The Academy had their biggest party of the year last night. Unsurprisingly, nerdy and action film blockbusters weren’t nominated for the “big” awards of the night at the 87th Annual Academy Awards. Guardians of the Galaxy scored nods for Visual Effects and Makeup/Hairstyling, with Captain America: Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past joining it in the effects category.
Of course, we can’t forget that Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Feature. Adapted from a comic book series into an animated film, it stands out from the live-action films I’m talking about.
Guardians also made some sort of headway when it scored a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Writers Guild of America (WGA) awards, but lost to The Imitation Game.
It’s been this way for years now, but not forever. At the 1978 Academy Awards, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope won six Oscars and was also nominated for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Alex Guiness), Best Director, and even Best Picture. In 1976, Jaws was nominated for Best Picture (among other categories). In 1982, Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture and others.
Once upon a time, these populist blockbuster films were actually deemed worthy of getting these nominations by the Academy. During a time when there were only five slots for Best Picture, this is even more astounding.
So what gives?
For one, times have changed. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, entertaining blockbusters were the hits of theaters. People were weary of New Hollywood, an era of American film making that channeled the cynicism of the early 1970s. Films like Jaws and Star Wars were the new type of film to watch out for.
Now, however, there’s a growing gap between films deemed as “art” and films deemed simply as “entertainment”, with a lot of people looking down upon the latter. Popcorn flicks are somehow inherently not as good as the Oscar-bait films. People complain about the lack of original, hard-hitting, groundbreaking films – which, to be fair, is often a valid point.
Another aspect is the Academy itself. The Academy is a funny creature full of politics. When it comes to Oscars, there’s a fair amount of campaigning involved (just ask Harvey Weinstein). And remember that term Oscar-bait? You might hate it, but it’s a very real thing in Hollywood.
Sweeping dramas, especially if they’re pleasing, are sure-things for Oscar nods. There has to be a level of “art” involved. No comedies, no superhero flicks, no horror films, no science-fiction. (I’m speaking in generals here, obviously some films that fit these genres have earned nods.) That’s just not what the Academy likes right now, and certainly not what they think can make a great film.
Sure, one of the biggest contenders this year is Birdman, whose main character used to be a big Hollywood superhero action star (as did its lead actor). But this film deconstructs those themes and tropes embedded in Hollywood. Want the Academy to take Iron Man seriously? You better be willing for him to break himself down and give an introspective look at himself – sans comic book, action hero aesthetics.
That’s why Heath Ledger won posthumously for the Joker: it was a performance above and beyond the general superhero flick. It’s why Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated for Tropic Thunder. Besides being a comedic role, it was an art role and the Academy loves nothing more than movies about itself.
Was Guardians’ WGA nomination a sign of coming change? Probably not, but we could get there.
Currently, the Academy’s median age is 62 and, out of five branches, males compose more than 90% of them, with every branch except actors made up of 90% or more Caucasians. But this will change with time. As new generations infuse the Academy, we could see a shift. We could also see one sooner if general movie culture and attitudes start changing as they did from the 70s to the 80s.
People are expressing increasing unhappiness with the Academy, as well. Eventually, voices will be heard and make an impact.
There could be a change coming; superheroes and blockbusters might get their shot at some of the big awards like writing, directing, acting, or maybe even picture one day. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen without some pushing and shoving. But hey, isn’t that what superheroes are best at?