Vin Diesel has been quoted in the last few days saying Furious 7 will win the Oscar for Best Picture — or at least that it should. That won’t ever happen, even if it weren’t the sixth sequel to an action movie about street racing. But when I reviewed the movie that is already tearing up the box office, I said what it does deserve is to get the Academy to again focus on creating a new category for stunt coordination in films.
This movie, and its predecessors, are just a drop in the bucket for the spectacular back-breaking, life-risking work these stunt professionals do every day. But Furious 7 really is a masterpiece of the form, so why can’t the industry’s highest honor recognize that or so many of the other movies that deserve this kind of attention?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems not willing to go there. In 2005 the issue came up before the Board Of Governors and it was voted down. The same thing happened in 2011 when it came to another vote — led by the dogged determination of stunt coordinator Jack Gill, whose latest film happens to be Furious 7 opening today. He’s been leading this charge for nearly a quarter of a century, but to no avail. I hear there is no real talk currently on the Board of revisiting the subject.
Part of the reason might be the Academy, especially after this year, is loathe to add a 25th category to an already overstuffed show. But in a CNN interview at the time of that last vote, Gill correctly said, “Clips of the nominated stunts would liven up the telecast,” but he added they didn’t care if they were part of the actual show but instead just “want to get that Oscar in our hands.” And after seeing Furious 7 with my jaw wide open in astonishment watching these incredible car stunts, I just think it is time to bring this dead horse up again to ride another day. And it certainly could bring some much-needed populist appeal to the Oscars as a side benefit.
I sat on the Board of Governors of the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences for six years. There’s an Emmy for Stunt Coordination in a drama series or movie/miniseries, but after a very convincing presentation by the stunt governors, we voted to expand that with an Emmy for stunts in a comedy series or variety program too (The Blacklist and Brooklyn Nine- Nine won last year). The Screen Actors Guild, which has jurisdiction over stunt performers, also has two categories in the SAG Awards for Stunt Ensembles in movies and television (though they are presented off air and not on the actual broadcast). So this is not some crazy pie-in-the-sky idea that has been floating around.
On a couple of occasions the Academy has also honored stunt legends by giving an Honorary Oscar — first to pioneer Yakima Canutt in 1966 (“for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere”). Canutt most famously pulled off those thrilling stunts in 1939’s Stagecoach. Then in 2012, a little over a year after rejecting the latest appeal for a stunt category, the Academy wisely voted Hal Needham an Honorary Oscar for his remarkable career in the area. He died the next year. But shouldn’t this work be recognized every year? Stunt performers and coordinators don’t even have their own branch, and only a few of them are even Academy members, eligible to be designated “Members-At-Large”. Until recently, that’s where casting directors also were banished until they were awarded their own branch, but not a category. That is still a sticking point, but politics intervene in these decisions. Directors, a much more powerful branch, take exception for instance with the name “casting directors.”
And there has been lots of talk that the Academy’s largest branch — performers — might also balk at the idea of putting the people who do their stunts so visibly in front of the public by way of an annual Oscar. I am not sure that’s at all true, and neither does Mike Smith, a veteran stunt man, stunt coordinator and Second Unit Director whose most recent credits were for 2014’s Nightcrawler and Need For Speed along with credits for such high-profile franchises as Fast & Furious and Terminator 3 over the course of a 23-year career. He’s about to take on the remake of The Crow.
“I don’t think that’s the case. When you talk to actors or others on the set they can’t believe we aren’t recognized (by the motion picture academy),” Smith said when we spoke today. “We are a huge part of what the film industry is about. It’s just that the Academy is a very traditional, old-school Hollywood institution. That’s their thing. I mean, there have been petitions signed to recognize stunt people (Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger among the notables names).
“Here’s how ridiculous this is: They give an Oscar for Makeup and Hair, but when there is advertising to get the movies sold they are not showing the makeup and hair, they are showing the action shots. They are trying to get people to come in and sit in your theatre,” added Smith, pointing out that it is 2015, not the ’30s or ’40s, and it is no longer a secret that stunt people, not the stars, are performing much of these daring feats. Of course, many actors — think Tom Cruise for instance — do a lot of stunts. Many others don’t but still take credit every time they are on a talk show. “When I doubled Batman with Val Kilmer my wife and I were watching Val talk about a sequence on a show, and I said to her, ‘He never even got into the car.’ He wasn’t even in the car and he was talking about driving it. Dude , you weren’t even there,” Smith laughed, while surmising that there has to be some other kind of agenda driving the reasons why stunts are usually at the back of the bus when it comes to Oscar.
One of the stars of Furious 7 is indeed a big supporter of stunt people getting their due. British action star Jason Statham, who really does do a lot of his own stunts, spoke out in their favor in a late 2013 Vanity Fair interview. “All of the stunt men — these are the unsung heroes. Nobody is giving them any credibility. They’re risking their necks. And then you’ve got poncy actors pretending like they’re doing (the stunts). For me, it’s a total injustice. Then you have some guy standing in front of a f*****g green screen screwing his face up pretending like he’s doing the stunt. To me, it’s like a farce. I have a real frustration with that because I know these coordinators. I train with them all the time and they are incredibly talented,” he said.
Smith, like many in his profession, is frustrated. “I don’t know what the deal is,” he said. “I have a friend who has won a couple of Academy Awards as an effects supervisor and he’s pushed, along with lots of people, the Academy to recognize stunts, but there is an old-school mentality that stunts are neither an art nor a science. That seems to be the reply that comes back every time. That’s simply not true. There’s no way they can say there’s not a science behind what we do. There are a lot of times as a stunt coordinator or second unit director you are asked to design major sequences with lots of mathematical equations, lots of creative or innovative ways to get shots. It’s honestly laughable. I have watched visual effects sequences that have been Oscar nominated and there’s stunt performers all over them. You couldn’t do the sequence without the stunt people in them.”
And when you see Furious 7 this weekend and watch those cars being dropped from planes and landing on a treacherous mountain highway or being driven through tall office buildings in Abu Dhabi, you may not believe it could ever happen — but they do thanks to this kind of movie magic. But the sadder thing is that the possibility of an Oscar for the people who do make it happen seems to be the one stunt that may be most impossible to pull off.