Batman and Oscar: An Unvanquished Foe

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Distant.  Elusive.  Only attainable by an elite and select few.  Oscar.  His name has made people cry, sell their souls, and rejoice in excitement.  He has brought people fame and glory and heartache and infamy.  Oscar and Batman have rarely come into contact with one another and as we turn the corner on our “30 Days Of Batman” series here at Awards Circuit, in anticipation of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, many people are wondering if Batman is finally on a collision course to square off with the always silent, but always entrancing, Little Golden Man.

If there is a Robin in this anticipated encounter, it certainly is director Christopher Nolan, who likewise knows how hard it can be to please the Little Golden Man.  Oscar may or may not have caused Nolan, and even Batman himself, much misery over the years, paying merely a passing interest to the superhero, and all superheroes for that matter, caring little of Batman’s exploits in attempting to save Gotham City from curiously named villains who come, oh so close, to ruling the iconic and troubled city.  Nolan has courted Oscar’s attention recently, seeking approval and validation, only to have this capricious and often selfish arbiter dangle the carrot and yank it away in the last moments.  Banded together one last time, is 2012 the year when Batman and Nolan finally square off with a 13 ½ inch tall naked man and seize control of a Gotham-like city of their own; common for its glitz, glamour and fame, as well as its seedy underpinnings of greed, despair, and tragedy.


In July 1966, Batman premiered on the big screen as the first full-length theatrical release in the series and was met with a fair reception.  Serving as a bridge between the first two seasons of the popular television series, Batman was never a film that the Academy Awards, home to the menacing Oscar, would ever take seriously.  Not that producer William Dozier was ever anticipating that type of attention mind you, but Oscar’s eyes were focused on films such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Grand Prix, and the Best Picture winner of that year, A Man Of All Seasons.

Warner Bros. wanted to bring Batman back to the big screen for years, but continually shelved scripts and projects until finally Tim Burton was tasked with bringing the Caped Crusader back to the multiplex.  Riding high off his breakthrough film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Burton was given the keys to the Batmobile and has been well documented in this series, Burton eventually brought Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and a thumping score and soundtrack from Prince to the big screen with Batman.  While Nicholson earned a Golden Globe nomination and BAFTA feted the film with 6 technical nominations, Oscar cast his eyes on only one element of the production – the art direction.  Some bemoaned Jack Nicholson’s snubbing as the gregarious Joker, while others felt that his work was too over-the-top and goofy to ever be considered for an Oscar nomination.  Although Prince scored a #1 single with ’Batdance”, none of his original compositions were nominated for Best Original Song.  The heralded work of Anton Furst and Peter Young earned the film its lone Oscar nomination and Oscar selected Batman for Best Art Direction over a diverse set of films – The Abyss, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, Driving Miss Daisy, and Glory.  As time writes history, Oscar seems to love Tim Burton’s art direction teams, awarding four of Burton’s films the Best Art Direction prize.

As audiences paid lots of money to see Batman, Burton was mixed on the film’s reception and initially declined to direct a sequel.  Landing a script he liked, Batman Returns arrived in the summer of 1992 and polarized audiences a bit with its increasingly darker storyline and what some felt was more style than substance; a common argument with Burton’s work.  Burton’s casting of Danny DeVito as the Penguin was equally as divisive and Michael Keaton’s turn as the crime-fighting superhero would conclude with this production.  With the arrival of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, however, the series had new possibilities (and still no Robin).  Oscar was intrigued by the look of the film, citing Batman Returns for its Makeup Design and Visual Effects.  However, losing the Makeup award to period-gothic film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Visual Effects to the otherwise forgettable, Death Becomes Her, sent Batman Returns home empty-handed.

Oscar was impressed enough with the look and sound of 1995’s Batman Forever, a turn by Warner Bros. to make the Batman franchise more family-oriented and engaging to a wider range of people. With Tim Burton now serving as producer, Joel Schumacher was given directorial control and replaced Michael Keaton with Val Kilmer.  Chris O’Donnell finally embodied Robin, and Schumacher reinvented Batman as much more of a merchandising tool than an honest cinematic venture.  A huge star-studded soundtrack was released, with the likes of U2, Seal, Brandy, Method Man, and a mix of alternative rock’s mainstream and buzzworthy artists of the moment.  While none of the five songs featured in the film were considered for Best Original Song, Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose” earned three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year (Oscar instead opted for “Colors Of The Wind” from Pocahontas).  Nominating the film for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Cinematography, Oscar had acknowledged that Tim Burton’s Batman films, be it as a director or producer (Burton produced Batman Forever), looked and sounded terrific.  Sadly, the film watched eventual Best Picture winner Braveheart walk away with Sound Editing and Cinematography, while the impressive work on Apollo 13 saw Best Sound Mixing slip away from the Batman Forever team.

The baffling Batman & Robin, described by Chris O’Donnell as akin to working on a “kid’s toy commercial” was panned by critics and audiences alike, and in time, even by its titular leading man, George Clooney.  Unhinged and unrestrained with a robust cast and villain after villain after villain, Batman & Robin received awards attention of a different sort.  Scoring 11 Razzie nominations from the Golden Raspberry Foundation, who honor the worst films of the year, Batman & Robin luckily had another famous debacle occur that same year, as Kevin Costner’s The Postman drew the ire of the Razzie folks.  Only Alicia Silverstone could not escape the wrath of voters, as she earned the distinction of being named Worst Supporting Actress for her turn as Batgirl.

Soon thereafter, Warner Bros. shut down the Batman idea, on a cinematic scale, testing the waters in 1993 with the animated film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm.  While not a significant box office draw in any way, the critical and audience acclaim levied upon the film saw interest renew in the Batman franchise, and the series shifted to television and home video, gaining and acquiring new audiences with a darker and more intense tone and feel.

Enter Christopher Nolan.

Christopher Nolan began work on reinventing the Batman franchise in 2003, riding a tidal wave of acclaim and attention from his previous films, Insomnia, Memento and his debut, cult-favorite Following.  Nolan set out to take the superhero motif and steep it in reality.  Nolan’s work with screenwriter David S. Goyer, not only stripped away the camp and arrogance of the Schumacher films, but out-darkened the Burton films, reinventing the Bruce Wayne/Batman story as compelling drama and engrossing theater.  The laughs were few, the garishness gone, and Nolan’s Gotham City was truly frightening and a character  in and of itself.  Introducing us to the Scarecrow, played with twitchy anticipation by Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins arrived in the summer of 2005 and audiences immediately responded to the new look and feel.  Fans of the darker subject matter, common with the graphic novels, comic books, and animated series, were engaged, as were those who simply were attracted to the storylines, the characters, and the overall presentation of the production.

One of the more heralded films of the year, Oscar morning came and went with Batman Begins landing merely one nod – Wally Pfister for Best Cinematography.  A worthy nomination in its own right, many fans and Oscar pundits alike were left scratching their heads as to why the film missed out in other key technical categories, such as the Sound categories, Art Direction, or Visual Effects.  BAFTA lauded three nominations for the film in Visual Effects, Production Design, and Sound, and the sentiment became that either Oscar voters had next to no interest in the film, were dismissive of Nolan asjust another pop-director, or they simply failed to watch it when deciding their ballots.  That Pfister lost the Oscar to Dion Beebe’s admittedly gorgeous work on the widely panned Memoirs Of A Geisha did not help Batman fans take much solace on Oscar night.

Surprisingly snubbed for Batman Begins, Nolan, undaunted, set out to create what many have called the greatest superhero film of all time, 2008’s The Dark Knight.  Much has been written of the film and its Oscar history, but many people still remain angry and upset that with Nolan’s work and the securing of eight Academy Award nominations, voters could not find a place for The Dark Knight in its Best Picture lineup.  How it missed we may never actually know, but virtually everyone felt that The Dark Knight was going to land a Best Picture nod, banking on its near unanimous acclaim and its record-setting box office earnings.  Nolan’s screenplay may arguably stumble in the final act, but while Heath Ledger’s truly frightening and ultimately tragic turn as The Joker is what people remember most about The Dark Knight, the film is exceptional from beginning to end.  Every detail is finely tuned and Nolan truly established himself as a filmmaker who can seemingly take on all challenges.

With its eight nods, still the most ever for an adaptation of a comic book or a graphic novel, The Dark Knight had one award, Ledger’s Best Supporting Actor award, already in the bag when his name was announced as a nominee on Oscar morning.  The Dark Knight was passed over almost unanimously for that year’s “Little Engine That Could”, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.  The outcry from the viewing public and some notables in the industry was far and wide when the film failed to land a Best Picture nomination and while never publicly admitted by the Academy, it is telling that the following year saw the return of 10 Best Picture nominees, instead of the traditional 5, which had been the norm for decades.  Heath Ledger’s win serves as the only superhero-oriented Academy Award ever given in the high profile categories and be it not for Best Sound Editing, The Dark Knight would have gone home empty-handed in the technical categories; another source of contention among many moviegoers and Oscar fans.

And after the outpouring of anger and outrage, despair and declarations that fans “will never watch the Oscars again” after the high-profile category snubbing afforded Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, here we are in 2012, with the most-anticipated film of the year – The Dark Knight Risesimminently arriving this coming weekend.

Will the Academy finally recognize Christopher Nolan as one of the finest filmmakers working today, by awarding his work on this film, and frankly, the Batman series, and finally cite him with a Best Director nod?  Will The Dark Knight Rises, in a year where The Avengers surpassed many, if not most of The Dark Knight’s records, and received equally impressive acclaim as a superhero film success, finally become the first superhero film to score a Best Picture nomination?  If the film is as technically accomplished as has been reported, does it score double-digit nominations?

Soon, we will all learn if the film is worthy of those accolades.  And then, we wait.  As Oscar works in the shadows, controlling the lives of hundreds of individuals who become branded as “Nominees”, what will become of Christopher Nolan, his production team, and his acting ensemble?  The most ardent and strident fans of The Dark Knight seemingly expect The Lord Of Rings: Return Of The King-style retribution this time around.  But come Oscar season, and despite all the efforts of Batman and Nolan, history does not appear to be on its side.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.