Shimes' 2004 Oscar Bait Analysis

Asking Questions, Such As:
  • One of the non-Wayans In Living Color guys is going to win Best Actor?
  • Why is Clint Eastwood reading Yeats?
  • Why are we going to screw Scorcese again?


Funded by the Democratic Base

"Leo, you've got to eroticize Hughes' obsession with these planes. They're smooth and shiny, like the naked ass of some member of the Pussy Posse."

Just What the Hell is Oscar Bait, Anyway?

Every year about this time, critics start harping on something called "Oscar Bait." Loosely defined, Oscar Bait is a film pushed for awards by the studio, usually in the form of an ad campaign and/or junkets and freebies to critics and awards voters. Often released or re-released toward the end of the year, the studio virtually begs for awards nominations to validate the movie's existence, either with a bigger box office or artistic credibility, or both. Sometimes, a small film has awards thrust upon it, much to the shock and humbling of the filmakers (who are then guaranteed a featurette on IFC as an up-and-coming "voice"). There are, roughly, three categories of Oscar Bait.

First is the Big Important Movie. This movie usually has a big budget, big stars, and a name director, all with pretensions of transcending their own Hollywood-ness. Ironically, this often means taking their own Hollywood qualities completely over the top, in the form of realistic sets and stunts, lavish period costumes, and overplaying roles which require actual ACTING! (Think any recent Scorcese movie). There are three sub-categories of the Big Important Movie, whose qualities often overlap: The Message Movie, the Biopic, and the Literary Adaptation, all of which go to great lengths to remind us that this movie isn't your usually mindless Hollywood trash.

The Message Movie is about an important social issue or historical event. The Message Movie is where liberals go to expunge their liberal guilt--by buying a ticket, we show that we care about Important Things (Saving Private Ryan, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, The Insider). Often overlapping with the Message Movie is the Biopic, in which a Misunderstood Genius is exaulted to Iconic Status (An true icon is recognized with only one word: Ali, Ray, The Aviator). Here, a Big Star often plays someone who Overcomes Handicaps, Injuries, or Social Barriers, sometimes all at the same time. Usually, with a certain romanticism or narrative whitewashing to make sure we still Believe in the Power of the Human Spirit. Finally, a Big Important Movie can be a Literary Adaptation that makes us feel artsy even at the multiplex--hey, I've read that book! I'm a reader! My book club sent me Cold Mountain, The Hours, Mystic River, and whatever Merchant-Ivory film we're watching! A renewed entry into this club, of course, is the Big Musical, because going to theater is more artsy than going to the movies, so seeing theater at the movies has to be more artsy than seeing movies at the movies. Even if the stars can't sing (Chicago) or the play sucks anyway (Andrew Lloyd Webbers' The Phantom of the Opera).

Second is the Indie Cred Movie. This one often involves a Big Star working with a b-list director with bonafides as an "artist" (or a Big Star making his directoral debut, as in Antwone Fisher, Dances With Wolves, The Apostle). Usually, a Writerly Screenplay attracts the Big Star so that he can show off His Acting Chops. The Big Star usually works for scale to keep the budget down, even though the very reason there's any budget at all is because of the Big Star. Sub-genres include the Literary Indie (Bill Murray in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation, The Adaptation of a Gritty Off-Broadway Play (Julia Roberts in Closer), the Cinematic Homage that only critics will get (Far From Heaven), or the Experimental Meta-Film (anything Charlie Kauffman).

The Indie Cred Movie can also involve a b-list director who gives a leading role to a Character Actor (Alexander Payne to Paul Giamatti in Sideways, The Coens to William H. Macy in Fargo), or a Supporting Role to a Big Star (Gus Van Sant to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, or Paul Thomas Anderson to Tom Cruise in Magnolia). This can also involve the Artsy Director providing an Acting Role for a Big Comeback (Quentin Tarantino to John Travolta, or on a smaller scale, Alexander Payne to Virgina Madsen in Sideways). If the star isn't big enough, the Artsy Director can flop by taking the film farther than even the awards-voting audience is willing to go (Greg Kinnear in Paul Schraeder's Auto Focus). Usually, the more glamorous the star, the grittier the role can be (Supermodels Bravely Take Off Their Make-up and Disappear into Roles!: Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, Charlize Theron in Monster)

Finally, there's the Scrappy Indie. Usually, this movie isn't conceived as Oscar Bait, but is either good enough to garner attention, has a Big Message that studio thinks will resonate with Liberal-minded critics and awards voters, or is a moderately-budgeted foreign film that translates well with American audiences (Life is Beautiful, Il Postino, The Full Monty). Sometimes, Scrappy Indies breed the Breakout Performance by some previously unknown actor who becomes The Next Big Thing. Sometimes, they are The Next Big Thing (Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive) or not (Hilary Swank from Boys Don't Cry, though expect her to make a comeback with Million Dollar Baby). The Scrappy Indie can involve a Big Message, usually something more specific than the usual wheel chair-bound, bed-ridden, or Down's Syndrome-types trotted out in the Big Important Movie. Often, the specificity of character provides for a more complex character study, which in turn provides fertile material for the Breakout Performance. (Ed Norton in American History X) A good example of a Big Message Scappy Indies is Boys Don't Cry (Transgender Confusion), or a Scappy Indie can also be a low-budget documentary like Capturing the Friedmans.

With Oscar Bait defined, here's your guide to the movies the studios tried to push on us critics for awards by sending us free stuff, "For Your Consideration." To try to flesh out the difference between Good Oscar Bait and Bad Oscar Bait, I've divided these twenty four films into head-to-head competitions based on some common thematic characteristic. The type of Oscar Bait should be readily apparent, though there is some overlap in the categories. Sometimes, my personal opinion of the film will conflict with its potential as Oscar bait, because good Oscar Bait doesn't always mean Great Filmmaking. But enough talk! Let's roll out the Red Carpet! The films I negatively review are listed first, followed by the good films.

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