The Academy Awards, special effects makeup and the horror genre.

As a child, I was subjected to dozens of gala television events. Think: Jerry Lewis’ MDA Telethons, Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts and, of course, The Academy Awards. I didn’t care for such shows – I’d rather have been watching reruns of The Twilight Zone – but in those days my mother had absolute authority over which of the five possible channels would play on the one television we owned. Not only did she enjoy these specials, she wanted to share them with me. Being an obedient mama’s girl, I watched with her for many years, despite my disinterest. I found the Oscars particularly boring; I had never heard of these nominees my mother seemed to care so much about. (Before the age of 15, I went to precisely ONE movie in a theater.)

Years passed. More televisions, and more channels, came into my life. Some of the star-studded specials of my youth stopped production, others switched to obscure channels. When the still-thriving Oscars aired (or one of those early ’80s prime-time soap operas unfolded on the screen) my mother inevitably invited me to join her, but I was old enough, by then, to claim I had homework. While she was busy with her colorful glitz and glamor in the living room, I was free to watch all the science fiction and thriller programs I could find, on the black and white set in the bedroom.

Over time, a funny thing happened. Thanks to those Twilight Zone episodes I so adored, I was exposed to a host of fantastic actors – many of whose names I had heard on celebrity showcases while sitting alongside my mother. (Those TZ guests included: Jack Klugman, Lee Marvin, William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Buster Keaton, and Robert Duvall.) Watching old horror / thriller movies, on that little rabbit-earred set, introduced me to some additional classic film stars like Vincent Price, Kim Hunter, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Ruth Gordon and Anthony Hopkins. Ironically, by the time I became enamoured of such performers, the Academy had moved on to presenting awards to a new generation of actors I didn’t know, for work in films I didn’t care about. It seemed Oscar and I were destined to be out of sync.

In my early twenties, I started dating the man who would become my husband. Though neither of us realized it at the time, he was a film buff in the making. About 95% of our dates consisted of dinner and a movie. One of the films we saw together – The Silence of the Lambs – blew both of us away. Not long after we saw it, it was nominated for best picture. Suddenly I cared about the upcoming Academy Awards.

The movie – one of MY kind of movies – swept all five major categories. I was hooked.

Now I see more movies in six months than my mother has seen in her lifetime. My husband’s early tendencies flourished, and he became an passionate cinephile … which makes me an associate cinephile, I guess. We spend the whole year theorizing about which films will be nominated, so that we will have seen them all before we settle in on Oscar night, with a snack-food feast, Oscar-bingo cards and our prediction lists. It’s been fun, but I have noticed a distinct lack of nominations for my favorite genre in the years since glorious 1991.

I’m not really offended. I mean, I loved Hugo, The Artist, Warhorse, The Tree of Life … actually all of 2011’s nominees. I wouldn’t dream of putting something horrible, like The Human Centipede II, anywhere near such quality work. Even the best horror of 2011 – Insidious; Apollo 18; and The Rite (with Anthony Hopkins) – had too many flaws to compete, though their plot-lines were novel, and each had its moments. The truth is, most horror is simply not good enough to be nominated. Which is a shame. Because it can be done.

On the 84th Academy Awards last night, in a brief segment, I learned one of my idols – the special effects makeup god, Dick Smith – received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Governors Awards (which is now a separate gala event.)

Cover of my Disk Smith's Do-It-Yourself Monster Makeup Handbook

He really is one of my idols. He started me on the path to my hobby of doing special effects makeup. I've owned this handbook since about 1986. Yes, I will post some sample pics of my work one of these days.

His award got me thinking about the Academy’s treatment of the horror genre. I capped off my Oscar evening by doing a bit of research.

(I already posted one tidbit I came across on my Facebook page ~  Rick Baker’s work, in An American Werewolf in London, inspired the inclusion of a new award category in 1982: Best Achievement in Makeup. If you have an interest in special effect makeup, or film making in general, this clip – in which Rick Baker presents the award to his mentor Dick Smith – is a must see.)

UPDATE: And this tribute, by J.J. Abrams is touching, fascinating and funny:

Allow me to share what else I discovered:

List of Oscar’s Favorite Horror Films (1931 – 2011): 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Fredric March
Also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color
Best Cinematography, Color
Also nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Sound Recording 
Gaslight (1944)
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Ingrid Bergman
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White)
Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer), Best Supporting Actress (Angela Landsbury), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Black-and-White Cinematography
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
Also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Angela Landsbury), Best Black-and-White Art Direction
Spellbound (1945)
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Black-and White Cinematography, Best Special Effects
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Best Special Effects
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Best Costume Design, Black and White
Also nominated for best Actress (Bette Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Victor Buono), Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Sound 
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Best Supporting Actress: Ruth Gordon
Also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Roman Polanski)
The Exorcist (1973) 
Best Sound
Best Adapted Screenplay: William Peter Blatty
Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Director (William Friedkin), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Cinematography , Best Art Direction
Jaws (1975):
Best Editing
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Sound
Also nominated for Best Picture
King Kong (1976)
Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects
Also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Sound
The Omen (1976)
Best Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Also nominated for Best Original Song (“Ave Satani” by Jerry Goldsmith)
Alien (1979)
Best Visual Effects
Also nominated for Best Art Direction 
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Best Achievement in Makeup: Rick Baker
Aliens (1986)
Best Sound Effects Editing
Best Visual Effects
Also nominated for Best Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Art Direction
The Fly (1986)
Best Achievement in Makeup
Beetlejuice (1988)
Best Achievement in Makeup
Ghost (1990) 
Best Supporting Actress: Whoopi Goldberg
Best Original Screenplay: Bruce Joel Rubin
Also nominated for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Original Score
Misery (1990)
Best Actress: Kathy Bates
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Best Picture
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins
Best Actress: Jodie Foster
Best Director: Jonathan Demme
Best Adapted Screenplay: Ted Tally
Also nominated for Best Editing, Best Sound
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Best Costume Design
Best Sound Effects Editing
Best Makeup
Also nominated for Best Art Direction
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Best Visual Effects
Jurassic Park (1993):
Best Sound Effects Editing
Best Visual Effects
Best Sound
The Ghost and the Darkness (1997)
Best Sound Effects Editing
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Best Art Direction
Also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design 
King Kong (2005) 
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Best Art Direction
Also nominated for Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Costume Design
District 9 (2009)
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2010)
Nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design
The Wolfman (2010)
Nominated for Best Makeup

I guess it’s a good thing my movies do so well in Visual Effects, Sound, Costume Design, and – yes – Makeup.

Thanks, Dick Smith, for creating an art form from nothing more than your imagination. And thanks, Rick Baker, for raising that art form so high that the Academy could no longer ignore one of the most magical aspects of movie-making.

WriMoProg: 4 + 14 = 18/42


7 Comments on “The Academy Awards, special effects makeup and the horror genre.”

  1. Judy Limburg says:

    I would so much rather watch Insidious than the Artist. Something about the Artist just leaves me cold. I don’t want to pay money to hear somebody not talk :)

  2. Hunter Shea says:

    Excellent post! I love the list you provided here. The truth is, as you said, most horror movies are not good enough to earn best picture nods. I’m hard pressed to think of one in the past 10 years that I would even consider. Maybe The Descent. That being said, I love my horror movies, even the bad ones in all their misguided glory.

  3. Puss in Boots says:

    I would LOVE to see examples of your special effects makeup hobby. :D


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