There’s a moment toward the end of Ari Aster’s new A24 film Hereditary where Toni Collette has an epic on-screen meltdown. It happens in one long shot, and it conveys a staggering level of interior anguish. It’s reminiscent of a scene from one of 2018’s other best films to date, the moment in A Quiet Place when Emily Blunt’s character is forced to try and give birth in total silence, and the camera stays tightly on her face as she conveys her silent screams through a locked jaw and tortured eyes. Horror movies try to scare their audiences in a wide variety of ways, but the commonality in these two films is that the terror comes from a heightened emotional authenticity that doesn’t feel like acting. The emotion Blunt and Collette summon is agonizing in those moments, but those scenes also linger because they feel like they tap into frightening truths beyond the performances.
Both of these performances are in horror films, so there’s a common perception that we ought to prepare ourselves for them to be ignored come Oscar time. But is that really a fair or accurate reading of Oscar precedent?
Horror films have struggled for attention at the Oscars, but that may be changing
Horror films have historically struggled for attention at the Oscars, particularly in the acting categories. It depends a little on how exactly you parse out what does and doesn’t count as a horror film. (For instance, I wouldn’t count Sweeney Todd.) But broadly speaking, only 14 horror films have ever received acting nominations. Chronologically, they are: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, lead actor), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, supporting actress), The Bad Seed (1956, lead actress and two supporting actresses), Psycho (1960, supporting actress), Wait Until Dark (1967, lead actress), Rosemary’s Baby (1968, supporting actress), The Exorcist (1973, lead actress, supporting actor, and supporting actress), Carrie (1976, lead actress and supporting actress), Aliens (1986, lead actress), Misery (1990, lead actress), Silence of the Lambs (1991, lead actor and lead actress), The Sixth Sense (1999, supporting actor and supporting actress), Black Swan (2010, lead actress), and Get Out (2017, lead actor).
Two things really stand out from that list: 1) Nearly all of those films were extremely popular projects that captured the zeitgeist, and 2) of the 21 total acting nominations earned by those films, 16 of them went to women. In other words, horror movies don’t stand a great chance at the Oscars, but for a widely acclaimed film that was a big box office hit and was anchored by a great female performance, the odds are a lot better. To that point, A Quiet Place has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a Metacritic score of 82, and made more than $300 million worldwide, so it certainly checks off all of those boxes. Hereditary has comparable critic numbers, with a 93 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and a Metacritic score of 87, though it may take several weeks to fully analyze how financially successful it is. It just became A24’s best-ever debut with a reported $13 million opening weekend, but an alarmingly low CinemaScore grade of D+ makes its box office longevity difficult to predict.
History suggests we don’t necessarily need to be pessimistic about Blunt and Collette’s Oscar chances this year. But here’s the other thing: Oscar history also might not matter at all. As we’ve increasingly learned over the last few years, the Oscars, and especially academy voters, aren’t operating by the same norms and foregone conclusions that many of us grew up with. Since 2016, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has added almost 1,500 new members to its ranks, which means approximately 19 percent of the total body has joined in the last two years. (Another new member class is expected to be announced toward the end of June 2018.)
Having a voting body change so much in such a short amount of time means that it may be hard to make any predictions based on what that body used to do. The Academy Awards are 90 years old, but we’re arguably only in Year Three of having data that’s useful for extrapolating trends or predicting the future. It’s hard to tell much from a two-year sample size, but so far, those results suggest that genre films are becoming more accepted as prestige projects. Earlier in 2018, a science-fiction / fantasy monster film (The Shape of Water) won Best Picture, while numerous pundits predicted that the award would go to a traditional horror film (Get Out).
This year’s Oscars, which will be awarded in spring 2019, may help indicate whether the contention of Get Out and The Shape of Water was circumstantial to those films and the moment they arrived in or the first rumblings of a profoundly different academy that no longer feels bound by any definition of “Oscar movie.” If Blunt or Collette (or, fingers crossed, both) end up in the field of Best Actress nominees for their career-best performances, that will go a long way toward suggesting that genre doesn’t matter as much to the new generation of academy voters. Likewise, if Blunt and Collette are both shut out, that will indicate that 2017’s inclusion of genre films among the top contenders was still just an exception that proves the rule. In either case, the Oscar voters will be poised to tell us something of substance at a time when we know precious little about the groupthink of the new academy.
This year’s Oscars will make it clear how the new Academy feels about genre films
But one lesson that seems to endure between old and new academy alike is the concept of “they’re due for recognition.” Blunt and Collette, who are both tremendously respected and well-liked in the industry, qualify for that designation. Collette has only been nominated once before (Supporting Actress for The Sixth Sense), while Blunt has somehow never been nominated, though both actresses have earned five Golden Globe nominations, with one win apiece. It’s only June, and the year is young. In terms of the Oscar calendar, we’re still firmly planted in the pre-season. We don’t know how many great performances await us in the fall festivals.
We can’t even adhere to old wisdom about the typical weakness of the Best Actress field because women are finally seeing some level of equality in terms of top-tier roles, and last year’s Best Actress race was among the most stacked in Oscar history. (Don’t forget: great performances by Annette Bening, Jessica Chastain, Judi Dench, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, and Michelle Williams were all left out of last year’s Best Actress race because the competition was just too fierce.) But I feel confident enough in Blunt and Collette, and in their films, to make it an official prediction: come January, we’ll see at least one of these performances among the five Oscar Best Actress nominees. Lock it in.