The Oscars always struggle with celebrating actors, so why doesn't it have a category for Best Ensemble?
The nominations for the 95th Academy Awards offered a slew of fascinating and unexpected choices. When it came to the four performance categories, we saw a record 16 first-time nominees out of 20, and surprise appearances from the likes of Brian Tyree Henry and, now infamously, Andrea Riseborough. There were omissions a-plenty, as happens year after year. We have a lot of the same conversations every awards season about what the Oscars celebrate and who they are prone to overlook. There's discourse about missing figures, consistently snubbed stars, and how to rectify the glaring errors that the Academy remains mired by. New categories are pitched, including one for stunt work, the absence of which continues to blight the Oscars. But there is another potential category that the Academy should consider adopting, one that could help to alleviate some of their biggest concerns: The Academy Award for Best Ensemble.
Acting Is Tough To Judge
Acting is perhaps the most difficult aspect of cinema to quantify. It's extremely tough to accurately describe what makes one performance good, or so much better than another. Even critics struggle with this, especially in contrast to, say, detailing a movie's script or cinematography. What seems achingly moving to one person may seem blank to another, and we see this in practice with the Academy's choices of best-acting winners. Subtler works, less scene-stealing fare, is seldom awarded. They tend to gravitate towards louder, more bombastic efforts. Think lots of monologues, maybe a tough accent, and a physical transformation of some kind. They want to see the acting, to see the most laborious efforts at play. It's why biopic performances are considered Oscar bait: it's tough to do well and they want to celebrate the work required to bring such a figure to life.
That's not hard to understand, but it does mean that the full breadth of performance is seldom considered by the Oscars. Ensemble pieces struggle to get acting nominations, even if they fare better in other categories. Consider how "Parasite," the Best Picture and Director winner for the 2019 season, didn't receive a single acting nomination. It's impossible to claim that the film would work without the performances of Song Kang-ho and company, yet they weren't even considered possibilities for nominations. Similar fates befell the likes of "Dune" and, for this year, "The Woman King." When ensemble films do receive acting nods, it's usually for the flashiest performance or the ones with the most yelling (hello, Mark Ruffalo in "Spotlight.") The Academy falls back into its tried and tested tropes, and acting suffers as a result.
An Ensemble Award Would Make Room For More Films
The Academy tends to take two steps forward with progress, then one stumble back into the status quo. Change has been evident but still happens at a maddeningly incremental pace. It's why we tend to have the same conversations every season and see little in terms of achievable goals. Yet we know what the Academy wants: recognition. It wants audience numbers to increase, for general audiences who tuned out on the Oscars long ago to care about the ceremony enough to watch it live. They've tried to achieve this goal through a series of questionable decisions, from the mercifully shelved Best Popular Film award to the fan-vote specials of last year that were hijacked by Twitter fandoms to hilarious results. There's an endless push to get more mainstream, commercial-friendly films in the big categories. This year sees the two highest-grossing films of 2022 — "Top Gun: Maverick" and "Avatar: The Way of Water" — in the Best Picture category. While there are obvious questions regarding merit for such films, it's also notable how well an ensemble award would fit into what they offer audiences and how the Academy could benefit from that.
You want to celebrate films where the acting is often dismissed or misunderstood? Those movies are often the likes of "Dune," "Top Gun: Maverick," or "Mad Max: Fury Road," all excellent films with impeccable casts who received nary a sliver of awards attention for their work. You want more attention to smaller works, the kind of independent cinema that often falls by the wayside because it's not seen as definable as the latest middlebrow awards bait? Ensemble awards could help that, as well as give room to oft-maligned genres like horror and comedy (consider the casts of films like "Hereditary," "Girls Trip," and "Magic Mike." You want more stars at your ceremony, more pulling power for that viewership you crave? Surely the opportunity to nominate more actors than usual is a good thing?
Why Isn't There An Oscar For Best Ensemble?
Other awards bodies do celebrate ensembles. The Screen Actors Guild's biggest awards are for ensembles in film, TV, and stunt work, in lieu of a Best Picture/Series category. Many critics' circles celebrate ensembles too. The Academy tends to be slow in making big changes but the lack of a Best Ensemble field remains glaring. One of the fears some have of the introduction of an ensemble award is that it would only further exacerbate the Academy's worst tendencies. Rather than celebrate the best cast of the year, they would repeat their choices in the major acting categories or simply double up with their votes for Best Picture. The SAG Awards tend to reflect, more often than not, the Best Picture winners in that regard. it's true that the Academy is often, to put it mildly, lazy in its picks, but that doesn't negate the good that an ensemble award could bring to the table.
There are also concerns that such a category would further malign those below-the-line aspects of cinema, shoving aside technical figures in favor of more categories. That's understandable, although it's not as though the Academy hasn't been trying to do that on its own for years. Such awards are also still prone to the messiness of studio politics. In 2018, the Screen Actors Guild faced pushback when it nominated "Get Out" for Outstanding Cast but did not include scene stealers Betty Gabriel and Lil Rel Howry among the nominees. SAG's official rules for eligibility of that year not that these categories require that the ensemble "be represented by those actors billed on separate cards in the main titles, wherever those titles appear." That cuts out a lot of actors in many movies and could lead to some serious fights with agents and actors eager to ensure they make the cut. It may simply be that the Academy wants less drama, as quaint as that sounds.
Could An Ensemble Oscar Be Introduced In The Future?
The Academy is consistently hesitant about introducing new categories. Indeed, it seems more focused on cutting current categories out of the main ceremony for time (a controversial move that was introduced last year and then quickly canned for 2023). Stunt workers have campaigned for decades to be recognized in their own category, to no avail, as have casting directors. The most recently added category, Best Animated Feature, is now over 20 years old. If any category is to be added in the near future, it will probably (and hopefully) be stunt work and casting before an ensemble award.
The Academy's tactics are reflective of a wider misunderstanding of film, one that Hollywood seems happy to perpetuate: that the art form of cinema shines as a symbol of singular geniuses. They love the dream of the astonishing auteur who commands the set like an army captain, the mega-producer with a cigar in his hand who rules the studio with an iron fist. It's partly why certain performances do better than others with the Oscars, why they love those singular scene-stealers more than the quiet cast working together to create something bigger. Celebrating a group of actors over one star in the spotlight should be what represents the Academy but it seems dishearteningly antithetical to their current ideals. It's especially sad because a Best Ensemble category could be a major boon for the Oscars and a crucial step forward in terms of their evolution. Alas, the Academy has never been good at embracing such things.
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