Is There Even Such a Thing As ‘Oscar Bait’?

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Photo: Agatha A. Nitecka/Focus Features

The leaves are changing color, the air is getting cooler, and all around us, the superhero movies and sequels that filled up our multiplexes all summer are being replaced by quieter, more adult fare. Biopics! Coming-of-age tales! Socially conscious historical dramas! You might even call them “Oscar bait” — but should you? Below, Vulture editors Mark Harris and Kyle Buchanan debate the utility of the term.

Mark Harris: Here we are at the dawn of a new Oscar season — well, dawn for me, but you’ve been walking this beat, checking out contenders, and taking the temperature of voters since before Labor Day. And I already have something to rant about. A few days ago I complained on Twitter about the prevalence of one of my least-favorite phrases of awards-season skepticism: “Oscar bait.” I called it “a terrible term that takes our sideline fixation (meaning, who’s gonna win) and tries to recast it as a defining motive for artists ... Can it describe how some films are marketed? Sure. But when you use it to peacock your contempt, it’s just a way of not seeing a movie.”

I’ll revise that here: I think “Oscar bait” is a way of taking a whole set of aesthetic objections to a movie, which may or may not be legitimate, and turning them into an accusation about what was in the hearts and minds of the people who made the movies. That’s what I reject. Yes, there’s no question that publicity campaigns are often created in order to position a movie as an awards-season contender. But that’s about the packaging and pushing of the movie. When people start using it to describe content, I think what they’re really objecting to is something else.

Kyle Buchanan: I appreciate your semantic fervor, though I fear that when it comes to the shorthand embraced around Oscar season, you may be fighting an uphill battle. For years, you’ve been crusading against the usage of the word “snub” in nomination-morning headlines, to no avail. 'Twas a noble quest, but people just like using that word too much! It’s cute and rude, like a puppy that hasn’t been housebroken.

Still, while I’ve resigned myself to hearing “Oscar bait,” I’m interested in what people really mean when they say it. Sometimes, “Oscar bait” is just a careless catchall meant to describe all fall films, but more often, it’s used the same way a snooty critic might say “Sundance movie” as a pejorative: There's an implication that what appears to be prestigious is, in its own way, as formulaic as a Marvel blockbuster. I understand this. If you had the misfortune to watch too many movies where a leading man suffers artfully, a talented actress is given no definition beyond “supportive wife,” and a scene-stealing character actor gets a showy monologue that could easily be snipped for an Oscar-night clip … well, it could all feel a little been-there, done-that. And when some conventionally assembled films seem to glide on through to the Best Picture category despite middling reviews, it’s natural that familiarity might breed contempt.

On the other hand, I think there are people who use “Oscar bait” as a kind of anti-intellectual dog whistle. How many times, in the run-up to Brokeback Mountain, did I hear someone quote South Park’s description of independent movies as “gay cowboys eating pudding”? Never mind the fact that its cartoonish characterization of indies felt weirdly off-base, or that Brokeback was a genuinely unprecedented Oscar contender. The implication I sussed out is that cowboys ought to be doing cowboy things, and in independent films — as well as Oscar bait, for that matter — they’d probably be sitting around, lame and neutered.

Do you agree? Or would you posit a third theory, that the usage of “Oscar bait” has become more pronounced because people have grown more cynical about the Oscar conversation itself?

M.H.: I think you’ve hit on something by bringing up Brokeback Mountain, which is that “Oscar bait” is a way of diminishing movies by feminizing them, in a way. These movies aren't just softer and more dismissible than summer blockbusters; they’re also softer and more dismissible than a whole genre of movies by filmmakers who are approved of by a largely male commentariat. You know who makes adult-themed fall movies featuring pedigreed casts and big acting-showcase scenes and preordained campaigns? Martin Scorsese. Paul Thomas Anderson. David Fincher. The Coens. But they all manage to escape the Oscar-bait designation. Because they don’t make, you know, sissy movies.

The directors who do get targeted — people like Tom Hooper and Stephen Daldry and Morten Tyldum and James Marsh — don’t work in the same vein. We can debate their individual aesthetics, but they get hit with “Oscar bait” a lot, and it’s used as a sneer in the same way that “Masterpiece Theater” was used in the 1980s and “Merchant Ivory” was used in the 1990s. It’s as a way of saying, “Don’t put something decorous and tasteful in front of me and bedeck it with production design and emotional moments because I know what you're trying to pull.” And it’s the second part of that I object to. Judge these movies as individual cases, fine, but to assume that they’re made with this single, craven purpose is to combine a misunderstanding of the motives of filmmakers with an outdated picture of Academy tastes. If you want to tear Saving Mr. Banks a new one, go ahead, but it was a movie that was called Oscar bait and placed on predictor short lists for months before anybody saw it — and then got a grand total of one nomination. So if it was bait, it was bait that Oscar prognosticators took and Oscar voters didn’t.

But I am also intrigued by your proposal that Oscar bait can be defined as “conventionally assembled movies that seem to glide on through to the Best Picture category despite middling reviews.” Because that’s sort of the opposite of using the term as an anti-intellectual dog whistle; it’s a way of saying that the Academy is at its worst when it fails to have the same taste as critics.

Is that a misread? Which group do you think the term “Oscar bait” is most intended to insult — the makers of those movies, the moviegoers who like them, or the people who vote for them?

K.B.: If Oscar bait is in the eye of the beholder, I reserve that turn of phrase for mediocre movies that conform to a preexisting Oscar rubric far better than the more interesting films that get passed over. Should the mild Frost/Nixon, nominated for Best Picture, have squeezed out 2008 also-rans like Wall-E, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, and The Dark Knight? Isn’t it a little outrageous that one of 2000’s Best Picture slots went to Miramax’s disposable Chocolat instead of Almost Famous, Billy Elliot, You Can Count on Me, or Requiem for a Dream? The successful Best Picture picks I named were from a familiar mold, pushed by Oscar-savvy producers like Brian Grazer and Harvey Weinstein, and I think the more people paid attention to the fruit borne from those campaigns, the more jaded they became about the entire process.

M.H.: So are we saying that “Oscar bait” means a movie that is overaggressively campaigned relative to its merit? Because Frost/Nixon, to use your example, was adapted from a pretty un-cinematic stage play about a series of TV interviews, and the screen version starred two actors who had never, between them, received a single nomination before. Whereas The Wrestler was a last-chance sports-comeback movie starring a screen veteran with a last-chance movie-comeback story to match, and it involved a massive onscreen physical transformation. Sounds awfully baity! The difference is the presumptive maleness — a tilt in favor of a certain kind of directorial muscularity — that permanently exempts a director like Darren Aronofsky from charges of making Oscar bait, but consigns Ron Howard to that category for his whole career.

For me, what it comes down to is, “Oscar bait” tells you nothing about the movie, the motives or choices that went into its making, or the Academy; all it tells you about is the tastes of the users of the term, which can tend to be pretty uniform. I humbly suggest this exercise: Look at the slate of fourth-quarter releases still ahead, and you can already tell what’s in danger of being labeled Oscar bait and what isn’t.

That's what makes the “Oscar bait” label so useless and, in a fundamental way, anti-movie to me. It’s all about how movies look on paper, but movies don’t exist on paper. And if it’s nothing more than a shorthand phrase for “something I wish those idiots hadn’t nominated over movies I think are better,” then let’s acknowledge the narrow perspective of the “I” in that definition — all that performative machismo, both in front of and behind that camera is what they like, and in fact it attracts Academy voters with remarkable consistency. Last year, The Revenant won three Academy Awards and Mad Max: Fury Road won six. So now, when I hear someone use the term “Oscar bait,” I start to think that maybe that person is not watching the same Academy Awards I am.

K.B.: Yes, there’s Oscar-friendly machismo in The Revenant and Fury Road (though the latter has plenty else going on, too), but those movies are also super weird in their own way! And the fact that two bonkers movies made it so far with Oscar, and took home so much hardware, ought to blast the traditional notion of Oscar bait to smithereens. Birdman was a totally oddball one-take fever dream that won Best Picture, and the year before, an outer-space thrill ride — Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity — very nearly swiped the top spot. Two years before that, the Best Picture winner was a silent black-and-white comedy, made by French people, with tap dancing and a dog. That’s an eclectic bunch of films tied together by nothing but eventual awards attention. You can’t call them Oscar bait: They’re too wild and wiggly, and liable to slip free.

I do think it would be naïve to pretend that some films are not made with Oscar in mind. Many independent movies seek financing on the basis that they could eventually merit wider awards attention, contracts are often negotiated with bonus bumps for stars if they earn a nomination or a win, and as we speak, top-tier directors and actors are blocking out the next several months to spend on the awards-season campaign trail. These are ambitious people, and even the most humble among them can succumb to Oscar fever. I remember one pundit claiming that Richard Linklater never would have thought about awards attention while making Boyhood, but back when Linklater was still tinkering on the film in post-production, he insisted that Patricia Arquette “should get a fucking Oscar” for her performance.

Now, was that Linklater’s sole motivation for making a film like Boyhood? Unlikely. (As far as Oscar bait goes, a mostly plotless 12-year project isn’t traditionally where it’s at.) But I do think that other people in the industry might agree to finance a film or play a role in large part because it could be “the one,” an Oscar-friendly vehicle that confers permanent acclaim in a very fickle business.

M.H.: I won’t deny that visions of Oscar glory dance in the heads of some producers or filmmakers, just as anyone behind a wannabe-blockbuster probably entertains thoughts of making the next Titanic, Avatar, or Star Wars. (Come to think of it, aren’t those also visions of Oscar glory? They all got nominated.)

But I’m always shocked and saddened by the number of people who shorthand that into “This movie was only made to win an Oscar.” No, no, no. Movies are hard to make. They are the product of a thousand decisions and of perseverance in the face of a thousand defeats, and the return-on-investment rate of Oscar hopes is so astonishingly low that to think of it as a driving motive is madness. Take a movie like The Danish Girl — which was probably tagged as Oscar bait more than any film last year, and which did, in fact, win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Whatever you think about the movie, it was in and out of development for 16 years. Directors as varied as Neil LaBute and Tomas Alfredson were attached before Tom Hooper, and different women were slated to play the part that eventually went to Eddie Redmayne. That movie’s development alone spans several generations of cis America’s relationship with trans people. So to understand why or how it got made, trace it forward all the way through an entire era of cultural history. But don’t work backward from Alicia Vikander’s acceptance speech as if it were the endpoint of a single, cold, keep-your-eye-on-the-statuette motive. That’s about the least illuminating, and least accurate, approach that anyone can take.

K.B.: Hear hear! And thanks for the chat, Mark. Fittingly, I think we put Oscar bait on a hook and let it wriggle.