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How Old White Guys Created the 'Oscar Movie' Genre

We're going to see the same sort of films get nominated again and again as long as the Academy stays old, white, and male.

by Ben York Jones
Feb 19 2015, 10:27pm

Remember about ten or 15 years ago when you would ask someone what kind of music they liked and they would say " indie" and it would just piss you off so much because you're a music snob and "indie" isn't a genre it's a way of describing a record label you ignorant bastard? Yeah, me too. But after a short while, like it or not, the term did take on meaning. If someone said they listened to "indie," you could figure out what they were getting at.

Something similar happened with indie movies in the late 80s or early 90s. That golden generation of filmmakers from the 70s had largely gone to the studios, and a new wave of indie people crashed ashore. Audiences wondered who might somehow succeed Scorsese. "Indie" meant gritty or violent (verbally, if not physically). It meant shocking and ironic. Gen-X filmmaking, if you like. The anti-hero is the only hero—that sort of thing. I realize that lumping all indie films of the 1990s together is shortsighted, and about as irritating as that guy you know who doesn't watch movies, only films... But I've got to say, the mash-up parody trailer in my mind for "Indie 90s Movie" looks pretty uniform.

Then, in the mid 2000s, the arrival of the so-called mumblecore genre and mainstream indie dramedies like Little Miss Sunshine served to morph the meaning of "indie" into something else altogether.

But there's another such pseudo-genre of prominence—one that's been slowly developing and evolving for the past 87 years. It's the "Oscar Movie," folks. Not all Oscar Movies win an Oscar. In fact, some Oscar Movies aren't even nominated—but, like with indie music and porn, you know it when you see it.

But how can we define this invented genre? Let's take a look at some that have been nominated over the last few years. First of all, wartime stories are good, something that's pro-soldier, but ambiguously antiwar ( The Hurt Locker, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper). Or movies about people who are driven, and a little crazy (Silver Linings Playbook, Whiplash, Birdman). Or movies that are technically innovative or tell a story in a newish way (Life of Pi, Gravity, Boyhood, Birdman again). Another wonderfully specific type of Oscar movie is best described with a term coined by screenwriter John August: the "Special British Snowflake" movie. These center around unique real-life English figures who triumphed against the odds (The King's Speech, Philomena, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything). Finally, and most prominently, Oscar Movies are often based on true stories (The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Fighter, The Social Network, Moneyball, Argo, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, 12 Years A Slave, Captain Philips, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything).

I feel I should make clear that this simplification of mine isn't intended to undermine these movies in any way. I really like some of them, and love a few. I'm just trying to get a handle on how the Academy decides what it likes and how that has impacted the evolution (or lack thereof) of the Oscar Movie.

The Oscar Movie is a film that an artistically minded and socially curious white male over 50 can really sink his teeth into.

The Academy is comprised of nearly 6,000 members. Each year, around 200 new members are invited to join via one of 17 branches (actor, director, designer, etc.). Those invited include past nominees and individuals that current Academy members have chosen by virtue of their body of work. Last year, 20 actors were invited. Of those 20, six were women. Only three weren't white. In a 2012 survey, the LA Times found that the Academy was 93 percent white, 76 percent male, and had a median age over 50. And old white guys are going to like movies that resonant with old white guys. It shows. Not to be reductive, but if the Academy were 80 percent women in their 30s, perhaps the very worthy Obvious Child would have received a nomination. If it were 80 percent Ben York Joneses, Listen Up Philip would have gotten a Best Screenplay nod. If it were 80 percent pink owls made of marshmallows in top hats, The Grand Budapest Hotel would be a lock for Best Picture.

Ranking works of art proves to be a strangely revealing and very subjective activity. Who you are and what you've experienced is a huge factor when you are appreciating a film. And as one anonymous voter's interview with the Hollywood Reporter this week showed, some Academy members aren't afraid to go with what their biases tell them.

It's not only about sex and race, though. Academy members who aren't older white men still live and work in the entertainment industry. The impact here is totally evident. I direct you to showbiz-slanted Best Picture winners The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012). And if The Hollywood Reporter's award expert Scott Fienberg is right, which he usually is, we'll see another showbiz Best Picture winner for 2014 in Birdman.

So based on what we know about the Academy and how the members have voted in the past five or so years, here's my go at succinctly defining the genre: The Oscar Movie is a film that an artistically minded and socially curious white male over 50 can really sink his teeth into.

With that in mind, I've prepared a pitch for the most Oscar Movie-y movie possible:

SPAIN, 1959. OSCAR BENINGTON (Benedict Cumberbatch), 40, British, spends his days painting. It helps him manage his PTSD. Five years ago Oscar won an Oscar, and global praise for his very personal documentary on WWII. A film that proved to be his first and last. An occasional call from Hollywood reminds Oscar that the door is still open, but he wants nothing to do with that life. He just wants to live in peace with his wife VICKY (Rosemund Pike) in Catalonia. Then an eccentric man moves into the neighboring villa... It's SALVADOR DALI (Johnny Depp). Oscar's hesitant to engage with the surrealist, but Vicky thinks he's the bees knees. A kindred friendship soon develops between Dali and Oscar over art, and Oscar is once again inspired to make a documentary... about Dali. But he's plagued by surreal nightmares. His PTSD begins to manifest in frightening ways, and soon Oscar finds himself slipping into a world turned upside down—an unwitting muse for the questionably intentioned Dali. Even Vicky's behavior stirs paranoia in Oscar. The lines between what's real and what's surreal become blurred, as Oscar fulfills his artist ambition and looses himself. Shot entirely by drones. Based on a true story in a Fargo kind of way.

(It needs some work.)

So this brings us to the big question: If you're a voting member of the Academy, is it your responsibility to loosen your grip on personal preference to make up for your organization's structural problems? Should the pink owl in a top hat vote for Selma because its subject matter is culturally important or, should he vote for The Grand Budapest Hotel because on technical and emotional levels he felt that was the best film of the year? The Academy may look like the US Congress in terms of sex and race, but unlike Congress, the people aren't the ones bringing new members in. It's not a public service job. It's not even a job! It's membership in a club. But considering the power that this relatively small club has, are Academy members obliged to cast their vote as if they were performing a public service? Either way, the ideal scenario would be a more diverse Academy—but unless something dramatic happens, it's going to stay old, white, and male for a long time.

In the meantime, I can think of another organization of cultural significance that makes an effort and succeeds repeatedly in recognizing a wide spectrum of movies and stories: Sundance. Take a look at some of the festival's winners in the past few years: Winter's Bone (teenage female protagonist, thriller in the Ozarks), Beasts of the Southern Wild (modern fairytale, black female protagonist), Fruitvale Station (racially charged drama, black male protagonist), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (highly stylized coming-of-age story based on a YA novel). As far as I can tell, there is no "Sundance Movie." This is due to the fact every year, each section of the festival is judged by a jury of notable filmmakers. These juries change members every year, keeping the perspectives fresh and open. In fact, most film festivals function this way. The Academy is organized according to very different principals, but perhaps it could take a page these film festival models.

Or we could just take a step back and ask why we care so much about these golden statuettes in the first place. In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as "The Oscars," a far more casual and less sterile-sounding name for a TV show. And that's what it is: a goddamn TV show, like the Super Bowl. It exists to cultivate drama, incite commentary and make money by selling advertising space. People don't tune in to see who wins; they tune in to see what Reese Witherspoon is wearing. They tune in to see the faces of the nominees the moment they find out they didn't win.

That's what I tell myself—but then again, I occasionally catch myself rehearsing an acceptance speech in the shower. I care. I can't help it. That's why it would be great to see some change.

Ben York Jones is an actor and screenwriter. He co-wrote and starred in the film Like Crazy, which won the Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2011. Follow him on Twitter.

Thumbnail photo via WikiMedia Commons.

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