For a group of people who communicate with the public professionally, the entertainment industry has a disconcerting tendency to shoot itself in the collective foot. Kevin Hart’s exceedingly brief stint as the Oscars host last week eclipsed an arguably more consequential misstep by the body that hired him earlier this year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences advanced and then backtracked on a plan to introduce a Best Popular Film category in a self-defeating acknowledgment that audiences and filmmakers don’t necessarily share much in the way of taste.
Fortunately, there are remnants of good sense floating around Hollywood. Recently, director and writer Christopher McQuarrie demonstrated that he was in possession of some of that quality when he suggested a different approach: the creation of an Academy Award for stunt work. Establishing an award such as this one wouldn’t just bring more movies into the awards-season conversation. It could increase public awareness about what it takes to pull off the most impressive feats in the blockbusters that drive so many movie ticket sales, and make sure that the people who do that work are valued — and protected.
From the moment the idea was floated, the concept of a Best Popular Film Oscar was a minor disaster. Creating such a category would simultaneously acknowledge that many of the movies that contend for Best Picture status simply don’t draw huge audiences and imply that the movies that top the box office aren’t true artistic contenders. Rather than closing the gap between most moviegoers and the entertainment industry’s tastemakers, a Best Popular Oscar would have put that preference gap on stark display. The result would be a recipe for insecurity and insularity on the part of the most-discerning movie buffs, and defiant philistinism among the most easily pleased.
Adding a stunt category, by contrast, could draw those very different partisans together rather than dividing them further. McQuarrie is hardly the first person to suggest such an award. Stuntmen and women have been pushing for such a category for decades, saying the occasional honorary or technical Academy Award doesn’t do enough to recognize the value of their profession to the movie business. Oscar-winner Helen Mirren floated a similar idea earlier this year, after making a late-career pivot to action movies.
It’s true that not all movies have stunt performances or stunt coordinators, but it’s also the case that some movies with divine cinematography don’t have much in the way of scripts; it’s more unusual than not that a movie with Oscar ambitions intends to compete in all categories. A stunt category could, as a result, bring more movies into the Academy Award combination without doing so in a fashion that simultaneously makes clear that they’ll have to sit at the kiddie table.
Adding a stunt category to the Academy Awards would also foster a valuable conversation about the qualities that distinguish a curiously flat CGI battle royale from a jaw-dropping feat of heroism and athleticism — an especially important distinction in this cinematic moment — and about the technical work that goes into making an action sequence possible.
It’s not as if the film landscape is devoid of arguments about action sequences and on-screen feats of derring-do. Tom Cruise’s insistence on doing his own stunts has preserved his status as a massive Hollywood star despite his eccentricities and the lacunae in his actorly resume. Movies such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Force Awakens” have put an emphasis on real-life stunts and practical effects to distinguish themselves from a marketplace where CGI spectacles have paled on viewers who yearn for the thrill of knowing that someone, even if not the actor on the movie poster, really did some crazy thing. Unlike a previous generation of Hollywood parodies, movies such as “Hot Fuzz” and “21 Jump Street” that take on action movies now do so with their own well-choreographed shootouts and close-quarters fights.
But a Best Stunt category could unite the high- and lowbrow sides of the conversation about action, fostering appreciation for what it takes to pull off an audacious act and helping establish clearer standards for what makes a sequence genuinely awesome as opposed to merely big or loud or nastily violent.
And elevating the conversation about stunt work and action sequences would be good for more than just the film discourse.
According to a disturbing report from Scott Johnson in the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, “the huge increase in streaming content . . . has led some productions and stunt coordinators — whose job it is to oversee all aspects of a production’s stunt work — to cut corners. . . . An official from SAG-AFTRA says that with the jump in both the number of productions and their geographical dispersion, there comes ‘an increased risk of unqualified stunt coordinators’ who might be putting people’s lives at risk.”
A significant part of that content boom is happening in television, though streaming outlets such as Netflix are trying to play aggressively in movies as well. Wherever stunts are happening, though, elevating the people who perform them and the people responsible for doing those deeds in a way that’s both safe and convincing could help bring attention to this aspect of the moviemaking business. The more invisible a class of workers is, the harder it is to mobilize efforts to protect them. Recognizing stunt performers and coordinators as artists and skilled technicians would help the public understand what they do as entertainers. With luck, that would translate into an understanding of why stunt artists ought to be valued and protected, rather than replaced by inexperienced people who are eager to break into the industry but lack the training to do the work without harming themselves and others.
At minimum, it would be a terrific talking point that stunt performers could use as leverage. Why, they would be able to ask, is moviemaking’s most powerful organization treating stunt workers like stars and artists on one night, while cutting corners on their safety the other 364 days of the year.
It’s movie myth and magic to suggest that we can defy death and injury. The reality of stunt work is more disturbing. An Academy Award for stunts wouldn’t close the gap, but it could be a step across a tightrope in the right direction.