‘Get Out’: How the Oscars Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Horror
Jordan Peele’s smash is the first true horror movie in years to receive a Best Picture nomination. And it’s about damn time.
After grossing $254.6 million at the global box office, landing on numerous estimable top ten lists, and emerging as a prime awards-season player, Jordan Peele’s Get Out continued its amazing run this past Tuesday when it nabbed Academy Award nominations in four categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya). That definitively confirmed its status as one of 2017’s most critically beloved films. However, it also made it something of a historical outlier, given that its one of the rare horror films to ever be recognized in those major categories—a situation stemming from the fact that, for most of the organization’s history, the Academy has exhibited a near-total disregard for that most diabolical (and durable) of genres.
First, let’s get something out of the way: Get Out is a horror film, period.
Yes, Peele’s directorial debut was nominated by the Golden Globes for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, and yes, it does contain some humor, especially courtesy of Lil Rel Howery as Rod, the TSA agent who helps his best friend, Kaluuya’s Chris, cope with the monstrous goings-on at the suburban family home of Chris’ white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Nonetheless, hair-splitting be damned, in virtually every respect—from premise to narrative construction to climactic revelations—Peele’s hit operates deliberately, and confidently, within traditional horror-cinema parameters. It’s a movie designed to scare first, and make one think about its attendant, intertwined racial-socioeconomic issues second.
As such, Get Out’s four nods definitely buck tradition, because over the course of its 90 years, the Academy has seen fit to celebrate only a select few horror films in its top fields.
To list all the genre classics that never made it as far as Peele’s would take days, but a brief rundown would include: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Haunting, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Shining and A Nightmare on Elm Street—all of which received exactly zero total nominations from the organization, even though they comfortable reside in horror’s pantheon. The omission of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 Stephen King adaptation is an exceptionally egregious one, not only because it’s so clearly the work of a master, but because it features—nearly four decades later—one of Jack Nicholson’s most indelible big-screen performances, as axe-wielding daddy dearest Jack Torrance. (To add insult to injury, Kubrick received a Worst Director Razzie nomination for the film.)
Considering the Academy’s long-standing demographic breakdown (generally speaking, members have been old white males), one might theorize that voters have traditionally been out of touch when it came to a strain of movies often aimed at younger audiences. Or, perhaps, it’s that horror—intent on unnerving through jolts, or excessive blood and guts—has been viewed as more superficial and/or juvenile than its compatriots. Certainly, boundary-pushing exploitation cinema, as well as legions of cruddy B-movie splatterfests, have helped forward a particular opinion of horror as lowbrow, sensationalistic, and thus more about cheap thrills which are, in some fundamental way, lesser than the elevated pleasures afforded by dramas, romances, war epics and period pieces.
I would contend that such stances misunderstand the potential (and power) of the genre, but whatever the case may be—or one thinks about such reasoning—the Academy, save for naming Frederick March as Best Actor for 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Rebecca Best Picture in 1940, spent many decades ignoring horror (see: Psycho). Then, in 1969, Ruth Gordon won Best Supporting actress for her turn in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. And more groundbreaking still, in 1974, the Academy bestowed a Best Picture nomination on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, thereby conceding that the genre had achieved an undeniable level of commercial (and critical) appeal. Of course, it didn’t win that top prize, coming away with only a Best Adapted Screenplay triumph. But it was a serious step forward in terms of mainstream acknowledgment that, when done right, bumps in the night—or demonic pea soup vomit, in this instance—could have artistic value to discerning cinephiles.
In subsequent years, the Oscars occasionally conceded that great work was being done in the genre—1975’s Jaws got a Best Picture nom (but nothing for Steven Spielberg), and won for Sound, Film Editing, and Original Score; Jerry Goldsmith won Best Original Score for 1976’s The Omen; Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received acting noms for 1976’s Carrie; Sigourney Weaver got a well-deserved Best Actress nod for 1986’s Aliens; and Kathy Bates won Best Actress for her turn as an author’s psychotic fan in 1990’s Misery. Frequently, it was the technical side that proved most fruitful for horror, as evidenced by wins for The Phantom of the Opera (1943), Alien (1979), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Aliens (1986), The Fly (1986), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
When it comes to Best Picture, though, the lineup is woefully thin: Friedkin and Spielberg’s seminal efforts are joined only by Black Swan (2010), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—with the latter remaining the most feted of all horror films, and one of only three movies ever to win Best Picture, Director (Jonathan Demme), Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Actress (Jodie Foster), and Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). Yet even then, one could make a persuasive argument that Demme’s film is more of a cat-and-mouse crime thriller than a straightforward horror film. And Black Swan’s horror credentials are up for even greater debate, given that it might be more accurately classified as a psychological thriller.
Which is another way of saying that, when the Oscars do decide to indulge their scarier side, they regularly do so with reserve, eschewing hellish nightmares in favor of ones that traverse more suspenseful terrain—hence the reason that enthusiastically received recent efforts like It Follows (2015) and The Witch (2016), both of which boast outright supernatural elements, didn’t even register come awards time. In that context, Get Out’s achievement is all the more impressive. No doubt the Academy was most enamored with Peele’s incisive (and often amusing) dissection of contemporary American racism, especially as it pertains to those who proudly claim to be liberal. But that doesn’t change the fact that, come the gala’s March 2nd telecast, moviegoers will be able to root for a Best Picture contender that hinges on dissection—and brain transplants!—of a literal sort.
Lets hope it’s the beginning of more horrific things to come.