Biopics, historical dramas, films about Hollywood, war films. The key phrase continually thrown around by the masses that connects these genres is the demeaning qualifier “Oscar bait” – should the film be released between the months of October and February, at least.
It’s an easy way to define what you don’t like about a film even if you can’t quite put your finger on what that quality actually is; a handy catch-all that doesn’t really require a proper explanation. But, like all criticism that comprises of two words, it’s a pretty vague turn of phrase. This dismissive and unspecific moniker swallows up so many varieties of film that to actually examine what “Oscar bait” means, we’ve got to look at what makes Oscar bait.
Since for the most part nominees and winners of awards like this are picked by a panel of voters (in the case of the Oscars, members of the Academy – to this day still 73% male and 89% white), the films that you see during awards season will generally be part of a kind of consensus – the films that unequivocally have the most critical praise or buzz from film festivals, and the best audience reaction.
A lot of the time, the voters don’t even watch the films before they pick them. So technically, for a good chance at being an Oscar nominee, the film has to be something that the voter has either seen, or likes the sound of and thinks will have a good shot at winning based on critical consensus.
Since the Academy (and let’s face it, the film industry in general) is skewed towards oldish white dudes, there is a tendency to replicate that in the nominations, often at the expense of other demographics. So, with this in mind, to make an “Oscar bait” film, you’ve got to make a film that pleases a widely white, male American demographic. That doesn’t really mean anything other than “make a popular film”, which isn’t always something a filmmaker can predict; after all, quality isn’t always a guarantee of success.
It’s difficult to actually define an Oscar bait film, but one genre that’s almost guaranteed to attract the label is the biopic. This breed of awards-season film is easy to spot thanks to a similarity in structure and tone; films like The Danish Girl, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game can be quite easily held up as proof of Hollywood’s desire to see uplifting yet tragic stories do well.
There’s a lot of vital subject matter here with plenty of pathos to go around, but unfortunately, these films can start to feel prepackaged – where the audience isn’t trusted to react in the right way, and handheld by overbearing audio cues and dialogue (“this is sad and/or important!”). The subject matter often doesn’t get what it deserves as it is consumed by Hollywood, buried by the desire to create “star performances” out of tragic, real-life figures.
The problem with dismissing biopics like this as “Oscar bait”, however, is that this particular criticism doesn’t actually clear up what’s wrong with these specific films – and often gets the good ones lumped in with the bad. If anything, trailers create the sense of Oscar bait more than anything, as films that might surprise you are marketed to seem less radical to a broader audience.
A perfect current example is Pablo Larraín’s superb Jackie, a film that looks like biopic-by-numbers Oscar bait at first glance, but actually offers a sideways glance into the maelstrom of grief around First Lady Jackie Kennedy as her husband, JFK, is assassinated. In reality Oscar bait is a self-fulfilling prophecy, defined by marketing more than a film’s actual content or quality. It’s a different person’s story told in the same style that nearly always get recognition at awards – and there’s a reason it happens time and again: the voters.
We get the same type of nominees because they’re within the Academy’s comfort zone. The difference between a nomination and a snub could hypothetically come down to a mere glance and the thought “Oh, I normally enjoy films like this.”
It’s partly why something like Hidden Figures is in consideration for Best Picture – there’s no denying the importance of the story it’s telling and the crucial fact that it’s a solid, successful film with three black women in leading roles (as geniuses in an male dominated field), but it’s not particularly well-executed. On the other hand, it is an uplifting true story. Whereas another film that seemed like it had potential for Oscar glory, American Honey (a great film about poor people, directed and written by a woman), has been all but ignored.
The continual failure of the Academy voters and the film studios to move outside of their comfort zone leads us to see the same type of film nominated, year after year. The boundaries of what appeals to mainstream Academy voters may be growing, as shown by the nominations for Hidden Figures and Fences, for example, but they’re just new ingredients in the same old mold. There are hints of the Academy attempting to grow in what they validate through their awards, but it’s time that they pushed a little harder.