Academy cautious of diluting awards' impact

The 74th Annual Academy Awards might be most memorable for adding the first new category in 20 years, for animated feature. The addition is significant because, critics contend, well-reviewed films that range from “Pinocchio” to “Toy Story” were hard-pressed to compete against the traditional dramas that usually make the toughest cut of all: one of the five slots for best picture.

Which begs the question: What else is missing?

Plenty, according to many contemporary costume and set designers, stuntmen and women, choreographers, and comic filmmakers and actors who feel they haven’t been given their proper due. But despite long simmering grievances, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been historically slow in expanding its potential slate of honorees, usually leaving it to the guilds and other organizations to fill in the perceived blanks.

The new animation category — which was made possible by the Academy’s Board of Governors — had been in the works for a good decade.

“Back in ’91, there was a proposal presented to the Board of Governors for such a category and it has resurfaced in one way or another numerous times since then,” says Ric Robertson, executive administrator for AMPAS, “so obviously the board gave it a lot of study. No one disputed the merits of the art form itself. It came down to there being enough potential entries in any particular year to make it deserving of a nomination and an Oscar.”

Quality over quantity

Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar” and its upcoming sequel “Inside Oscar 2,” due in January, surmises that there are other factors in the Academy’s reluctance to expand its awards slate. “The Academy’s reasoning is that by having too many categories, it dilutes the impact of the awards,” says Bona. “If you look at the Emmy Awards, which are totally ridiculous — where you get best lighting for a documentary or even awards shows getting awards — after a while it gets meaningless.

“And I think also the Academy ceremony is often criticized for spending too much time on awards that some critics say people don’t care about, whether it’s sound effects editing or visual effects. The more awards they have the longer the show is going to run. And that’s been quite a problem lately where it’s gone over four hours.”

Robertson doesn’t disagree: “We could be giving out 60 awards if you adopted everyone’s suggestions, many which have reasonable, defensible arguments. But to maintain the value of the Oscar, not to mention the impact of the Awards show itself, you need to try to hold the line.”

One could argue that the makeup category, added in 1981 — the ceremony’s 54th edition — was even more overdue than feature animation, given a tradition that dates back to Lon Chaney.

“I guess people took it for granted that there is a lot of effort that goes into movies that’s basically craftwork,” explains Bona about makeup’s belated appearance. “The catalyst was when ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) came out; everyone was so impressed with the makeup on John Hurt and there was no award to recognize it.”

Special recognition often presages new categories. In the ’60s, two special awards were given for makeup: 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” and 1964’s “7 Faces of Dr. Lao.” The feature animation category was also preceded by special awards, such as those given for “Snow White” in 1938 and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988.

No respect

As sacrilegious as it might sound, there are many producers and thesps who wouldn’t mind Oscar following the lead of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which divides its picture and acting categories into dramas and comedy/musicals. Many actors and critics have complained that Academy members tend to downplay the significance of comedies and comic performances.

Granted such films as “Annie Hall” and “Shakespeare in Love” — both romantic comedies — managed to nab best picture Oscars. But these films are the exception rather than the rule. Since 1977, the year of “Annie Hall,” only 10 films that might be deemed comedies, at least in part, have been nominated for best picture, including “Tootsie,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Moonstruck,” “Working Girl,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Fargo.” With the exception of “Shakespeare in Love,” none have won.

(Certain best pic winners like “The Apartment” and “American Beauty” fall somewhere between drama and comedy, featuring humor with a decidedly dark streak.)

“The thinking on the Golden Globes is whatever wins best drama is sort of considered to be the best picture, and, even though it’s not intended to be, the comedy/musical winner tends to be thought of as the second best film of the year,” says Bona. “And if you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t have had the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ upset over ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in 1998.”

Variety critic Todd McCarthy thinks dividing up the best pic category only creates complications. “I’m extremely against creating new categories because then you get into gray areas where you have to figure out what’s what,” says McCarthy. “You can just splinter them infinitely: you can do comedy, western, hip hop — the minute you start doing that it means less. It’s the Golden Globe-ization of the Oscars; it dilutes the meaning of them.”

Apples and oranges

And yet there are those who argue that certain categories cry out for a more delineated approach. For example, the Art Directors and Costume Designers guilds divide their awards between contemporary and period/fantasy, partly as a reaction to the Academy overwhelmingly favoring the opulence of period designs over the more subtle nuances of contemporary work. For example, over the last decade, only two films with a post-WWII time frame that fall outside the realm of fantasy — 1992’s “Malcolm X” and 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — were nominated for costume design honors.

Two-time Oscar-winning costume designer Albert Wolsky (“All That Jazz,” “Bugsy”) says he’s not against the idea of dividing up the costume award, but is realistic. “My feelings from sitting in on the Board of the Academy, just to get the animation (category) going took forever. Originally, the Academy did give out two awards, for black & white and color — ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ was the last (b&w) one to win. And what had happened in those days, it became almost a de facto way of doing it: Black & white was modern and color usually was usually costumes of period and fantasy, so it sort of worked out neatly that way.”

Dahl Delu, executive board member of the Art Directors Guild and chairman of the guild’s awards committee, says contemporary and period design are like apples and oranges, with two completely different approaches and usually vastly different budgets.

“We felt that a lot of contemporary films were being overlooked just by the sheer weight of period and fantasy films that they were competing against,” says Delu. “Contemporary pieces have some very specific design problems that are as noteworthy as period and fantasy material.”

But even Delu admits the distinction can get a bit fuzzy. Last year, there was debate as to which category “Chocolat” should fall.

“‘Chocolat’ was technically considered a contemporary film because our cut-off date was 1950 and the time frame of the film was 1953,” says Delu. “But it was also a fantasy film in many ways. So there are certain problems with delineating which film constitutes which style. But we still felt that it just offered all of our designers a little fairer platform to vie with. It’s the same as dividing between a lead actor and a featured performer. They’re doing two different kinds of things. We just felt this is a fairer way of doing it.”

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