Oscarbait: Some Ramblings, With Bonus "The Butler" Musings

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So we saw The Butler this weekend, a movie that’s tailor-made Oscarbait. And after some Twitter-discussions with Monty Ashley, who thought “Oscarbait” was a negative term, I wanted to discuss what I think Oscarbait is.  Because it’s a weird little topic, the studios making a certain type of film in the hopes of getting Oscars (and hence more cash).
Because here’s the deal: Monty said that “Oscarbait” was a “noun, used to describe a movie of high quality that the speaker nevertheless wants to describe in a derogatory fashion.”  The problem is that most Oscarbait movies aren’t of high quality.  It’s said that the failure mode of “sarcasm” is “asshole,” and the failure mode of “Oscarbait” is “tedious drama.”  Few people would argue that “Radio” (starring Cuba Gooding) or “The Lovely Bones” were quality films beyond the obvious definition of “made by professionals without any Plan 9-style errors,” but damn if someone in the production company wasn’t hoping for Oscar gold.
The problem is that not all Oscarbait movies are bad, either.  I loved “The King’s Speech,” but it was pretty goddamned blatant.  Likewise, I loved “The Pianist” when I rewatched it the other day.  You can be Oscarbait and not Oscar-worthy, but the two are not inextricably linked in either direction.
So what is Oscarbait?  Having thought about it, the usual Oscarbait traits are:
1)  A Sweeping Historical Drama, or:
2)  A Biopic About A Serious Historical Figure And/Or Artist, or;
3)  A Story About Ordinary People Facing Serious Challenges, Like Drug Addiction or Retardation or Attention Deficit Disorder;
4)  Starring and/or directed by many more than one previous Oscar nominee;
5)  That is Very Serious.
Obviously, you don’t need to have all of them to qualify: “The Lovely Bones” was #4 and #5, but obviously not #1 or #2.  But as I said to Monty, the Oscars have a distinct preference for dramatic, humorless tearjerkers.  “Best Picture” is almost invariably defined as “Best Drama” in Oscar terms (although thankfully, the Drama definition is fluid enough to overlap with also-funny movies like “Silver Linings Playbook” and with action-tinged films like “The Departed” and “Argo.”).
Yet the fact is, there were many good movies that would never get an Oscar nomination.  I think we can all agree that “Die Hard” is perhaps one of the greatest action movies ever, but can you imagine it getting an Oscar nomination for Best Picture?  “The Dark Knight Rises” was a tense action thriller that also happened to star Batman, but would it get nominated?  Nope.  “The Hangover” and “Galaxy Quest” and “Shaun of the Dead” and “21 Jump Street” were all great comedies, but do comedies get nominated?
…when was the last time a horror movie got nominated?  Are we saying there have been no high-quality horror movies since “Silence of the Lambs”?
As Monty correctly points out, your best way of guaranteeing an Oscar nomination is to make a great fucking film.  But nobody knows how to make those – and even if you did, you could make the greatest teenaged road trip fart comedy in history and still not glimpse the gold.  So instead, studios angle their Oscary cash towards making films the Oscar people are biased towards, spending big dollars on Serious Films that are often misfires.  I mean, I thought Philip Seymour Hoffman put in a brilliant performance in “Capote,” but the rest of the film kind of sucked.
It also should be noted that you do not have to win to be successful Oscarbait.  A nomination in one of the Big Five will boost your box office gross considerably, and get you back in the theaters if you were released in fall and bombed, so just having the Academy acknowledge you is key.  (And besides, some great Oscar performances have been robbed – hellooooo, Viola Davis – so sometimes the nomination is worthy in and of itself.)
But the point is that studios don’t know how to make great films.  So instead, if they’re feeling Oscary, they greenlight the big sweepy films packed with previous winners and also-rans in an attempt to get in there.  That’s not necessarily a negative thing, because often – or at least “often” in the sense of “most films fail” – you wind up with something that’s actually very awesome.  Les Miserables is Oscarbait, just as Phantom of the Opera was before it, but only one really hit it out of the park.
Tl;dr: Oscarbait is a strategy, not a judgment.
As it is, I’m gonna get slammed for this, but despite the Oscar-baityness of it all, I don’t think “The Butler” is a particularly good movie.  It hits a lot of emotional notes, but those notes were often not generated by the film but by the knowledge this tragedy actually happened to people.  It’s what I think of as a “Your Dead Dog” movie – it doesn’t take much to make you tear up by evincing emotions of your beloved pet.  But that doesn’t mean that slapping the words “I Love You Sparky” over a photo of your dog is high art.  It means someone took something that’s deeply personal to you and dug it up, which is a) really effective, and b) kind of a cheap shot.
“The Butler” felt like Civil Rights 101 to me – a worthy goal, and I’m glad people are seeing it for the education, but as a film I’m not sure it holds up.  I know the point is the generation gap between black families back then, but the film spent a lot of time focusing in on the guy who literally did nothing to affect the flow of history.  That’s a great point, African-Americans totally had to sublimate everything to fit in back then, and I’m really glad that’s brought up… but in terms of interesting decision-making, Cecil doesn’t actually make many.  And the movie knows this.  Cecil’s job is to watch history from the sidelines, being almost passive as Kennedy and Truman do their thing, and when the civil rights movement calms down the film has zero issues literally fast-forwarding past fifteen years of Cecil’s life in a quick montage, because it knows Cecil is the least interesting thing in it.
The son is the active character, the one who fights, and I find myself wishing there had been more of a balance between the activist son and the surviving dad, which would have really contrasted both of their experiences more.  As it is, “The Butler” was pretty good Oscar-bait, and it’ll almost certainly get nominated, and hell, it may even be Oscar-worthy.  But I don’t think it’ll wear well.
But hey. I could be wrong about the quality of “The Butler.”  But as a Sweeping Historical Drama Starring and/or Directed by many more than one previous Oscar Nominee, that is Very Serious, it’s definite Oscarbait.  Now let’s see whether it’s the kind of film that we’re still watching thirty years from now, which is something Oscar has nothing to do with.

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