Oscars: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Battles the Sequel Curse

ILLUSTRATION BY Taylor Callery

Nearly 40 years ago, George Lucas' groundbreaking space odyssey got lots of Academy love, but so far the force doesn't appear to be with J.J. Abrams' reboot.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It wasn't that long a time ago, and it certainly wasn't in a galaxy far away: At the 50th Academy Awards in 1978, George Lucas' original Star Wars ruled.

Entering the evening, the movie, which had taken the country by storm since its release on May 25, 1977, arrived with 10 nominations, including best picture, director and original screenplay. And though it lost those three top prizes to Woody Allen and his Annie Hall, it still captured six trophies in the crafts categories — the biggest haul of the night — including one for John Williams' score. It also received a spe­cial achievement award for the sound effects that Ben Burtt created for its assortment of droids, aliens and spacecraft.

In terms of awards expectations, though, it turns out that really was a long, long time ago and might as well have been in a faraway galaxy. Because even though Disney and Lucasfilm are now working overtime to send the whole Star Wars phenomenon back into hyperdrive with the Dec. 18 opening of J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the imminent return of Luke, Leia and Han Solo hasn't stirred up any anticipatory Oscar buzz. Check out the prognosticators online, and you won't find anyone betting the movie will be a best picture contender.

Partly, that's because no one has yet seen the film. While its marketeers have been doling out carefully controlled images and hints of character and plot to feed the growing fan frenzy, that hasn't had a corresponding effect on the legion of awards bloggers.

The same handicappers haven't seen Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant or David O. Russell's Joy either, but that hasn't stopped them from putting those movies high up on the prediction charts, given that Inarritu won big for last year's Birdman and Russell's past three films (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) were best picture nominees. Abrams may have been nominated for seven Emmys, winning two for producing and directing Lost, but he's yet to get any love from the film Academy.

And then there are the other factors in play: Lucas was never big on the Oscar hunt. According to Dale Pollock's Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, the director didn't want to go to the 1978 ceremony, though he finally agreed to accompany his then-wife, Marcia Lucas, who was nominated for (and won) for her editing on the movie. "He never felt it was important to have an Oscar to be happy or successful or fulfilled," Marcia said. And though the Academy honored him in 1992 with its Irving G. Thalberg Award for his work as a producer, Lucas always kept his distance from Hollywood and never joined the Academy.

While the original Star Wars made a splashy entrance, each subsequent installment saw diminishing returns when it came to awards. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (the latter is a co-writer on the new film), is regarded as the series' critical high, but it received just three noms, winning for sound (along with getting a special award for visual effects). Return of the Jedi (1983) earned four noms but won none, though it also picked up a special achievement citation for its VFX.

The Lucas-directed prequels that began rolling out in 1999 had even less awards impact: The Phantom Menace (three noms, no wins), Attack of the Clones (one nom, no win), Revenge of the Sith (one nom, no win).

It all creates an enormous hurdle for the new film, The Academy prizes originality — the first Star Wars, even if it harkened back to old serials, felt new — and views sequels skeptically. Only five sequels ever have been nominated for best picture, and only two, The Godfather: Part II (1974) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), have won. Disney may have dropped the designation "Episode VII" from Star Wars: The Force Awakens' official moniker, but even if Abrams breathes new life into the series, there's no papering over the fact that it's No. 7.

A further challenge: Disney, which isn't officially unveiling the movie until a world premiere on Dec. 14, isn't planning to sneak the film early to critics and other awards groups that begin announcing their picks for the year's best in early December. Sure, even if the stu­dio were to do so, the movie would have to be considered a long-shot for such prizes — though, back in the day, the Los Angeles Film Critics did name the first Star Wars its best picture of 1977.

Even so, Force Awakens could still surprise. "I don't count it out," con­fides one veteran Oscar player. "J.J. is a good director." And nostalgia could come into play as well. Senior Academy members, who were just entering the business when Star Wars helped rewrite the rules for what a blockbuster could be, may be as susceptible as the franchise's legion of fans. Harrison Ford, at 73, is now a decade older than Alec Guinness was when he, regarded at the time as a grand old man, earned a supporting nom for the first movie.

But here's a safe prediction: Whether or not Force Awakens emerges as a multiple nominee, there's no way that ABC's Oscar broadcast is going to ignore the movie. Reginald Hudlin and David Hill, the show's producers, certainly will insert members of the Star Wars crew into the proceedings, even if it's just a Wookie or Storm Trooper or two. Because, to court the widest possible audience, the Oscars need Star Wars more than Star Wars needs the Oscars.

***

Yo, Just Don't call It Rocky VII!

Creed, the new boxing drama that reteams Michael B. Jordan with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, also will be fighting the sequel curse as it looks to gain awards traction. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the son of Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed, who shared the ring with Sylvester Stallone’s lug in 1976’s Rocky, the best picture Oscar winner. That history isn’t likely to repeat, but if the awards gods are willing, Stallone could bid for a supporting nom, since he now plays the older trainer, which back then earned Burgess Meredith a nom.

comments powered by Disqus