"The diseased/addicted/mentally impaired always get the Oscar."You would think that a good movie is a good movie, and that good movies get Oscars for being good movies. But they don’t. An Oscar is a big deal. It gets people to the theater, it boosts ticket sales, and it bolsters the studio’s bottom line. As such, studios and producers try to engineer a film so that it can win an Oscar rather than be good in its own right. Typically, this meant a more serious, depressing, or “artistic” film. Such a film is called Oscar Bait, and the practice is also derisively known as “Oscarbation”. The trend started in the 1970s and 1980s with the emergence of the Summer Blockbuster and the decline of New Hollywood. Before then, it was a pretty good bet that the most popular movies were also the best ones (and thus the likely Oscar-winners). But then directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas hit their stride, making beloved and well-received movies which were seen as too “lightweight” to win the “important” categories (acting, direction, writing, and picture). The “serious” fare that did win those categories would become Oscar Bait. Such films are usually depressing dramas, Glurgey inspirational films, and examples of man’s inhumanity to man – as such, an abnormally large proportion of Oscar Bait films are set during The Holocaust. There’s also a big focus on mental illness or Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters. It’s rare for a comedy film to do well at the Oscars; sci-fi and horror don’t do much better, and animated films usually only get their own categories. It’s not a hard and fast rule; you might see a Dramedy or Dark Comedy get a nomination, mostly because there’s still room for suffering. Oddly, many Oscar Bait movies don’t do so well at the box office. A big reason for that is Hype Backlash and Hype Aversion; the heavy campaigning to win an Oscar can be a big turn-off. Furthermore, many Oscar Bait films are released around December or January (as a direct lead-in to the Academy Awards show in late February), so it’s easy to tell them apart from Summer Blockbusters. And they don’t even always win Oscars, perhaps because the Academy can actually tell the difference between a good, honest movie and an Oscar Bait attempt, and partly because sometimes they respect the general public’s opinion of a movie and will try to reflect that. (But when they don’t, that’s an Award Snub.) The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Oscars, either; on TV it’s “Emmy Bait”, on Broadway it’s “Tony Bait”, and in music it’s “Grammy Bait”. See also Death by Newbery Medal and Award Bait Song.
— "Hollywood Rule Book", Vanity Fair
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Oscar Bait tactics and examples:
Positioning the film to win awards
- The Deer Hunter was a game-changer. After a disastrous preview screening, the studio brought in Allan Carr as a consultant. He concluded that the film was so grim and depressing that people would only watch it if they had heard that it had been nominated for Oscars. Before then, it was the other way around; films got Oscar nominations based on their popular reception. Carr turned the system on its head and gave the film only a short screening in New York and Los Angeles near the end of 1978; the audience was mostly limited to film critics and Academy members. The former raved about the film, and the latter nominated it for multiple Oscars. Only then was it put into wide release to the general public.
- “Oscar-worthy” films tend to be released in the last two months of the year, to get them in before the December 31 deadline but as close to the February ceremony as possible. Sometimes it results in a rushed production.
- Studios will shamelessly lobby the judges directly, through one of the following:
- Massive advertising directly to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (i.e. the famed “For Your Consideration” ads). These campaigns got so out of hand that people speculated that it may have been a reason the Oscar ceremony was moved from March to February – to get people to pay attention to the films and not the ads. (The main reason, of course, was to coincide with Sweeps.)
- Widespread distribution of free “screeners”, often for “little” films which may not have been in theaters for long. These are typically just DVDs mailed en masse to all the voting members (which are so pervasive that many Academy members never even go to theatrical screenings, although they often don’t have the time to). Academy members have also been known to “accidentally” leak these screeners to smugglers, although that never dissuaded the studios (and a Mexican scientist did invent a watermarking technology for them).
- Studios will sometimes vie to be the one to “get the most Oscars”, which leads them to release several Oscar Bait films in a row. One of the most notorious for this was Miramax Films, who in one year hit us with Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Chicago, and Cold Mountain. They might also set up subdivisions specifically for “arthouse”-style films, like Paramount Vantage.
Subject matter and characters
- The typical Oscar Bait film is a Period Piece or Costume Drama with “serious” subject matter. This often leads them to be Biopics (or at least Based on a True Story) as well. But they don’t always follow this pattern. Some Oscar Bait films can be lower-budget dramas aimed more at the age group of the Academy voters, such as Away From Her and Steel Magnolias.
- Set it during The Holocaust. It checks all the boxes: historical, dramatic, man’s inhumanity to man, Downer Ending, True Art Is Angsty. It works even if you usually do Summer Blockbusters (like Steven Spielberg finally winning for Schindler's List). It even works if you make it a comedy (Life Is Beautiful did it). It’s basically a license to print money. (And yes, you can win with a movie about people in a concentration camp printing money.)
- It’s particularly prominent in the Best Documentary Feature category. From 1995 to 2000, three of the five winners directly involved the Holocaust (Anne Frank Remembered, The Final Days, and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport) – and another was about post-WWII Jewish refugees.
- This phenomenon was referenced in Extras, where Kate Winslet’s character notes that the best way to win an Oscar was to play in a Holocaust movie. Winslet herself then tried (but failed) to win an Oscar doing exactly that in The Reader, and Ricky Gervais did not let her forget it.
- Broadway musicals adapted to films might pick up a Movie Bonus Song purely to snag a “Best Original Song” Oscar nomination. This was a common strategy even before the category existed, just as a way to differentiate the film version from the play (and get people to see both). But with the Oscar incentive added on, studios will add songs whether or not the score needs it. The movie versions of A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Evita, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls and Les Misérables all got original song nominations this way; the only one of these to win was “You Must Love Me” from Evita.
- Animated films tend not to do well at the Oscars. This hasn’t stopped people from trying, particularly Disney. When Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1991, Disney ramped up its efforts to win the whole thing, but this led to films like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame having bizarre mixtures of serious, Anvilicious fare and Tastes Like Diabetes, because they were unwilling to completely break away from the Animation Age Ghetto. The only Disney film of that era to get a screenplay nomination was Toy Story, which wasn’t trying to be Oscar Bait.
- Make it about mental illness or disability. It’s been a consistent Oscar winner over the years:
- The first actor to win an Oscar for playing such a character was Cliff Robertson in 1968, for playing the mentally handicapped hero of Charly (an adaptation of the short story Flowers for Algernon), after a massive “For Your Consideration” campaign.
- Rain Man gets a lot of credit for kicking off the modern trend. The film won Best Picture, Best Direction, and Best Original Screenplay in 1988, and Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor for his portrayal of the mentally handicapped protagonist.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of only three films to win all of the “Big Five” Oscars (Picture, Screenplay, Director, Actor, and Actress).note Oddly, though, the acting awards were given to actors who played non-mentally ill characters.
- Forrest Gump won four of the “Big Five” (Actor, Director, Screenplay, and Picture) plus two more in 1994, and it centered around a mentally handicapped man. It’s considered a textbook example of how to win an Oscar because of its historical setting and social commentary.
- John Mills won Best Supporting Actor in 1970 for playing a mentally deficient, mute, and crippled character in Ryan's Daughter, baffling his costar Sarah Miles.
- Leonardo DiCaprio got his first Oscar nomination for playing a mentally handicapped boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. He kept going to try and win one, many times acting even better in typical Oscar Bait films, but wouldn’t win one for another 22 years.
- Peter Sellers was the subject of an infamous Award Snub when he was nominated but didn’t win an Oscar for playing the mentally-challenged Chance the Gardener in 1979’s Being There. He was hit by the Comedy Ghetto and his insistence on treating the film not as Oscar Bait, but rather the role’s inherent challenge and extremely personal Reality Subtext. When people later found out how much Sellers put himself into that role and how badly he wanted that Oscar, Sellers himself became the subject of award bait in 2004’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (where he was even played by Geoffrey Rush, who had himself won an Oscar for playing a mentally disabled character in Shine) – that film, released on TV in the U.S., nearly swept that year’s Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
- The female equivalent of the mental health angle is having an attractive actress play an ugly character. But Hollywood Homely isn’t good enough; you would have to drastically change your physical appearance to do it. Actresses who have won Oscars this way include Charlize Theron, who put on 30 pounds and thinned her hair and eyebrows for Monster; Nicole Kidman, who wore a number of prosthetics to play Virginia Woolf (a character with mental illness, to boot) in The Hours; and Anne Hathaway, who played a bald, emaciated, filthy, and apparently toothless Broken Bird in Les Misérables in 2012.
- Physical disability can get you an Oscar. This is what got Jamie Foxx a win for Ray, Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman, and Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot. Even John Wayne got his only Oscar this way, by playing the half-blind Marshall Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
- White Man's Burden is a common trend; a privileged white character will take it upon himself to help an underprivileged minority and thus show his nobility. It earns nominations – like for Gran Torino, The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Glory Road, The Soloist, and Dangerous Minds – but of these, only The Blind Side got one.
- An oddly specific recurring theme related to that is the subject of abused, illiterate black women. It’s more or less “Oscar Bait: Black Edition”). The Ur-Example of this trend is The Color Purple, which got eleven Oscar nominations (but didn’t win any because it was controversial in the black community for its portrayals of abusive black men and lesbianism). Precious was more successful, being about an almost implausibly depressing character – an illiterate black teenager who’s raped by her father, abused by her mother, has a child called “Mongo” (short for “Mongoloid”), and whose uplifting ending to the film is just getting the chance to take the GED test.
- A more recent phenomenon is playing a gay, lesbian, or transgender character and outlining the injustices or tragedies they face. Examples include Sean Penn in Milk; Tom Hanks in Philadelphia; Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote; Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry; Christopher Plummer in Beginners; and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. It wasn’t always a winning formula; films like Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain are considered Award Snub victims (although the latter did win Best Director).
- Dyeing for Your Art is a common way to win, but only if it’s bad for you; actors tend to do better by losing weight, gaining body fat, or otherwise becoming uglier as opposed to adding muscle mass (although Robert De Niro is credited with starting this trend by bulking up to become a convincing boxer and winning Best Actor for Raging Bull). Actors who have won by punishing their body to look less attractive include:
- George Clooney, who gained 35 pounds for his Oscar-winning role in Syriana;
- Philip Seymour Hoffman, who lost 40 pounds for his winning role in Capote;
- Tom Hanks and his generally downtrodden and disheveled look in Cast Away;
- Charlize Theron, who gained 30 pounds and underwent an extreme Beauty Inversion to win for Monster;
- Heath Ledger, whose extreme Method Acting to play The Joker in The Dark Knight may have contributed to his untimely death but won him an Oscar anyway;
- Natalie Portman, who did it twice – first slimming down to 97 pounds and undergoing intense ballet training to win for Black Swan, and second for shaving her head in V for Vendetta to win the Best Actress Saturn;
- Christian Bale, who lost a lot of weight to win Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter;
- Anne Hathaway, who lost 25 pounds, had her head shaved, and picked up the general look of a tuberculosis-stricken prostitute to win Best Supporting Actress for Les Misérables (2012);
- Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, both of whom lost a lot of weight to earn Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively); and
- Leonardo DiCaprio, who broke his long losing streak by doing extreme things for his role in The Revenant, including putting on weight, eating raw bison, and sleeping in animal carcasses. Observers joked that the Academy should give him the Oscar right away before he kills himself.
- If you’re going to make it more lighthearted, at least have it star an underdog. Winning examples include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Erin Brockovich, On the Waterfront, and Cinderella Man.
- Make it foreign. If nothing else, Europeans are very responsive to Oscar Bait films. And the Academy likes films set in interesting foreign locations. Films like Slumdog Millionaire, City of God, and Babel are successful examples.
- An interesting trend is to subvert the typical Oscar Bait film by creating a “quirky” independent film - some success stories in this field include American Beauty, Juno, and Little Miss Sunshine. These films always feature “hip” dialogue, eccentric characters, and many a Snark Knight. The problem here is that such films rarely completely leave the Oscar Bait sphere; they’re still often commentaries on the pointless emptiness of modern society and those who inhabit it, and they strive to appear edgy and radical without ever actually being edgy and radical.
- Don’t make it sci-fi or fantasy; the Sci-Fi Ghetto is very much in effect at the Oscars. They usually only get nominated for Visuals, Sound, or Makeup rather than the “Big Five” categories. The only way they get one of those nominations is if they are more cerebral or philosophical, like The Dark Knight, Avatar, Inception, and Gravity. If you actually want to win with a sci-fi or fantasy film, it should be based on a highly acclaimed previous work (no, not Star Trek, older than that) – this was a big reason Return of the King won Best Picture (because it was a big-budget groundbreaking adaptation of a highly acclaimed work of literature).
- An unusually specific type of Oscar Bait is the movie about a troubled country singer. Robert Duvall (for Tender Mercies), Jeff Bridges (for Crazy Heart), and Sissy Spacek (for Coal Miner's Daughter) all won Oscars this way. And Reese Witherspoon won hers for Walk the Line, where she plays a troubled country singer helping an even more troubled country singer (played by Joaquin Phoenix, who snagged a nomination).
- Actors have had success playing previously celebrated actors. Examples include Robert Downey, Jr. as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin; Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood; Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; and Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Ironically, of these older famous actors, only Hepburn ever won Best Actor or Actress herself.
Films (or otherwise) that come across as particularly obvious in their ambitions:
- Come See the Paradise was identifed by a UCLA study as the most blatant Oscar Bait in film history. A period drama that spanned The Great Depression and World War II; touched on Japanese internment despite having a safely white, clean-cut male protagonist; included a Maligned Mixed Marriage between the hero and a Japanese woman; and ends with the main character returning to his family after serving prison time for a years-old crime he was an unwitting, innocent accomplice in. The Academy basically ignored it, apparently out of disdain for the sheer shameless pandering.
- The Lovely Bones was based on a critically acclaimed book about a murdered girl watching her family from the afterlife. It was directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson and pushed to the end of the year into Oscar Bait time. The film was widely panned, and the only nomination it got was for Stanley Tucci for Best Supporting Actor.
- This seems to be a trend among the later oeuvre of Clint Eastwood:
- Million Dollar Baby is about a disadvantaged woman who makes a place for herself in a traditionally male-dominated occupation — boxing. It has Morgan Freeman as the Narrator and stars Eastwood himself as a character who faces an intense moral dilemma near the end. It won four Oscars in 2004, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and it was also a sleeper box office hit.
- Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are both set during World War II.
- Changeling was a 1920s-era Period Piece conspiracy film about a missing child, which starred Oscar-baity actress Angelina Jolie.
- Gran Torino was a film about a bigot’s redemption, starring Eastwood himself. It didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, but it did win Eastwood a special Palme d’Or at Cannes.
- Invictus had Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela, trying to unite South Africa after The Apartheid Era with The Power of Rugby.
- J. Edgar was a Biopic of famous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his many unsuccessful bids at an Oscar.
- American Sniper was a rather controversial Biopic which starred Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal noted for racking up a high kill count during the Iraq War.
- The film adaptation of Jersey Boys, itself a multiple Tony-winning musical, was a biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with an All-Star Cast.
- David Fincher has tried this off and on ever since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. His next film was The Social Network, which got pretty badly out-baited by The King's Speech. Then he did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which he backed out of campaigning out of his belief that the film has “too much anal rape” (not that this stopped other films, like Pulp Fiction or Deliverance). And he followed that up with Gone Girl, which got a single nomination for Rosamond Pike in spite of it being one of the most praised films of 2014.
- The Revenant has been derided as being a “lifetime achievement Oscar” for its star Leonardo DiCaprio, subject of many previous Award Snubs. It’s a historical dramatization of the true story of a man struggling to overcome the harsh elements and take revenge for the death of his totally fictional son. It shows everything in excruciating, realistic detail and a gritty, washed-out color palette. It has lingering, beautiful establishing shots and minimal sound with long periods of silence. And Di Caprio was so into Dyeing for His Art that he method acted himself half to death. Di Caprio finally won that elusive Oscar for this film, but audiences thought it wasn’t necessarily the best performance of his career.
- The Cider House Rules is a serious drama about a disadvantaged orphaned main character during WWII who suffers several tragedies. He encounters another character who becomes disabled, has a crisis of morality, and is eventually forced to discard his traditional ethics. It won two Oscars and was nominated for many more.
- Doubt started as total Tony Bait and moved into Oscar Bait with its film adaptation. It’s about the Catholic altar-boy pedophile abuse scandal, which was Ripped from the Headlines. The young victim is also the first black student in an otherwise white school, who may or may not be gay as well (and his father is not happy). It won multiple Tonys, including Best Play and Best Actress. The film version stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Meryl Streep — an Oscar-winning machine if there ever was one.
- The Hours checks all the boxes. It’s a Costume Drama. It references homosexuality, AIDS, and the oppression of women. It has Nicole Kidman undergoing severe Beauty Inversion. And it has Meryl Streep in it.
- Dreamgirls was designed to be Oscar Bait, and it got nominated for eight awards (including three for Movie Bonus Songs) — but failed to get nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, or Director. On the big night, it was shut out in many of the categories it was nominated in. It’s often speculated that Eddie Murphy would have won for Best Supporting Actor, were it not for the poor timing of Norbit coming out two weeks before that year’s Oscars; the film was a major Creator Killer for him. Just as astonishingly, it didn’t win Best Original Song either (although having three nommed songs might have split the vote). In the end, the only Oscars Dreamgirls won were for Best Supporting Actress and Best Sound Mixing.
- The Reader is a Holocaust-themed drama, complete with promotion from master Oscar Baiter Harvey Weinstein. It supplanted both WALL•E and The Dark Knight for Best Picture, despite most people feeling both those films were better; and it couldn’t even beat out the big winner Slumdog Millionaire. That experience was enough that Hugh Jackman was already lamenting the Batman film’s snub during the ceremony, and it is also often seen as the impetus for doubling the number of Best Picture nominations to ten.
- The Great Ziegfeld, Best Picture winner of 1936, was three long hours of big Broadway musical and angsty melodrama. This lavish Biopic starred William Powell as the producer whose name, four years after his death (depicted in the film’s last scene), was the most legendary in show business.
- The 2008 film Defiance is one of the most shameless Oscar grabs in recent memory. It’s Based on a True Story and follows a community of Belarussian Jews hiding in the forest from the Nazis. It has a brooding Anti-Hero (played by frequent winner Daniel Craig) who is forced into cruel, angsty moral dilemmas. It took a page from Schindler's List and ended with a Photo Montage of the real-life survivors and their descendants as a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue. And it totally bombed at the Oscars, only getting music nominations.
- 2011 saw two Younger and Hipper hosts who had previously been in Oscar-baity movies, Anne Hathaway (who played a woman falling in love and dying of a disease in Love and Other Drugs) and James Franco (who played a hiker who gets in a Life-or-Limb Decision in 127 Hours, which was Based on a True Story). Both were willing to lampshade their situations as they related to this trope; Franco actually was up for Best Actor (but didn’t win), and as for Hathaway:
I thought getting naked would get me an Oscar nod.
- Johnny Belinda is Based on a True Story of a deaf-mute girl who gets raped, has her rapist’s baby, gets declared “unfit” to raise the baby and has to fight to keep it, and is put on trial for her rapist’s murder — all while struggling to pay the bills on the family farm. Jane Wyman won Best Actress for playing her.
- Danish director Susanne Bier has this reputation:
- Hævnen (Danish for “revenge”, but released internationally as In A Better World) had everything: a failing marriage, vicious school bullies and attacks, Troubling Unchildlike Behavior, dead parents, and a doctor in an African refugee camp terrorised by a man who cuts pregnant women open. It won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.
- Serena is a bleak Period Piece set during The Great Depression, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (fresh from the success of Silver Linings Playbook) as a morally dubious timber tycoon and his increasingly unstable wife. It bombed critically and commercially and sat on the shelf for a year and a half.
- The Help checks many boxes. It’s a Period Piece set in The '60s whose main character is a white female reporter who helps out black maids, and it’s also based on a best-selling novel.
- War Horse, a 2001 film by Steven Spielberg, was widely accused of being Oscar Bait — even on the sole basis of its bombastic, overwrought trailer, which basically resulted in massive Hype Backlash.
- The Iron Lady, a biopic of Margaret Thatcher, is clear Oscar Bait, and not just because Thatcher is played by Meryl Streep. It didn’t shy away from controversy, addressed Thatcher’s struggle with dementia, is technically a Period Piece, and its initial release was in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on December 30, 2011 — barely meeting the requirements to be eligible for the next year’s Oscars. Observers joked that the Academy must have had a whole box of Oscars with Streep’s name on them and was looking for an excuse to give them to her.
- Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock who try to raise a child with an Ambiguous Disorder in the aftermath of 9/11, as he struggles to deal with the attacks. It was also made by a number of people with big Oscar Bait credentials; it was directed by Stephen Daltry (The Hours, The Reader); written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); and produced by Scott Rudin (second only to the Weinsteins in influence over the Academy). It got a Best Picture nomination, but it had mixed critical reviews.
- Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a loose account of the life of John Nash, pioneer economist, Nobel laureate, and paranoid schizophrenic. The film controversially whitewashed some of the potentially unsavory details of his life (like his bisexuality) and suggested he was cured by The Power of Love.
- Green Zone is a Post-9/11 Terrorism Movie which tried to have an Anvilicious anti-war message but only really proved that Truffaut Was Right. It starred Matt Damon and was directed by Paul Greengrass, so it had the star power, too. But it got pushed back and was panned by critics when it was released.
- 12 Years a Slave, a visceral depiction of a man tricked into slavery in the South and the abuses he faced there, was also prime Oscar Bait material. It won Best Picture in 2014 (although it lost many others to Gravity). This was seen as so inevitable that Ellen DeGeneres addressed this at the start of the ceremony:
Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: you’re all racists.
- David O. Russell's last four films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy) were all basically designed to win Oscars. Their premises were all based on Oscar-proven subject matter (either Based on a True Story or a best-selling book), they all had popular actors in showy roles, and they all touched on serious subject matter. Russell may also have been trying to prove that he was a serious director (as he had had issues with his cast and crew in previous films). Russell himself didn’t win Oscars for any of these films (only three actors did), none of them won Best Picture, and Joy went 0-for-10 at the ceremony.
- Selma is a 2014 biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., depicting Dr. King’s march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in support of the Civil Rights Act. It was released in the fallout from 12 Years a Slave and tried to tick the same boxes. But the Academy didn’t take the bait; it won only Best Original Song, and it was nominated for but didn’t win Best Picture.
- Get On Up stars Chadwick Boseman as James Brown, in a musical biopic/dramedy about the musician’s complicated life and career. It bombed at the Oscars, in spite of observers feeling that at least Boseman’s performance should have gotten him a Best Actor nomination.
- The Hundred Foot Journey is a joint project from Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey about two chef families — one from France, the other from India — who work to reconcile their differences, while the Indian son has to choose between his family and his dream of becoming a great Parisian chef. It received no Oscar nominations.
- Argo was Very Loosely Based on a True Story of a group of American diplomats who escape the siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ben Affleck plays a CIA agent who smuggles them out by having them pretend to be Canadians making a fake movie. It won three Oscars in 2013, including Best Picture.
- The Imitation Game was a biopic about Alan Turing, famous World War II-era codebreaker and later computer scientist, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It had the one-two punch of Turing being a genius, Inspirationally Disadvantaged, and gay in an era when that was very bad. It got plenty of nominations, but only won one Oscar for Best Screenplay. Ultimately, people pinned this on Artistic License – History and the choice to exaggerate Turing’s mental problems and downplay his homosexuality.
- Alejandro González Iñárritu believes so hard in True Art Is Angsty that Rolling Stone dubbed him Hollywood’s “King of Pain”. And he’s raked in the Oscars, for such films as 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, and The Revenant (yes, he’s angsty enough to get Leonardo DiCaprio his elusive Oscar). Even Birdman, his least Oscar-baity film, won three Oscars, including Best Picture.
- Mommie Dearest is a biopic based on Joan Crawford (herself an Oscar winner) and her abusive relationship with her adopted daughter — it’s even based on the daughter’s autobiography. The film was meant to be total Oscar Bait, and Faye Dunaway was convinced that she would win an Oscar for playing Crawford. But she botched it, Chewing the Scenery so hard that it made the film a veritable Narm fountain. The studio even resorted to a Parody Retcon to try and claim that it was a campy comedy. The film saw the decline of Dunaway’s career as an A-list star.
- The 1992 Spike Lee film Malcolm X is an epic biopic about the eponymous icon of the civil rights movement, with an inspirational cameo from none other than Nelson Mandela himself. It was nominated for two Oscars, winning neither. Subverted, though, in that Lee was more concerned with doing justice to the life of Malcolm X than actually winning anything, but the cynics among us will say that the film was calculated Oscar Bait.
- Millennium Actress is a unique anime take on Oscar Bait. It's a weeper movie that opens with an old woman recalling her past through flashbacks, heavily features Been There, Shaped History-type period piece, and has a tragic ending. It failed to receive any nominations, even in Best Animated Feature (then again, this was the year of Spirited Away).
- Will Smith has taken to making these, from the biopics The Pursuit Of Happiness and Concussion to glurge-filled Seven Pounds and Collateral Beauty.
- The West Wing episode “The Long Goodbye” was painfully obviously designed to score Allison Janney an Emmy nomination. It did so by omitting most of the regular cast to show her character battling her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. This was particularly strange because Janney won four Emmys on her own over the course of the series, so she didn’t need a weepy Emmy-bait episode.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "The Body" is a massive tearjerker episode where the cast deals with Joyce's death and seems to be pushing all the Emmy Bait buttons. It didn't get a nomination, but the No Dialogue Episode "Hush" did.
- In the Heights centers around an inspirational Fourth of July where impoverished immigrants in Washington Heights win the lottery and struggle with issues of college debt, gentrification, and American identity. The characters angst over everything, including (but not limited to): boatloads of Unresolved Sexual Tension, the hypocrisy of The American Dream, the expenses of living in the heights, and the death of a beloved community member. Sprinkle in some modern, catchy infusions of hip-hop and salsa music, and you have a Tony-winning musical. It was nominated for thirteen categories, winning four (but none for writing).
- Hawking, a biopic of famously disabled genius astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, was saturated with BAFTA Bait topics – and not just about Hawking struggling with his ALS or his efforts in science. It even managed to include a few Holocaust references; a supporting character had to flee Nazi Germany with his family as a child.
- Young At Heart was not eligible for either an Oscar or an Emmy (for various reasons), so it set its sights on international film festivals, particularly the Rose d’Or. It’s a documentary about a pensioners’ choir going on tour, and it hit so many of the Oscar Bait buttons that it’s a surprise that it didn’t fall victim to Hype Backlash. It won almost everything it ran for (only Man on Wire could beat it in anything).
The Oscar Bait trope is so pervasive that it defines the formula that wins Oscars. When a different kind of film wins big, and no one else can replicate that success, it’s worth noting.
- The 1934 film It Happened One Night was a small, low-budget romantic comedy Road Movie, in an era when Oscar Bait meant elaborate musical and dancing showcases. It gained a cult following and swept the “Big Five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), and Best Screenplay. This has only been done twice more in all the years since: by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1976 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.
- The Silence of the Lambs is dark, deals with mental illness, and addresses man’s inhumanity to man. It’s also a horror film, a genre that usually gets no love at the Oscars. (The producers were aware of that and billed it as a “Psychological Thriller”.) It the first horror film to win any of the “Big Five” since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) in 1932 and (as noted above) was only the third film of any kind to sweep all of the Big Five categories.
- Beauty and the Beast, against all odds, found its way out of the Animation Age Ghetto and wound up being nominated for Best Picture in 1991. It didn’t win, but this in itself was an incredible feat (which Disney would futilely try to replicate).
- Star Wars broke out of the Sci-Fi Ghetto and got Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them, but it showed that a hugely popular sci-fi film might catch the Academy’s attention. It opened the door for such films as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Avatar, Aliens, and District 9 to get nominations as well, and even non-sci-fi films in the same vein (like Raiders of the Lost Ark). That said, the fact that they didn’t win anything big suggests that there’s still a ghetto that has to be navigated with the Academy.
- Titanic (1997) was unusual in that it wasn’t meant to be Oscar Bait — just a dream project that was supposed to be committed to the screen. People latched onto it, and it won almost everything.
- The Lord of the Rings is a strange case; although it is fantasy, it was also adapted from one of literature’s most important and ground-breaking fantasy works, and it was also a huge spectacle that changed the game in epic filmmaking. But what was truly unexpected was for Return of the King to sweep its Awards — perhaps its wins were meant to be for the trilogy as a whole, but that is still a phenomenal accomplishment for a fantasy film series.
- Annie Hall won Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. It was unusual in that it was a comedy (although one with a Bittersweet Ending. It beat out Julia (a biopic about sticking it to the Nazis) and Star Wars to Best Picture as well.
- The Dark Knight was the first comic book movie to win an acting nomination (for Heath Ledger) and only the fourth film based on a comic book or graphic novel to win an acting nomination.note With the pervasiveness of serious Oscar Bait fare, the idea that friggin’ Batman can win an Oscar was unreal. Then again, Ledger may have had the advantage of sadly being dead.
- The Departed was gritty, violent, and serious, but it was also not a war movie, very profane (relative to most Oscar Bait), and otherwise didn’t touch on Oscar-baity subjects. And it won Best Picture. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, who had previously whiffed on the more baity The Aviator and Gangs of New York — although this led some observers to believe that its win was a “lifetime achievement” Oscar to make up for Scorsese not winning for previous line of work.
- No Country for Old Men followed up on The Departed and won Best Picture the very next year with the same formula. This, though, was a relentlessly cynical film which won very big — rather than most Oscar Bait, it presents humanity’s failure as inevitable and comments on the meaninglessness of the material world. It was also kind of an upset winner over There Will Be Blood — an even bleaker film.
- The Hurt Locker, other than being a Post-9/11 Terrorism Movie, had very little going for it on the Oscar front; it had a low budget, no big stars, no big studio to promote it, and not even a political message. It wound up winning Best Picture in 2010, in spite of having the lowest box office numbers of any Best Picture winner ever. One thing that did work in its favor was the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow becoming the first female director to win Best Director — over her ex-husband James Cameron. (But some suggest that this was why she wasn’t nominated for Zero Dark Thirty a few years later.)
- The French Connection, the 1970 Best Picture, is a gritty and suspenseful genre film with a nihilistic toneBut unlike most Oscar winners, it has a morally ambiguous protagonist and an ending where The Bad Guy Wins and most of the other villains receive a Karma Houdini. Some speculate that the Academy gave the win to a film this dark to distance itself from the saccharine musicals that won in The '60s.
- The Artist won Best Picture in spite of it being a Silent Movie from 2011. It’s not often that Le Film Artistique (or something vaguely resembling it anyway) gets nominations beyond Best Foreign Film, but this one won the whole thing. It helped that it was also an unashamed love letter to Old Hollywood, which probably appealed to Academy viewers.
- Quentin Tarantino’s films Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained certainly seem like Oscar Bait at first glance, the first being set in World War II and the second tackling American slavery. They wound up getting seven and five nominations respectively. They’re also quintessential Tarantino films — fictional, bizarre, and Crazy Awesome, so never feeling like Oscar Bait.
- Mad Max: Fury Road is arguably one of the least Oscar-friendly movies ever made. It's the fourth film in a franchise that never saw any Oscar attention before. It's a loud, explosive, and unapologetic pure action movie. It has very little dialogue and is essentially a nonstop two-hour car chase scene. And it was released all the way back in May. But it got critical acclaim for its action sequences, Show, Don't Tell storytelling, and hidden themes and was regarded as one of the best movies of 2015, topping more official Top 10 lists than any other. It ended up being an unexpected Oscar contender, being nominated for ten awards (including Best Picture) and winning six.
- Black Swan is a horror movie, and the director never denied that. (The producers, on the other hand, marketed it as a “Psychological Thriller”). It also features a lesbian sex scene, just to get eyeballs on it. It still got five Oscar nominations and was regarded as one of the best films of the year.
Spoofs of this trope:
Films — Live-Action
- The Mask has a shootout sequence where the Mask, after dodging a ridiculous number of bullets, turns into a cowboy and allows himself to be shot — so that he can give several Final Speeches (all Shout Outs to award-winning movies) and die in another character’s arms. Then the audience cheers, and he gets up and tearfully accepts an award. Even the mobsters shooting him check their hair and straighten their suits as if they were on TV.
- In Wayne's World, Wayne gives a dramatic, teary-eyed speech, while the words “Oscar Clip” are emblazoned over the shot.
- From the Road to ... series:
- At the end of Road to Morocco, Bob Hope's character has accidentally blown up the ship, leaving the main cast stranded on a raft. Hope chews up the scenery, acting as if they’ve been stranded there for weeks. Then the camera pans up to reveal the New York City skyline. Bing Crosby’s character tells him to calm down, to which Hope bitterly remarks that they’ve ruined his chance for an Academy Award.
- In Road to Bali, Crosby finds the Oscar Humphrey Bogart won for The African Queen. Hope points out that Crosby already has an Oscar, snatches the trophy from him, and begins making an acceptance speech. (While Hope was never nominated for a competitive Oscar, he did win four Honorary Oscars and hosted the show a recorded fourteen times.)
- In Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, after parodying one of the dramatic scenes from Boyz n the Hood, the main character tells his girlfriend that he’s trying to win the Best Black Actor at the Soul Train awards.
- In Tropic Thunder:
Speedman: What do you mean?
- One of the fake trailers at the beginning of the movie shows Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Maguire playing Irish monks who fall in love with each other in a clearly Oscar-baity film, Satan’s Alley.
- Action star Tugg Speedman reflects on the failure of his Oscar Bait film Simple Jack, in which he plays a mentally-challenged farmhand. It was a total Box Office Bomb and called one of the worst films of all time. Kirk Lazarus explains that it’s because people who won for playing Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters never went “full retard”:
Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man: look retarded, act retarded — not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho’ — not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump: slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. Peter Sellers, Being There: infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.
- Lazarus has a lot of experience with these, as he himself is a spoof of Oscar Bait actors. He's a five-time Oscar winner, and that's before Satan's Alley. He mentions having played Neil Armstrong, ticking the "based on a true story" box. His third Oscar was for a Chinese film called Land of Silk and Money, which he prepped for by working eight months in a textile factory. According to supplemental material, one of his five Oscars is for Best Actress, having apparently tackled a Cross-Cast Role, going Up to Eleven with the usual Oscar-worthy physical transformations. In the movie itself, he's attempting that again, having undergone "pigmentation alteration" surgery to play a black man, a move which has generated more in-universe controversy than Oscar buzz. He never breaks character, despite realizing very early on in the film that production is ruined. As the icing on the cake, Robert Downey, Jr. actually received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Lazarus.
- At the end of the film, the Oscar for Best Actor is presented. The stills of the nominees include Tom Hanks winning a race in a wheelchair and a blind Sean Penn learning braille.
- In Bowfinger, black action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) weighs in on the trope:
Ramsey: White boys get all the Oscars — it's a fact!
Manager: I know that, but look—
Ramsey: Did I get nominated? No, and you know why? ‘Cos I haven’t played any of them slave roles, where I get my ass whipped — that's how you get the nominations! A black dude plays a slave role and gets his ass whipped, they get the nomination; a white boy plays an idiot, they get the Oscar. Maybe I’ll split it; get me a five-minute script as a retarded slave, then I'll get the Oscar!
Manager: (awkward pause) Uh, I'm gonna go schmooze. I'll be right back. (starts to leave)
Ramsey: Yeah, and go find that script. “Buck the Wonder-Slave”!
- In Blazing Saddles, villain Hedley Lamarr announces to his gang of thugs near the climax:
You will only be risking your lives, while I will almost certainly be risking an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
- The first fifteen minutes of In & Out are rife with references to this trope. Matt Dillon’s character wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier unfairly discharged from the military, in a film that appears to be equal parts A Few Good Men, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump. The actors he beat: “Paul Newman for Coot, Clint Eastwood for Codger, Michael Douglas for Primary Urges, and Steven Seagal for Snowball in Hell.”
- ''The Naked Gun 33 1/3 includes a scene at the Oscar ceremony, where all the films were ridiculously High Concept, like “the story of one woman’s triumph over the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster,” and “the story of one woman’s triumph over a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1971.”
- The Drew Carey Show parodies Emmy Bait with its fifth-season finale “A Very Special Drew”. It includes: a homeless woman giving birth; Kate dying of a terminal disease on her wedding day; Drew battling his heretofore unheard-of lifelong illiteracy; Mimi battling her also heretofore unheard-of obsessive-compulsive disorder; Lewis snapping at people and reflecting on why out lout to the audience; Oswald taking up theft to be closer to his imprisoned father; Drew and Lewis volunteering to get shot so that they’d have a good death scene; and Mr. Wick developing an eating disorder. And a Littlest Cancer Patient, who gets the emmy.
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has “The Gang Tries Desperately to Win an Award”. It’s nominally about the gang trying to win a Best Bar award, but the gang is going up against a bar straight out of Cheers (with a Token Minority manager for good measure), complete with a Laugh Track. It’s a reference to It’s Always Sunny’s consistent failure to win an Emmy itself. The gang tries to model Paddy’s Pub after the bar that wins Emmys, only to fail miserably.
- The Chaser's War on Everything sketch “Oscar Bait” spoofs many of the common elements of this trope. It’s a fake trailer for a film about a gay, disabled, artistic Jew who’s thrown in a concentration camp during World War II, trying to tick as many Oscar boxes at once. The lead actor even apparently killed himself after the film to invoke Dead Artists Are Better.
- The Fast Show spoofs the trope with the film Cute Disabled Man, which wins an award for “Best Portrayal of a Disabled Person by a Fit and Healthy Young Actor Who Wants to Win an Oscar”.
I love you, black man.
- A The Kids in the Hall sketch shows the best actor nomination at an Oscar show. Three of the actors played Inspirationally Disadvantaged (ranging from being deaf to having a spike in their head); their characters give the exact same Rousing Speech with appropriate music. The fourth clip is of a guy playing Hamlet. They award the Oscar to “everyone but the Hamlet guy!”
- Married... with Children had at least one episode that ended with a heartwarming scene and the subtitle: “For your Emmy considerations.”
- In Extras, Kate Winslet’s character plays in a Holocaust movie in an open bid to win an Oscar. Then in 2008, Winslet did it in real life in The Reader.
- The Soup had a trailer for a fictional film called The Oscar Movie, with a voiceover discussing almost every Oscar Bait cliché using clips from that year’s actual Oscar nominees. These include: “women distraught, crying, and/or screaming,” comedians in serious roles, Meryl Streep (mentioned at least three times), and “Johnny Depp doing something weird.”
- Mr. Show did a sketch about “The Dewey Awards”, which were specifically given to actors who played mentally disabled characters. One winner is a film called The Bob Lamonta Story, about a man who struggles with his own mentally challenged parents (only for Lamonta himself to show up and claim it was all Based on a Great Big Lie).
- The Kevin Bishop Show had a spoof trailer for a BAFTA Bait TV drama, consisting solely of the phrase “gritty BAFTA” said with a pained, serious expression.
- Castle had a suspect who was an actor, who says he’s playing Matt Damon’s “half-wit father” because “it’s got nominations written all over it.”
- In season 4 of Arrested Development, Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher) discusses the possibility of playing Michael’s deceased wife in a movie. After learning that said wife died of a terminal illness, Rebel says that all she needs now is to have her be mentally-challenged as well, and she'll be guaranteed an Oscar for her performance.
- Mock the Week lampshaded the hell out of this tendancy.
- There’s a monthly online contest called “Bait an Oscar”, where contestants write film pitches to be voted on as if they were Oscar contenders. Oddly enough, this is a subversion; most participants tend to be fans of this kind of movie and are genuinely trying to pitch good ideas.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series:
- From “A Very Special, Award-Winning Episode of Zorc & Pals”.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!: Bonds Beyond Time Abridged:
- Parodied in this spoof video done by BriTANicK.com and hosted on Cracked. It was such a spot-on parody that it even got its own page on TV Tropes, A Trailer For Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever.
- Kickassia has this in every scene regarding Spoony’s attempts to avoid “giving in to the madness” (i.e. his Enemy Within Dr. Insano). He’s dramatic enough about it to frequently engage in Ham-to-Ham Combat about it.
- Atop the Fourth Wall: In the third segment of Linkara’s History of Power Rangers series, he shows a clip of Bulk and Skull trying to save a bunch of kids from drowning in a lake. They run down the pier in slow motion with inspirational music. Linkara responds by putting “Oscar Clip” at the bottom of the screen. (And it turns out the lake was knee-deep and the children were just playing.)
- Nerd To The Third Power host Dr. Gonzo swore up and down that Precious would win Best Picture, because “it's about an underprivileged black rape victim who gives birth to an incest baby with down syndrome. I haven't even seen the movie and I already want to kill myself! It has to win!" (It didn’t; The Hurt Locker did.)
- 11points.com had an 11 Points Countdown webisode about the 11 Least Deserving Best Picture Winners, which claimed that The English Patient and The King's Speech were Oscar Bait. One of the commentators even says that The King's Speech was blatantly pandering to the older Academy voters, saying that it wouldn't have looked out of place winning Best Picture in 1965.
- On Midnight Screenings, Brad Jones says he thinks calling a film Oscar Bait is an overused criticism. But he says he thinks it fits at least the trailer for the film of The Book Thief.
- CollegeHumor made a video on this topic titled 21 Steps to Making an Oscar Movie, including: high-contrast low-saturation lighting, suspenseful piano music, period clothing, disability, drug addiction, low camera angle, suicide, and a lot of other clichés.
- Game Theorist Matthew Patrick on his second channel Film Theory spends fifteen minutes discussing the formula yielding the highest statistical chance of winning an Oscar.
- Super Deluxe released an “Oscar contender” trailer for Straight Outta Compton, with the joke being that the film was made more appealing to the Academy voters by presenting it as an uplifting White Man's Burden movie about the group's Jewish manager.
- American Dad!: In a James Bond spoof, Roger played the role of Tearjerker, a villain whose Evil Plan is to make a film that’s such a tearjerker, it will kill anyone who watches it. That film, Oscar Gold, is about a mentally challenged Jewish boy driven to alcoholism by his puppy during the Holocaust, all while hiding from the Nazis in an attic like Anne Frank. And it’s Deliberately Monochrome. When that fails, he tries to go even sadder — six hours of a baby chimpanzee trying to revive its dead mother.
- Bugs Bunny has been known to occasionally shill for Oscars with overwrought “dramatic” performances:
- In The Wabbit Who Came to Supper, Bugs pleads with Elmer Fudd to let him into his house, complaining in a very dramatic fashion about how the cold. He suddenly perks up and says, “Hey, this scene oughta get me the Academy Award!” Then he finishes “dying”, complete with mournful violins.
- In What's Cookin’, Doc?, he’s so enamored with his “acting” that he crashes the ceremony to demand his Best Actor award.
The Schloscar it will win / With the same old heroine / It worked once, why not again?
- One short was an Anvilicious spoof of not just Oscar Bait, but also the animated awards the show could actually compete with. It started with saving a beached whale and went on from there. They didn’t win, and everything went to Hell after that.
- In a Thanksgiving episode, Miles Standing is out hunting turkeys, while the Warners play Native Americans raised by turkeys. While Dot waxes eloquent over their hardship, the caption “ACADEMY MEMBERS VOTE NOW!” flashes on the screen.
- During their “Jokahontas” sketch, a Take That against Disney movies, the song “Same Old Heroine” has this line:
- The Simpsons:
“I play Jerry ‘Fireball’ Mudflap, a feisty Supreme Court justice who’s searching for his birth mother while competing in a cross-country firetruck race. It's... garbage.”
- Burt Reynolds describes his new film Fireball and Mudflap:
- An an entry form for Best Documentary is shown to ask entrants to declare if they are “Holocaust-related” or "Non-Holocaust-related”.
- Spoofed in The Boondocks episode “The Color Ruckus”, where Uncle Ruckus tells his depressing life story to Robert, Huey, and Riley, who can’t help but listen because it’s so sad.
Huey: That's like, Academy Award winning sad.
- Tiny Toon Adventures:
- In “Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow”, when Buster pretends to suffocate in the cage Elmyra put him in, Hamton shows up to give him an award for “Best Death on Daytime Television”.
- In another episode, Meryl Streep receives an Oscar for “Best Ordering in a Restaurant”. She puts it in a purse full of many other Oscars.
- A hilarious musical performance actually took place at the 79th Academy Awards, featuring Will Ferrell and Jack Black lamenting about how they never win Oscars for their comedy. They sing about beating up serious actors in the audience until John C. Reilly joins them on stage and tells them that they should also do serious films from time to time like he does.
Reilly: Fellas! This madness must stop, there is no need to fear, you can have your cake and eat it too, just look at my career! I didn't cry when I would lose, I didn’t pick silly fights, I chose to be in both Boogie and Talladega Nights! Don't just be clowns, ‘cause then you're just bores, mix it up, and Oscars shall be yours!
Black: "He's right! I'm gonna re-read that script about the guy who gets lead poisoning and then sues a major corporation, there's not a laugh in there!
Farrell: "And I'm gonna take that project about the guy with no arms and legs who teaches gangbangers Hamlet!"