On ‘Star Wars’ Day, a look at the franchise’s Oscar history

05.04.14 4 years ago

AMPAS

Today is “Star Wars Day.” You know, “May the fourth,” because it sounds like “May the force (be with you).” GET IT???

There has been plenty of “Star Wars” discussion this week as the people threatening to give us a seventh film in this storied franchise dropped a few casting details on the world. People like Oscar Isaac and Max von Sydow and Adam Driver will be joining old timers Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher for “Star Wars: Episode VII – Whatever Nifty Subtitle They Give It,” and we'll probably be hearing about it constantly as the film forges on through production and post-production.

To mark today's occasion, director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan offered up a video howdy, which you can watch below if these movies are your thing. In case it's not readily evident, they're certainly not my thing, but I can't very well be a geek on my own terms and stand in judgment of the “Star Wars” faithful. Go with God.

Instead, today I thought I'd work up a little piece similar to those we've done in the past on films like “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” namely, an Oscar report card on the entire six-film franchise that has become such a milestone in the history of cinema. I'll look at what they were nominated for, what Oscars they won, whether they should have won them and how they were recognized besides. Just don't make me say “May the Fourth be with you.”

Let's dig in…

“STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” (George Lucas, 1977)

Naturally, a film like “Star Wars,” which became probably the most significant pop culture event in the history of movies toward the end of a stellar decade of otherwise adult-oriented filmmaking, was bound to make its mark at the Academy Awards. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six, plus a special achievement award, all in below-the-line categories.

Many of those wins are difficult to argue with, beginning with Best Art Direction. The creation of a world was expert and evident throughout, John Barry and his team making magic in a variety of ways. Given the task at hand, the award for Best Sound Mixing also feels like a no-brainer. Plus, Ben Burtt picked up a special award for the sound effects, which didn't have its own category at the time. And John Williams' iconic music of course deserved any award for Best Original Score that it received that year.

Really, as I take a look across this spectrum, I guess I'm okay with all of these wins. Steven Spielberg's “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a markedly better film overall in my opinion, but it's hard to give it the edge in Best Film Editing and certainly Best Visual Effects here (though, like “Star Wars,” it too received a special award for sound effects editing). I might take umbrage with the Best Costume Design victory if there was any significant competition, but there just wasn't. Cases could be made for the period detail of “Julia” and “The Other Side of Midnight,” but they wouldn't be strong ones.

Elsewhere the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, all of which it lost to Woody Allen and “Annie Hall.” I say the Academy got this right as that film is a masterpiece, but some may disagree. And then there was Alec Guiness' nod for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to “Julia” star Jason Robards, who won his second Oscar in as many years. I might have sided with “Equus” star Peter Firth, but it wasn't the strongest year for the category.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Things cooled down a bit by the time the sequel to the first hit film rolled around. Though it's widely considered the best entry in the entire series, “The Empire Strikes Back” only managed four nominations in an Oscar year dominated by Martin Scorsese's “Raging Bull” and Robert Redford's “Ordinary People.”

The only competitive win came for Best Sound, which is the element of the series, beyond even visual effects, that stands out as particularly inspired to me. So no argument there. Speaking of visual effects, though, there was no formal competition for the award in 1980, so the Academy gave the team a special achievement award instead. Fair enough.

The film lost its bid for Best Art Direction this time around to Roman Polanski's “Tess,” but I'd say the Academy missed the boat altogether there; Akira Kurosawa's “Kagemusha” deserved that prize. That said, the dank Dagobah sets are pretty wonderful. And John Williams lost Best Original Score to “Fame,” which is interesting. Alan Parker's musical and its music certainly have a place in history, but against “The Imperial March?” I don't know. John Corigliano's string-infested “Altered States” score and John Morris' varied work on “The Elephant Man” would have made fine winners, too, so maybe it's a wash. But I probably would have gone with Williams again here.

I will say that I might have found some way to notice the work that went into bringing Yoda to life in this film, however. And I also have to single out Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, which really is the best of the entire franchise; it probably deserved a nomination. (Suschitzky would go on to become David Cronenberg's go-to director of photography.)

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (Richard Marquand, 1983)

The third and, one figured at the time, final installment of the “Star Wars” story won zero competitive Oscars at the 56th annual Academy Awards in 1984. Yes, it picked up a special achievement award yet again for Best Visual Effects, but lost again in the categories of Best Art Direction and Best Original Score, as well as Best Sound and Best Sound Editing (which finally had its own category).

Those two sound losses were to one of the year's best films, “The Right Stuff,” and I have to say, those are some tough calls. I probably would have split them up, giving the mixing prize to Philip Kaufman's Best Picture nominee and the sound effects award to “Return of the Jedi,” because that library of aural wonderment was still being expertly implemented.

Best Art Direction went to Ingmar Bergman's lavish “Fanny and Alexander,” and that's really a no brainer, while Williams lost the score prize to Bill Conti's “Right Stuff” mojo. I'm okay with all of that. Did it deserve any notices besides? If one presumes the Ewoks belong under the category of costume design, then perhaps that warranted some appreciation.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (George Lucas, 1999)

When Lucas saddled back up to a new trilogy at the end of the millennium, the anticipation was out of control. Naturally, box office records were obliterated. But boy was everyone disappointed, and if not immediately, then certainly after the hangover wore off.

That hangover stretched to the Oscars, where “The Phantom Menace” lost each and every one of its nominations – for Best Sound, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects – to a film that signaled a new breed of sci-fi actioner: “The Matrix.” And it was a proper, deserved shellacking, because everything about the Wachowskis' cyberpunk flick out-shined Lucas' cartoonish film.

I will say there would have been cause for a Best Makeup nomination, which the film did not receive, and maybe even a nod for Best Costume Design. But the novelty of these films had certainly worn off and the new trilogy seemed to promise nothing new.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” (George Lucas, 2002)

I guess this is the one most people really hate. I actually get a kick out of it, though I have nothing at stake here, I guess. In any case, the end of the Oscar road was in sight by now as “Attack of the Clones” managed a single nomination, for Best Visual Effects. Even the sound community had moved on from the industry-defining work of Ben Burtt and his team, which by now included another legend from the Steven Spielberg stable: Gary Rydstrom.

Anyway, the film lost the visual effects award to the second installment of a new trilogy that was threatening to be the shiny new plaything of film fandom: Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Technology was moving forward and the leaps Jackson and his team had made on these films in the realm of visual effects were simply undeniable.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH” (George Lucas, 2005)

And finally, the second trilogy came to a close. It seemed to go out with more of a whimper than a bang, though certainly not at the box office, where “Revenge of the Sith” was far and away the highest grossing film of the year.

At the Oscars, though, only one nomination was in the cards, and in a category for which the franchise had never been recognized: Best Makeup. This is an Oscar field that didn't even exist until the first trilogy was already well underway, but it's sort of the department that the second trilogy excelled in. So it's nice that it got that recognition. Alas, the film lost the award to yet another franchise installment: “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Tough call, really, but the novel “Narnia” creations probably deserved it.

***

Six films, 22 nominations, seven wins and three special achievement awards, the “Star Wars” franchise obviously has a significant history with Oscar, albeit one reflecting diminishing returns. How will J.J. Abrams' new set of films be received by the Academy? Will the change in creative personnel be enough to give the franchise some much-needed juice, or will the whole enterprise have too familiar a smell to find room in the awards circuit of today?

Assuming the Dec. 18, 2015 release date holds, those are all questions we'll be looking to answer during the 2015-2016 Oscar season. In the meantime, a word from Abrams and Kasdan…

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