On 'Star Wars' Day, a look at the franchise's Oscar history
Today is "Star Wars Day." You know, "May the fourth," because it sounds like "May the force (be with you)." GET IT???
There has been plenty of "Star Wars" discussion this week as the people threatening to give us a seventh film in this storied franchise dropped a few casting details on the world. People like Oscar Isaac and Max von Sydow and Adam Driver will be joining old timers Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher for "Star Wars: Episode VII - Whatever Nifty Subtitle They Give It," and we'll probably be hearing about it constantly as the film forges on through production and post-production.
To mark today's occasion, director J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan offered up a video howdy, which you can watch below if these movies are your thing. In case it's not readily evident, they're certainly not my thing, but I can't very well be a geek on my own terms and stand in judgment of the "Star Wars" faithful. Go with God.
Instead, today I thought I'd work up a little piece similar to those we've done in the past on films like "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," namely, an Oscar report card on the entire six-film franchise that has become such a milestone in the history of cinema. I'll look at what they were nominated for, what Oscars they won, whether they should have won them and how they were recognized besides. Just don't make me say "May the Fourth be with you."
Let's dig in…
"STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE" (George Lucas, 1977)
Naturally, a film like "Star Wars," which became probably the most significant pop culture event in the history of movies toward the end of a stellar decade of otherwise adult-oriented filmmaking, was bound to make its mark at the Academy Awards. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won six, plus a special achievement award, all in below-the-line categories.
Many of those wins are difficult to argue with, beginning with Best Art Direction. The creation of a world was expert and evident throughout, John Barry and his team making magic in a variety of ways. Given the task at hand, the award for Best Sound Mixing also feels like a no-brainer. Plus, Ben Burtt picked up a special award for the sound effects, which didn't have its own category at the time. And John Williams' iconic music of course deserved any award for Best Original Score that it received that year.
Really, as I take a look across this spectrum, I guess I'm okay with all of these wins. Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is a markedly better film overall in my opinion, but it's hard to give it the edge in Best Film Editing and certainly Best Visual Effects here (though, like "Star Wars," it too received a special award for sound effects editing). I might take umbrage with the Best Costume Design victory if there was any significant competition, but there just wasn't. Cases could be made for the period detail of "Julia" and "The Other Side of Midnight," but they wouldn't be strong ones.
Elsewhere the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, all of which it lost to Woody Allen and "Annie Hall." I say the Academy got this right as that film is a masterpiece, but some may disagree. And then there was Alec Guiness' nod for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to "Julia" star Jason Robards, who won his second Oscar in as many years. I might have sided with "Equus" star Peter Firth, but it wasn't the strongest year for the category.
"STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
Things cooled down a bit by the time the sequel to the first hit film rolled around. Though it's widely considered the best entry in the entire series, "The Empire Strikes Back" only managed four nominations in an Oscar year dominated by Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" and Robert Redford's "Ordinary People."
The only competitive win came for Best Sound, which is the element of the series, beyond even visual effects, that stands out as particularly inspired to me. So no argument there. Speaking of visual effects, though, there was no formal competition for the award in 1980, so the Academy gave the team a special achievement award instead. Fair enough.
The film lost its bid for Best Art Direction this time around to Roman Polanski's "Tess," but I'd say the Academy missed the boat altogether there; Akira Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" deserved that prize. That said, the dank Dagobah sets are pretty wonderful. And John Williams lost Best Original Score to "Fame," which is interesting. Alan Parker's musical and its music certainly have a place in history, but against "The Imperial March?" I don't know. John Corigliano's string-infested "Altered States" score and John Morris' varied work on "The Elephant Man" would have made fine winners, too, so maybe it's a wash. But I probably would have gone with Williams again here.
I will say that I might have found some way to notice the work that went into bringing Yoda to life in this film, however. And I also have to single out Peter Suschitzky's cinematography, which really is the best of the entire franchise; it probably deserved a nomination. (Suschitzky would go on to become David Cronenberg's go-to director of photography.)