Earlier this month, just after the New York Film Critics Circle kicked off yet another season of movie accolades and awards, one of the season's most noteworthy eminences made his voice heard. "If I were Oscar-blogging this year," tweeted Mark Harris, "a long rant about the empty foolishness of the phrase 'Oscar bait' would be on the way."
Indeed, Harris has for years been one of the smartest, most plugged-in Oscar bloggers around. He sat this year’s awards season out because he also happens to be married to playwright Tony Kushner, whose script for Lincoln is the prohibitive favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It's one of numerous Oscars for which the Steven Spielberg-directed epic is expected to compete in the months ahead. In part that’s because the film is excellent. It's also because Lincoln, with its A-list pedigree, deep ensemble cast, and strategic release during the film industry's annual hardware harvest, is the ripe, dripping quintessence of, well, Oscar bait.
Yet there's nothing at all empty or foolish about the phrase Oscar bait, which movie critics and pundits have long applied to the types of films developed, funded, and produced for the express purpose of pursuing gold-plated glory. Oscar bait's existence as a Hollywood species seems without question. Harris and others' disdain for the phrase raises the real question: What's so bad about Oscar bait?
Oscar bait is an art form, a state of mind, a business model. Its yield includes some of recent American cinema's most resonant triumphs (Titanic, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Social Network) and some of its most wretched garbage (Nine, The Lovely Bones, the last decade of Halle Berry's career). Oscar bait is the only reason that grown-ups have anything at all to watch in a movie theater anymore, with four months of awards season compensating for the other eight months of craven superhero franchises, anemic romantic comedies, and whatever Adam Sandler wipes off his shoe. For all the media hand-wringing about television usurping film's grip on our culture's imagination, no one complains about Breaking Bad losing an Emmy to Homeland the way they still yelp on and on about Crash thwarting Brokeback Mountain for a Best Picture Oscar.
It's true that at its worst, Oscar bait stinks up the room with its pretense to prestige; when applied in these cases, the term Oscar bait undoubtedly connotes a pejorative. I can still smell last year's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a tear-jerking adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel starring Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, produced by Academy Award winner Scott Rudin, and directed by Stephen Daldry, whose film career to date—Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader—had made Daldry a perfect, unprecedented three-for-three in earning Oscar nominations for Best Director. Rudin plotted the whole project the way he'd plotted numerous earlier films, from The Hours to No Country for Old Men to Doubt and others: Acquire an elite property, attach elite principals, and sell the whole package to a studio as an elite fall-movie-season heavyweight. Sometimes the movie that results is great; sometimes it isn’t. It hardly matters: Fold an awards campaign into the film's more conventional marketing, and you might be able to cash in on the buzz.
The strategy worked—sort of. Through the combination of conspicuous campaigning and hard-ass backroom wheedling for which Rudin is renowned, Extremely Loud got its Best Picture nomination (plus a token Best Supporting Actor nod for Max von Sydow). The producer baited a hook, dropped it in the choppy Sea of Oscar, and came away with the gratification—and the sellable imprimatur—of at least a few academy nibbles.
Critics of the phrase Oscar bait might tell you that making movies is already too difficult to do well without adding the pressure of having an awards-worthy product. It's a fair point until we face the reality that Oscar bait doesn't actually need to be awards-worthy. It just needs to be able to hold its own in an ecosystem of specific class and temperament, no different from The Amazing Spider-Man or Transformers 7. For Oscar-bait profiteers like Rudin and Spielberg, an awards-worthy product is secondary to the imperative to unleash Serious Art on audiences whose respect and sophistication will galvanize the academy into recognizing it. A year later, we can admit that people hated Extremely Loud and its 2011 contemporaries J. Edgar and War Horse almost on principle for their bald-faced preening and striving. They didn't deserve to be considered the winners of anything, let alone Academy Awards.
At its best, though, Oscar bait legitimately achieves and even defines prestige, which its patrons then sell to earn money to make more Oscar bait. This year's vintage looks delicious and possibly even historic, with the terrific Lincoln recently ceding ground in the awards race to director Kathryn Bigelow's even more terrific Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow offers an interesting case study in Oscar bait: She was in this same position in 2009 with her film The Hurt Locker, which eventually won six Oscars including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. Back then, however, The Hurt Locker was anything but Oscar bait: an independently financed and produced movie that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was practically dragged by enraptured critics across the Oscar finish line against more moneyed, mainstream Hollywood competition like Avatar and Inglourious Basterds. This year, Bigelow has a big-budget, studio-financed, 157-minute juggernaut designed and built for Oscar speed.
She'll need it against Spielberg—and especially against Harvey Weinstein, the mogul whose films The King's Speech and The Artist won the last two Best Picture statuettes and who is readying Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained for an attempted Weinstein Company threepeat. Weinstein, who would surely sniff at the term Oscar bait as well, is nevertheless the omnipotent, unparalleled King of Oscar Bait, and thank God: What would our film landscape look like without his megalomaniac fancy underwriting filmmakers like Tarantino and David O. Russell, the enfant terrible turned Oscar-bait artisan behind The Fighter and this year's Silver Linings Playbook? (Not to mention Paul Thomas Anderson, whose The Master was distributed by Weinstein but has attracted relatively little serious awards attention.) Weinstein's misadventures in Oscar bait are almost as stunning, with his 2009 musical train wreck Nine managing to humiliate leading man Day-Lewis and an ensemble of not one, not two, but five Academy Award-winning actresses. And who can forget The Reader, a Rudin/Weinstein collaboration of such aromatic and steroidal Oscar lust that it stirred academy sympathies for Kate Winslet as an illiterate Nazi?
The takeaway from Weinstein and the rest shouldn't be that Oscar bait is a reductive concept that's bad for movies. Rather, bad movies are bad for movies. This is particularly true in awards season, when Hollywood's desperation to stay relevant has crowded Peter Jackson's bloated return to Middle Earth and even Judd Apatow's latest pottymouth navelgaze into the broader Oscar conversation alongside actual masterworks like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. They're all Oscar bait, conceived and made and marketed as the types of efforts that the academy and its voters can recognize and really get behind. There's nothing wrong with that. But 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 around.
Hence the lingering resentment for Crash, or the reason why nobody will forgive Ordinary People for notoriously stealing the Oscars’ top honors from Raging Bull three decades ago: Movie lovers want to believe that the academy shares our tastes. We want to believe that Oscar history reflects an objective sense of aesthetic justice rather than ritual orgies of self-congratulation. We want to believe every autumn that our cinemas are more than just clearinghouses for expressions of ego and grandiosity. Mostly we want to believe that a phrase like Oscar bait is somehow beneath a film culture so obsessed with anointing the best and greatest and top 10 of everything and handing out Academy Awards in the first place. We can't have it both ways, and anyway, why would we want to? As the oldest surviving tradition connecting Hollywood to its audience, Oscar bait is all the movies have left to insulate them from the dull, encroaching disposability of the culture around us. The only empty foolishness I can see is to not enjoy it—to not cherish it—while we still can.