Oscar Flashback: When Oscar-bait films fizzle out

As the slow-and-steady march toward March 4, 2019, gets into full swing, it’s worth taking a look back at Oscars past to help make sense of Oscars present. The Academy Awards’ rich 90-year history of surprises and snubs, coronations and curiosities provides a lens through which we can see with 20/20 hindsight that the best picture doesn’t always win Best Picture — although on rare occasions they do get it right.

In our weekly column Oscar Flashback, EW film critics Chris Nashawaty and Leah Greenblatt will explore and debate the movies that won and the movies that should have won the coveted statuette — as well as the ones that weren’t even nominated, but in a just world would have been.

In this, our third installment, we’ll look back at the history of shoe-in Oscar-bait movies that never caught on and spent the Big Night on the sidelines licking their wounds — proof that there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the Oscars.

CHRIS NASHAWATY: Leah, there’s a sort of Darwinian ritual that happens every year around this time. As the studios trot out all their serious Oscar-bait prestige pictures, some inevitably get met by utter indifference — or worse, outright hostility. Overnight, their chances for a statuette go from promising to nonexistent. They’re dead on arrival. There’s a long and not-so-proud tradition of this ruthless sorting-hat process. And some past examples that immediately leap to mind include Leonardo DiCaprio’s prosthetics-and-putty 2011 biopic snoozefest J. Edgar; the so-very-important 2008 Will Smith dud Seven Pounds; Baz Luhrmann’s shoot-the-works Down Under epic Australia, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, from the same year; Angelina Jolie’s 2014 “for your consideration” war movie Unbroken, starring movie star-to-be Jack O’Connell (what happened to him?); and the 2009 importance-of-being-earnest Hilary Swank Amelia Earhart flick, Amelia. They were all deemed instant Oscar frontrunners… until critics finally saw them (and then the public didn’t).

This year, a couple of stillborn non-contenders have already emerged, continuing the tradition. Jason Reitman’s ironically named Gary Hart biopic, The Front Runner, leaps to mind. As does Steve Carell and Robert Zemeckis’ schmaltzy Welcome to Marwen, which hasn’t hit theaters yet, but as of today, sits on Rotten Tomatoes next to a big green splat mark with an ignominious 15% favorable rating. I wonder if you think that Widows, which you didn’t care for, is one of them. And also, what some of your favorite Oscar-bait fails from recent years are…

LEAH GREENBLATT: It’s true that I wasn’t crazy about Widows, though my splat was a lonely hunter on that one. A lot of people really loved that the director of Shame and 12 Years a Slave (nine Oscar nods and three wins for that one, hello) swerved toward a highly stylized, protofeminist heist picture. But to me that movie was popcorn, not awards material — which still made it a lot more fun than some of the bricks you’ve already mentioned.

The fact that so many of those sad dirigibles collapsed under the weight of their own hot air before they even made it anywhere near the Kodak Theatre tends to look almost fated in retrospect; it’s like someone saying, “I’m going to make a viral video!” Do or do not; there is no try.

And some things just stink of calculation from the start. Biopics in particular are rough, especially when they try to tell a story cradle-to-grave, which inevitably ends up feeling like an overstuffed Wikipedia entry; for every Ray or Ghandi or Raging Bull, there’s an Amelia or Beyond the Sea. And Earhart and Bobby Darin both didn’t even live that long!

Sometimes a great director just stumbles, like Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in 2016 (though Joe Alwyn, the actor it was supposed to turn into a star, has done much better taking on small but pivotal supporting roles this year, in movies like Boy Erased and The Favourite). And acclaimed books as source material seem to be big-screen Kryptonite as often as not: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Scarlet Letter, American Pastoral. Meanwhile, not-great books have become better movies: The Devil Wears Prada, Bridges Of Madison County. (Okay, maybe that’s just Meryl.)

What I wonder, Chris, is were most of these movies doomed from the start, or could something or someone have saved J. Edgar? Should another director take a crack at Gary Hart, or let his story, like his political career, stay six feet under?

CHRIS: Oh, man. I totally forgot about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk! Although I’ll never be able to Brillo-pad away the memory of Beyond the Sea.

I say leave Gary Hart alone. Let the man just chill on his Colorado ranch from here on out, unless someone wants to turn Richard Ben Cramer’s doorstop-sized 1988 political campaign epic What It Takes into an HBO or Netflix miniseries. I think Reitman’s version was doomed from the start because it refuses to really offer a point of view. It’s not enough to just re-enact history (recent or not), you have to have a take. Otherwise, what’s the point? J. Edgar is a totally different story. Wrong director (a too-conventional Clint Eastwood) and wrong makeup artist (from the trailer alone, Leo’s old-age latex jowls were a punchline before the movie even came out). The 2013 Naomi Watts Princess Di movie ran into the same problem. Making a long movie about a famous dead person isn’t always enough.

Some of the blame, though, I think might rest with us, too. We can be guilty of over-inflating movies months before they come out because, on paper, they seem like important Oscar movies — or their creative origin stories make for good Oscar horserace drama. To use a movie I already mentioned as an example, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, yes, that movie seemed historical and dramatic, but I think a lot of people in the entertainment media-industrial complex liked the idea of Jolie going from movie star to U.N. ambassador to Oscar-winning filmmaker. There was an arc there that was as seductive as catnip. As for what happened with her 2015 tragically-gorgeous-doomed-couple-in-linen-and-Dior vanity project By the Sea, well, who the hell knows?

Last question: Is there a DOA Oscar-bait fail that you think was unjustly snubbed in recent years? The Soloist? Pay It Forward? I Am Sam? The Monuments Men? The Lovely Bones? Snow Falling on Cedars? Nine? Memoirs of a Geisha? Surely, history must have been too cruel to one of them… no?

LEAH: Ah, poor Gary. How quaint is that, to have your presidential hopes completely destroyed by one photograph of a woman who is not your wife sitting in your lap? Let him have the ranch.

But that’s an interesting mixed bag of movies you just raised. The Lovely Bones and I Am Sam both resonate a little more for me for different reasons — one, because they feature genuinely great performances from two precocious young actresses: Saoirse Ronan and Dakota Fanning, respectively. (How did it work out for those two crazy kids? They seem like they’re doing all right.) And because Bones was a book I really loved that I think was never really meant to be put on screen, but at least they tried it, respectfully.

Nine is a film I can cherrypick moments from — Marion Cotillard’s “Take It All,” for example, turns into something fierce and sad and kind of beautiful by the very end. (Let’s leave Daniel Day-Lewis’ Italian accent alone, though.) And a turkey like Collateral Beauty got a lot better for me midway through once I decided to treat it like an unintentional comedy populated by nearly everyone who has ever sat VIP at an Oscars luncheon: Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, Will Smith. At least the catering tent must have been fun?

I think the best that some of these bad movies can hope for is to be redefined as camp; Nine comes close, maybe, or By the Sea (drink every time somebody gazes soulfully out a window or lights a cigarette!), though nobody’s busting out a midnight singalong of Snow Falling on Cedars any time soon. Personally, I feel like Monuments Men can keep its Ocean’s-8-take-on-the-Nazis mess locked away in a vault, along with all those priceless works of art. But history, not box office or critics like us, will be the ultimate judge.

After all, the list of ambitious movies that were once considered relative bombs and went on to become classics — Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life, even The Wizard of Oz — is proof that failure plus time can equal true redemption, right? Though trust me, that doesn’t mean I’m not grateful that you drew the short straw on Welcome to Marwen.

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