Cinematic Snares: What We Lose When We Dismiss Films As ‘Oscar Bait’

From the titles that emerged at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018 now into the 2019 Oscars, there is a great deal to be unearthed in how we choose to describe the titles everyone is talking about

credit: Dorith Mous / ©A.M.P.A.S.

The word ‘bait’ has two definitions – one as a noun, one as a verb. As a noun, bait refers to “food placed in a trap to entice fish and other animals as prey”. Applied as a verb, the act of baiting is to “deliberately annoy or taunt someone”. The expression ‘Oscar bait’ asks for a loose appropriation of both meanings.

We, the hungry people who watch and love movies like our daily bread, act like the “other animals” of the first definition. We bunch up our favourites and sworn enemies alike, and annoy each other about them until the awards ceremony to end the season, coming on 24 February this year, finally puts all the name-naming to rest. After the Academy Awards, we allow ourselves to let go of what does or doesn’t fit into the lofty category of ‘Oscar bait’ – a flimsy umbrella term that doesn’t protect anyone from insult, instead just dampening and extinguishing every fresh splash of creativity that comes near it.

The expression has been used around awards season (which allegedly begins as soon as summer blockbusters fade out) since 1948. Films were shown to limited audiences in preview screenings around the period of eligibility, favouring critics and voters before going to general release after the ceremonies were over. This happened with The Deer Hunter in 1978, which was first screened in Los Angeles on 8 December and in New York on 15 December. It was subsequently nominated for nine Oscars at the 51st Academy Awards and was only released to the public long after the nominations had been announced, on 23 February 1979. It ended up winning five Oscars, including Best Picture.

In 2018, the Toronto International Film Festival offered a whole batch of movies that already smelled like the 91st Academy Awards – for which the nominees will be announced on 22 January – way back in September. The programme was eyewateringly expansive, and it was often easier to let eyes be drawn to the more recognisable names – of actors, of directors, of the movies themselves.

A group then emerged – you were scorned for allegedly committing to watching only “Oscar bait” instead of seeing out smaller titles and rarer talent. While the celebration of newer names is always vital, dismissing a selection of movies on the assumption that this umbrella expression captures everything they could have to offer is reductive and exclusionary.

According to the thorough Wikipedia page on the subject, Oscar bait implies that the sole purpose of these films from the very beginning is to earn nominations for the Oscars. It highlights a timely release date, as well as a number of recognisable characteristics. “Lavishly produced epic length period dramas” describes a first group. “The plot may centre on a character with a physical or mental disability” refers to Oscar bait movies set in the present day. The list goes on, drawing focus to actors, directors or writers with previous nominations.

A Star Is Born and Beautiful Boy both showcase actors not unfamiliar with the awards circuit, while shining a light on the harm of substance abuse as a disease. The former follows a string of remakes and new versions of the story, but it lets pop royalty Lady Gaga prove her worth as a leading actress, and proves how far a first-time director, actor Bradley Cooper, really can go. The latter warms up the 23-year-old actor Timothée Chalamet for a second consecutive awards race after last year’s Call Me By Your Name as he plays Nic Sheff, a young man who struggles with meth addiction. He stars opposite Steve Carell who plays David Sheff, Nic’s father – who wrote the memoir of the same name upon which the film is based. Beautiful Boy also incorporates Nic’s version of events from his own book Tweak, thus letting the lives of the father and son infuse the film with a sense of love based on truth.

Dismissing these films as Oscar bait hinders the impact they could have in raising awareness about the stories being told. A Star Is Born showcases the storytelling possibilities of one age-old idea that still has so much to give. Its categorisation implies predictability, but songs like ‘Shallow’ transcended the confines of formulaic melodrama almost instantly. There’s tragedy too, as the slow but dramatic downfall lets the characters’ imperfections break up the too-good-to-be-true narratives without overpowering them.

With Beautiful Boy, the lives of David and Nic have touched individuals around the world who are opening up a conversation about drug addiction in families from many different backgrounds. But the film is being somewhat disregarded because of its star persona and the heavily engaged loyalty that fans of Chalamet have since developed. This is a film showing true bravery and pain, working towards a cause and raising awareness about disease, while also proving the strength of fan power – and yet these qualities backfire and cancel the unicity of the whole affair, all in the name of Oscar bait.

Debating the term in 2012 – albeit from a different angle – on Slate, S. T. Vanairsdale said: “the filmmakers and studios who mistake Oscar recognition for some sort of creative validation have it all wrong: a truly great film validates the Oscars, not the other way round”. This aligns with the ineffective qualification of Oscar bait as a term that gives a film its only characteristic and obscures the rest. A peculiar case of Oscar bait can be seen with Steve McQueen’s Widows, another TIFF premiere that felt urgent and exciting at the time, but then suffered a hot and fast hype run before running out of steam and being, so far, completely forgotten this awards season.

Since his Best Picture win for 12 Years A Slave in 2014, director Steve McQueen has been one to watch, which should have put his new film in a favourable position for the awards race. After its world premiere in Toronto, we were quick to announce Widows as a definite awards contender – but based on what? Past McQueen’s previous win, the film’s strengths lie in just how subversive it is. Coming out in the same year as the gender-flipped Ocean’s 8, Widows reclaims the heist tropes and lets women give it their own meaning after four criminal husbands die on the job and their wives have to clean up the mess. It’s something that felt special to discover, and then upsetting to be subdued because of, what, just how good it really was?

A nasty habit developed in the past few years has been to use the qualities of relevance and significance interchangeably, then damning anything as organically impactful if it has any societal weight to it as well. Widows was almost too good to be true, a film that’s empowering but not twee, violent but never flippant, harnessing the rage and rise up of marginalised and abused parties that fueled the galvanising aura of the first year after Weinstein. But. somehow on the way to celebrating just how special it was, the trap snapped, and the food got eaten up. We’re chasing our own tails, christening Oscar bait as soon as any shape comes into focus as looking slightly familiar, or so wildly different that it’s interesting enough to put in the same box, somehow, as well.

But change is in the air. When Roma screened at TIFF, there was very little to go off and yet the results were no less impactful. It’s difficult to categorise Alfonso Cuarón’s monochromatic homecoming as anything but the tender and open slice of life that it is, which makes it all the more exciting as a frontrunner for Oscars. Some names will always speak a bit louder, but what matters is letting these films speak the messages they have to say for themselves – letting us remove the two words which are always liable to hide far more than they could ever reveal.

The nominees for this year’s Academy Awards will be announced on 22 January

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