Friday, July 19, 2024

The Modern Western At The Oscars And What This Means For “Horizon: An American Saga”

In 1944, “The Ox-Bow Incident” secured an Oscar nomination for Best Picture with no other nominations in any other category. As of this writing, it’s the most recent motion picture to ever accomplish that hat trick. “The Ox-Bow Incident” securing such a momentous Oscar stats accomplishment is a testament to how profoundly the Western had impacted not just the Best Picture category but the industry as a whole. This genre always had a prominent place in the Best Picture category, dating back to the days of “Stagecoach” (1939) and “High Noon” (1952). As late as the 1990s, Westerns like “Dances with Wolves” and “Unforgiven” even took home the Oscar for Best Picture.

That prevalence endured into the 21st century, with many Westerns securing Best Picture Oscar nominations in today’s modern cinematic landscape. Kevin Costner’s expansive epic, “Horizon: An American Saga,” (Chapters 1 and 2, released in 2024), aims to emulate the awards season success that the director/actor had with “Dances with Wolves” thirty-four years earlier. It also seeks to follow the rising tide of success other 21st-century Western Oscar darlings have ridden.

That tide began with Ang Lee’s groundbreaking “Brokeback Mountain” in 2004. Among its other accomplishments, it made the homoerotic underpinnings of classic Westerns explicit text. The film secured a Best Director Oscar win for Lee and was viewed by many as the frontrunner for Best Picture. Though it infamously lost that award to “Crash,” another unorthodox take on the Western, the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” won that award two years later. Though filmmakers and Oscar voters were firmly in a new era, one of Hollywood’s oldest genres still managed to enrapture audiences’ imaginations, albeit with a few twists.

Part of what helped these films stand out (beyond the critical acclaim they secured) was simply the fact that the Western had vanished mainly in the modern world. For decades, studios viewed the genre as old-fashioned and too much of a risk financially. Films like 2008’s “Appaloosa” or 2007’s Oscar-nominated “3:10 To Yuma” can attest that just existing as a modern Western isn’t enough to guarantee a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. However, scarcity can make especially exceptional Westerns stand out to Academy voters. After all, there aren’t dozens of other entries in the genre that are always crowding theaters the same as British period pieces or superhero blockbusters.At the dawn of the 2010s, the Western returned to the Best Picture category with another Coen Bros. title, “True Grit.” Interestingly, this was the first time a “True Grit” adaptation scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination, as the original John Wayne-starring film didn’t get recognition in that category (though Wayne would win his only Oscar ever for Best Actor playing Rooster Cogburn). While it wasn’t building on the legacy of past “True Grit” Best Picture nominations, the 2010 version certainly got a boost from the reputation of the Coens. Similarly, 2012’s “Django Unchained” was bolstered by universal acclaim and the Academy’s love for its director and writer, Quentin Tarantino.

At the 88th Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” scored a Best Picture nomination and won Best Director, continuing the genre’s 21st-century resurgence amongst voters in the latter category. It would take six more years before another Western graced the Best Picture category again. Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” was yet another modern Western Best Picture nominee that secured a Best Director Oscar win without also dominating the Best Picture category. Two years later, Martin Scorsese’s inaugural Western, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” grabbed a Best Picture nomination alongside several other Oscar nominations; however, it didn’t take home any awards at last year’s ceremony.

The pattern of the “new” Western Best Picture nominee is also tied to the Academy’s fondness for the filmmakers who helm them. All these 21st-century Westerns are directed by filmmakers who have secured high-profile Oscar nominations and wins for their past work, so they were already on the Academy’s radar when their Best Picture-nominated Western came along. Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon“), Martin Scorsese (“The Departed”), Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”), Jane Campion (“The Piano“), Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo”), and Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu (“Birdman“) were all heavyweight directors with a rich history with the Academy Awards, thus making their foray into the Western genre more digestible for voters. That history undoubtedly made financiers and studio executives breathe a little easier about putting money into a risky production (and subsequent awards campaign) like a Western. Surely these veteran directors could muster up something replicating Oscar wins of the past? No?

Given this phenomenon, it doesn’t sound impossible for one of the “Horizon: An American Saga” Chapters to secure a Best Picture nomination. Maybe not this year, but perhaps when the whole endeavor is concluded, and the full scope of Costner’s vision can be appreciated. After all, Costner, like Lee and Scorsese, has been bestowed prestigious Oscar wins and nominations before. However, it’s been decades since “Dances with Wolves.” There was a time when that movie’s lasting pop culture impact could give “Horizon: An American Saga” a boost, but we seem to be past that point. The technical aspects of “Horizon: An American Saga” might still hold some sway over voters, likely in Best Costume Design or Best Original Score, but the odds of them being enough to build up momentum among the Academy’s various branches for broader support will be a tough challenge considering the film’s critical and financial reception so far.Critics aren’t fond of Costner’s first chapter, and anticipation is already muted for the next installment of the saga set to release in theaters from Warner Bros. again on August 16th. That alone is a massive problem, especially since Chapter 1 isn’t debuting close to awards season voting, like past divisive Oscar darlings such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Joker” or “Don’t Look Up.” At least, if a movie is fresh in voters’ minds, it can help overcome drab critical reception. “Horizon: An American Saga” won’t have that advantage, at least not this year, as Chapters 3 and 4 are currently not dated for their theatrical releases. Plus, the consensus surrounding the film hasn’t coalesced around praising a single performance as a universally acknowledged bright spot. Even spellbinding work from one actor can drive a film to a Best Picture nomination, but that doesn’t appear to be happening with “Horizon: An American Saga.”

It doesn’t further help that Costner hasn’t been an Oscar mainstay in decades. Lee and Inarittu’s westerns arrived shortly after their previous Oscar wins/nominations just a few years prior. Meanwhile, Costner hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar in over thirty years. His last directorial effort, “The Postman,” went over poorly critically and financially, though 2003’s “Open Range” fared better. There just isn’t an unstoppable wave of annual Oscar love for Costner that could give “Horizon: An American Saga” the significant boost it needs to be a major Oscar player this year and, quite possibly, not even for Chapters 3 and 4.

At this juncture, one shouldn’t bet their spurs that either 2024 entry in “Horizon: An American Saga” will become a Best Picture nominee; however, just because Costner’s latest isn’t poised for Oscar glory doesn’t mean the Western genre has been totally ignored by the Academy in recent times either. On the contrary, a deluge of modern Westerns has continued the lasting legacy of “The Ox-Bow Incident,” and countless other features released into the modern world have had staying power well beyond awards prospects despite there being fewer Westerns greenlit than ever before. Not even “Horizon: An American Saga’s” mixed reception will derail Westerns’ strong grip on the Oscars, Hollywood, and us all.

Do you think “Horizon: An American Saga” will be nominated for any Academy Awards? Have you seen Chapter 1 yet? If so, what did you think of it? What do you make of this recent trend of high-profile directors making Westerns which typically turn out to be Oscar-darlings? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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