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?

Photo Credit: Joe Seer/

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.

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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.

4. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball (2001)

Monster’s Ball didn’t receive too much love, but it did receive a good amount of attention, thanks to its highly publicized graphic sex scenes and relative laundry list of hot-button issues (racism, death penalty, suicide). Come Oscar night, the film would arrive relatively light in the nominations department, but it was all but guaranteed that Halle Berry would leave with the Best Actress award in tow. The performance—a widowed black woman in the racist Deep South, who falls in love with her husband’s executioner soon after her son dies—was loaded with enough tragic tropes to cover up what was, in actuality, a shrill and over-the-top performance. Berry’s Leticia Musgrove was so overwrought and over-performed that the film was most bearable when it didn’t feature her in it; only once Berry was offscreen was Monster’s Ball able to settle into the tragic silences that filled its moments most potently. Nevertheless, the film’s content  served to overshadow the performance itself, proving that with enough caricature and conviction, a statue is always possible. Berry became the first African-American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar; Denzel Washington and Sydney Poitier received Best Actor and Lifetime Achievement Oscars that same night.

3. Shakespeare In Love (1998)

Shakespeare In Love proves to be a movie that both plays the Oscar game but is also most notable for redefining the rules. Never mind that Hollywood loves a good period piece, what makes Shakespeare a most egregious example of Oscar bait is that it literally baited the Oscars. The film’s reputation is most centered on the well-known backroom hustling that the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, did in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. It was there that he cemented the votes necessary to sway the Best Picture race away from the odds-on favorite for the night, Saving Private Ryan, and in favor of this little film that could. Chances are Weinstein also put in an extra bit of time to secure Judi Dench’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar that night, considering her screentime amounted to a paltry eight minutes, but this was the year Weinstein showed everyone how to bully and push your way to an Oscar, and no one has improved on that behind-the-scenes game since.

2. Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)

Theron’s 2003 performance as Aileen Wudrows, the Florida prostitute-turned-serial-killer isn’t a performance at all, but rather a full embodiment. Her transformation has remained an iconic moment in contemporary cinema precisely because of its extremity and unlikely believability. However her Best Actress win has become a punchline across Hollywood and beyond regarding what it takes to nab one of the coveted statues: be beautiful and turn ugly. Theron’s facial transformation required weight gain and prosthetics work, and her chameleon-like inhabitance of the serial killer’s every nuance makes the Oscar more than deserved, but it still stands as the eternal example of the shock-and-awe campaign some makeup work can do to cement your chances at an Oscar. The year before, Nicole Kidman received similar prodding regarding a prosthetic nose she wore for The Hours, in which she played Virginia Woolf, and which resulted in a Best Actress Oscar as well. Regardless, when it comes to the tried-and-true joke about just what it takes to convince the Academy to like you, to really like you, Theron’s onscreen transformation will be the go-to example for years to come.

1. Crash (2004)

For the ultimate example of Oscar bait, a film that managed not only to come with an agenda and successfully complete it, but simultaneously blindside even the most esteemed critics and pundits, we present Paul Haggis’ comically overwrought Crash.This strangely fetishized tapestry of racial tension in contemporary Los Angeles over the course of two days has the distinct honor of being one of only a handful of films to nab the coveted Best Picture Oscar without having been nominated for a single Golden Globe in any of the three Motion Picture categories. On Oscar night, the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain was positioned to walk away with the Best Picture Oscar, but instead Crash crashed the party by coming out a winner, proving that the supposedly liberal Academy is just not ready for a gay sex scene. Crash’s entry-level assessment of what racial tension in modern-day America is like (spoiler alert: it’s bad, and we’re all racist) was just provocative enough to win out. In the years since, Crash hasn’t aged too well, and is generally regarded as one of the Academy’s stranger choices, but regardless of your opinion, Crash is an undeniable exercise in liberal lean and faux-heavy storytelling—namely, just what the Oscar ordered. 

Rod Bastanmehr is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @rodb.