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Essay

Does the Academy Hate Geeks? A Brief History of Oscar Snubs


The Oscar Nominations are out and the Golden Globes have come and gone. And while I should be delighted that Jennifer Lawrence took home the Globe for her stellar performance in Silver Linings Playbook, I can’t help but feel a sense of bitterness every time awards season gets underway. Why? Because geek movies are so consistently snubbed, it’s almost as if they’re cursed.

Ok, so they’re probably not cursed. After all, that would be ridiculous. (Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio.) History shows us that the Academy has little to no appreciation for geek-centric films. Here’s a list of notable Academy Award snubs for context:

  • 1969: Stanley Kubrick loses best director for 2001: A Space Odyssey to Carol Reed, who won for Oliver!.
  • 1979: Alien takes home one Oscar for Visual Effects, but Sigourney Weaver is left off the nominations list for best Actress.
  • 1980: Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back wins only one Academy Award for a technical category.
  • 1982: E.T. loses Best Picture to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
  • 1982: Steven Spielberg loses best director for Raiders of the Lost Ark to Warren Beatty for Reds.
  • 1986: Jeff Goldblum isn’t even nominated for his killer performance in The Fly.
  • 1993: Jurassic Park wins Oscars for Sound, Sound Effects and Visual Effects, but receives no other category nominations.
  • 1999: The Matrix wins all four technical categories it was nominated in, but doesn’t receive any acting or directing nominations.
  • 1999: The Iron Giant receives zero nominations.
  • 2005: The Incredibles keeps Pixar on top of the animation category with a win, but the film received zero visual effects nominations.
  • 2009: Gary Oldman gets his first nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, after being passed over for his performances in 1992’s Dracula and 2009’s The Dark Knight.
  • 2009: The Dark Knight is left off the Best Picture list.
  • 2012: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 takes home zero Oscars, going on to make the Harry Potter the most commercially successful film to have never won an Oscar.

In 2013, the tradition continues. Geek flicks get nominations in visual and sound categories, but are ultimately missing from any of the more recognizable awards. It’s obvious that nerd-centered movies should win technical categories. Animation, production design, makeup and visual effects make it possible to create these immersive universes in ways that simply weren’t possible at other points in filmmaking history. However, technical advancements have also led the way for more and more movies that are entirely focused on wowing audiences with explosions instead of digging down deep and getting into our bellies with honesty, nerve and wit.

This is why I feel movies that successfully manage to penetrate our psyches while impressing us visually are so worthy of recognition. It requires an incredibly deft eye and steady hand to not allow technical mastery to overshadow storytelling. One needn’t look far to find proof of this type of filmmaking in the last year alone. Battleship and virtually every Transformers film suffers from this syndrome. In fact, this is the very reason The Hobbit finds itself with only three nominations, all in technical areas (production design, makeup and hairstyling and visual effects), while its 2004 sister, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, made history when it swept the Academy Awards.

Perhaps Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth and his love of The Shire ultimately caused him to create a Hobbit movie for only the most discerning of fanboys instead of the movie-going public at large. In the case of The Return of the King, he told a story that wowed critics AND pleased fans, because he brought an intense editorial oversight to the final movie. His careful pruning and focus on detail allowed him to wow visually and bring tears to our eyes without overreaching. In the end, it wasn’t just the visual effects teams who were cleaning up – the actors, producers and Peter Jackson himself also earned wins that night. In total, they took home 11 Oscars in 2004, winning in every category in which they were nominated.

When it comes to geek movies The Return of the King is the exception, not the rule. It seems superhero movies in particular just can’t break through. Christopher Nolan is perhaps the most shocking example of the Academy’s dismissive attitudes toward the genre. He’s been consistently overlooked, causing the public and even a select club of critics to share their outrage when he was snubbed for both The Dark Knight and Inception.

While the awarding bodies are ignoring comic based movies, the studios have transformed their business model to the point that they now financially rely on one to two caped characters to provide major box office wins each year. The Green Lantern notwithstanding, most clean up at the box office and many have managed to receive high marks from critics as well. But when it comes to awards season, even the most influential and lauded comic book movies get passed over. It’s ultimately why Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor at the 2009 Oscars seemed like a turning point. Instead, it was a recognition of a great actor’s career. While it was well-deserved, it could have also been an admittance that honest and powerful work can be done in these beloved fictional worlds.

The big question is: why don’t movies with a nerd-bent, whether it’s superheroes, space or magic, resonate with Academy voters? One could argue their commercial success alone makes up for any slights in critical recognition, but that’s not the whole picture. Critical recognition often makes way for well-deserved, long-term commercial success for films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and 2012’s The Artist. Inversely, commercially successful films that were disregarded or written off by art types get a second look by new and broader audiences when they receive high praise. In fact, Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance in The Dark Knight may have gone unappreciated by strict indie movie types had it not been highlighted by so many well-respected critics. Either way, critical success and commercial success shouldn’t be exclusive.

What difference does it make if nerd movies get snubbed? For starters, it hinders the ability of the studios to take risks. If major studios have to rely solely on the marketability of a film, they lose their inherent desire to push the boundaries. The Green Hornet is the perfect example of this. On the surface, it has all the makings of being a superhero hit, but for those who have seen it, you know it ultimately fell apart because of bad casting and a lackluster script. While Seth Rogen was a safe pick, he was a selection made solely on the basis of commercial viability. A more unconventional choice, like Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) or Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) may have brought a more critically appreciable performance to the Britt Reid character, which may have challenged the filmmakers to tell a story that required rave reviews to do well at the box office.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, if well-known and established talents are only attaching themselves to superhero films because of the promise of a hefty paycheck, the end product suffers. In nearly all cases of Disney and Marvel’s collaborations, they have worked hard to bring in directors and actors who are looking to surprise audiences and stretch their abilities. This isn’t just good for them, it’s great for audiences. Robert Downey Jr. was not in a good place professionally when he took on the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man in 2008, but it ultimately saved his career and surprised critics. While this film in particular may have not deserved any specific Oscars, I do believe it’s evidence of how superhero movies can provide a platform for established artists to change course and shatter perceptions.

Many have argued that The Return of the King took home so many Oscars, because the Academy was making up for previous oversights. This is a common idea about how the Academy behaves, but in the case of Harry Potter, they will never have the chance now.

The repeated snubs of the Potter series are so egregious, one would think all involved would have taken home a lifetime achievement award by now. At the 2012 Academy Awards, the Potter series sealed its place as the most successful film franchise of all time to never win the golden statue. Believe it or not, the series has never won for visual effects, makeup or even song. Leading up to last year’s Oscars, the early buzz had many believing that Alan Rickman would break the trend and earn a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his sensitive and alarmingly raw Severus Snape. Alas, the streak wasn’t broken and Rickman now goes on to be the greatest living British Actor to never earn an Academy Award nomination.

Indeed, there are plenty of geek movies that don’t deserve critical mention or Oscars. But ultimately, if the film industry is going to continue to turn all our favorite comics, books and stories into films, the least they can do is acknowledge when it’s done right.

Elizabeth Giorgi is a writer and filmmaker from Minneapolis. She blogs about mixing life as a nerd with her career at beinggeekchic.com. In 2010, she was nominated for a Webby and won an Emmy for Science of Watchmen. Follow her on Twitter: @lizgiorgi

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  • Kaarel Jakobson

    Well, frankly, I have always been and remain of the opinion that Wall-E deserved Best Picture more than TDK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anna-Sophia-May/100000092990769 Anna Sophia May

    Same here. I liked it much better.

  • Anonymous

    Given that more than one person has mentioned that the Oscars are a suck-up fest, perhaps it’s more that creators of geek-friendly movies don’t waste their time throwing parties / buying fancy lunches for academy moochers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/imachination Stephanie Jill Schneider

    I knew something was going down in the Academy. (?)
    I must agree with this article, to some extent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/craig.oxbrow Craig Oxbrow

    Another example, the 1963 awards…

    “Columbia submitted the picture to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for consideration as a special effects contender. We expected it to earn at least a nomination for visual effects, but it was ignored. The picture that won was Cleopatra.”

    Ray Harryhausen on the making of Jason And The Argonauts.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/dec/20/featuresreviews.guardianreview16

  • Anonymous

    I am in total agreement. I think the main problem is the fact that so many “geek” films aren’t even nominated in the major categories. Its the idea amongst the industry elite that we are still a group of 40 year old men living in our mothers basements, instead of a diverse group of individuals who participate in society and know what a great story and film is when we see it.

    Though I do have to say, between Ghandi and E.T.? Ghandi wins kids. That film is balls to the wall awesome. But then, I’m a Social Welfare geek.

  • http://twitter.com/FroWillis Sarah

    The fact that Alan Rickman didn’t get a nomination ever for Snape is just mind boggling. He was the best part of the Harry Potter movies.

  • Nick Gaston

    What is it they say about a committee? That it’s a “creature with a dozen stomachs, and no brain”?

    Maybe it could be said that the Academy is a being with a thousand stiff necks, but no guts.

  • Anonymous

    Error correction: Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy was released in 2011 and The Dark Knight Rises, 2012.

    Other than The Dark Knight and Inception, I don’t really disagree with many of the so-called “snubs”. And both films have been made by the same director, so you could call it a Chris Nolan snub and probably be more accurate. It’s true that Indiana Jones and Star Wars should’ve gotten more than hey had in retrospect but those films were a long time ago.

    The truth is, if geek movies have been improving the last couple of years, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The scripts often fall into cliché territories and many of the proclaimed geek Gods have often turned out to be ordinary filmmakers when the dust settled. Bryan Singer, the Wachowskis, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson… We will probably remember them fondly for the good work they’ve done, but can we really say they’re as brilliant as we once thought? I hope that Chris Nolan is more Spielberg than the names above but overall, geek movies need to up their game a little.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002083157424 P.j. R. Thomas

    I don’t think Harry Potter ever deserved an Oscar with the exception of Gary Oldman in The Prisoner of Azkaban, the rest of them were all too muddled for anyone to get nominated.

  • Hugh Davis

    Well stated. Besides _Return of the King_, the only “genre” wins in non-technical categories have been Heath Ledger as the Joker and, in 1932, Frederic March for _Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde_. I think the general feeling for the Academy is to appreciate that these films make money but not laud them with awards.

  • http://www.facebook.com/frostindri Meghan Chalmers-Mcdonald

    While I agree with the premise, the example given are terrible with the exception of 2001: Space Oddessy. They generally lacked depth or character development. Those that earned technical oscars actually did earn them, but really one of the plagues on movies based on other mediums with a fan base is the inability to treat the movie as a movie and not, say, a scene for sceen reenactment of the book. Movies are not books. (Right now I’m thinking very much about the Harry Potter Movies. So bad, so sad.) When the director is compelled to please fans who are going to complain if things aren’t exactly as they were in the original medium… Well, you get movies that the industry is happy to milk for money but doesn’t respect.

    On the other hand, There were a couple of great examples of geek movies that got passed up this year, one even being a Super Hero movie: Chronicle and Looper.

    You can also point to movies like Dark City (passed over completely , 12 Monkeys (Nominated, best actor and costume design, didn’t win), Gattica (nominated for best art direction, didn’t win) The Fountain (passed over completely), The Fifth Element (Nominated for special effects, didn’t win) etc.

    But lets be reasonable about all this: Most of the time the Oscars get it wrong. Very wrong. A mediocre movie wins the statue while better movies, geek or not, get passed over. When a deserving movie does win, its worth celebrating. The Oscars is not judged by an impartial pannel of judges but by judges who are on the receiving end of fierce campaigns for attention and appreciation They get gifts , hand written letters, promises of first born children, etc. In addition they tend to have favorite directors (Clint Eastwood, Spielburg, Scorcese (though lets be fair to Scorcese, he’s a damn good director.) For gods sake, Warhorse got a nomination in 2011.

    As far as I’m concerned, the Oscars are an internal popularity contest that hold very little real value.

  • Dorcas

    I do have to say that Reds was a very good movie.

  • http://twitter.com/Serenity9876 Mindy Williams

    I completely agree with the statement about the lack of nomination hindering risk taking. Cloud Atlas is a perfect example of this – a very ambitious project that received absolutely no love from the Oscars. I lament its omission, even in the technical categories, because it was a step in a new direction by choosing an epic story that crawls over time and space, integrating very human and well-acted stories with beatuful special effects. Instead it is replaced by the much weaker Life of Pi (although I must admit the visuals in that one were stunning). I worry that because of Cloud Atlas’ extremely poor showing this is a direction that may be less taken in the future, when frankly we need to see more of this ambitious storytelling coming through in movies. I’m sure I’m not alone with thinking that they have made far too many of the same types of movies over the years.

  • Anonymous

    I think the point is better made by saying ‘non-dramas’ are ignored.
    Comedic performances have a hard time going up against serious dramas,
    too. Action films, unless they’re historically based, don’t often show up, either. Since Geek films often fall closer to comedy than drama, I’m not
    surprised they get passed up. And I agree with a few of the other posters here–there are some very good examples of ‘geek’ genre getting ignored that are better than the ones listed here and do NOT include Harry Potter. HP was a lot of FUN and dearly loved by the fandom, but it wasn’t setting great new standards for
    film or doing anything we’d never seen before. They weren’t that great, or even great art, they were just great entertainment–and that’s not really what the Oscars (seem to?) measure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    People who are into viewing their books/movies/paintings/etc as High Art reeeeeallly look down on “genre art.” To the point that it’s always a mark against, and something is only good “despite being a comic book movie.” As if the whole medium of “movie” wasn’t fraught with the potential to deliver absolute crap, regardless of the kind of movie being made.

    I was a little annoyed that Whedon didn’t get a nod for directing Avengers. A win? No. But darn it, he put together a good, well-shot, well-acted movie that was a lot of fun to watch but not stupid. But…it’s “fun.” And it’s a superhero movie. So, it’s less deserving.

    “1999: The Iron Giant receives zero nominations.”

    I hadn’t realized that, and I am retroactively livid, because that was an amazing piece of work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    Fith Element lost out in special effects? To what? Because y’know what I’ve noticed about that movie? IT STILL LOOKS GOOD. Practical effects age so much better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    That’s the same reason I’m biting my nails over ParaNorman. It’s got a nom, sure, but it needs to WIN, just to show Hollywood, and makers of kids movies in particular, that you CAN take the sorts of risks ParaNorman took, and produce a movie with honesty and heart.

  • Luna Carya

    As much as I love geek films, I usually recognize they’re quite shallow. Even if they do great at the box office, in general they don’t transcend. 2001: A Space Oddysey is an exception to that.
    On the other hand I love many “non-geek” movies, and those get snubbed too.
    The Academy Awards is a nice show, my favorite was when Hugh Jackman hosted, but I still don’t get Billy Cristal’s humor.

    And sometimes they have reminded there was a movie I wanted to watch but didn’t have the time, or are recommendations for movies I wouldn’t even care for. Out of these, some really aren’t worth it (like Crash) and some I’ll remember and rewatch.

  • Anonymous

    “1982: E.T. loses Best Picture to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.”

    Are you saying E.T. was more deserving of Best Picture than Gandhi? I loved ET, but come now, this is Gandhi, one of the greatest biopic epics in cinema. ET losing to Gandhi was hardly a snub.

  • Anonymous

    The Oscars ceased being relevant by completely failing to acknowledge Citizen Kane in just about every category despite it being frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jordan.ruttle.1 Jordan Ruttle

    I agree, I’m not at all shocked Harry Potter never won any awards. I
    like the books and the movies are okay, but they aren’t masterful epics
    of storytelling and cinematography. Some of the characters (Ginny,
    *ahem*) have bad acting and there’s plenty of scenes that feel hastily
    cobbled together. I few times I found myself wondering how anyone could
    follow certain stories without having read the book.

    Although I will admit that the music in the first movie was so iconic and memorable that it deserved some recognition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anatasia.beaverhousen.7 Anatasia Beaverhousen

    I hate to have a somewhat controversial opinion on The Dark Knight, but in terms of directing, (not acting), the film certainly didn’t deserve an Oscar nom. Looking at the film from a critical point of view, the storyline is all over the place, the plot threads are very tangled and they don’t weave together, as with Batman Begins, Nolan uses several different villains and characters who never meet but always seem to know what the others are up to. There are long sequences which are irrelevant to the plot and some of the plot threads are dropped all together before the end of the film and never picked up again. On the whole I think it would have been a far better film if it had solely focused on the Joker storyline as Ledger’s performance always appears to be the thing most highly praised about the film and of course, he did get the oscar for said performance. Very rarely when seeing people discussing The Dark Knight do you ever hear people talking about parts of the film such as the Rachel part of the storyline or Two-Face or the action sequences with as much praise and gusto as they speak of Ledger’s performance. It’s frankly not a very well rounded film from a critical stand point and other superhero movies have done it better in terms of the overall film as a piece and not a single actors performance.

    Saying all of that, the thing to remember about the Oscar committee is that over 80% of the voters are white guys over the age of 60. Really all the Oscars are is an award to say that your grandfather would probably enjoy the film that wins Best Picture.

    If box office revenue and popular opinion of the time dictated which films won Ocars then Home Alone, which finished it’s theatrical run as the third highest grossing film of all time (at the time), would have swept the board.

  • oddhuman

    As soon as I saw that the Academy gave zero nominations to The Iron Giant, I was so done. That was a masterful piece of cinematic art, as were The Avengers and (to some extent, keeping its’ racist bs in mind) Cloud Atlas. Shame on the folks who refuse to recognize art when it stares them in their faces.

  • Anonymous

    the shit coming out of the fantasy factories has been crap for several years. Last couple of years has been all refried spoiled beans. Shut the Oscar crap down and send several thousand monkeys to college. Maybe we will get some good scripts.
    die hard 73? or 74?

  • Anonymous

    and they did a shitty job with Gandhi. both artistically and historically.

  • Anonymous

    it’s important to note how nominations are made. Only Academy members can vote on nominations (naturally) but they can also only vote in their field (with the exception of Best Picture) therefore it makes sense that movie genres that employ more people in technical fields are more likely to get technical nominations, while less likely to get broader nominations. This is a pretty huge barrier for genre films to be expected to leap without some measure of extra rocket fuel

  • Anonymous

    to clarify:
    Actor can nominate for: Picture, Actor, S. Actor, Actress, S. Actress
    Sound Tech can nominate for: Picture, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
    Director of Photography can nominate for: Picture, Cinematography

    when actual voting happens, they open up the ballot

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.hunt.773981 Jason Hunt

    I’ve never understood why anyone cares what the academy thinks or awards. Opinion based awards are not something to be taken seriously.

  • http://twitter.com/keltar93 James Gardiner

    I would’ve given it to The Wrestler, which was also left off.

  • http://twitter.com/keltar93 James Gardiner

    Anything not driven by strong lead performances is automatically handicapped at the Oscars. The Academy are comprised almost universally of old, white, male, actors, and the winners correspond to their specific tastes, making it really easy to guess the winner.
    (It’ll probably be Lincoln this year, which is OK with me because it’s quite good).

  • http://twitter.com/LadiesMaknComix Ladies Making Comics

    Yeah, I was about to say, even non-”geek” genre films never do that well. I remember reading some contemporary articles from when A Fish Called Wanda was nominated for a mess of “major” Oscars (screenplay, director, supporting actor) and film writers saying “Has comedy finally arrived?!” 25 years later, the only other comedy I can think of similarly honored is Juno.

    And don’t get me started on what a travesty it is that Javier Bardem wasn’t nominated for Skyfall. Every person I’ve spoken to who has seen that movie more than once has said the same thing: “First I went to see it because it was the new Bond film. Then I saw it again to watch Silva.” But Bond films just “don’t get” acting nominations. Never mind that it was an even better performance than the one Bardem actually got his Oscar for (but then, I feel that way about all of his performances).

  • John Wao

    Does the Academy hate Geeks?

    That’s a resounding yes!

  • http://www.facebook.com/DarkDragon15 James Vong

    oscar hate geek movie because critics are old bastard that like boring movies and history movies and the critics hate the guts of sci-fi and superheroes movies that they dont make them win best picture but u know wat oscar winner or nomination doesnt matter is how good the movie is

  • Anonymous

    First Critics and Oscar Voters are very different entities. Critics don’t vote at the Oscars.

    Second – if Critics dislike Sci-Fi, Superhero Movies, and Fantasy. How did LOTR, The Dark Knight, Star Trek (2009), and Avatar get rave reviews? LOTR won the NYFCC, The Dark Knight had the 2nd most Top 10 placements by critics in 2008 (first was Wall-E), and the original Star Wars won LA Film Critics.