The Academy Awards strive to honor the “best” in film, but many people have pointed out that the organization has very particular tastes that do not always gel with casual viewers. More often than not, fan-favorite blockbusters and studio tentpoles are left fighting for the various technical Oscars, while smaller works like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea earn nominations in more “prestigious” categories like Best Picture and Best Actor. Some, including Oscar-winning director James Cameron, feel there is a bias against against these projects. One of the biggest surprises this awards season was Deadpool, which was recognized by the Writers Guild and Producers Guild, but scored zero Oscar nods.
That’s not to say Oscar history has been completely void of genre fare. The original Star Wars film, released in 1977, is one of the most acclaimed blockbusters of all-time, earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. Despite that early success with the Academy, however, no other installment in the franchise has been that prolific in regards to awards. 2015’s The Force Awakens was named one of the 10 best films of the year by the American Film Institute, but everything since A New Hope has had to settle for below-the-line categories like sound mixing and visual effects.
Could that be changing soon? As moviegoers eagerly count down the days to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, J.J. Abrams is stirring up the excitement, going so far as to say Mark Hamill could win an Oscar for his performance as Luke Skywalker. That would be quite a journey for the actor, who was mocked in ’77 for whining about power converters. There’s no denying Abrams’ praise is eye-catching, but just how realistic is it? Can Disney’s Star Wars ever win any major categories?
Best Supporting Jedi
First, let’s analyze Hamill’s odds specifically. Though the Academy is often reluctant to shower nominations upon famous blockbusters, there are rare instances of breakthroughs. In particular, Best Supporting Actor is a category that has seen a few geek-friendly properties sneak in. In addition to Alec Guinness in Star Wars, Ian McKellen was nominated for his performance as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Heath Ledger’s transformative turn in The Dark Knight earned the late actor a plethora of posthumous awards. Additionally, Sigourney Weaver picked up a Best Actress nod for Aliens, becoming the first acting nomination for an action film.
That’s all to say, Oscar will recognize the performances in traditional blockbuster movies if they’re truly transcendent. History is largely against Hamill, but it’s not impossible, either. Granted, it’s way too early to talk about the actor’s awards prospects, seeing as that no footage from The Last Jedi has been released yet, and there’s no telling what his potential competition could be at this juncture. Should Hamill find himself among the five honorees, it would be a career first, but that’s not a knock against him as an actor. Hamill is quite prolific in voice acting, and has won numerous awards for his work in that realm. He’s also picked up two Saturn Awards (which specifically focus on sci-fi/fantasy films) for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Playing against a puppet does take skill.
An apt comparison could be Sylvester Stallone, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor following his compelling performance in Creed. That was an instance of a veteran actor returning to an old role, earning acclaim for finding a new spin to put on it. Hamill in Last Jedi certainly fits that bill, and he likely will have plenty of meaty material to work with. Based on what’s transpired post-Return of the Jedi, Luke may not be in the best place emotionally as he deals with the guilt of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side and the emergence of Rey. He’s probably reluctant to return to the fight, which would give Hamill a lot of depth to explore. An elderly Luke could be a heartbreaking and tragic figure, and that sounds like a recipe for Oscar gold. Hopefully the trailers have plenty of hints of what’s to come.
Best Picture in the Galaxy
Looking beyond Hamill in Star Wars 8, could Disney’s Star Wars renaissance compete in any of the big categories? That is hardly a sure thing. In terms of Best Picture, true genre blockbusters rarely get into the field. Yes, there have been plenty of financially successful Oscar films in the past handful of years, but many of them fall into genres the Academy is quite fond of – war, crime, period piece, biopic, etc. Despite expanding the category after The Dark Knight was snubbed, they seem to use the extra slots to recognize more of their kind of film than spread the love to audience favorites. The pros and cons of this have been debated ever since.
That doesn’t mean the Oscars can’t surprise from time to time. Few could have predicted Mad Max: Fury Road would turn into a critical darling, becoming a leading contender in Best Picture and Best Director last year (though it lost both). Other recent sci-fi films to earn nods are Avatar and Inception, but these moments are still few and far between. Like Hamill, the odds aren’t exactly in the franchise’s favor here. In fact, the series hasn’t picked up any wins at all since Return of the Jedi (special effects), settling for technical nominations in the decades since. That’s not to say Episode VIII can’t do it, but it will have an uphill climb. Since the Academy is reluctant to nominate a full 10 ever since the sliding scale was implemented in 2011, a new Star Wars movie would have to be considered in the same class as a small collection of various dramas – a turn of events that would shock many. The “token blockbuster” seems to have faded away.
But if anyone is going to transform Star Wars into prestige, Rian Johnson could be the man to do it. The filmmaker has won some big awards from the Directors Guild and National Board of Review for his work on Breaking Bad and Looper. The latter even picked up a Best Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild. It’s safe to call Johnson a rising star behind the camera, and it’ll be interesting to see what he comes up with for the galaxy far, far away. His talent is undisputed, and his Last Jedi screenplay has been praised from day one. The awards circuit does like Johnson somewhat, but even then it’s hard to see him cracking the top five for Best Adapted Screenplay. Looper, for all its accolades, was shut out of the Oscars.
As fun as it is to visualize Luke Skywalker clutching an Oscar next year, this is probably just a pipe dream. Abrams’ phrasing was most likely enthusiastic hyperbole, his way of complimenting Hamill’s performance. For the most part, the Academy sees Star Wars as more of a below-the-line competitor, and while the new movies may score excellent reviews, that hasn’t translated into any major Oscar nods yet. That fact obviously doesn’t devalue the films, it’s simply an observation of the way the Academy conducts their business.
Still, Star Wars fans will be clinging their hopes on the aforementioned Stallone example, seeing it as proof that latter day franchise installments can be just as praised as the most recent indie standout. Like Hamill, Sly isn’t seen as your typical Oscar actor, but he found a way to the hearts of the voters (albeit, falling short of the win). In the words of C-3PO, the chances Hamill comes through could be 3,720-1, but the grizzled Jedi does have a puncher’s chance if Oscar history is anything to go by. Viewers will be pulling for him, especially if his long-awaited return lives up to the hype.