There’s an argument going on the Facebook group right now about the term “Oscar bait.” It’s not a term I use much myself, and I’m thinking now that I’m convinced. I’m not going to use it at all. The more I think about it, the less useful a term I think it is.
For one thing, it’s a pejorative term for a movie that’s attempting to be good enough to win awards. I mean, think about that a minute. Okay, there’s the implication that it’s failing at that attempt, but still. Yeah, there’s also an argument to be made about the relevance of the Oscars, about how often Oscars actually go to truly quality films. Since I own The King’s Speech on DVD, there’s an amount to which I have to recuse myself there. Regardless, no one makes a deliberately bad movie on the assumption that it’s going to win Oscars, do they?
Yes, I admit it. There are certain subjects that are more likely to win Oscars than others. But let me describe a movie to you, and you tell me if you think it’s Oscar bait or not.
A man comes into a Nazi-occupied country and starts spreading money around. He quickly realizes the extent of the Nazi atrocities, and he bankrupts himself to save his Jewish employees’ lives. Many details of the man’s life are glossed over to make him look better than he is.
“But wait,” you’re saying. “That’s Schindler’s List.” And you’re right. But just think about that description. Pretend you’ve never heard of the movie. Pretend you don’t know who’s in it, who directed it, who wrote it. (As a side note, given Spielberg’s record with the Academy, his movies are arguably never Oscar bait, regardless of any other details!) Wouldn’t you look at kind of askance if all you had was that description? Wouldn’t the phrase “Oscar bait” be kind of lingering in your mind?
I’ve heard a wide range of movies described as Oscar bait. Usually we’re talking period pieces, though not always. Usually, we’re talking biopics, though not always. Usually, we’re talking the Struggle of a Man, though not always. The implication tends to be that there’s a certain ponderous nature to it, but before its release, I heard The Monuments Men referred to as Oscar bait, and that had Bill Murray in it. I’m not sure he knows how to be ponderous. Then again, I’ve never seen The Razor’s Edge.
Vanity projects are often considered Oscar bait, but I think “vanity project” is another pejorative that isn’t really helpful. Where is the line between “vanity project” and “passion project”? Remember that Spielberg never cared whether Schindler’s List made money or not, because he thought it was a movie that needed to be made.
I’m starting to think that Schindler’s List is the Godwin’s Law of this kind of discussion. Just about any definition of “Oscar bait” can probably get twisted to include Schindler’s List one way or another, and I’m not sure that fact is any more helpful than the term itself. So I guess the best working definition I can get of “Oscar bait” is “a movie that tries to be an Important Film of Quality and fails”? I guess Oscar bait takes less time to say, anyway.
It’s also worth noting that I asked my boyfriend what comes to mind when I say the term “Oscar bait,” and he responded, “I don’t know—jail bait?” Which, um, yeah. So I guess another definition is “a term that film buffs use in conversation with one another that doesn’t mean much to the general public.”