Although this is a series looking at each year in turn and a typical film from that year, like all history it is also about the present. After all, the way we see ourselves now cannot help but influence how we see the past. So with the controversial 2015 Oscars less than a month away, today’s article considers that most modern of phenomenons, Oscar baiting, with one of the prime culprits, 2012’s Steven Spielberg-directed ‘Lincoln’
To qualify as an Oscar-bait film, a film has to be released late in its year (to remain fresh in the minds of the Academy viewers), and traditionally either be an epic historical story (especially biopics) built around tragic events, or be a modern drama in which the main protagonist is suffering from a disability of some kind. Usually these are separate, but you know it’s only a matter of time before someone does a Helen Keller biopic with Meryl Streep as Keller and breaks the Oscars.
As a phrase, ‘Oscar baiting’ hit its peak in 2004, with the phrase in such common usage by 2005 that it became the centre of two of the best exchanges in episode three the Ricky Gervais comedy ‘Extras’ in which Gervais has the following conversations with Kate Winslet:
Andy [Ricky Gervais]: I’m an actor as well. If there’s a line going in this film, I’d love to be part of this also, because I’d just like to say you doing this is so commendable. You know, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.
Kate Winslet: My God I’m not doing it for that. I mean, I don’t think we need another film about the Holocaust, do we? It’s like, how many have there been? No, we get it, it was grim, move on. No, I’m doing this because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, guaranteed an Oscar. I’ve been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, “why hasn’t Winslet won one?”
Kate Winslet: That’s it. That’s why I’m doing it. Schindler’s bloody List. The Pianist. Oscars coming out of their arse.
and then later in the episode
Kate Winslet: That is another way you win an Oscar. Seriously, think about it. Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’, Oscar.
Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man’, Oscar.
John Mills, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, Oscar.
Kate Winslet: Seriously, you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.
(side note: brilliantly, WInslet would go on to win an Oscar in real life for her role in Holocaust drama ‘The Reader’)
This second conversation highlights why ‘Lincoln’ is one of the most Oscar-baity not only of 2012 but perhaps of all time. This is a bold statement in a year where it fought for best picture with modern dramas with central protagonists suffering from bipolar disorder (‘Silver Linings Playbook’) and Alzheimer’s (‘Amour’) as well as the epic historical ‘Les Misérables’, but I stand by it. After all, ‘Lincoln’ is Oscar bait in the worst way, a potentially good film weighed down by how desperately it is striving for Oscars, with most of its flaws being directly as a result at its desperate try-hard Oscar-grabbing. The film often feels like an attention-seeking child that really wants you to know how prestigious and worthy it is. A film so obvious that even the easily-flattered Academy voters only awarded it two of its nominated twelve awards.
To show just how hungry ‘Lincoln’ is for Oscars, let’s break it down into its constituent parts. They have cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, an actor who though great is not averse to doing big blatant Oscar baiting performances like ‘My Left Foot’, as mentioned by Winslet in ‘Extras’. They have him playing a beloved President who had to face the tragedy of the Civil War while he was alive and then tragically died by assassination. Alongside (then) twice Oscar winning Day-Lewis they have paired twice-winning Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and one-time winner Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. The script, revolving round Lincoln’s efforts to get the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment through Congress, allows all of the main players to deliver rousing and powerful speeches at one point of another.
However, this is one of the biggest problems with the film. In giving all of its principles so many opportunities for big moments that will look great in clip form come Oscar night, the plot is at points slowed down to a glacial pace as he have to wait for another big name to finish their speech before the film can continue. In the desperate attempt to direct and screenwrite an award-winning film, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner throw everything at this film, but this only serves to make it dense and uninvolving, full of sideplots that show Lincoln as a family-man that go nowhere, like the totally unnecessary segment featuring the miscast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest surviving son who wants to leave college to fight in the civil war.
Although undoubtedly some good work is done on ‘Lincoln’ (Spielberg, dislike him as I so often do, is a great director), it could have been such a better film had it not been so self-conscious and if Spielberg could go back to what he does best, telling stories rather than trying to do the things he’s never been any good at like real emotions. The muted colours of the cinematography are nice, with Spielberg clearly trying to create a visual atmosphere of early filmmaking, including one of the first films featuring Lincoln (and the ‘100 Years in 100 Films’ endgame) ‘Birth of a Nation’.
But all in all it is too much a film of 2012: self conscious, with rooms of white men awkwardly trying to make points about race. And if 2012, the year of Obama’s re-election, was about anything, it was white men awkwardly trying to make points about race.
Next, we will look at a film that although could be considered ‘partial Oscar bait’ with its modern-day depiction of Alzheimer’s and a miscarriage, manages to be more than just the sum of its parts and actually win the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Our film for 2011 is ‘A Separation’ (link here). Until then, catch up with the series so far here >>
Do you agree with our view of Lincoln? Are there films you want to see covered by the ‘100 Years in 100 Films’ series? Let us know in the comments below.