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.