Thursday, February 24, 2011

And the Oscar Goes to… Anything but Horror! : A Brief History of Terror Cinema and the Academy

Only a liar would deny that Oscar night is the cinematic celebration of the year, a time when millions tune in to revel in movies, the artists who make them, and the celebrities who star in them. Only a fool would believe that Oscar consistently rewards the best of the best. While not nearly as absurd as The Grammys or Emmys, The Oscars has a long-standing tradition of applauding professionally crafted, uninspired films that usually don’t take many artistic chances. There’s an odd middlebrow elitism to the Academy Awards. Terrible performances will warrant statuettes because the actors in question were “brave” enough to portray people with disabilities (Rain Man winner Dustin Hoffman, Scent of a Woman winner Al “Hoo-Ha!” Pacino, Forrest Gump winner Tom Hanks). Terrible movies will warrant them for dealing with such serious topics as suicide (Ordinary People), racism (Driving Miss Daisy, Crash), and disasters (Titanic), albeit in totally superficial and patronizing manners. Meanwhile, a certain genre is generally shunned because it is not what the punter who cried when Tom Cruise said “You complete me” considers to be “Art” with a big, dumb, capital “A”. Obviously, the genre I’m talking about is one of the focuses of this site: horror.

(Mild spoilers in the following paragraph…)

Despite a long history that has produced a parade of classics that all but the most blinkered critics agree are great films—from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho to Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws to An American Werewolf in London—horror gets little respect come Academy Awards night. That’s not to say that Oscar has never tossed the creeping skeleton a bone. In fact, this year is one of just eight since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started handing out its little naked men in 1928 that a horror film has received multiple nominations in non-technical categories. Darren Aronofsky’s daring, messy, mad, and ultimately brilliant Black Swan is up for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (as well as best cinematography and film editing) awards. In a more just world, Black Swan would sweep (and Mila Kunis wouldn’t have been robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nomination). The film was a rare explosion of imagination in a mostly unremarkable year, and a terrific opportunity to watch a filmmaker take crazy chances, perhaps not always succeeding. I’m still wondering if Portman’s transformation into an actual swan was completely necessary, but I was still impressed that Aronofsky had the guts to toss such a bizarre idea into his film’s climax and risk losing an audience that he’d already asked to go along with some pretty eccentric twists and turns.

Excuse me, officer, I’d like to report a robbery.
It is that riskiness, that audacity, that commitment to an obtuse vision that guarantees Black Swan isn’t going to score a single award this Sunday night. It certainly won’t win the Best Picture or Directorial awards. It’s too “weird.” No, you can count on the Best Picture award going to The King’s Speech, which I have not seen but have it on good authority is perfectly competent and perfectly ordinary, or Facebook: The Movie!, which is almost vengefully unremarkable aside from being browner than a clogged toilet. Why this dreary tale of litigious assholes has received so much drooling praise is utterly beyond me.

Whatever the outcome Sunday night, it is nice to see Oscar give a little due credit to a really well made horror film, as it is not the academy’s inclination to do so. Over the past 82 years, only eight non-technical awards have been presented to actors, actresses, screenwriters, directors, and films trafficking in scares and monsters. Promisingly, the first horror film to receive a nomination won, but tellingly, it won with a catch. Just a few years into Oscar history, Fredric March grabbed the Best Actor award for his astonishing double-duty work in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1932. This is pretty impressive considering the disdain and outrage that greeted most horror films to date, including the perennials Dracula and Frankenstein. The catch was that March had to share his award with Wallace Beery, who also won for playing a “washed-up boxer” cliché in King Vidor’s The Champ.

Wallace Beery as a washed-up boxer in ‘The Champ’.
Also nominated that year were Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath for adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella and pulling off the significant feat of improving greatly on the source material, which nursed its central metaphor at the expense of fully fleshed characters, relationships, and incidents. A tremendous achievement, their screenplay for Jekyll and Hyde lost to Edwin J. Burke’s for Bad Girl. Don’t worry; I’ve never heard of it either.

‘Bad Girl’ sez: "What am I?"

The mysterious Bad Girl also scored an award for director Frank Borzage in a category that didn’t even acknowledge that Mamoulian’s work on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was groundbreaking on nearly every level, from his use of first person point-of-view shots to establish empathy with the doctor, to his still stunning on-camera transformation trick shots.

During the ‘40s, a couple of nominations were tossed to actors in horroresque roles—Walter Huston for playing Lucifer in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and Angela Landsbury for playing a barmaid in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) —but neither resulted in a win. Nor did The Bad Seed, the second horror film to receive multiple nominations. Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack may have gone home empty handed, but both could rest assured that neither Anastasia (featuring Best Actress winner Ingrid Bergman) nor Written on the Wind (with Best Supporting Actress Dorothy Malone) would ever inspire rabid cult followings or drag-queen homages.

Four years later came the third horror film to receive multiple nominations, and most will agree that the recipient is a cinematic milestone. Alfred Hitchcock was up for Best Director and Janet Leigh was up for Best Supporting Actress for their work on Psycho. Both lost, and as is well known, Hitchcock never won a directing Oscar despite being arguably cinema’s greatest director. At least the award went to a deserving Billy Wilder for The Apartment that year.

Despite its lack of acclaim from the Academy, Psycho played a major part in improving horror/critic relations, and made room for more artistic achievements in the genre. During the ‘60s, human-monster Roman Polanski proved to be one of the most innovative and artful horror filmmakers, creating a tour de force of sexual paranoia with Repulsion in 1965, then doing the same for maternal fears three years later with Rosemary’s Baby, the film that fully made good on the promises mapped out by Psycho. Exceptional direction, acting, and writing convene in a truly great film distinguished by both oppressive terror and deliciously perverse humor largely by way of Ruth Gordon as officious neighbor and fun-loving Satanist, Minnie Castevet. Gordon wrangled the Oscar for her tremendous performance as a woman who never stops being lovable, even after she orchestrates a demonic rape. Polanski, however, failed to win the Best Adapted Screenplay award for which he was nominated and failing to garner a nomination for his directing.

The demon infant of Rosemary’s Baby blossomed into the demonically possessed adolescent that would crack through Oscar’s anti-horror façade more assuredly than any previous contender. The Exorcist only won a single award (a Best Adapted Screenplay statuette for William Peter Blatty), but its level of nominations was unprecedented for a horror film, particularly a full-blooded horror film that doesn’t straddle any lines as stuff like The Bad Seed, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (which scored acting nominations for Bette Davis and Victor Buono in 1962), and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (featuring 1964 Best Supporting Actress nominee Agnes Moorehead) do. The Exorcist was also up for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), and Best Picture; a first for a horror film.

Whether or not there is some connection between the Exorcist phenomenon and the relatively plentiful horror nominations that followed almost immediately (a Best Picture nod for Jaws in 1975; Best Actress and Supporting Actress nods for Carrie’s Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, respectively, in ’76), that flame burned out quickly. Aside from a Best Actress nomination honoring Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens (1986), horror was relegated to the back of Oscar’s bus for fourteen years. Then in 1990, Kathy Bates became the first actress to win an Oscar for a horror performance when she scored one for playing psychotic Annie Wilkes in Misery. Horror was back on the Oscar map and about to make its greatest splash in the Academy’s fetid pool.

Oscar sweeps are rare. Oscar sweeps by horror films are less common than two-headed calves. However, both happened in 1991 when Silence of the Lambs trounced the competitors, raking in the statuettes with greedy talons. Congratulations, Best Actress Jodie Foster! Congrats to you, too, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins! Way to go, Best Adapted Screenplay writer Ted Tally, and we can’t forget you, Jonathan Demme! You’re the first director to win an Oscar for a horror film, and the horror film for which you won was the first to be named Best Picture!

Oscar Loves Crazy

Creeps and ghouls rejoice, but don’t get too comfortable. Despite a strong start, the ‘90s proved to be an unremarkable decade for horror, overly dominated by mediocre “The Crazy ______” movies (as in: “The Crazy Roommate,” “The Crazy Tenant,” “The Crazy Nanny,” etc.). That also meant Oscar wasn’t going to be knocking on horror’s door again anytime soon. Still, it is not utterly meaningless that Martin Landau was able to nab a well-deserved 1994 Best Supporting Actor award for his miraculous transformation into horror star Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood and Sir Ian McKellen got a nomination for playing legendary horror filmmaker James Whale in the 1998 film Gods and Monsters. Though both actors surely did extraordinary work in both films, one might also view these awards and nominations as belated posthumous tributes to the men portrayed.

If one is still looking for some sort of pattern regarding the Oscars’ uncomfortable relationship with horror at this point, one is probably jerking off into the breeze. Like a derelict dad deciding its time to come home and visit the kids for a spell, horror strolled back onto the Oscar stage in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, another multi-nominated film, yet also the least potent horror film to make its way onto the Academy’s docket yet. A predictable script and way too much pseudo-creepy whispering notwithstanding, The Sixth Sense managed nominations for its director (“emperor’s new clothes” exemplar M. Night Shyamalan), screenplay (Shyamalan again), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), editor (Andrew Mondshein), and itself (that means it was nominated for Best Picture). It won nothing.


Then the ‘00s, another fairly fallow period for horror as far as the Academy was concerned. It only lowered itself to bestow non-technical nominations on three horrors during the decade: the first for Willem Dafoe, so marvelous as Max Shreck in the ingenious collision of fact and fiction Shadow of the Vampire (2000); the second for Guillermo Del Toro’s sumptuous and profound grim fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film; the third for Johnny Depp, very good in Tim Burton’s terrific, gruesome musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

And now the pendulum shutters back into horror’s Gothic manse once more. Last year Oscar finally acknowledged that horror was worthy of one of its cheesy little tribute montages. That a pair of stars from the juvenile Twilight movies were chosen to introduce the montage, and that the tribute spends so much time humping the legs of celebrities like tabloid-fave Jennifer Aniston rather than presenting a comprehensive, rich overview of the genre, reveals that horror still hasn’t crawled out of Oscar’s fruit cellar of shame.

If Black Swan does win anything this Sunday, it will be joining a most exclusive society of horrific Oscar winners: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rosemary’s Baby, Misery, and Silence of the Lambs. Feel free to wish it luck, but don’t hold your breath, lest you end up like one of the wan corpses that litter so many films deemed unworthy of the Academy’s chintzy statuette.

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