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

Essay

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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