946); and a win for Edmund Gwenn as supporting actor in, yes, another nominal fantasy Miracle on 34th Street (in 1947). In 1950, James Stewart was a candidate for Best Actor for (sigh) the nominal fantasy Harvey, and the adventure flick King Solomon's Mines was nominated for Best Motion Picture. (The 1952 film The Atomic City, up for a screenplay award that year, is—though intriguingly named—alas a contemporary thriller set at Los Alamos.)

It's almost painful, the contortions one must go through to find movies Oscar noticed that might barely qualify as genre for the next ten years: The thriller Rear Window? (It got a screenplay nom in 1954.) The travelogue Around the World in 80 Days? (It was recognized as the best movie of the year for 1956.) The sorta-SFnal Manchurian Candidate? (Angela Lansbury—again—won Best Supporting Actress in 1962.) But in 1964, two indisputably genre films—Mary Poppins and Dr. Strangelove—vied for numerous awards: Julie Andrews won Best Actress, and Peter Sellers was nominated for Best Actor; both films were nominated for Best Picture and contended for screenplay awards; Stanley Kubrick was one of the Best Director nominees. Of course, the sweet and conservative My Fair Lady was the winner of the night, but the winds of change were starting to blow through Hollywood. It was, perhaps, not so shocking that four years later, in 1968, Cliff Robertson could win Best Actor for what is one of the best SF films ever made—Charly—and Ruth Gordon could win Best Supporting Actress for her role in the classy horror flick Rosemary's Baby. (2001: A Space Odyssey also garnered a few nominations, for screenplay and for director.) These were the first hints of the minor revolution to come in the 1970s.

A Clockwork Orange, the immediate forerunner of the dystopia film. The French Connection, the mother of all modern action movies. Jaws, the first blockbuster. Network, the SFnal satire and a forerunner of Terry Gilliam and the Wachowski brothers. Carrie, the ultimate teen horror flick. All were recognized with at least Oscar nominations in the 1970s... but it was in 1977, during the 50th Academy Awards, that AMPAS's relationship with genre films began to be codified as something distant and removed: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were both nominated for Best Director for, respectively, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, but neither won. Instead, both Star Wars and Close Encounters received "special achievement awards" for sound effects. The next year, in 1978, Superman was shuffled into the new genre ghetto with its "special achievement award" for visual effects. In 1980, it was The Empire Strikes Back garnering that very special statue for visual FX; in 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark, nominated for Best Picture and Best Director (for Steven Spielberg), won only technical awards; in 1982, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial receives major nominations but gets love only for its technical achievements.

The 1980s did see some surprising recognition for genre films—Sigourney Weaver's Best Actress nomination for Alien; Jeff Bridges's Best Actor nomination for Starman; screenplay nominations for WarGames, Brazil, and Back to the Future—but it was not until the 1990s, as geek attitudes began to seep into the mainstream, that SF began to feel less like Hollywood's redheaded stepchild. It began with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, which swept all the major categories at that year's Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay—this, for what is essential a horror flick, and a fairly gory one at that. Geek ethos was becoming so integral to the conventional outlook that some of the films Oscar loved the most in the 1990s require no contortions at all to be seen as genre: The Truman Show? The Sixth Sense? Apollo 13? Babe? Being John Malkovich?

With the turn of the new century the unquestionably fantastic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy were among the more recognized films, suggesting that the Academy, too, has turned a corner. Now we see movies based upon a new source—graphic novels—being taken seriously as cinematic drama. From Road to Perdition to American Splendor, "mere" comic books could no longer be dismissed as a starting point for important drama.

And yet, some genre films now find themselves shuffled into a new ghetto: that of the animated film, a new category that debuted in 2001. It remains to be seen how the unclear divide between what constitutes animation and what qualifies as live action will be negotiated—why is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe live action when so much of what's onscreen is CGI? As a sign of further hope: The Incredibles was nominated for a screenplay award even though it appeared only in the animated film category and not in the more-encompassing "Best Picture" category.

There's been an encouraging level of acceptance of genre films at the Oscars in recent years, but itís a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Sure, The Return of the King was 2003's Best Picture... but Jackson's followup, King Kong, a film rife with not only geek appeal but profound considerations on the nature of entertainment and the purpose of cinema itself, gets fobbed off by the Academy with a handful of technical awards (for art direction, sound editing, sound mixing, and visual effects). Kong was gorgeous to look at and luscious to hear, certainly, but it appears the Academy couldn't see past its style to the considerable substance underneath.

Copyright © 2006, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.


Mar 13, 15:38 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Science Fiction and film.

MaryAnn Johanson's discussion of the Oscars is here.
Mar 13, 19:46 by Bob Blough
I must say that I have just started the article about the SF genre and the Oscars. These are both favorite subjects of mine and Mary Ann Johanson's initial information is incorrect. Fredric March did win Best Actor for DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE in 1931-32. It was the only tie for BEST ACTOR in the history of the awards. The other winner was Wallace Beery in THE CHAMP
Mar 13, 21:00 by Bluejack
I'm missing the error; Johanson does say that he won; yes?
Mar 14, 01:20 by A.R. Yngve
"Kong was gorgeous to look at and luscious to hear, certainly, but it appears the Academy couldn't see past its style to the considerable substance underneath."

I disagree. I think the script of Jackson's version was without substance and couldn't handle the monster as a metaphor/symbol: instead it tried to treat Kong in the most literal manner possible, and turned him from an archetype into a Horny Old Man.

(A "Horny Old Man" plot is a story which attempts to make a love affair between an old man and a MUCH younger person seem more profound than it is, and dresses it up with pseudo-intellectual bullshit. The classic example is Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS.)

The original KING KONG was more intelligently written, because it didn't treat Kong as a literal big old gorilla, but as a modern myth. Also, the original wasn't THREE HOURS LONG.

Mar 14, 08:36 by Daniel M. Kimmel
For those who enjoy Mary Ann's writing, she will be at Lunacon this Saturday (March 18). I've shared many panels with her over the last few years (and should have my own next contribution to IROSF in the April issue)so if you've enjoyed either of our essays -- or, preferably, both -- come say hello.
Mar 14, 09:20 by Sherry Fraley
I agree that SciFi/Fantasy stories and films portray relevant issues for the human condition just as well as the other types. Actually, many times I "get it" in a more poignantly powerful and inspiring way than from the more in-your-face message movies. But sometimes I think that most people just don't view SciFi/Fant. films from a perspective other than light entertainment. Maybe their imagination is not integrated into their daily "grown-up" reality anymore. So they don't see the powerful relevance some of these films have, and they are not always moved emotionally by significant moments in them. They don't make that little extra connection that makes all the difference.
Mar 14, 10:08 by Nancy Beck
I agree with A.R. Yngve re Jackson's King Kong: it didn't deserve a Best Picture nod. Although the scenes in 1930s NYC are spectacular (and worthy of a technical award), the film was too long. If he'd cut about 30-40 minutes in the ship heading to Skull Island, it would've been much better (and not as sleep inducing).

I'm an old movies fan (nut, I guess ;-)), and a book on the career of David O. Selznick had a several page spread on Kong. The story for the original grew out of the mind of Merrian C. Cooper (and to a certain extent, his friend, Ernest B. Schoedsack). Cooper loved adventure flicks and books as did Schoedsack because he lived an adventure-filled life (panning for gold in the Yukon, supposedly escaping from a Russian jail, etc.).

Plus he filmed exciting scenes for a couple of silent movies...on location, which wasn't exactly done in the 1920s. So all that, together with his being on location shooting some gorilla/ape scenes, got him thinking...

And, fortunately for him, David O. Selznick was in charge of RKO at that point. Although adventure movies weren't his thing, he saw something in the rushes (or dailies) Cooper was feeding him, and so carved a little extra money out of other budgets to be put into Kong.

What's that old saw? Brevity is the soul of wit? Usually makes for a better movie, too. ;-)

Mar 16, 06:40 by David Gardner
I enjoyed reading this piece, and I frequently agreed with the film choices that MaryAnn thought should have received some recognition. One line brought me up short, though:

Joss Whedon's at least as laden with political and sociological import as all of the other film's nominated for Best Picture in 2005

What do political and sociological import have to do with art? I don't watch Hamlet to learn about the Danish culture, nor MacBeth to be instructed in Scottish politics. I watch them for passionate, realized examples of intelligent beings living their lives. Similarly, I'd easily call Blade Runner one of the best films ever made, but not because of the social commentary (which is definitely present). Rather, it's because I care about the individual characters and I'm compelled to watch them.

A film (or any piece of literature) may have socio-political relevancy, but that alone will never make it a great piece of art. It can, however, make a polemic, or a piece of propaganda.
Mar 20, 09:18 by Adrian Simmons
A lot of this situation seems to center around the hoary old chestnut of just 'what is science fiction/ fantasy'. For example: I'd consider SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to be a cop-procedural/drama/suspense. Not really horror- and it's all the more scary because it ISN'T horror. People do smart things and still lose, and not because Buffalo Bill can't be killed by normal weapons, but because he's smart and vicious.

So what would you classify THE LIFE AQAUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU?
Mar 20, 12:33 by David Gardner
I concur with the ProGoblinAgenda (and there's a sentence you don't get to utter often). I'm not sure what the Goblin's stance is on the "hoary old chestnut," though. I think it's crucial to understanding sf/f/h and why and how it diverges from mainstream.

What is perceived as sfnal by most people is, on the surface, a construct of marketing, i.e., we know that a work is sf because it's in the sf aisle. When something like The Handmaid's Tale or Replay comes along it's marketed as mainstream, because fandom has a different expectation of a story than does the mainstream audience.

Is there a deeper reason for this marketing strategy, though? MaryAnn says that The Picture of Dorian Gray is "nominal fantasy." What makes it nominal to fandom, I think (and I'd like to see other's opinions on this) is that it doesn't go into any great detail explaining the mechanics of its magic, choosing instead to focus on Gray (character) and his decent into personal anarchy (plot). The portrait is nothing more than a McGuffin for exploring human nature, and fandom finds that uninteresting.

Mar 27, 00:41 by Rick Lee
I realized something about the Academy back in 1995 when a great film about a successful disaster Apollo 13,
a triumph of human ingenuity, lost out to the blood bath of Braveheart. Both films were about courage, enduring in the face adversity, but one was about the future and the other about the past. Don't get me wrong. Gibson deserved his Oscar nod for Best Director, what he accomplished was monumental. But Apollo 13 will always be the better picture in my mind. Why? Because it states humans can rise above their crude nature and accomplish the future.

What I realized: it's show business.

The Academy Awards is no longer just about being the best, it's also about politics and business. The latter probably can be tied to the rise of VHS/DVD sales in the 1980's and 1990's. Having that Oscar means greater post release sales and why so much energy is spent soliciting the votes in recent years. If you already recouped you investment at the box office and projections show you DVD sales will be great since everyone wants it because of all those special effects, you may not put as much effort into politicking for an Oscar like the smaller drama the didn't do as well at the box.

Does Hollywood realize good SF with all it's special effects can have good drama and good comedy and good mystery and good acting and good directing?

Good SF has a solid basis in science, it may stretch it to the limit, but the foundation in science is always there to create the conflict that needs resolved. And that is the nature of writing a good screenplay: conflict and resolution. In my opinion, recent films that demonstrate this with hard SF would be: GATTACA, Contact and even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Soft SF films might include The Truman Show. Both GATTACA and Contact won Oscar nods for lessor categories, but nowhere close to the big prizes.

The day will come when an Oscar will be handed out to a SF film that just could not be ignored.

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