What's up with the White Male Legacy Film?

by Tori Hawks-Ladds / Beacon Correspondent • December 2, 2015

What makes a movie Oscar bait? By late August of each year, the trailers start rolling out for the hopeful contenders at the Academy Awards. You know the type—a flash of a production company, the swell of a dramatic original composition, and a memorable line spoken by a well-known white actor. This year, we start with “Trumbo.” Its first trailer opens with Bryan Cranston playing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and speaking over a jazzy drumbeat: “I love our country, and it’s a good government. But anything could be better.” Next up is “Steve Jobs.” An ominous beat thuds as Seth Rogen, playing Steve Wozniak, addresses the titular character: “What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail […] So how come, ten times in a day, I read ‘Steve Jobs is a genius?’ What do you do?” Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs replies, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.” Cue Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. 

Certainly trailers are formulaic and not entirely indicative of the content of the films they advertise. However, why is it that within the first 10 seconds of a preview, we can tell that we’ll likely hear the title of the movie after “And the nominees are…”? Perhaps it’s because White Male Legacy Films (WMLFs) have dominated the Academy Awards since its beginning. WMLFs are typically a biopic, often named after the man they portray, and are nearly always written, directed by, and starring straight white men.

The year 2015 was huge for the WMLF. “Trumbo,” “Steve Jobs,” and “Bridge of Spies” top the bill. Also vying for your attention at the box office are “Legend,” “The Revenant,” “The Big Short,” “Pawn Sacrifice,” and others that you’ll undoubtedly hear mentioned come January when nominations begin. Last year’s winners sound similar—Eddie Redmayne snagged Best Actor for “The Theory of Everything,” a Stephen Hawking biopic, “Birdman” won Best Picture, and nobody would stop talking about “Boyhood.” The Oscar for Best Actor in 2014 went to Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyers Club”—a film about the AIDS crisis starring a straight guy—although some other winners were more diverse, like the Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave.” 

2014 set a precedent over 2013, when Best Picture went to “Argo” and Best Actor to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln.” “The Artist” and “Hugo” took over 2012, and 2011 had “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter,” and “The Social Network.” The rarely surprising list goes on. “A Beautiful Mind,” “Forrest Gump,” “Rain Man,” “Amadeus,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Rocky,” “The Godfather,” “Patton,” “A Man for All Seasons”—this is a pattern that we can trace back to 1967 and prior.

This is not to say that WMLFs are all bad or should not be made, but it’s time for an end to the easy formula for winning an Academy Award. It’s not even a formula that pays, as none of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time are stereotypical WMLFs and with the sole exception of “Titanic,” none have won Best Picture. Audiences deserve more diversity, especially considering that most cinema attendees are not white men. It’s not only fair— it pays off. “Selma,” a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and directed by a woman of color, did better at the box office than “Steve Jobs” and “Trumbo” combined, and received higher critical acclaim than either WMLF. “Zero Dark Thirty,” a woman-directed film about the legacy of a female CIA operative in the capture of Osama Bin Laden, grossed about 15 times more than WMLFs “Hitchcock” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” from the same year. Both “Selma” and “Zero Dark Thirty” were critically acclaimed and nominated for Best Picture, but neither won in any major category.

There is no reason for producers to keep banking on WMLFs or for the Academy to continue honoring them. They don’t consistently make money and they’re a tired, boring category. In a world where biopics portray, star, and are made by a diverse group of people, there is a place for movies about interesting white dudes. We, however, do not live in that world, and there is no clearer indicator of this than the Oscars. If we all make an effort to patronize movies that are different from the fare we’re presented with year after year, perhaps the studios and the Academy will respond in kind.