An Oscar bait movie can be defined as one created specifically to win Oscars. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad, but they contain moments that feel deliberately made to capture the attention of Oscar bait movies. They are usually composed of one or two crucial elements. They’re usually based on true stories. They feature characters facing vast sadness and actors undergoing severe body transformation. Topics that usually excite the attention of the Academy include Holocaust and slave trade narratives as well as suffering gay men (who are never seen enjoying gay sex) and disabled geniuses.
One of the happy byproducts of Harvey Weinstein’s elimination from Hollywood is the general lack of films created simply to win Oscars and their absence from Best Picture nominations. Boring crowd-pleasing, artificially feel-good films such as The Imitation Game and Lion have given way to fascinating visions in recent years such as Call My By Your Name and Phantom Thread, films that previously may not have gotten a look in.
Nonetheless, 2018 saw plenty of films — some underrated, some fairly ignored — that had all the hallmarks of classic Oscar bait films. Some are very good, some are absolutely terrible, but all of them seemed to be made with the intention to win an Oscar in the back of their mind.
Still, none of these films were nominated for a single award, proving that the era of classic tearjerkers may soon be coming to a close. Think we missed something that was particularly shameless? Please tell us in the comments below!
1. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Gus Van Sant)
Telling the story of a famous cartoonist trapped in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot had Oscar-bait written all over it. It was Gus Van Sant’s comeback. Joaquin Phoenix starred. He was joined by Jonah Hill and Rooney Mara. The story is at times harsh but mostly feel-good, with a wise screenplay and great sympathy for its characters. However, despite receiving good reviews at Berlinale and Sundance, Gus Van Sant’s movie was never even mentioned in the Oscar race.
Perhaps the era of able-bodied actors being awarded for playing people with disabilities — see Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything — is over. Considering that these are literally the only roles that disabled actors are even considered for in Hollywood, this change seems like a much overdue process.
The current debate surrounding recently released film The Upside, a remake of the French classic The Intouchables starring Bryan Cranston as a disabled man, seems to confirm this suspicion.
2. The Front Runner (Jason Reitman)
The Front Runner had it all. Yet despite a topical plot (a politician’s sexual impropriety), a hot star (Hugh Jackman fresh off The Greatest Showman), an all-star supporting cast (J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga and Alfred Molina) and even a highly suggestive name, The Front Runner was almost dead on arrival. Simply very few people were interested in the Democratic Primaries of 1987, especially not in today’s crazy political climate.
In retrospect, it’s a pretty good movie; boasting smart camerawork, a sharp script and round-the-board good performances. Its gender politics didn’t click with viewers however, many accusing Reitman of releasing the perfect movie for about ten years ago, when respectability mattered and people were actually held accountable for their actions.
Additionally, its Altmanesque perspective, seeing things from all sides, wasn’t beloved, especially when films with more pointed political perspectives such as BlacKkKlansman were getting much more awards love.
3. Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton)
Gay conversion therapy is an abhorrent practice and it is right to draw attention to it. The question is whether viewers need a film that wallows in the suffering of people who have to go through it.
Boy Erased was considered to be a major Oscar player right up until anyone saw it, revealing the plot to be highly maudlin and the main character’s homosexuality to be more theoretical than an actual reality. This was especially true considering the far superior The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which was written and directed by a bisexual woman. Still, neither film was nominated for a single Oscar.
The time of suffering gay characters, although a well-intentioned but ultimately patronising endeavour, doesn’t have quite the same draw these days. The massive success of Call Me By Your Name proved that queer characters can sing on the screen simply by living their lives and having romantic love affairs. Bohemian Rhapsody may have got nominated, but this choice seems to have been made despite Freddie Mercury’s sexuality (and the strength of Queen’s music) than because of it.
4. Beautiful Boy (Felix Van Goeningen)
The only thing anyone can agree on about Beautiful Boy is that its star, Timotheé Chalamet, is a beautiful boy. In this film, based on a real magazine article, he plays a methamphetamine addict struggling to quit the habit, supported by his loving father, played by Steve Carell. Ostensibly designed to be a deeply affecting portrayal of failure, few people believed that Chalamet’s performance was actually authentic.
Chalamet’s stunt casting — especially considering the intelligent young man he plays in Call Me By Your Name — was a classic Oscar bait move. The narrative built around it was proof that the actor can do anything. Sadly for him, no one was buying it. These performances — allowing actors to dig deep into real feelings of sadness — are designed specifically for pity Oscars, yet neither actor actually got any love.
5. Ben Is Back (Peter Hedges)
Lucas Hedges is everywhere at the moment. Since his extraordinary success in Manchester by the Sea, he has been one of the hottest properties around, especially around the A24 studios. In Ben is Back, he joins Timotheé Chalamet as another soft and sad white boy struggling from drug addiction who suddenly appears back home on Christmas Eve.
Sadly, the brilliant young actor (joined here by Julia Roberts as his mother) will have to wait until he wins an Oscar, Ben Is Back falling into various clichés and strange thriller subplots when it should be aiming for genuine character work.
It joins Beautiful Boy as another film trying to take advantage of the genuine drug crisis ravaging through the USA, currently the number one killer of young men in the country. There is surely a good movie to be made about these topics, but neither Beautiful Boy or Ben is Back tackled the topic with any depth or nuance.