As we settle into a new year, we begin the slow boil of excitement over the Academy Awards. The Golden Globes have come and gone, allowing us to pick the odds-on favorites for our Oscar betting pools. Some of the results were surprising, but that does not mean a few films aren’t trying the age-old shortcuts to the Academy’s heart.
Based on what sort of movie fan you are, there are certain films you will allow to manipulate you more than others — I will sit and weep for Das Boot any day of the week. The Notebook? Never again!! — but we all know shameless Oscar bait when we see it. Whether successful or not, it entails some manner of transparent bid for acclaim through the calculated inspiration of sympathy, guilt, or miraculous triumph. If Oscar bait works on you, then you’ll treasure the film all your life and hate anyone who speaks a word against it. If not, you will enjoy bitter self-satisfaction every chance you have to snipe at it.
Right at the very end, 2011 produced a prime cut of thick, syrupy Oscar bait no doubt intended to bum us all out before imbuing us with wonder and… dare I say… hope? Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close promises family-style grief, recent historical disaster, suggestions of autism, and the power of a child’s wonder to soften the hearts of a cold grown-up world. All that and Tom Hanks, of course, who is a marvelous performer but also a notorious Oscar-baiter. Enjoy, Academy!
This week, we lead off the Oscar anticipation with a list of the most diabolical Oscar bait we can call to mind. Brett Harrison Davinger and I (Dan Fields) are the lucky scrappers in this week’s battle.
In a backhanded tribute to the premise of Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, I have selected one film from each decade, although that lets each decade off rather lightly. I hereby force my hand to select only the most egregious of specimens.
Love Story (dir. Arthur Hiller, 1970)
This is one of the most iconic eye-rollers of all time, and the notorious tagline — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” — really tells you everything you need to know. Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw play two young kids in love, who go against all odds and the wishes of the world, and endure nothing but heartbreak and misery for their trouble. All of a sudden, the suicide of Romeo and Juliet seems like a sensible alternative. It’s one of the most famous “cancer” films ever made, and though that may sound insensitive, the way this film wallows in itself, all in the name of romance, is nothing short of shameless. And that’s the point of these films. They are designed so that any frank criticism of them sounds insensitive and hateful.
Beaches (dir. Garry Marshall, 1988)
The 1980s are not so easy to call. Most of the true Oscar bait was still pretty good. I’m thinking of Chariots Of Fire, Terms Of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rain Man. I wouldn’t roll my eyes too rashly at any of these, and each lends itself gracefully to rainy-day TV viewing. Rain Man is historically important to this list, for ushering in many less graceful dramas balanced precariously on mental handicap. Beaches, one of the most notoriously depressing chick flicks, is easy to pick on, though I have no particular beef with it.
The deciding factor is Bette Midler’s climactic rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which accompanies (guess what) her best friend’s death. You sort of expect movies from the 1980s to be a little more smarmy. It’s rather artless to throw this in right after Love Story, but it definitely mines the same mountain of grief and woe. The difference is that, as a mature woman with a little life experience behind her, Bette Midler is presumably better equipped to cope. I’d still rather watch her in Ruthless People any day.
Jerry Maguire (dir. Cameron Crowe, 1996)
The 1990s presented a very difficult choice. This is the decade that produced Forrest Gump, Ghost, G. I. Jane, The Cider House Rules, Philadelphia, The Piano, Shine, Titanic, Independence Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Braveheart. Don’t get me wrong… I love Braveheart, but you try telling me it wasn’t designed and built expressly to win Academy Awards. Jerry Maguire, aside from its fuzzy feel-goodness and adorable kid, has an edge over all of the aforementioned — the catch phrases. “Show me the money!” “You had me at hello…” “Help me help you.” I must be forgetting some more of them…
The other half of Hollywood’s output during this time was marked by originality, creativity, and genuine substance. The Silence Of The Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Fargo, Sling Blade and many more testify to what will be remembered about the era. By comparison, all the melodrama looks even more shabby.
Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)
Boy, we all thought Monster’s Ball had this distinction sewn up in 2001, didn’t we? If that wasn’t enough, Sean Penn escalated the contest to full-on pandering with his “fully challenged” turn in I Am Sam. But no, the best had not yet arrived. At the decade’s end, James Cameron decided to out-Titanic himself, banishing all traces of shame and dropping half a billion bucks on the heavy-handed interplanetary fable Avatar.
It’s not that I mind being force-fed a maudlin history of imperialism in the form of tree-worshiping blue felines and being pressured by vague feelings of guilt to applaud at the end. Wait a minute… that’s exactly what I mind! That a director with all the money in the universe to make any film he pleases would indulge himself so is an insult to anyone coveting the wherewithal to make any film at all. And the cruel punchline is that as a visual spectacle, it’s positively stunning. Only as a visual spectacle, and it’s far too long to escape on that merit alone. Behold the ultimate embodiment of sound and fury. It will make you remember Titanic as a big bowl of pie and ice cream. It’s Avatar, folks!
It’s generally unfair to judge a movie by its trailer, but Oscar Bait movies are unfair. They play the right notes with the grace of a player piano. Actors cry and they occasionally have a social message so we’re supposed to love them, yet they’re as hollow and mass-produced as any Transformers film. For this week’s Listicle, I will be limiting my analysis exclusively to the trailers for these cloying works.
I should also note here that most Oscar Bait movies are based on a true story and that I don’t know anything about the real life adventures of the people in the following segments. I am only referring to the characters as presented in the trailer.
The Blind Side (dir. John Lee Hancock, 2009)
One common Oscar Bait subgenre is “White People Are Awesome.” These films usually involve a white person (sometimes rich, sometimes not) helping a minority or underprivileged person or persons. Often our hero must stand up to people far more powerful than him or herself. Examples include Erin Brockovich, which featured Julia Roberts representing small-town America against Evil Corp.; The Soloist, which had down-on-his-luck reporter Robert Downey Jr. assisting a mentally-challenged minority (two points!) played by Jamie Foxx; and perhaps the worst of the lot, The Blind Side.
So that we immediately know what type of movie we’re getting into, the trailer starts with a contrast between Tuohy and Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) lives, complete with title cards telling us that these are the only worlds they’ve ever known. Tuohy doesn’t just know luxury, she knows super Caucasian luxury. Oher doesn’t just know squalor, he knows whitewashed ghetto squalor. How will those two ever connect? Well they do, and the ever-wonderful Tuohy adopts the gentle giant.
The rest of the trailer shows how ever-wonderful she is and how ever-wonderful everyone else thinks she is, complete with some truly hideous dialogue that exists just to persuade gullible people that this movie has an actual heart. Examples:
Oher: “I never had one before.” Tuohy: “What? A room to yourself?” Oher: “A bed.”
Tuohy to gangbanger: “You threaten my son, you threaten me!”
Upper crusty white woman: “You’re changing that boy’s life!” Tuohy: “No, he’s changing mine.”
One of the biggest problems in the trailer is that Oher comes across as severely mentally challenged, at times seemingly unable to communicate or process thoughts. People talk to him as though he’s the Abominable Snowman from Looney Tunes, and the entire “the football team is your family” exchange makes it seem as though Oher is shockingly easy to manipulate. Dialogue about how he can barely stay in school juxtaposed against him smiling while reading and writing with a pencil only serves to showcase the incredible power of this lone woman rather than Oher’s actual journey. Although the education angle plays to another of this genre’s most common tropes, it only adds another level of offensiveness to the trailer/film.
Additionally, the trailer features that horrible How to Save a Life song on its soundtrack.
As we know, Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for Best Lead Actress for the film. Several years earlier, Julia Roberts won her Academy Award for Erin Brockovich over Ellen Burstyn’s chilling performance in Requiem for a Dream. So what does this teach us? Give Jennifer Aniston around five years and a role where she defends an underdog and she will obtain a gold statuette.
Conviction (dir. Tony Goldwyn, 2010)
I like Sam Rockwell, but it’s difficult to imagine a more Oscar Baity trailer than 2010’s Conviction, which co-stars two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank. We get it all. True story! Wrongful conviction! Corrupt cops! Accents! Impossible odds! (“You gotta move on! It’s over!”) Age! Anger! Years! Tears! Family! Not only does Swank have to pass the Bar exam, but she has to earn a GED! I’m surprised and disappointed that they didn’t give her a Wayne’s World “And I never learned how to read!” moment.
In less than three minutes, we get two different characters explaining the film, in addition to the trailer itself giving a synopsis. (Swank to Minnie Driver: “My brother Kenny. He’s been in prison for 12 years, life without parole. And I’m going to find a way to get him out!” and Peter Gallagher: “This woman actually went to law school to save her brother.”). It’s not as though the plot is so complex that its story needs to be reinforced thrice. These were all just attempts to a) cover up the emptiness of the movie as a whole and b) to hammer home just how insurmountable Swank’s task seems to be and how she will not give up, damn it!
To further emphasize how heartwarming of a tale this is, we get title cards telling us that this is an inspirational true story (more Oscar goodness) PLUS the announcer letting us know how we will “experience the extraordinary journey of how far we’ll go to fight for our family.”
Luckily, the Academy wasn’t taken in by its clever ruse.
Patch Adams (dir. Tom Shadyac, 1998)
You forgot about this one, didn’t you? Maybe repressed would be a better word. But after more than a decade, it’s time to take another blinding look at one of Robin Williams’ worst. Why, he doesn’t even have a beard.
As discussed in The Blind Side, a lot of these movies feature our hero fighting against The Man. In some movies, The Man comes across so unbelievably evil that you end up rooting for Him because of how biased the movie seems in favor of its hero. And in the first 15 seconds of the Patch Adams trailer, one is taken aback by how ridiculous Dr. Man is.
We open with him telling a medical school class that “it is our mission here to vigorously and ruthlessly train the humanity out of you, and make you something better. We’re here to make doctors out of you.” All of the students applaud this, EXCEPT for our hero, Patch Adams (Robin Williams). While everyone else is taken in by the charisma of 24 and The Shawshank Redemption‘s Bob Gunton and his mission to turn them into robots, Patch knows the score. Doctors aren’t supposed to be automatons! They are meant to be human beings who care for other human beings! It’s this type of outside-of-the-box thinking that makes him dangerous.
Flabbergasted at Dr. Man’s theory, Patch makes his crazy ideas known to Love Interest (Monica Potter), but she only cares about passing her biology test. Will he change her heart and mind? It’s hard to see how anyone can comprehend such groundbreaking concepts as “our job is improving the quality of life, not just delaying death!”
Trapped in a world where bedside manner is as reviled as books in a dystopian sci-fi future, Patch must go above and beyond the call of duty in order to change the world. As this is “the true story of a man who broke every rule and proved that laughter truly is the best medicine,” he must put on an enema bulb/clown nose and act like an insect in front of children. And a Pinocchio nose in front of adults. And this is funny. To some. I guess.
I don’t get it.
Patch connecting to patients and learning about their hopes and dreams is quite problematic for some reason, and Dr. Man in his wood-paneled office and wood-paneled desk bans him from the hospital and the school. (Actual dialogue- Patch: “Why am I such a threat to you sir!?” Dr. Man: “Because you want us to get down there on the same level as our patients!”)
To add to Patch’s martyrdom (Oscar loves a good sacrifice), we see him at some sort of administrative hearing where he presumably closing statements: “You treat a disease you win or lose. You treat a patient I guarantee you win no matter what the outcome!” How can he not get nominated for an Oscar with passion like that? Well, he didn’t.
As expected for an Oscar Bait trailer, we even get a rousing, inspirational score at the halfway point as Patch decides to fight back, along with the “epic” shot of our hero standing alone on a mountain looking down at the world he intends to conquer.
The English Patient (dir. Anthony Minghella, 1996)
Despised by Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes, The English Patient smells like pure Oscar Bait, even with the bad YouTube upload of the trailer. An epic love story set amidst war?! Why that’s the concept that earned Wings the first Academy Award for Best Picture! Mental illness (amnesia), an exotic locale, and British people including Colin Firth further makes this film perfectly suited for awards season. Not to mention Tragedy! Tragedy! Tragedy! And it succeeded, winning Best Picture (over Fargo) among eight other statuettes.
Why Me? The Bob Lamonta Story (dir. John Moffitt, Troy Miller, 1997)
Of the numerous Oscar Bait/after school special parodies (after all, they are basically the same thing), my absolute favorite is this classic bit from Mr. Show with Bob and David.