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Oscars Give Short Shrift to Fantasy

When fantasy meets film, Oscars a grouch.

We've had some good-natured jibing at each other during this past year, but admit it: any Star Wars fan worth his spice rooted for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to win Best Picture at the 75th Academy Awards a few weeks ago. I mean, it's not like there was a groundswell of support from most of us for Chicago to triumph, right?

Well, on that night at least, Star Wars fans wanted the One Ring to rule them all, as it should have happened last year. And once again, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences let us down.

This year's Oscars jaded me on how Hollywood views itself... and its viewers. It wasn't just about The Two Towers getting denied top honors, but what movies weren't nominated to begin with. The two biggest examples that came to my mind were Signs and Barbershop: one was about both losing and finding your faith through the most incredible of circumstances; the other was a story that honored a hard work ethic and sense of real community. The Two Towers was the only uplifting film that made it to the top rung of nominees and it lost to Chicago: a musical about sex and murder. Another competitor, The Hours, was a movie that features a suicide, depression, an attempted suicide, another suicide... and that's just in the opening credits.

Some are saying that the entire Lord of the Rings series won't be taken seriously until next year, after Return Of The King is released. I'll wager good money now that it still won't happen, for the simple fact that enough people are entrenched in Hollywood and away from reality that they've lost touch with what the average person really appreciates and experiences: after all, this is the same institution that thought American Beauty was typical of daily life in these United States circa 1999. If tripe like that can get an Oscar for Best Picture, I ain't holding my breath for the Academy to come to its senses. Bottom line: most fantasy-based films strive to raise the bar, while the "elites" running Hollywood more often than not aim for the gutter.

Think there isn't some bias against fantasy at the Oscars? Consider this: during seventy-five years of "acknowledging the best" of motion picture excellence, why hasn't a science-fiction film - or anything with a hint of the fantastic for that matter - ever won Best Picture? Movies based in imaginative fancy (including everything from A Clockwork Orange to It's A Wonderful Life) have been nominated for Best Picture no less than thirteen times. Yet not a single Best Picture trophy has gone to the sci-fi/fantasy camp, while every conceivable genre of storytelling - be it drama or comedy or musical or western - has got the Oscar at least once.

Then there's the matter of Gollum. Andy Serkis and WETA really, shoulda, oughtta have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for bringing Gollum to life in The Two Towers. Above and beyond being a technical milestone, Gollum was imparted the fullest weight of passion and conscience from Serkis' voice and motion-acting (and while we're at it, didn't Frank Oz and ILM do an awesome job on Yoda in Attack of the Clones?) That Serkis at least wasn't considered at all popped a huge red flag about the screwy priorities down at the Academy.

By this point it's sounding more like sour grapes than a serious beef, until you think about the Academy's more tangible antics of late. Six Oscars for Best Musical Score sit on John Williams' mantelpiece, including one for Star Wars in 1977. In addition to getting nominated for all three classic episodes, Williams received Oscar consideration for each of the Indiana Jones movies. It would have been nice to hope that the Academy would weigh his merits again when Williams composes for Episode III (and presumably the next Indy flick).

But Williams will never again receive an Oscar for scoring a Star Wars film, or for any other sequel-related work. A few months ago the Academy declared "derivative works" are now disqualified from competing for Best Musical Score: if the music was based on an earlier work, it's not eligible. By this logic Francis Ford Coppola should be stripped of everything he won for Godfather Part II since he brought back not just the whole darn Corleone clan but everything from the music to the pasta.

Is the Academy practicing discrimination toward some movies with this ruling? When you think about it, the only ineligible movies that readily come to mind aren't just movie "franchises", but those with elements of fantasy. Fans of The Lord Of The Rings cried foul when the Academy announced that Howard Shore wasn't eligible for scoring The Two Towers (at the last minute the Academy grudgingly backtracked and said the score was acceptable, though it didn't make the final list of nominees).

So the Oscars sneer at the movies we like and apparently puts up roadblocks to keep them from getting any more notice than we deserve. There's nothing we can do about it: we should be ready to accept that by the Academy's standards, fantasy is a losing genre. But we should look on it not as the fault of fantasy's "geekiness" but rather with a measure of pride. You see, fantasy plays with creative thought on the purest level, and the Hollywood establishment, by and large, cannot tolerate independent thought. And because of it, the "old guard" of Hollywood is beginning to run scared.

A friend and I are working on a movie right now. It's a short parody (that we're aiming to host on TheForce.net soon) and more serious projects are being planned out, with our own stories and expectations. Hollywood wouldn't touch us with a ten-foot cattleprod. That's okay 'cuz we don't need Hollywood to entertain people: the technology is now in the grasp of any modest-budget filmmaker to wow an audience, as the creators of The Blair Witch Project proved. If you want a gold Oscar on your shelf, the quick and easy path is to go Hollywood's route. But if you just want to entertain and enlighten - as most fantasy does - a filmmaker neither needs or should want Tinseltown's blessing. And Hollywood's warped sense of reality is only going to grow more threatened as digital cinema takes a firmer hold. Fantasy filmmakers will - and already are - leading the charge against the old regime.

Don't believe it? George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and the Wachowski Brothers are resolutely Hollywood outsiders (the Wachowskis were so unknown that they had to audition with Bound before Warner Brothers trusted them with funding for The Matrix). From these guys have come Star Wars, the Lord Of The Rings adaptation and the Matrix saga. Right now those are the three most prominent stories defining our culture, in many ways epitomizing everything that's still good about us: Jackson is making sure that his movies are faithful to Tolkien's theme of humility triumphing over power. The Wachowskis are teaching the world that it's hip and cool to be apart from "the system". And though it's too early to tell where Lucas is taking us at the end of Star Wars, it can be assured that love and friendship prevail against tyranny. as timeless a moral as ever. Is it coincidence that these three stories oozing with freshness come from three independents such as these? I don't think so: elitists celebrate ideology, while mavericks cultivate ideas.

So let the Oscars for Best Picture go to the sullen and the angst-ridden. Fantasy fans already have a far nobler - if not tangible - award. After all, you'll never hear your friends quoting from Annie Hall (winner of Best Picture 1977 over Star Wars) more than they say "may the Force be with you"!

Christopher Knight
April 8th, 2003

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