Oscars 2021: As Best Short Film nominees release on BookMyShow Stream, a brief history of the cutting-edge category
Tracing its history only proves the category as an appealing underdog to cheer for amid the Hollywood bluster — and underlines the distinctive identity of these small worlds made for the big screen.
In an era when TikTok, YouTube, and other bite-size videos are compulsively viewed by millions, you would think short films might get a little more attention. The Academy bestows awards on shorts in no less than three categories, but they are sometimes treated as an afterthought, even a place to streamline a lengthy ceremony. Yet the short film endures as a valuable art form, with hundreds produced every year.
And amid the attention-hogging features, the shorts candidates are like a world within a world, a refuge for what sometimes feels like classical holdovers. Even if the nominees do not always reflect the full range of the form, they are the latest stop on a colourful path that began in Hollywood’s golden age as part of the main attraction. What follows is a brief history of the academy short film (with a focus on the live-action shorts for the sake of, well, brevity).
The 1930s and ’40s: Mainstream Classics
Short films were a bigger part of theatrical moviegoing when they were still shown alongside features, and the major Hollywood studios churned them out in both live action and animation. The “best short subject” Oscar categories, which were added in 1932, were separated first into comedy and novelty, and later into one-reel and two-reel, reflecting their length.
Shorts pioneers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett were appropriate first winners of these awards, and Roach’s The Music Box remains a stone-cold classic, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, a piano, and way too many steps. Sennett is best known for happily sowing chaos on-screen at Keystone Studios.
In the ensuing years, the Three Stooges, droll humourist Robert Benchley, and the Little Rascals were typically nominated, as were an eye-catching grab bag of nature travelogues and explanatory curios. Two stalwarts worth singling out are Pete Smith of MGM and Gordon Hollingshead of Warner Bros, who earned more than 15 nominations apiece.
The demands of World War II led to propagandistic nominees like Main Street on the March!, London Can Take It!, and Women at War. Once the war was over, a special prize went to the short The House I Live In, a plea for tolerance that also condemned anti-Semitism, starring Frank Sinatra, and made by soon-to-be-blacklisted Hollywood figures.
The ’50s: Spectacles and Experiments
As the old studio short-subject departments were shut down and television loomed, big-screen spectacles proved attractive nominees, as well as orchestral recordings of classical standards. Disney racked up awards with its True-Life Adventure nature outings (Bear Country), globe-trotting tours (from Samoa to Switzerland), and the animated Ben and Me, which boldly asked: What if Benjamin Franklin had had a talking mouse for a friend?
The shorts nominations of this era could also harbour curious experiments. Norman McLaren, an innovator at the prolific National Film Board of Canada, pushed sound and image into trippy realms with the stop-motion of A Chairy Tale. The prospecting history City of Gold anticipated the "Ken Burns effect” in depicting old photos onscreen. And The Face of Lincoln notched a win by showing a sculptor moulding the Great Emancipator’s face while narrating his life.
The ’60s: Adventurousness
A kinetic, pop spirit surfaced in the selections of this decade, perhaps first signaled by the mischievous 1959 comedy short The Running, Jumping and Standing-Still Film from Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) and Peter Sellers. A young Jim Henson made the snappy live-action Time Piece (1965), which was nominated the same year as the early suburban-kids skateboarding film Skaterdater. Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice, a cutup montage of city scenes and found sounds, was another adventurous National Film Board of Canada creation, while A Place to Stand, a visual anthem for Montreal Expo ’67, broke ground with a dazzling mosaic technique a bit like multiple split-screens.
Another growing trend was the arrival of directors from outside Hollywood, as the golden age of the art house hit its stride. Writer Ambrose Bierce’s flashback puzzler An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was adapted by French director Robert Enrico (and later shown as a Twilight Zone episode). His comedic countryman Pierre Étaix won an award for Heureux Anniversaire with Jean-Claude Carrière. Prestige producer Ismail Merchant had his first nomination with The Creation of Woman, and balancing out the decade’s ambitions was the Ingmar Bergman parody The Dove, featuring Madeline Kahn and some ersatz Swedish.
The ’70s: Noble Impulses
In a decade when feature-length American cinema soared, minting new classics like The Godfather, the shorts nominees seemed to stay a little closer to earth. A fresh sense of social responsibility took firm hold, whether in a string of films telling the stories of people with disabilities (two must-see highlights: A Day in the Life of Bonnie Consolo and I’ll Find a Way), or Teenage Father from Taylor Hackford (Ray), and a literal Afterschool Special entry in Angel and Big Joe. Robert Redford commissioned a short on solar energy, and the Life Times Nine omnibus compiled nine films by grade-school students “to promote people’s appreciation of being alive.”
But as ever with the shorts, the selections stayed eclectic. Comedic entries included The Absent-Minded Waiter, starring Steve Martin as a ridiculously bad server to Buck Henry and Teri Garr, and Doubletalk, a meet-the-parents story in which the characters express their true thoughts in dueling voice-overs. Literary adaptations also came into vogue, a trend lasting well into the ’80s, as filmmakers found a good fit for the short form in works by Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Julio Cortázar.
The ’80s and ’90s: Auteur Visions
Just as a new generation in independent film broke out in the ’80s, the shorts category seemed to get a shot in the arm from younger talents, including some graduates from film schools like the American Film Institute, and later from cheaper digital technologies. But also notable was a British invasion of sorts (and continued Canadian incursions), like The Dollar Bottom, depicting a student plot against corporal punishment at a British school, and later the fanciful comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life starring Richard E Grant. That said, the best-known short of the 1980s is still probably Precious Images, a shimmering tour of Hollywood history by Chuck Workman (who would become the Oscars’ go-to montage-maker).
At the same time, some name actors threw their weight behind short films. Kenneth Branagh, Griffin Dunne, Jeff Goldblum, Christine Lahti, Peter Weller, and JoBeth Williams all garnered nominations for their shorts work in this era; Dunne’s Duke of Groove starred Tobey Maguire in what felt like a warm-up for The Ice Storm.
As with the rest of the Oscars, representation has long been lacking. When it came to subject matter, there were entries like the remarkable folklore collection in Gullah Tales and the gay coming-of-age story Trevor. But behind the camera, the first nominated live-action short that was produced by a Black filmmaker was Last Breeze of Summer from David M Massey in 1991. Four years later, Dianne Huston (Tuesday Morning Ride) was the first female African-American director whose film was nominated in the category.
The 2000s to the Present: Worldviews
Next stop for the shorts? The world. Since the late 1990s, the category has gone definitively international, much as the global market became essential for Hollywood. It has not been uncommon for the live-action slate to lack a single American film, making it a de facto additional international category. Highlights have included Andrea Arnold’s Wasp, Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter and Two Cars, One Night from Taika Waititi and Ainsley Gardiner. The current slate of live-action shorts suggests a renewed dedication to topical relevance. (Note: The New York Times Op-Doc A Concerto Is a Conversation is among the documentary short nominees this year.)
Life After Shorts
If one thing becomes apparent from the history of live-action shorts, it is that they cannot be pigeonholed as “calling card” efforts. Filmmakers like McDonagh and Waititi do not come along every year, and a nomination for a short does not always lead to a feature filmmaking job, at least in directing. Television shows, advertisements or another short are far more likely to be the next act for these nominees than a studio deal. Which only confirms the category as an appealing ready-made underdog to cheer for amid the Hollywood bluster — and underlines the distinctive identity of these small worlds made for the big screen.
Nicolas Rapold c.2021 The New York Times Company
The nominees in the Best Short Film - Live Action and Animation respectively - at Oscars 2021 are now available in India on BookMyShow Stream. Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.
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