In 1992, Michelle Pfeiffer garnered her third Oscar nomination. That year, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns instantly became a cult favorite despite plenty of controversy, and a large part of its success was based on Pfeffier’s performance as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. She was universally beloved by all who saw the film — an S&M-clad anti-hero that uses her sex appeal to take charge of her life and the movie itself. I believe Pfeiffer gives one of the great motion picture performances of all time.
But Pfeiffer wasn’t nominated for Batman Returns at the 65th Academy Awards. Instead, she was recognized for her work in Love Field, an instantly forgettable drama about the culture surrounding JFK’s assassination. Make no mistake: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) was honoring Batman Returns. But the AMPAS couldn’t possibly recognize that a performance in a superhero movie be equivalent to “high art.”
The trend of snubbing an actor for a genre performance is not a new concept. It has plagued AMPAS since it’s conception and will continue to be a problem until the gap is lessened between the blockbuster and arthouse entertainment cultures. Think of legendary genre performances in films like Dracula (1931), with Bela Lugosi terrifying generations of youngsters with his take on the title role. We saw this more recently with Tilda Swinton’s lauded Snowpiercer villain role, which did well in the precursors (Gotham, Satellite, and a whole lot of critic’s awards) in 2014 only to miss out on a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
We got close to a change with The Dark Knight in 2008, which saw Heath Ledger take home Best Actor in a Supporting Role and the film taking a wide variety of technical awards. But, as evidenced by the expanded category’s several shortcomings, AMPAS is not yet ready to fully embrace the mainstream in their awards. That year, Robert Downey, Jr. unfathomably received an Oscar nomination for playing a character in blackface, which apparently was easier to digest for the Academy than nominating him for his career-best work in the first Iron Man.
“Let’s nominate their other performance”
This trend continued last year, with Alicia Vikander being recognized (and eventually winning) for The Danish Girl at the Oscars. AMPAS went with the straightforward dramatic role instead of Vikander’s more ambitious work in sci-fi thriller Ex Machina. While most of The Danish Girl narrative for Vikander was blanketed in “Lead or Supporting” decision-making, her nuanced performance in Ex Machina was a critical favorite and probably the film most deserving of her nomination.
Work in a genre movie can often lead to a nomination for a more “traditional” film. The latest example of this is probably Jennifer Lawrence, who stole the 2012 Best Actress narrative away from Jessica Chastain by being America’s latest sweetheart. And part of that accolade came from Lawrence’s work in The Hunger Games. It’s hard to separate her from that franchise, and her “it girl” status owes a lot to that sci-fi blockbuster. (To a lesser degree, a part of Anne Hathaway’s 2012 Supporting Actress win goes to her role as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a performance I thought was just as equally deserving of the award.)
Then again, a genre film that comes after the nominations is also worth mentioning, because if it’s bad enough it can stop your Oscar buzz dead in its tracks. Perhaps the most famous of this was how Norbit (2007) — a blatantly offensive “comedy” and just bad movie — ultimately destroyed Eddie Murphy’s chances for an Oscar win for Dreamgirls (2006). Alan Arkin ended up winning the Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, for taking up the safe-bet Oscar narrative of “he’s old, he’s good in this, and he’s been around forever without a win.”
Snubbing Non-Traditional Genre Performances
Where’s the Oscar love for Javier Bardem in Skyfall, Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? All three of these performances succeeded in previous award events, but weren’t even invited to the Academy Awards because of AMPAS’s weird feelings towards movies that don’t scream “traditional narrative”.
In particular, it’s worth calling out blatant Oscar bias against the acting in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Don’t misunderstand me: The Academy devoured the franchise, giving the last film eleven wins out of eleven nominations. None of those nominations were for acting though. Sean Astin at least did well in the precursors, but how could they ignore Andy Serkis’ groundbreaking work as Gollum? Did they think the visual effects win was enough? Wrong, Academy. His performance defined that movie, just as much as Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, or Ian McKellen. Across the expansive ensemble of all three films, the Academy only recognized McKellen for The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s a great victory for genre films, but when fellow precursor favorite Cate Blanchett is snubbed that year, it’s hard to get too excited.
I’m not saying that Eva Green’s near-perfect performance in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children should be considered a snub, nor am I suggesting we throw accolades at every genre performance (as much as they may deserve it).
But wouldn’t we expect better performances in big Hollywood blockbusters if the actors knew they had a shot for Oscar gold? It’s a worthy question, and one the Academy shouldn’t be afraid to ask.
Take some risks; nominate Emma Thompson for Beautiful Creatures, and maybe people will be more inclined to watch the ceremony.