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Oscar Bait

After Walk Hard dismantled the genre, music biopics made their Oscar comeback with Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

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Welcome to another edition of Three Easy Pieces, where I look at a specific corner of pop culture, from its birth to how it looks today. Since we're smack dab in the middle of awards season, I thought we'd discuss the ignoble film sub-genre known as Oscar bait. Want to increase your chances of your film winning something at the Academy Awards? Consider making a lavish period piece, or a biopic, or a stirring war epic, or a superficial exploration of racism, or having your lead actor portray someone with a disability. The Academy Awards voters are mostly old, white, out of touch, and easily fooled by movies with the aforementioned characteristics -- facts that the makers of Oscar bait know all too well! While not all films that are classified as Oscar bait are bad, their mercenary cynicism makes them fascinating to examine.

BIRTH: The Deer Hunter (1978)
Honorable mention: Heaven's Gate, Terms of Endearment, the collected works of Merchant Ivory

Yes, the term "Oscar bait" was coined a few decades before this film came out, but The Deer Hunter has the distinction of being the first film to actively court Academy voters in an attempt to win some awards. The thinking was that no one would want to watch a three-hour bummer about the Vietnam War if it didn't have the clout of saying that it got some Oscar love.

And, it should come as no surprise to anyone that's been paying attention for the past four decades, the plan worked! After much wining and dining, and arranging screenings exclusively for Academy members, The Deer Hunter was showered with nine Academy Award nominations, eventually winning five, including Best Picture.

The Deer Hunter proves that it's not always bad movies that can qualify as Oscar bait. Yes, it was a calculated move for the producers to campaign so hard for awards in order to make some money, but The Deer Hunter now stands as an unimpeachable classic -- and we may have never known that if the Academy had overlooked it.

DEVELOPMENT: The Postman (1997)
Honorable mention: Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump, Pay It Forward

From Oscar bait success to fiasco, we move on to The Postman. Unfortunately, this one didn't really get the opportunity to campaign for any Oscars, as it was immediately and roundly reviled by audiences and critics alike. But Kevin Costner had no way of knowing that! As a director, he had previously found Academy Awards success with Dances with Wolves, so why not try to get some more accolades with by adapting a critically lauded, serious-minded sci-fi epic for the big screen?

The three-hour film that resulted was a ponderous, sluggish, enormously expensive bomb that very nearly ended Costner's career. And while his onscreen work continues today, he only directed one more film (the considerably more stripped-down throwback western Open Range). And while genre pictures very rarely clean up at the Oscars, movies like The Postman are part of the reason why studios don't tend to campaign for them much at all. Here's hoping Denis Villeneuve's forthcoming Dune adaptation has better luck.

TODAY: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Honorable mention: Alexander, Crash, J. Edgar, The Blind Side, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Theory of Everything, The King's Speech, Green Book, The Goldfinch

It really feels like biopics (at least of musicians) should have been permanently retired after Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story so thoroughly and hilariously tore apart every trope and cliché of the genre. But, after experiencing a brief period in the wilderness, biopics found their way back to the Academy's heart in a big way, culminating in a big push for surface-level Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

While Bohemian Rhapsody's not a bad movie, per se, it's extraordinarily by-the-numbers and shoddily made -- and it's never a good sign that your lead actor's Oscar clip is of him sitting at a piano and lip-syncing. Still, Rami Malek did indeed win Best Actor, with the film itself winning three more awards, showing that Oscar bait movies -- while rightly inducing eye-rolls from cinephiles -- still have the traction needed to rake in those little gold men.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: A Very Dark Holiday, Chapter Two.

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