Could ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Be a Surprise Oscar Contender?
Lately, Star Wars is a franchise not exactly synonymous with the Oscars. Those two words, forever known as the most famous film franchise in the world, have more in common with terms like “box office” and “special effects” and “cosplay” than awards season fodder. But what if J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens actually turned out to be a an Oscar sleeper? Before you roll your eyes, stop reading this and go back to analyzing those new Force Awakens photos, hear me out, for the sake of the Force.
Earlier this year I was discussing Oscar candidates with a few film journalists. As we listed off the fall releases that could compete during Oscar season, I mentioned The Force Awakens. It was quickly shrugged off with a no-way attitude. I tossed the thought aside as well, thinking how bizarre it would sound to hear Star Wars: The Force Awakens announced as a nominee beyond technical categories. But Star Wars is no stranger to the Oscars.
In a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars was once a movie competing for Best Picture. At the 50th Academy Awards in 1978, A New Hope received 10 nominations, including ones for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Alec Guinness. It ended up losing in the top three categories to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (and Guinness lost to Jason Robards for Julia), but won six awards for Costume Design, Sound, Film Editing, Art Direction, Visual Effects and Score. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi only earned Special Achievement awards for visual effects, while the former only won for Best Sound. Unsurprisingly, Episodes I - III walked away with a grand total of zero golden statues.
But perhaps Abrams has it in him to revive that Oscar glory and show us what A New Hope did, that sci-fi movies can be great enough to compete. For one, The Force Awakens is in many ways a throwback to the origins of the franchise (literally, not chronologically). Patrick Shanley of ScottFienberg.com has been predicting the film’s Oscar potential, positing that it may carve out a spot for itself in the major categories, including Best Picture and perhaps earn a Supporting nomination for Harrison Ford. Shanley wrote that, according to Fienberg’s opinion, one of the factors that may have hurt Star Wars‘ chances at the ‘78 Oscars was how infrequently it was viewed in comparison to Annie Hall. Apparently Allen’s film was accessible on small screens via a pay-cable television station previous to awards voting. Star Wars, however, was not available on broadcast pay-per-view until 1982. Fienberg thinks that Lucas’ film may have had a chance to beat Annie Hall had more Academy members been about to see it outside of the theater.
With that reasoning in mind, The Force Awakens would surely have a stronger shot at a nomination since its the biggest cinematic event of the past decade and will be hard for anyone to miss (once tickets become available, of course). But in today’s age of awards screeners, such logic makes little sense (plus I find it hard to believe that Annie Hall’s win was partially due to its larger accessibility). Regardless of how many voters saw either film, Lucas’s space opera was an anomaly at the Oscars and Annie Hall, a fantastic film in its own right, was a much safer and more conventional choice. This is where I’ll remind you 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner never earned Oscar nominations, and that Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind failed to make it in the Best Picture category alongside Star Wars in ‘78. In all honesty, The Empire Strikes Back was lucky to even end up in the top categories, especially at a time when they only allowed for five slots. Just because it didn’t win though doesn’t mean that history can’t repeat itself with nominations.
The competition is very tight this year with a surplus of dramatic biopics and stunning period pieces, many which have Oscar-friendly filmmakers at their helm. Yet the codes for who’s allowed to play with the Oscar big guys have slowly been changing. In recent years films like District 9, Inception, Avatar and Gravity have crept into the Best Picture list. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became the first and only fantasy film to win in the coveted award. This year alone sci-fi, futuristic hits The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road have a shot at getting top Academy recognition. Both of those films proved that thrilling storytelling set in outer space or a dystopian future with an A-list cast could be the ingredients to something greater than a blockbuster and worthy of praise. So if films like District 9 and Gravity could make the cut, why not Star Wars?
Of course, we still know very little about what the actual story in The Force Awakens, as much as we’ve theorized to our hearts content. Though the marketing campaign has ramped up volumes of excitement, it could end up being a major disappointment or nothing more than a fun blockbuster to end the year on.
At the moment, Disney is way more concerned with keeping spoilers at bay than winning any awards, and that perspective is best for a big-budget film like this. The Wrap reported last night that Disney and Lucasfilm won’t be entering The Force Awakens into the end of the year awards season, including the National Board of Review’s Best Film Honors, theScreen Actors Guild awards or any local critics groups. It’s not like Abrams’ film had any chance at getting into the NBR’s top ten list when it’s announced on December 1, since the group tends to go for the indie favorites, like A Most Violent Year and Her in recent years. The Force Awakens stands little chance trumping fall favorites like Carol, Room, Anomalisa or Spotlight at the New York or Los Angeles critics circles. While avoiding awards’ campaigning would no doubt hurt smaller movies in need of attention, when it comes to building momentum towards Oscar voting, it’s not like Star Wars needs any help with attention or momentum. No one’s waiting to hear what the critics think about The Force Awakens before buying their tickets.
The sad truth is, Star Wars is not traditional Best Picture-winning material and is never going to be, and that’s perfectly fine. The best film of the year (at least, according to the Academy’s criteria) is usually one that can speak to a wide array of audiences on an emotional level, tackles a powerful, significant subject with outstanding performances, or is just a phenomenal display of superb filmmaking overall. That’s not exactly the stuff of lightsaber duels, but perhaps Abrams’ film will revitalize the franchise and remind audiences, and voters, that fantasy sci-fi adventures, like A New Hope, are worthy of some extra recognition beyond the technicals. Who knows though, patience you must have. We’ll just have to wait and see.