Sorry ‘Barbie,’ But Actors in Fantasy Films Rarely Enchant Oscar Voters

With the 2023 Oscar nominations now in hand, it’s clear that Margot Robbie’s exclusion from the best actress race, along with “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig’s director snub, has outraged the blockbuster film’s massive global fanbase. Oscar nominations for supporting players America Ferrera and Ryan Gosling haven’t calmed the social media fury over what is perceived by Robbie fans as an unfathomable and unforgivable oversight.

What everyone seems to be forgetting is that when it comes to Oscar love, especially for actors, Oscar voters annually choose spinach over sweets, meat and potatoes over champagne and caviar. They like their movies serious and meaningful, and their actors tortured by real world woes such as physical disabilities, addictions, mental illness and all the oppressions and injustices that our mad mad world has to offer.

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In almost 100 years of the Oscar awards, fantasy and sci-fi film characters, along with actors in comedies, Westerns and actioners, almost never get any love.

It’s getting better, but after nearly 80 years of snobbery and disdain, there’s still a major percentage of Oscar voters who embrace performances chockablock with angst and reject actors playing roles in the service of imagination and escapism, no matter how accomplished or impactful.

In 2010, Britain’s much-respected Guardian newspaper ranked the 25 greatest fantasy sci-fi films of all time. It’s a terrific list for fans of imaginative storytelling, but likely to be depressing for actors who must accept that no matter how brilliantly and memorably they bring their characters to life, respect in the form of Oscar love for their work is a dead issue.

The stark reality is that when it comes to honoring those who’ve brought all sorts of fantastic beings to life, from cowardly lions to mermaids (and mermen) to elves to replicants, Oscar voters’ hearts of stone usually rule out any chances for statues of gold.

The No. 1 film on the Guardian list, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” garnered Stanley Kubrick a director Oscar nomination in 1968, but nothing for the film’s actors.

Also on the Top 15 list and the beginning of better days for fantasy fare is Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which garnered beaucoup wins and nominations. These include the first-ever best picture Oscar nomination for a fantasy film (for “Two Towers”), with “The Return of the King” winning best picture, director and screenplay, wins but only a single acting nomination in all three, for Ian McKellen in the first installment.

Also in the best fantasy/sci-fi film top 10:

Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” scored Oscar nominations for best picture, director and screenplay, but nothing for the cast.

In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” was in the running for best picture, but none of that film’s unforgettable cast, including Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and Judy Garland’s iconic Dorothy, were nominated.

The game-changing blockbuster “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” competed for best picture, director and screenplay Oscars. It took Oscar-winning acting legend Alec Guinness to wrangle a rare fantasy sci-fi acting nomination for his epic supporting role as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In perhaps a somewhat hopeful sign of changing times, in the two decades since “The Two Towers” broke the hex on fantasy film contenders for picture, the late Heath Ledger became the first of two actors to win Oscars for playing the comic book figure Joker in Christoper Nolan’s the “The Dark Knight” in 2008. In 2020 Joaquin Phoenix took the actor gold in Todd Phillips’ “Joker.”

And last year’s genre defying Best Picture Oscar winner, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” (comedy? sci fi? family drama? fantasy?) swept up three members of its cast in its Oscar tally, breaking barriers not just for its fanciful content but for diversity, honoring the film’s Asian-American creatives, including co-director Daniel Kwan, supporting actor Ke Huy Quan and Asian lead actress Michell Yeoh.

Brad Pitt scored an acting nomination in 2008 as the magical titular character in David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which also earned an acting nomination for Taraji P. Henson, in the “non-magical” role of Queenie.

In 2017, Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” became the second fantasy film to nab the best picture statuette, and along the way picked up three acting nominations including one for the (semi) fantasy character portrayal brilliantly etched by Sally Hawkins as well as “non fantasy” roles played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

This contrasts with the Oscar fate of Del Toro’s wondrous “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006, which fared much like the great fantasy film achievements of the previous century: it scored Oscar noms for international picture and screenplay, snagged two artisans Oscars but no nominations for its powerful cast.

It’s telling that James Cameron, one of the most important and innovative filmmakers in the history of fantasy/sci-fi cinema, won 11 Oscars when he turned his camera on the real world in 1997 with “Titanic.” That blockbuster also nabbed two acting Oscar noms, but in the rest of his canon of mind-bending adventure films, there’s a sole acting nomination — for Sigourney Weaver in one of the “Alien” films. This includes “The Abyss,” the groundbreaking “Terminator” series and the “Avatar” films.

So, the bad news for Margot Robbie is no Oscar actress nomination. The good news is that she’s in the company of such Academy Award exclusions as Brigitte Helm as Maria and the Machine Man in “Metropolis,” Boris Karloff as the “Frankenstein” monster, Will Ferrell as Buddy in the titular “Elf,” Keanu Reeves as Neo in “The Matrix,” Christopher Reeve as “Superman” and Harrison Ford as Deckard in  “Blade Runner.”

In other words, Oscar gold looks good on your shelf, but cinematic immortality ain’t a bad consolation prize.

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