Like any great religious festival, the Academy Awards have their own distinctive sub-traditions. One of them is Jack Gill, and once again this Oscar season Jack’s back. Jack Gill is a stunt co-ordinator for movies who has been appealing on behalf of his profession to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for three decades, with no luck. His question is simple: why are there no Oscars for stunt work?
Once you notice this hole in the show, it seems enormous — and a little mystifying. If you consider the Oscars strictly as a broadcast spectacle, it is not hard to imagine stunt work getting the same on-air attention as the mostly second-rate best song nominees, or perhaps, at a minimum, the awards for cheesy short films and dismal documentaries.
Social-justice complaints about the Oscars are as old as the ceremony itself, yet the awards for makeup and hairstyles, traditional preserves of brilliant female technicians, have survived on the main broadcast show until … well, last year, when they were relegated subtly, with the actual presentations being moved to commercial breaks and edited versions of the victors’ speeches being dropped in throughout in the show.
“Social-justice complaints about the Oscars are as old as the ceremony itself”
Even this was a carefully crafted compromise chosen after ultra-sensitive negotiations, and no one can deny that hair and makeup are Oscar essentials that bring in attentive viewers. But stunt work, possibly the single most macho profession on Earth, isn’t eligible for any awards at all. (The academy has given honorary Oscars to the legendary stuntmen Yakima Canutt and Hal Needham, and Jackie Chan’s disbelief-inducing stunt work was cited when he received one in 2016.) Gill always observes in interviews that people assume there is a stunt Oscar or two amid the non-televised scientific and technical awards, but it isn’t so.
There are traditional pretexts for the exclusion of stuntmen and -women from the Academy Awards. One is good old suspension of disbelief: Hollywood is said not to want to remind us that our favourite actors aren’t always in front of the camera when we are “seeing” them fall down the fire escape or get knocked down by an explosion. If this were so, one would think that the actors who do many of their own stunts would be discouraged from permitting endless slobbering coverage of the fact, thus casting shadows on their more rational colleagues. (Did Tom Cruise miss a memo or two? He is well known not to be a big reader. And if he is as good a stuntman as everyone says he is, having stunt categories would give him a crack at extra statues.)
No one objects to other technical Oscars on grounds like this: it is, in fact, sexism — taking the form of a nervous, superstitious regard for the idolatrous perception of male leads — that makes a stunt double an outsider at award time, while hairstylists, makeup artists and costumers are celebrated. Yet absolutely no moviegoer is unaware of the existence of stunt doubles. They have been part of popular culture themselves for a half-century or more. Canutt, who was a technological pioneer in Westerns as well as a risk-taker, was already famous in the 1930s: the studios he worked for promoted him as a minor star in his own right.
Jackie Chan was given an Honorary Oscar in 2017 after 56 Years And 200 Films
Stunt workers are said to have tolerated their exclusion from the Oscars because having a “best stunt” Oscar would create an arms race of heedless risk-taking. This might still be true — at a minimum it is more convincing as a pretext than old-fashioned fears of spoiling movie magic — and it cannot be ignored in a time when we are all very aware of how far performers will go for an Oscar. Gill’s answer to this is that he wants an award for co-ordinators rather than for individual stunts. This would, in theory, be a semi-creative award, recognizing artistic merit in the arrangement of stunts rather than just handing a statuette to the maniac who did the most foolhardy thing because the cinematographer was losing his daylight.
“Gill is, self-evidently, confronted by something of a silent conspiracy against his guild”
I don’t know how to evaluate that claim; Gill knows a lot more about it than I do, and when he gives his annual round of frustrated interviews, his opponents in the academy never speak up on the record to explain why he is wrong. He is, self-evidently, confronted by something of a silent conspiracy against his guild.
It definitely seems perverse to say that what is inarguably essential work in Hollywood-type motion pictures cannot be honoured by Hollywood just because it is risky. Stuntmen have never been protected from death or income loss by Hollywood as well as they ought to be, or paid up front as well. If their exclusion from the Oscars has helped them to be safer or to have more dignified lives, you would have a hard time proving it.