Despite knowing the Academy Awards have a tendency of getting things wrong, filmmakers still seem to put out movies that cater to the kind of things the members of the Academy have been shown to enjoy. Roles that see big name actors playing some tragic historical figure. Stories about the toll war takes on the human spirit. Characters who struggle against adversity by siding with an oppressed group. There’s many forms Oscar bait can take, but people usually know it when they see it.
And that’s not to say that a movie that is clearly looking to appeal to the awards crowd is necessarily bad. Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are just a few of the very enjoyable movies that have themes or performances that feel like they were reaching for a nomination. And it’s hard to blame directors for wanting to see their film nominated, since it’s almost guaranteed to help their profits.
However, some movies try a bit too hard to get the Academy’s notice, and wind up looking desperate. These are movies that come across as emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, to the point that it detracts from the experience. When fishing for awards goes too far, it gave us the 15 Worst Oscar Bait Movies of All Time.
15 THE LOVELY BONES
Coming hot off the Lord of the Rings trilogy and how it redefined the fantasy genre for cinema, Peter Jackson looked poised to be a director capable of big things. The Lovely Bones was originally a novel by Alice Sebold, and we saw how well Jackson had done adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels, so surely he’d have another hit on his hands. Or at least, he might have, had Sebold’s writing been anywhere near Tolkien’s.
While the book has its fans, even the novel version of The Lovely Bones can get pretty cloying with its focus on a young girl who was murdered deciding to watch over her family from heaven. But Jackson amped up the already overly sentimental story by spending too long lingering on his vision of heaven, a fantastical CGI world full of light and bright colors and not a whole lot that advanced the plot in any meaningful way.
Even the parts that are true to the book left Jackson no choice but to shoehorn in pretentiously touching moments, like the murdered girl Susie possessing one of her friends on Earth to have one last kiss with the boy she liked. This wound up being a great example of how a story trying too hard to be emotionally resonant can wind up getting rejected by audiences who just find it emotionally manipulative.
14 WAR HORSE
Steven Spielberg is one of the best directors of all time, but he’s capable of getting pretty saccharine with his projects. Honestly, he has multiple movies that would fit on this list, but in an attempt to narrow things down to a single entry, it's a more recent offering that stands out. War Horse is pretty much what it sounds like on the label, the story about a horse named Joey who leads the viewer through shifting perspectives as he passes through a variety of owners, until he eventually becomes our focal point for a war story.
War Horse has a lot of the trappings the Academy enjoys, like the prevail of simple values, a character going through a seemingly endless tragic struggle, and a showcase for the heroism and price of war. And it all paid off with a Best Picture nomination, even though this has become low on the list of fondly spoken of Spielberg films. War Horse isn’t awful, but it requires a strong tolerance for some cheesy characters and a schmaltzy plot.
13 THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
If Benjamin Button’s premise of a man who ages in reverse wasn’t enough to intrigue you, the film was loaded up with major actors like Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, as well as David Fincher in the director’s seat. But that’s about all many people remember about the film. Beyond its unique idea, this is really just another love story spanning the lifetimes of the characters involved.
This was a particular deviation for director David Fincher, more known for his gritty, ruthless characters like in Fight Club or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Depending on who you ask, this change of pace for Fincher either made for an epic love story or an overly long movie built on a gimmick that tried too hard to feel important. Regardless, it was far from the initial flop that Fight Club was, and earned Fincher one of his few Best Picture nominations. Thankfully, he’s since returned to his more typical -- and interesting-- style, with films like Gone Girl.
12 THE BLIND SIDE
Few things are more American than football, so a movie about an impoverished young African-American who escapes his turbulent upbringing by finding success in the world of sports just sounds like the American dream of movies. Throw in a troubled relationship with his parents, as well as a learning disability, and it seems like the movie was designed to try and squeeze as much sympathy as possible from the viewer, Rudy-style.
The story of Michael Oher actually is at least partially based on real events, so the script writers weren’t just trying to fill the story with as many hurdles as possible. Yet,] even with some touching moments, many were surprised when the film went so far as to be nominated for Best Picture. The Academy had recently raised the number of Best Picture nominees to ten as opposed to five, which is thought to be the reason why The Blind Side made the cut. A couple years later, the ten slots for Best Picture were changed from being mandatory to simply an option, in case there really were ten movies worth mentioning. It's generally accepted that The Blind Side would not have received its nominations given today's Academy rules.
11 THE BOOK THIEF
It’s pretty hard to make a film dealing with Nazi Germany that people don’t wind up feeling that strongly about. The real life tragedy of the time period strikes more deeply than any fictional moments of loss could. And there have been many powerful films made about this era, such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist, just to name a couple. Add in the fact that The Book Thief was an excellent novel, and it seemed like this movie should have all the makings of a memorable film.
Perhaps it was the largely absent voice of Death narrating the story which had added so much personality to the novel. Some first person stories have so much charm thanks to their narrator that stripping away a lot of that can hurt the adaption. It also didn’t help that while there were some very talented actors in the movie, such as Geoffrey Rush, their German accents featured were laughable at times. The Book Thief told the story of the book, but it didn’t carry over the heart.
10 THE REVENANT
The most recent entry on this list -- and far and away this list's most successful film in terms of award nominations and wins -- was the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Revenant. Even before the movie came out, people were astonished and amused to hear the stories of how Leo endured freezing temperatures, slept in real animal carcasses, and genuinely ate raw bison liver for the sake of his character. Memes quickly poured out over Leo’ perceived desperation to put himself through such rigorous conditions so he could finally get his long sought-after Best Actor award. People jokingly begged the Academy to let Leo have the award so he wouldn’t wind up killing himself trying to find a more arduous role to play next year.
The movie itself was fine, but it’s telling that people were talking more about whether Leo would get his Oscar for this role rather than anything that happened in the movie. The anticipation of would he or wouldn’t he overshadowed The Revenant itself. But Leo did indeed finally get his Best Actor award, officially resolving the biggest non-issue of the Academy Awards from the past few years.
9 THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
2004’s Phantom of the Opera, featuring Gerard Butler, sounded absurd even when it was released, and has only become more so in light of Butler’s most noteworthy role winding up being from 300. But then it also sounded equally ridiculous when Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman decided to do 2012’s Les Misérables, and yet that became one of the year’s Best Picture nominees. Actors stepping out of their typical genres and demonstrating their range is something the Academy likes to acknowledge, so it’s understandable why Butler rolled the dice on this one. The problem was that he didn’t demonstrate his range as much as he revealed his lack of it.
The biggest take away from the 2004 Phantom of the Opera: Gerard Butler can’t sing. Like, at all. And sure, Russell Crowe’s singing was widely criticized in Les Misérables, but at least he could hold a note and was surrounded by better voices. Phantom featured some nice looking costumes and set pieces, but even that was undermined by Butler ultimately having one of the least disfigured faces of any Phantom once he was finally unmasked. All in all, the movie was a solid indicator that Gerard should stick to action movies for the rest of his career.
8 A BEAUTIFUL MIND
Russell Crowe had to feel pretty good coming out of this movie and winding up starring in back to back Best Picture winners between A Beautiful Mind and the previous year’s Gladiator. But the 2001 story about the real life John Nash is definitely the less remembered role of the two. Perhaps part of that is just violence being more exciting than math, but there’s also the fact that the socially inept savant was already on its way to becoming a cliché story before A Beautiful Mind even hit theaters.
We already had stories like Charlie Gordon’s in Flowers for Algernon, and today we even have an entire show based around this premise with Sheldon Cooper and his friends in The Big Bang Theory. The not judging a book by its cover trope can only be told using the same formula so many times before it stops being surprising. Crowe’s performances was good, and the real life story of John Nash is no doubt remarkable, but it’s the reality of his story that is intriguing rather than anything provided by the movie adaptation.
7 THE SOLOIST
Though Robert Downey Jr. is now probably best known for appearing in a metal suit as Marvel’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, he has not given up looking for dramatic roles that don’t require saving the world. Unfortunately, The Soloist would not be the breakout dramatic role that Downey and his co-star Jamie Foxx may have thought they'd stumbled into. The movie is based on both a true story, as well as a book, so it already had two of the favorite lines of movie trailer narrators.
Like The Blind Side, we can’t criticize the story itself too much, since it ultimately stems from reality, but it definitely felt calculated that it was this story in particular that a director wanted to tell. The schizophrenic savant, Nathaniel Ayers, seemed like the type of role that would normally guarantee recognition from the Academy. The real life Ayers has done remarkable things, but his story would have likely been better suited to a simple documentary instead of trying to present it as a dramatic, Oscar-baiting film.
6 J. EDGAR
Poor Leonardo DiCaprio gets featured twice for this topic because he’s just spent so many years in pursuit of that elusive golden statue that he’s landed himself in more than one film that felt like it was fishing for glory. Director Clint Eastwood has a penchant for patriotic films focusing on American history, and he frequently winds up getting nominations for his work, so this seemed like a smart project for Leo to hitch his wagon to. And while Leo’s performances was praised as per usual, the rest of the film didn’t impress as much.
A common criticism was the makeup job used to make Leo look older for the later years as Hoover. Leo obviously wasn’t the fresh-faced kid from the Titanic anymore, but his naturally youthful features still stood out sharply behind his fake wrinkles. Critics and audiences also found the plot slow and confusing, and ultimately not as interesting as the life of the real J. Edgar Hoover was.
5 THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
A lot of what was said about A Beautiful Mind could also be said about this more recent film focusing on someone who is smarter than most could even begin to imagine. Stephen Hawking is absolutely an incredibly talented person who deserves recognition for his work. The problem was that his work wasn’t the focal point of this film, and we were instead left with the less interesting romantic life of the genius.
Significant praise was given to star Eddie Redmayne for his role as Hawking, but people were less enthusiastic about the scientist’s romantic life featuring so heavily to the detriment of showing why he is so highly regarded as a professional. Nonetheless, Hawking himself enjoyed the film, and the movie got a Best Picture nomination, as well a Best Actor win for Redmayne. The dramatized stroll down memory lane for Hawking was fine for what it was, but you’ll likely come away with little more understanding of his work (read: the important/interesting part) than what you had going in.
4 THE IRON LADY
Even before The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep wasn’t lacking in awards, having already been nominated and awarded Oscars for Best Actress multiple times. It’s gotten to the point that around award season, people joke that Streep is probably the only actress hoping she won’t win because she must be tired of going up the steps to the stage so often. So it probably wasn’t a desire to win another award that drew her to The Iron Lady. Perhaps she simply wanted to play Margaret Thatcher. But if that’s the case, then she wasn’t escaping from another award with this role.
Any political figure is going to be controversial as a focal point of a movie, and Thatcher is no different, but critics were unanimous in their praise for Streep’s performance as the Prime Minister. But another thing politics can be is dry and boring, which was another common characteristic among reviews. Critics were also iffy on making Thatcher’s dementia from her later years such a prominent part of the movie, finding it exploitative, and one of the less interesting aspects to be mentioned when talking about the famed politician. Regardless, this role hooked another award for Streep, even if the end product was one people won’t remember.
3 EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
One of the most blatant Oscar bait movies in recent memory dealt with a very heavy subject that America has never really stopped mourning over — the September 11th terrorist attacks. It’s not that no film should ever be made about the subject, but rather that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t feel like it’s about that day at all. The plot of the movie is just a boy with a personality disorder going on a scavenger hunt to try and find closure from losing his dad. The death of Tom Hanks’ character could have been a result of any other cause imaginable, and the plot could still function. So to invoke 9/11 for a movie like this instantly felt exploitative, and the backlash was strong over it.
Critics and casual viewers had no issue with the performances, but voiced fierce disapproval about setting the story around a real and still fresh tragedy. Many called the film out for being an extremely obvious example of Oscar bait, and they subsequently rated the film negatively for being emotionally manipulative. And while invoking 9/11 was clearly a cheap way to attract attention, it ultimately amounted to a Best Picture Oscar nod.
2 SEVEN POUNDS
Will Smith really isn’t a great dramatic actor. He’s naturally charming, funny, and charismatic, so it often feels forced when he’s going against those qualities. Sure, he has moments of touching raw emotion, such as his well-known scene in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when he reacts to his dad’s neglect for him. But Will trying to sustain a melancholy attitude for an entire film rarely feels like a good fit. At no point was that more true than his role in Seven Pounds.
Smith doing a less comedic role worked moderately well in The Pursuit of Happyness, so Seven Pounds felt like his attempt to really test his limits. He was hampered right off by an overly sentimental plot, which saw his character inadvertently kill seven people in a car accident, so he makes it his life's mission to atone for his carelessness by finding seven more people who he can save. Survivor’s guilt is understandable, but Smith’s character decides to save these people by giving them his organs — including his heart. Obviously that one’s kinda important, so we eventually learn his character has been planning to kill himself and have his organs donated to people who need them. It was no doubt meant to be tragic and self-sacrificing, but the reveal of the plan comes off more as bizarre, contrived, and potentially laughable once we learn his character is going to utilize a jellyfish to end his life.
The subject of racism is absolutely something still worth exploring in films, especially given the world's current social climate. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave have done so in more recent years and been well-received. So the problem with Crash isn’t its subject matter, but rather the way it handles it. It’s so heavy-handed and overt in its depiction of racism, that it borders on parody. Every character engages in blatant racism that goes far beyond discrimination, and this leads to sexual assault, shootings, and robberies. It has to veer towards extremes to make its point, and while the Academy apparently found that progressive, many were in disbelief that such a preachy movie freely engaging in stereotypes managed to win Best Picture.
It’s not as if it had been a bad year for movies, either, and if the Academy really wanted to acknowledge something progressive, there was a more clear cut choice for the year. The decision to give Crash the Best Picture award over Brokeback Mountain has been so heavily talked about, that in 2015 members of the Academy were re-polled on some of the controversial choices from years of the past, one of which included asking whether Crash would have won given a do over. The answer was a resounding no, and Brokeback was declared the unofficial better film in retrospect. Not that the history books were rewritten with an asterisk, though.
What other movies have left you crying Oscar bait? Have there been any that you knew were fishing for awards that you liked regardless? Discuss it in the comments!
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