x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Oscars reject stunt category, again, much to performers' despair

As the idea of a new Oscars category for stunts is rejected once again, we talk to some of the people the Academy won't recognise.

A fight scene involving a revolving corridor in Inception won Tom Struthers the title of best stunt co-ordinator at this year’s Taurus Stunt Awards.
A fight scene involving a revolving corridor in Inception won Tom Struthers the title of best stunt co-ordinator at this year’s Taurus Stunt Awards.

Last week a committee for the Academy Awards met to discuss whether a new category should be created for Best Stunt Coordinator.

FILM POINTER

The idea that stunts might be taken seriously as a contender for a new Oscar category didn't exactly seem far fetched. The summer's tentpole movies are replete with stunts and many a film's talking points centre around the most spectacular fight or the biggest explosion. But those in the know were not surprised by the news that the Academy rejected the idea. The British stunt co-ordinator Paul Heasman - who is recognised by the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame and has worked on Son of Rambow and Closing the Ring, as well as doing stunts in Goldeneye - predicted before the decision was announced that the Oscars would once again turn a blind eye to the work of stuntmen.

"I've been hearing this argument for 30 years," says Heasman. "The only thing that has come out of it is the Red Bull Stunt Awards. We do have Oscars for stuntmen and women. It's called the Taurus Stunt Awards."

"Every year it's massive in LA. Stunt persons from all over the world attend and it's appreciated by stuntmen and women as it does not detract from what we do."

The Taurus awards take place every May. Rather than just give out a single award to the best stunt coordinator they split the awards into several categories: best fight, best fire stunt, best high work, best overall stunt by a stunt woman, hardest hit, best speciality stunt, best action in a foreign film, best work with a vehicle and best stunt coordinator.

It's that last award that the campaign had asked the American Academy to consider for its award ceremony. This year Tom Struthers won the Taurus award for Best stunt coordinator for his work on Inception, which also won the prize for best fight.

The scene takes place when Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets involved in a fight in a rotating hallway. The two men try to reach a gun as the hallway spins around them. Two sets, each 110ft long, were built for this fight. One set was vertical and the other was horizontal. The vertical set was used for a descending fall. The horizontal set was used for the other part of the fight. A tracking ratchet was also used. Both stuntmen were fighting without wires for most of the scene.

It's enthralling stuff in Inception, yet most of the other films that picked up awards on the night - such as Predators, The A-Team, The Expendables and Date Night - wouldn't get a look in at the Academy Awards.

Nonetheless, the success of these awards has led some to demand that stuntmen be given the same treatment as sound engineers at the Academy Awards and are rewarded for their work by having an award dedicated to them. Those who have backed the campaign include Hollywood A-listers such as Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin Scorsese and Jessica Lange.

Indeed it does seem odd that Oscars are awarded to make-up departments, costume designers and sound engineers while those who blow things up are left on the side lines.

The stunt coordinator Jack Gill led the campaign. Gill, who has broken his back on the job twice in his 32-year career, has spent years trying to get the Academy to support his campaign, arguing that many other department heads get rewarded and so it's about time that stuntmen were given the same treatment.

It's not unheard of for the Oscars to introduce new categories either. The last major new category to be added to the Oscars came in 2001 when the Best Animated Film was recognised. Prior to this, animated films that hoped to win an Oscar had to be nominated for Best Film, which very rarely happens; the first time was for Beauty and the Beast in 1991. It was the success of Pixar in this period that upped the ante until a new category was born, although ironically Pixar's Up and Toy Story 3 were both subsequently nominated in the Best Film category.

The last time a new category was added for an individual contributor was in 1995, with an award given to Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. This award was retired in 1999. The last award to be introduced for an individual that is still awarded came in 1981 with the creation of a Best Makeup Oscar.

Five years ago the Academy board met and ruled that there should be no separate category for stunts. At that time it appeared that computer- generated imagery (CGI) would reduce the need for live stunt performers, however the past few years have seen a resurgence in real stunts, and as the Taurus awards demonstrate, it's stunts that don't rely on computer trickery that get rewarded, even if the final results on screen have clearly had special effects added. Gill, who was the stunt coordinator on the summer blockbuster Fast Five, argues: "We're going back to real physical stunts because the audience can tell the difference between what is real and what is fake."

Yet in the end it didn't matter how worthy the category was, or how much individual committee members might have wanted to recognise stuntmen, as the reason given for not introducing the new category five years ago still stands. At the time, John Pavlik, who was the Academy's director of communications, said: "The board acknowledges that many different groups of people are a vital part of the filmmaking process, but it just doesn't want to hand out another Oscar."

In the past, casting directors and choreographers have also demanded recognition for their own contribution to film with no avail. The Oscar board, made up of almost 50 members, meets once a year to decide if any new category should be created. It's a rare year that the board agrees to add a new discipline and the chances have become even slimmer ever since the Academy decided to reduce winning speech times and the songs presented, in an effort to make the awards ceremony as slick as possible for dwindling television audiences.

It's no surprise that stuntmen struggle, given that the workers are not recognised in many awards ceremonies around the globe. The Baftas in the UK and the Césars in France do not recognise stuntmen either. Indeed, it seems as though the only way stuntmen get recognised is when their peers set up a separate awards ceremony. The arrival of the Thailand Stunt Awards, which took place for the first time last month, underscores this.

But outside of these industry insider ceremonies, it seems that the men and women who risk life and limb to keep audiences gasping in cinemas are not going to be picking up any little golden statuettes in the foreseeable future.