The Case for a Stunts and Choreography Oscar

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: it’s time for the Academy to create a Stunts and Choreography award.)

It’s Oscar season, which means all the annual traditions and reheated previously-hot takes are in full effect. The Academy as an institution has many faults, and it’s worth criticising them even as it attempts to improve (with mixed success).

One of the most popular criticisms, amongst popular and genre audiences in particular, is the ongoing absence of an Academy Award for stunts. The need for a stunt Oscar has been expounded upon at length elsewhere, but it doesn’t take much to see that stunt teams put an enormous amount of work into entertaining us. They literally risk their lives, at times, and many of cinema’s greatest films wouldn’t be what they are without those highly-skilled craftspeople.

The Academy, though, is seemingly unwilling to dedicate a statue to stunts, but I’ve got another idea. I assume, given the Academy’s desire to award individuals rather than teams, that any hypothetical stunt Oscar would go to the winning films’ stunt coordinator(s) – and there’s another, related craft whose own coordinators have long needed recognition. Here’s a proposal that might be a little bit more palatable for the Academy:

Why not institute an Oscar for Best Dance & Stunt Choreography?

Dance numbers aren’t as common in cinema these days as they used to be, but when they do appear – in musicals or elsewhere – they’re always a delight. As with stunts, it’s easy to see that a lot of work goes into the creation of such scenes. Dance scenes are straightforward demonstrations of skill, on the part of both the dancers and the choreographers who wrangle them, and though the Academy will likely never honour dancers directly, the teams can still be honoured through recognition of choreographers.

Combining the two categories has compound benefits.

First: obviously, choreographers and stunt coordinators would get recognition at the Academy Awards, which they absolutely deserve. Currently, any attention paid to either craft is likely folded into the Directing category, and there are definitely overlaps between those roles. But like editing or cinematography or sound design, the director is involved in the work, but isn’t the one who specifically does it. These are under-appreciated fields, and with a combined award you get to appreciate two birds with one stone.

Second: the two fields are surprisingly complementary, despite often working in different genres of cinema, and recognising each together will lift the other up. Dance choreographers’ more daring work will be appreciated for the physical feats it creates, and stunt coordinators’ work will be, through comparison, revealed for the violent ballet it so often is. Both dance choreography and stunt coordination involve the movement of bodies through space. Both act as a conduit between the director and dancers or stuntpeople. Both involve a lengthy workshopping and rehearsal process before even getting to set. And both often result in the most breathtaking scenes in their parent movies, displaying human beings performing dazzling physical feats.

Third, a defense: it’s not like the Academy doesn’t have combined awards already. “Makeup & Hairstyling,” though they fall under a common umbrella, are different crafts, typically with different people working on each, in major productions at least. Likewise, the award for “Visual Effects” incorporates what used to be known as “Special Effects,” but special effects in production and visual effects in post production involve vastly different skillsets – they’re just combined in the award because they work toward a common goal. It’s actually surprising that there are two separate Oscars for sound mixing and editing, given this willingness to blend other craft fields. Dance and stunt choreography isn’t that far of a leap.

Finally, and perhaps most tantalisingly to the powers that be: it allows the Academy to recognise popular action films, and a popular category, without having to nominate five action movies they hate every year. This year, for example, one could put Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Avengers: Infinity War in that category, but they could compete directly against more Academy-friendly fare like The Favourite or artsy films like Climax or Suspiria.

Granted, this means the awards would be vastly slanted towards dance, in terms of overall love for the films, but some stuntwork cannot be denied, like Tom Cruise wrecking his body for our viewing pleasure in Fallout or dozens of stuntpeople doing the same in Mad Max: Fury Road, and those films would surely be competitive. Whoever wins, though, the award would definitely have a cross-demographic appeal, and would cut a pretty exciting nomination reel for the telecast.

The Academy has actually had a choreography category before: the Best Dance Direction Oscar was awarded three times, in the musical-heavy years between 1935 and 1937. (Incredibly, well-known choreographer Busby Berkeley was nominated each time, but never won). Obviously, that was a different era, where musicals were even more common than superhero films are now, and even today’s ancient Academy population contains zero members who were active then. But it, along with the surprisingly frequent changes in award categories, suggests that the addition isn’t out of the question.

Over the past decade or so, the Academy has made several attempts to make its awards seem more relevant to a non-industry audience. Expanding the number of Best Picture nominations, bringing in an influx of new members, and a range of format and telecast decisions may or may not succeed in doing that. In all fairness, there’s no guarantee that a Dance & Stunt Choreography Oscar would succeed there either. But it’s definitely a chance for popular films to get more nominations without demeaning them with a “Best Popular Film” label. More pertinently, it’s a chance for long-deserving, long-ignored departments to finally get their day in the Kodak Theatre spotlight.

C’mon, Academy. Practical stunts are popular. Dance numbers are popular. You are not popular. It’s time this change was made.

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