It’s a phrase that makes me cringe every time I see it – and considering that we’re now in the thick of awards season, it’s a phrase that’s going to be plastered everywhere.
If you haven’t heard of the expression before, Oscar bait refers to an imagined subgenre of movies that are accused of being made simply to get Academy Awards. Most films slapped with this label fit at least one or more of the following characteristics: lavish historical settings, lead characters with a physical or mental disability, tragedy, or beautiful actresses making themselves look ugly. They’re also frequently released very late in the year so that they’re still eligible for the awards season but will be fresh in the Academy voters’ minds. Oscar bait is viewed by many as a cynical way to tug on heartstrings and game the system, all while making a sloppy piece of art.
This year, James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything has borne the brunt of this particular criticism. The biopic about the personal life of Stephen Hawking commits the double sin of featuring both a lead with a disease that severely physically disables him and a love story with a beautiful historical setting. To make matters worse, the man who’s the subject of the film is still alive – it’s no wonder pundits couldn’t wait to slap a label on this movie!
Except for one issue – The Theory of Everything is good, and Redmayne’s performance is nothing short of astounding.
Eddie Redmayne goes through a painful but brilliant physical transformation on screen as ALS destroys Hawking’s motor functions. The slight hints of awkward clumsiness at the beginning of the film eventually give way to a full-blown disability that robs him of his ability to walk, speak, and eventually move. Redmayne becomes virtually unrecognizable as he loses himself both emotionally and physically in the character. The actor spent hours watching interviews with Hawking and studies on ALS just to understand the disease better, and the results are truly stunning. Stephen Hawking himself even said that watching The Theory of Everything was like seeing himself on screen. And yet for all the artistry and work that went into movie, people are still willing to dismiss it as pure Oscar bait.
I can’t deny that there are definitely films out there crafted with an Academy audience in mind. There’ve been some good ones, some bad ones, and many mediocre ones. Though when the best picture awards go to the same films that are called Oscar bait, can we even really blame them?
Hollywood shouldn’t be asking whether a movie is Oscar bait. It’s a pointless question that only distracts from the more interesting topics. The only thing that the industry should be asking is whether a movie is good art. Is it a well-told story? Does it reveal something about humanity, whether that thing is dark, heart-warming, or hilarious? Does it bring audiences together and leave them feeling a little more? And if it is a bad movie, don’t give it any excuses. Bad art is bad art, whether it’s a painfully unfunny slapstick comedy or a serious-minded historical drama. We have to throw Oscar bait out of the discussion if we ever want to get to any meaningful criticism.
Unfortunately, as long as the current environment of cynicism and narcissism in mainstream Hollywood remains the status quo, good movies are going to continue to be called Oscar bait. Critics are going to continue to claim that handfuls of films were only made to get the attention of an awards show that’s quickly losing the interest of the movie-going public. Actors doing phenomenal work are going to get accused of only wanting the glory of a golden statuette. And perhaps worst of all, more audiences will go see whatever the latest sloppy sequel out there is because at least it won’t be “pretentious Oscar bait”.