Friday, November 21, 2014

WHY DOES OSCAR OVERLOOK HORROR FILMS?

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in the very scary GONE GIRL . (copyright 2014)
We’re in the middle of Oscar prediction season again, and there are few horror movies that will figure in any serious prognosticating. The animated film “The Book of Love” is a ghost story and it is considered to be a strong contender for Best Animated Feature, but no out-and-out horror films will likely be in the running for any other categories. Despite the raves for frighteners “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Oculus”, few expect them to figure in the nominations.

Why is that? Do genre films like horror, thrillers and science fiction yield a reputation that doesn’t appear serious enough to be considered art? Are the pulpier aspects viewed as too base or even cheesy for best of balloting? Perhaps it’s because genre tends to be more visceral than intellectual. But no matter what the excuse is, the Academy finds plenty of reasons to shun such films year in and year out.  

Original caricature by Jeff York of Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider in JAWS. (copyright 2013)
In fact, it’s quite astonishing how horror films specifically have gotten such little love from the Academy Awards over the past 86 years. When it comes to Best Picture, only a handful of true horror films have ever been nominated. “The Exorcist” in 1973, “Jaws” in 1975, and “The Silence of the Lambs” in 1991 made the cut. Borderline scare-fests like “Fatal Attraction” and “No Country For Old Men” did too, but classics like 1931’s “Dracula” and ‘Frankenstein” didn’t.

The list of other classics that didn’t yield a single nomination is astonishing: the 1942 version of “Cat People”, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (neither the Don Siegel original or the Phillip Kaufman remake), “Night of the Living Dead”, “Halloween”, “The Shining”, “Theater of Blood”, John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, "Let the Right One In"  – none of them were up for boo. At least “The Silence of the Lambs” swept the Oscars its year, taking Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.

More often than not, if horror does receive Academy recognition, it’s in smaller categories like makeup or special effects. And horror rarely rates an entry in the acting categories. Thankfully, there have been exceptions over the years, like when Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and Kathy Bates won in the lead category for 1990’s “Misery”.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in 1973's THEATER OF BLOOD. (copyright 2012)
Still, horror legends like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were never nominated for their performances, nor for that matter, were any of them given life achievement Oscars either. In fact, it’s more often the case that acclaimed horror performances, even those that have won critics awards, get notoriously snubbed by the Academy when they’re filling out their ballots. Jeremy Irons won a slew of awards for his dual performance in "Dead Ringers" in 1988, but the Academy just couldn’t stomach nominating him from that David Cronenberg shocker. Same with Jeff Goldblum for Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” two years earlier. It was a widely heralded performance, but the Academy ignored him anyway.

There are other great performances in horror movies that have been similarly overlooked. Even if they’re from hit movies or are adapted from great literature. Alistair Sim couldn’t muster a Best Actor nomination come Oscar time for his dramatically nuanced turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol”. He captured the miser’s loathing and bullying like few others before or since, and he aced the redemption part too, but it still wasn’t enough to sway voters.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO. (copyright 2013)
“Psycho” was such a phenomenon in 1960 that it couldn’t be ignored, so the Academy nominated both director Alfred Hitchcock and supporting actress Janet Leigh, but they forgot to remember its star Anthony Perkins. Was Perkins simply too effective at creating the insidious character of Norman Bates, arguably the greatest horror movie character in the history of film, that it unsettled too many voters? Were his fellow actors jealous that he transcended the one-dimensional male ingénue roles he’d often had previously and hit such a complicated part out of the park?

What’s so incredible about Perkins’ work in the film is how he manages to make the audience sympathize, even empathize, with such a psychopath. You actually root for him to cover up the crimes of his ‘mother’ and get away with it. And it isn’t until the very end that audiences realized how his character had conned everyone on screen and off. Maybe the Academy members resented being fooled so definitively, or perhaps their complicity in cheering on his horrible actions made them feel remorse and guilt. Either way, they snubbed him.

Two of the greatest female performers in frighteners were unfairly ignored as well. Both Catherine Deneuve in "Repulsion" and Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” gave incredible performances in the classic horror films directed by Roman Polanski, but neither performance got the Academy’s due. The gorgeous Charlize Theron won an Oscar for playing a “Monster”, but these two ingénues couldn’t get the time of day for battling theirs onscreen.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Alistair Sim in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (copyright 2012)
The year before “Repulsion” came out in 1965, Deneuve played a singing shop girl in Jacques Demy’s candy-colored “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. Her follow-up role the next year couldn’t have been more different. Yet Deneuve showed she had the talent and the range to pull off the part of a deranged young woman losing her grip on reality. And she did it with nary any dialogue, instead using her large eyes and expressive body to register her downward spiral into insanity and homicide. Still, Deneuve’s palpable performance wasn’t enough for the Academy.

And why was Farrow ignored? She’s onscreen virtually the entire film and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. You’re invested in every second of her pregnancy and even come to understand her choice to nurture the baby at the end, rather than snuff out Satan’s spawn. Yet while the Academy acknowledged Gordon, they ignored the movie’s lead.

If straight horror movies fare poorly with the Oscars, horror comedies barely even register. Michael Keaton may be considered this year’s Best Actor frontrunner for his sublime work in the dark comedy “Birdman”, but he couldn’t muster even a Supporting Actor nomination for his hilarious turn in the 1988 comedy hit “Beetlejuice”. And of course, horror comedies like “The Evil Dead”, “Fright Night”, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland” were completely overlooked. Those last two even warranted a 92% and 90% rating at RottenTomatoes.com, respectively, but that and a dollar fifty got them home on the bus.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Linda Blair in 1973's THE EXORCIST. (copyright 2012)
There is hope though. “Gone Girl” brushes very strongly up against the horror genre, and it’s a real contender this year. It’s expected to get Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Editing and Cinematography. Whew! Rosamund Pike is surely Oscar worthy, but we’ll see if her monstrous Amy Dunne character has turned off too many viewers to prevail. Glenn Close played a similar role in “Fatal Attraction” and came this close to winning, but she didn’t.

It has always been an honor just to be nominated for an Oscar. There are only 24 categories and most of them only allow for five nominees. (Best Film now allows 5-10, depending on vote totals.) Nonetheless, horror movies too seldom make the top five, and that’s not right. Is a film whose primary purpose is to scare you less legitimate than a film where the goal is to make you cry? Here’s hoping that at least “Gone Girl” and “The Book of Life” scare up some awards this season. 

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