Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Three Amigos and Oscar: Is del Toro set to follow?

This year's big awards season winner is Alejandro González Iñárritu for his brilliant Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), very recently taking home the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. Just last year, fellow Mexican and close friend Alfonso Cuarón won a slew of awards, including the Best Director Oscar, for his sci-fi masterpiece Gravity. It is certainly not the first time for either filmmaker to have a brush with Oscar; Iñárritu has had Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel get nominations, whereas Cuaron has seen his Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men make Oscar plays.

Iñárritu and Cuaron form a powerful trio with another esteemed Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. They have often been called the "The Three Amigos." In 2006, all three had major Oscar contenders. That year was del Toro's last play with the Academy with Pan's Labyrinth, the critically acclaimed dark fairy tale. His last major film, Pacific Rim, failed to garner Oscar attention even for its spectacular visual effects.

This year, del Toro will have Crimson Peak, a supernatural gothic horror film starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam. It currently has a 16 October release date.

Does he have a shot at completing the Tres Amigos sweep at the 88th Academy Awards?

It is no secret that the Academy has not been very friendly to horror films in its 87-year history, particularly in recent years. The last true horror film to have been nominated for Best Picture was The Sixth Sense in 1999. That was also the last time that the director of a horror film (in this case, M. Night Shyamalan) was nominated in their category. Black Swan may be considered a horror film by some (psychological horror, particularly), but by most conventions, it is more of a thriller--a close kin to horror but a different creature altogether.

Prior to that, 1991 saw Jonathan Demme take home the Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, a Best Picture winner that also straddles the boundary between horror and thriller. However, there are no supernatural elements in the film. Just the year before, Ghost took its titular character (Patrick Swayze's Sam Wheat) to the Oscars as a Best Picture contender, but the film is unabashedly a drama.

One would have to go as far back as 1973 (the 46th Academy Awards) to see an uncompromisingly supernatural horror flick contending for top honors. Against the more conventional The Sting, however, neither cultural icon The Exorcist nor its director William Friedkin could prevail. Thirty-three years before this, the suspense-thriller Rebecca won Best Picture, but to call it a horror film is a stretch. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock did score a Best Director nod for Psycho in 1960, but the film was not adjudged by the Academy as one of that year's best. It also has no supernatural elements.

Consider these recognized cinematic gems and directors that did not get Oscar love in the top two categories:

The Babadook (2014), Jennifer Kent
The Conjuring (2013), James Wan
Let Me In (2010), Matt Reeves
Let the Right One In (2008), Tomas Alfredson
The Orphanage (2007), Juan Antonio Bayona
Pan's Labyrinth (2006), del Toro
28 Days Later... (2002), Danny Boyle
The Devil's Backbone (2001), del Toro
The Others (2001), Alejandro Amenábar
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Francis Ford Coppola
Poltergeist (1982), Tobe Hooper
An American Werewolf in London (1981), John Landis
The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick
Nosferatu (1979), Werner Herzog
Halloween (1978), John Carpenter
Dawn of the Dead (1978), George A. Romero
Carrie (1976), Brian de Palma
The Omen (1976), Richard Donner
Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero
Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polanski
Hour of the Wolf (1968), Ingmar Bergman
The Haunting (1963), Robert Wise
The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton
I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Jacques Tourneur
Cat People (1942), Tourneur
The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner
Vampyr (1932), Carl Theodor Dreyer
Dracula (1931), Todd Browning
Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale
Frankenstein (1931), Whale

When even revered auteurs like Kubrick, Polanski, and Bergman cannot get recognition for their work on outstanding films (regardless of genre), then there truly is a problem.

Not all hope is lost, however. There are certain factors going in the favor of an Oscar nod for del Toro:

- There is general good will toward del Toro. He is an unabashed fan boy of film the way that Quentin Tarantino is, and we have seen nothing to make us assume that he is disliked by the Hollywood community (despite the snub for Pacific Rim). He is generally seen as a visionary who has been bringing us exceptional craftsmanship and sheer passion on celluloid. I cannot say that there is a notion of him as being "overdue," but he has certainly been a hard and visible worker. The back-to-back wins of Cuaron and Iñárritu will only serve to remind the public of his oeuvre. And it is publicly known that Crimson Peak is a passion project for him.
- Crimson Peak has a big, popular cast. Hiddleston is certainly a big enough draw, but add to that Chastain and Wasikowska. All three are not only commercially viable actors but also critical darlings who have made names for themselves with respected projects. As far as Oscar attention goes, Chastain is always a draw. All of del Toro's previous films have had more low-key actors, except perhaps Pacific Rim with Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi and respected actor Idris Elba, but the hopes of that one getting nods for top Oscar honors were never high.
- The film might dominate in below the line categories. Judging from the trailer alone, Crimson Peak will likely get nominations (perhaps even wins) for Cinematography, Costume Design, and Production Design, and possibly for Make-up and Hairstyling, Original Score, and Visual Effects. None of the artists responsible for these elements of the film has ever been nominated (except for Production Designer Thomas E. Sanders), but the voters tend to be rather generous to newcomers here as long as they are blown away by the craftsmanship. Del Toro's lone Oscar nomination was for his original screenplay for Pan's Labyrinth, so it is certainly possible that he will be a contender again.
- With the advanced Oscar calendar, October is now a great date for Oscar contenders. Last year, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Best Picture nominee Whiplash, and eventual winner Birdman came out wide in that month. In 2013, October releases included Best Picture nominees Gravity and Captain Phillips, as well as Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Could the October release work for del Toro as it did for his compatriots?
- Yes, horror is not an Oscar favorite, but the gothic style, with its crumbling castles and chillingly enigmatic characters, is a throwback to old Hollywood. Consider the decay of Citizen Kane and the grand guignol feel of Sunset Boulevard. The Academy membership skews old (average of 63 years old) and male (76%), and so while the supernatural elements may turn some of them off, the overall look may prove irresistible to them. Younger voters will likely not be averse to the more horrifying elements.
- The time has probably come for a new horror classic to break the Oscar glass ceiling. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King broke the one for fantasy with its clean sweep in 2003, while science fiction has had quite a run, with films like Inception, Avatar, and District 9 breaking through (the latter two were even nominated in the same year). Is the time ripe for its "lesser" cousin in the speculative fiction umbrella genre? With The Conjuring and The Babadook making a strong case for the art and intelligence of the horror genre in the last two years and many being box office draws, the idea is not so far-fetched.

There are still many obstacles to overcome, and of course if the film bombs with critics and audiences then all of these speculations will be for naught. One good thing that del Toro has going for him because of the horror label: it likely will not be an early front-runner and so will not hit the stumbling block that has derailed the Oscar chances of others, most recently Boyhood. Regardless, many critical eyes will be on Crimson Peak. Del Toro can at least find comfort in knowing that he has at least two Academy voters wishing him the best (despite Iñárritu having his own Oscar contender this year with The Revenant).

Image source: http://www.ramascreen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Crimson-Peak.jpg