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7 Most Shameless Pieces of Oscar Bait

Did these winners really deserve to walk home with the night’s top prizes, or did they just give the Academy what it wanted?
 
 
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The 86th Annual Academy Awards are set for this Sunday, meaning that Hollywood’s biggest, most-hyped night is nearly upon us. When considering how to vote in your office’s Oscar pool, or how to impress friends with your prophetic knowledge, look no further than recent history. If history is any indication, there is connecting thread running throughout many of the Academy’s favorite films—call it Oscar bait. It’s a cynical term for deliberately making movies containing elements the Academy just can’t resist—a main character with disabilities, historic sweep, triumph of the little guy, slightly left-leaning politics. In other words, it’s not just glitz and glamour and what to wear, it’s nailing the narrative formula that is most likely to ensure one’s transition from the seats to the stage.

Below are the top seven most egregious examples of Oscar bait. Remember, the films below aren’t necessarily all bad, they just happen to brown-nose by giving the Academy exactly what they want but don’t know they’re looking for. Consider whether they really deserve to walk home with the night’s top prizes, even if you like them—even if you really like them.

7. Forrest Gump (1994)

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for this one (especially if you were someone prone to having sick days during the '90s). Yet there is something sickeningly sweet in this tale of a slow-witted but big-hearted Alabama boy who runs through America’s most tumultuous years (the '60s, natch), and manages to influence key moments in our nation’s history in the process. Hanks’ performance is heart-tugging, but the film is light on depth and heavy on the tear ducts; by the end of it, Gump feels like a TEDtalk on what touches people most. By the time Forrest’s childhood sweetheart, Jenny, dies of AIDS shortly after their decade-spanning reunion, you’re left wondering what else the film could do to ensure its chances on awards night. Unlike a box of chocolates, Forrest Gump knew exactly what it was bound to get on Oscar night: the film walked away with six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and of course, Best Actor for Hanks.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

This is sure to be a touchy one, but films that are Oscar bait don’t necessarily mean they’re stories not worth telling. Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus is, for all of its importance, an overlong exercise in big storytelling. If any event deserves the full-fledged power of narrative, it’s surely World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, but Spielberg’s gravitas is in overdrive here: the overbearing score punishes you for not feeling something at the film’s every turn; its three-hour running time an exercise in extolling its own reputation as an epic; and of course, the black and white. These factors don’t discredit the film’s power, but considering Hollywood’s proclivity to reward those who make films about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List is an undeniably conscious epic. It walked away with seven Oscars (including Best Picture). The conclusion was foregone.

5. Terms of Endearment (1983)

James L. Brooks’ story about a mother and daughter coping with life and eventual loss is the quintessential tearjerker. Hollywood’s seemingly eternal problem with women seems to be changing at a glacial pace, so there was something singularly (alas) powerful about seeing a female-dominated film nab all of the years most highly coveted awards. Nevertheless, there is an equally undeniable game of emotional chicken going on here, daring the Oscars to deny this heart-tugger its fair share of Oscar gold. The acting Oscars for Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson may have been deserved considering the strength of the character work at play on screen; both veterans were able to switch from comedy to drama in a millisecond, but there is some sort of residual sniffling going on with the Oscar voters. The film’s devastating final moments seem to prove that death truly need not be in vain when it comes to Oscar immortality.