'Creed,' starring Michael B. Jordan, left, and Sylvester Stallone, received an Oscar nomination for the latter as best supporting actor. However, Jordan was not recognized, and the film is not in the best picture competition.

Warner Bros. Pictures photo

'Creed,' starring Michael B. Jordan, left, and Sylvester Stallone, received an Oscar nomination for the latter as best supporting actor. However, Jordan was not recognized, and the film is not in the best picture competition.

Awards hooked on ‘Oscar bait’

By Jake Coyle

The Associated Press

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NEW YORK – In the Coen brothers’ recent 1950s Hollywood satire, “Hail, Caesar!” Ralph Fiennes’ ascot-wearing British director Laurence Laurentz is helming a stuffy drawing room drama full of tuxedoed men and ballroom-gowned women.

The movie, “Merrily We Dance,” Laurentz declared is a “prestige picture.” But it’s clear that the Coens think so-called “prestige pictures” can be just as much a joke as any other type of movie. In its day, “Merrily We Dance” would have been destined for Oscars.

Lately, the narrow parameters of movies celebrated by the Academy Awards haven’t been quite so funny. Self-serious prestige films long have found a ready seat at the Oscars, while films starring or directed by minorities have struggled to. There are many factors behind what’s led to two straight years of all-white acting nominees, but one is the stifling limitation of what gets considered an “Oscar movie.”

What frequently guides a movie toward a best picture nomination or a star toward an acting nod is a combination of factors that frequently have only so much to do with quality. Among these are how a movie is released (a prominent festival rollout can pay big dividends), how much support a movie has from its distributor (the parties and advertisements that go into Oscar campaigns are expensive) and how willing the talent is to promote themselves.

“It’s a racket,” said Viggo Mortensen, who was nominated in 2008 for David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” “The nomination process is essentially run by, dictated by money and public relations maneuvering. And so that’s why every year, there are only a handful of, in my opinion, deserving and enduring nominees of enduring quality.”

This year’s nominees boast a handful of films from outside the film academy’s traditional comfort zone, most notably George Miller’s much-nominated post-apocalyptic chase film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

But many of the films that could have put a charge into this year’s awards didn’t fit the limited confines of Oscar bait. Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” while it landed a nod for Sylvester Stallone’s supporting performance, had the odds stacked against it. It’s a seventh

entry in a franchise and it wasn’t much pushed by its studio, Warner Bros. Its humanistic heartbeat is perhaps outside the kind of films starring black actors that usually garner academy attention.

Few black actors ever have won for a film by a black director. (A notable exception is Denzel Washington for Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day.”) No black actress ever has won for a film helmed by a black director.

The N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” – which lacked a white protagonist or the historical sweep of “12 Years a Slave” – also didn’t fit the usual criteria. One academy member, writer-director Rod Lurie, said he heard numerous academy voters dismiss even screening “Straight Outta Compton.”

Like many genres, comedy is all but forgotten come awards season. This year, the trend reached a somewhat absurd endpoint when David O. Russell’s somber “Joy” and the nerdy space adventure “The Martian” sneaked into the comedy category at the Golden Globes.

Yet despite often rewarding mediocre films that fit a narrow standard, the Oscars matter. Outside of a Nobel or a Pulitzer, no award is more affixed to a person’s legacy; “Oscar winner” is a tag that lasts past death.

But it’s worth remembering: The lack of one didn’t do much to dull the luster of Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Fred Astaire or Marilyn Monroe.